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Into Finland’s strange linguistic hinterland

It has no future tense, no articles, and no prepositions. Verbs, nouns, and even adjectives are conjugated in such a bewildering fashion that any given word can have – as a minimum – 11  forms. The word for simple is ‘yksinkertainen’. Welcome to the Finnish language, popularly thought to be the worlds 4th and Europe’s hardest language. While learners of Spanish and Italian are familiar with the concept of verb conjugations (wherein the verb changes structure to denote the speaker in place of a pronoun, a form Finnish also uses) Finnish conjugates every noun and adjective to express everything from location to intention or opinion. To give one example – the word for door is ‘ovi’. Something attached to the door is expressed as ‘ovella’. Something inside it as ‘ovessa’. Going towards it is ‘oveen’ and away from it ‘ovesta’. For every noun there are 11 possible forms, meaning a learners first sentence could involve conjugating half a dozen words into half a dozen different – and occasionally conflicting – forms.

In a small, suitably understated mustard coloured building on fashionable Mariankatu is the Helsinki University Institute for Finnish Studies, a dozen foreigners make up one of the smallest niche markets in Western Europe – that of foreigners studying Finnish.,

“In most languages I’ve studied, you go to a few lessons and you can start to make sentences.” Explains Kim, a Norwegian musician, “In Finnish it seems to be that you study word forms for a year before you can ask for a coffee.”

The overwhelming majority of migrants to Helsinki don’t learn. An Australian colleague of mine says, “You don’t need to. You go into a shop here and ask for something in Finnish and they answer you in English anyway.” Frank, an American language teacher admits, “I thought I’d just pick it up by being immersed in it everyday. Now I’ve been 16 years and I still can’t say anything.”

In this sense the foreigners leaving the building on Mariankatu and making their way home to tiny apartments in the cheaper suburbs of Vallila and Sörnainen are remarkable. Many have been coming here twice a week for two years, perhaps three. Others study in other institutes everyday. It seems to be a pattern than those who do study are French, Spanish, German, or Scandinavians who already speak three or four languages. In four courses I have yet to meet another New Zealander, and of the 2 Australians, one didn’t make it to the end of Level 1. Even the English and Americans, frequently monolingual, do not persevere.

In the global popular culture, Finland is a byword for obscure. In Douglas Couplands “All Families Are Pschyotic”, one character blithely asks of another “Her name is Shw, where’s she from – Finland?”. In Haruki Murakamis ‘Sputnik Sweetheart’ a depressed Japanese man mutters to a friend that he feels like going far away – possibly as far as Finland.

All of this begs the question of why people come here in the first place. To say Finland is off the beaten track hardly goes far enough. For most kiwis the track curls around Earls Court and stutters through Paris, Rome, and Amsterdam before heading home to a flat in Glen Innes. Ignoring a drunken rugby team singing ‘God Defend NZ’ on a bar in an Irish pub, during 2 ½ years living in Copenhagen I came across no New Zealanders and perhaps 2 or 3 Australians. Copenhagen is 1,000kms, 1 time zone, and 1 language group closer to London than Helsinki is, and usually about 5 to 10 degrees warmer as well.

The joke amongst foreigners is that the only people who come here do so because their spouse insisted on it. Which is almost true. About 3,000 foreigners marry a Finn every year. Most popular spouses seem to be women from Russia or Poland, and men from the U.S. or Sweden.  The joke is true for me too, my wife is a Finn, and since meeting in India in 1987, we have shuffled back and forth through various cities and countries before settling here just over a year ago. People arriving here have a wide variety of expectations, and much of their initial impression is, like everything in Finland, detwermined by the time of year they arrive.

The four seasons are divided by sharp lines that separate and determine not only dress, sports, and events, but govern the national psychology, the suicide rate, and basically every element of life.

The winters are spectacular. Contrary to popular opinion, the world is neither black nor white from November (the word for which means Death Month in Finnish) to February, but a kind of glimmering aquamarine. In what Laplanders describe without a trace of humour as “the mild south” temperatures can still reach –30C. Daylight is restricted to the hours between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. but the sheer density of snow means any sun, moon, or street light is reflected upwards, so that the air maintains a pale, watery hue 24 hours a day.

