Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Words Don't Come Easy

Once, after successfully deciphering a whole paragraph in a Finnish magazine, I declared with pride: “I find that if I know all the words, I can understand what it says!”

Possibly not my most insightful comment ever.

The serious point behind that truism was that, with Finnish, one either knows a word or one doesn’t. There is no guessing in the way one can in so many other (Latin or Germanic) languages.

There are of course a few words in Finnish that are similar to English, such as televisio, salaatti, banaani, taksi, hattu, tina or presidentti. Finnish also has words that, with a bit of imagination, can be related to English words, including kahvi (coffee), pekoni (bacon), viini (wine), Joulu (Yule), kirahvi (giraffe) or naapuri (neighbour).

However, most Finnish words are simply unique to Finnish and just have to be learnt.

There are words that look like they ought to be familiar to an English-speaker, but actually aren’t (“false friends”), e.g. helppo (easy), kone (machine), tuska (pain), katu (street), hinta (price) or piste (dot).

There are also the Finnish versions of words that are otherwise virtually “universal”: ravintola (restaurant), puhelin (telephone), elokuva (film) and jalkapallo (football).

And then there are all the other words, from aakkosellinen (alphabetical) to öylätti (wafer) - the first and last entries in my pocket dictionary...

The fact that Finnish words are so very different from other languages makes learning the language quite a challenge, especially for people like me who possess a fairly poor memory.

Furthermore, from my perspective at least, many Finnish words look very similar to each other. Consider for example tuli (fire), tuuli (wind) and tulli (customs) - all the same to me. So don't ask me to light a fire or you might be in for a surprise.

My confusion over similar-looking words has predictably lead me to some embarrassing situations, such as the time I tried to praise someone for the excellent cake (kakku) they had baked, and said confidently: “hyvää kakkaa” (“good poo”)!

I suppose it is all part of the learning process though: never again will I confuse cake and poo, which surely is a good thing.

7 comments:

  1. Well you could say "This is some good shit" and it would actully mean about the same thing :D xD

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  2. I must say that I haven't laughed so much at any blog posts as I laughed reading yours. I must ask that what gives you the motivation to learn Finnish? Great blog you've got!

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    1. Glad you enjoyed this post. What is my motivation for learning Finnish? Insanity, I think!

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  3. That's a good reason! :) Us Finns are a bit insane ourselves.. maybe this way you'll get a perfect understanding of our weird culture. ;)

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  4. I just want to point out that the word "tuska" usually refers to intense pain (agony would be the correct word, I think), while "kipu" (anither word for pain) refers to less intense pain, such as pain that might come from stubbing a toe or something like that (something that isn't uncommon and doesn't hurt that much). This just distracted me. I don't know if you were aware of this.

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  5. Old post, I know, but I just have to ask, because I can't for the life of me figure out what the false friends of these are:
    helppo, kone, tuska, katu
    And these hinta or piste only makes sense as false friends in German and French???

    BTW "öylätti" actually sounds like a loanword. "Oblat" in Swedish, "Oblaten" in German, various versions of "oplatky" in Czech/Slovak/Polish. Specific type of wafer, really thin, paper like. Used for communion and a very old method of delivering powdered medicine. The Central European version can also be a snack/sweet, but usually also then only refers to the really thin papery wafers, not the more robust kinds.

    Now please, please, please tell me about those false friends!

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    1. False friends are words that seem familiar because they sound/look like words in your own language, but are not. So for example "helppo" looks like the Englsh word "help", but obviously does not mean help. Obviously that depends what your "home" language is: false friends to an English speaker will be different to false friends for a French speaker for example. I keep a list of the ones I have come across (for English) here: http://telefinn.blogspot.fi/p/false-friends.html

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