Thursday, 7 July 2011

Your Name Means Nothing To Me

One of the many challenges of trying to learn Finnish is that the vocabulary is so very different from other languages. I have already mentioned how words don't come easy to me, not least because I have a terrible memory.

As a result, I have had to develop various strategies to try and remember words. One of these is an obsessive analysis of Finnish surnames.

Many Finnish surnames are based on nature, so they provide an excellent source of vocabulary.  For example architect and designer Alver Aalto, writer Aleksis Kivi and ice-hockey world-cup hero Mikko Koivu are useful agents for learning (and actually REMEMBERING) the words “wave”, “stone” and “birch” respectively.

A few of my friends and colleagues have also unwittingly contributed to expanding my vocabulary, e.g.:

aho = meadow
iso = big, mäki = hill
jarven = of the lake, pää = head
korpi = wilderness (not to be confused with korppi = raven)
laakso = valley
lehto = grove, vaara = danger / a large forested hill
mansikka = strawberry, niemi = peninsula
paju = willow
pitkä = long
suvi = old word for summer, ranta = beach / shore
sääski = mosquito / midge, lahti = bay

Big thanks to all of them and others...

However, this learning strategy has a bit of down-side. It means that, upon meeting someone, I often can't resist asking “does your name mean anything?” I do try to conceal my disappointment when the person's name turns out to be meaningless.

I realise that my random questioning and my reaction to the answer have the potential to cause annoyance or offense, or indeed both. But hey, a stupid foreigner's got to do what he's got to do to get to grips with the perplexing Finnish language. And so far, I have not had any adverse reaction from those people I have asked.. Maybe they feel sorry for me.

Further reading on the Finnish surnames: “Surname stories: Land of the –nens”


  1. Sääski may also refer to kalasääski or sääksi (Pandion haliaetus).

  2. The architect is called Alvar Aalto, not AlvEr :) Anyways, I enjoy reading your blog a great deal!

  3. So, I notice that many Finnish last names end in -onen, -inen, -anen. Since jarvi is lake (I think) and jarven is of the lake, does this -nen ending in so many last names mean of the ____? Like, Ahonen= of the meadow?

  4. Ami, I am afraid not. If you check the link at the end of the post, it takes you to an article on "-nen". In there, it says: "the Finnish suffix –nen is normally a diminutive, in surnames it more often signifies belonging to a place where a family lived."

  5. Actually the surname Pitkänen refers to an old Finnish word meaning "lightning". The word is not in use anymore (as you may have noticed) since it has been replaced by "salama". So Pitkänen is a nature-related surname, too! :)

  6. I like Kivilaakso as in Perttu Kivilaakso.

  7. The ending -nen also means a smaller version of the first part.

    Järvi = Lake
    Järvinen = A small(er) lake