What exists in winter is subsequently largely indoor, and defines the stoic, reserved nature Finns are famous for. Finland does boast the highest concentration of Masters Degrees in the world, and a school system so well maintained there are no University fees, and secondary schools provide free lunches. The influence of this effects almost every element of day-to-day life. Finns are Europes highest readers of newspapers, and one of the highest readers of books. An university education, and strong general understanding of languages, politics, and geography is the norm. Whatever else they might be, Finns are informed, aware, and, in a career sense, able to pursue whatever paths they chose.

In spring and summer the city explodes outwards, onto the rocky atolls that surround the city, into the network of parks, and inland to the lakeside ‘kesämöki’ or summer cottages that almost every Finn seems to have access to. Surprisingly enough for citizens of such a snow-bound land, Finns tend to be very “out-doorsy” people, cross country skiing in winter, rollerblading, cycling, jogging, and tramping in summer. At least until the descent into Autumn begins in late September, with shortening days, cloud, and wind.

Few people outside Finland pay much attention to it at all, and even less to its history, which turns out to be fascinating. Having been traded back and forth between Russia and Sweden for centuries, independence arrived in 1917 as more of a threat than a promise. Torn between a German born Monarch and events unfolding across the border in St Petersburg, a bitter civil war began between the Royalist Whites and Communist Reds. Thousands died in vicious fighting, leaving the resulting fledgling democracy (the idea of a German monarch having been abandoned) bankrupt and bitterly divided. After a generation of recovery, the country was splintered again by the rise of fascism and a growing fear of Russian expansionism. Initially siding with Germany in order to prevent Russian colonisation, Finland was one of two countries (the other being Bulgaria) to fight on both sides during the war. Or wars, as the war in Finland cleanly divides itself into two, the Winter War and, with typical Finnish understatement, the Continuation War. Strangely enough, the crippling war debts to Russia imposed by the allies made Finland all it is today. Forced to manufacture, export, and struggle, the country called on all of its most traditional Finnish virtue of ‘sisu’ (determination, courage) to re-build itself as a technologically adept, highly educated, social democracy. Out of the desperate poverty sprang the seeds of not only Nokia, but forestry giants UPM-Kymmene and I.T, market leaders like Tieto-Enator and NovoSys.

Finland and Finns are enigmatic. Stoic and independent, quiet and reserved, visitors to the country frequently complain that Finns are humourless and difficult to befriend. There is some truth in this, but as in all Scandinavian cultures, what is equally important is the extent to which Scandinavians mean what they say, and say only what they mean. The idea of saying “Have a nice day” to a shopper is considered peculiar – who would you wish a nice day to someone you don’t sincerely care about? When a Finn invites you for dinner, the invitation is real, and friendship assured. Friendships here tend to last lifetimes, and form part of a network of belonging that is deep, vital, and unchanging. Small talk, however is a problem. My friend Elisa always pauses whenever I greet her with “How are you?” After a few months she admitted, “I don’t know how to answer – I mean, is it a serious question?” Amongst my Finns this seems a common dilemma. Finns have honesty and forthrightness ingrained them so well that a typical response to “How are things?” is either “Bad. I have cancer” or stony silence, indicating disbelief that as a stranger you could even think to ask.

Finland is small, and it is far away from anywhere, and anything. So far that when a Finns announces he is off to Germany for a few days, he may well forget and say he is going to Europe. The relationship with the ex-coloniser Sweden is perhaps similar to that of New Zealand to Australia; an uncomfortable mix of bitter rivalry with the sneaking suspicion that everything over there is just that much bigger and brighter. And it is, for better and worse. Helsinki is small, in population terms smaller than Auckland, thought it can feel smaller, scattered across headlands and islands and stretching into forests that never seem to entirely give way to apartment blocks or industrial areas. The inner city lacks the ancient feel of Copenhagen or Stockholm, and is much younger, up until the 18th Century Helsinki was at times a smaller settlement than Suomenlinna, the island fortress defending it. It was only with independence in 1918 and the shifting of the capital from Turku that the city began to take form as anything other than a forest outpost.
A New Zealander arriving in Finland may initially be shocked by what similarities the countries do have. With both countries sharing long rural farming roots, the New Zealand cliché of ‘number 8 wire’ DIY mentality is one most rural Finns would find very easy to relate to. Similar also is the idea of a kind of strong silent type male, a la Colin Meads in New Zealand, or stoic racing driver Mikä Häkkinen in Finland. New Zealanders have often complained about sportspeople like Jeff Wilson or Adam Parore for celebrating too much or having “the wrong attitude”, a way of thinking to which Finns also accede. Modesty above all. While Mikä Hakkinen may be slightly embarrassing with his monosyllabic answers to questions and his reluctance to even smile after winning a Grand Prix, at least he doesn’t show off. Perhaps the worst moment for Finnish sports fans came when several members of the 2000 World Championship Ski Team were found guilty of doping. The idea of cheating goes against every Finnish traditional of hard work, and in some way also seemed to come from an attitude of arrogance and self aggrandisement that Finns simply can not bear under an circumstances. Finns would much rather watch an athlete work hard and fail, than cut corners and win.

Which brings us to the subject no reference or Finland would be complete without. Finland is the home to Nokia. Employer of 25,000+ Finns, a company so huge it supports either directly or indirectly virtually every company in the country. With so many buildings sprawled across Helsinki they are grouped conveniently into Nokia ‘cities’, the company which started off manufacturing paper and rubber gumboots is now the pivot on which the entire nation balances. The irony of the silent, shy Finns being the worlds leading exporter of handsets seems to escape everyone here, most of whom are too busy buying tram tickets or paying for their movies seats via their handsets to consider the concept. But like any massive company, Finland can not claim all of Nokias heart. The workforce is so staggering multi-national that the companies internal language is English, and the threat of the production being moved to cheaper workforces in Estonia or China is a constant fear.

We tend to think of Finns as Scandinavian, but this is a misconception. Finns are Slavs, and the language group is Finno-Ugric. Finnish is mostly closely related to Estonian, which is great if you are from Estonia but not much help to the rest of us. There are some common threads to Hungarian, but other than that the only links are to the dead or dying languages of ancient Karelia. Which isn’t to say that Finland is monolingual, in fact, quite the opposite is true. About 6% of the population are ethnically and linguistically Swedish speaking, meaning all signs along the west coast and in the southern provinces are bi-lingual. Helsinki is home to close to 20,000 Russians, and in the Northern provinces perhaps 5,000 Saami people live, the original inhabitants of the area, whose population is spread across the northern perimeters of Sweden and Norway as well.

While visitors to Scandinavia may not immediately spot differences in temperament between the nations, they do exist. Danes are undoubtedly the most social, Norwegians perhaps the most earnest, the Swedes the most cosmopolitan. In Finland, the common Scandinavian threads of intellectualism, Lutheran-inspired work values, an appreciation of the aesthetic, and a sense of social justice are confronted by more Slavic traits of introspection and modesty. As in all societies, it’s weaknesses are also it’s strengths. Few Finns deny that the countries difficult relationship with alcohol and depression, and a seeming inherent lack of confidence, are elements within the national character which extend far further back in time than the name Finland. And yet the almost pathological belief in modesty, humility and hardwork also carried Finland out of three depressions and as many wars. Pekka, a successful businessman with a major Finnish furniture manufacturer says, “I think we just have the right attitude to work. We

know what must be done. Perhaps other countries don’t.” I point out that England was also devastated by wars and depressions but has not fared as well as Finland since. “Well,” he smiles, “We were never an empire. The opposite, in fact. We could never feel like we were so important.”

Finland has never produced an Abba, a Roxette, a Bergman, or even a Lars von Trier. Nor has it produced a H.C. Anderson, a Jostein Gaarder, or Knut Hamsun. Perhaps it’s the language, but perhaps equally the enigmatic national mentality that means the only major arts exports to successfully leave the country have worked without words. Sibelius is undoubtedly the greatest, and in his wake conductor Esa-Pekka Salinen, with the other major names being principally architects like Alvar Aalto and Engel. While the movies of Kaurismäki work in Finland, beyond the border they tend to be festival-release only. “Stone we’re good at…you know…buildings…it’s when we have to have words it gets tricky.” Suggests one friend.

David Brown runs a journalism and translation company in Finland, Word of Mouth.

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