Saturday, 15 September 2012

Finnish as a Secret Code

One of my former colleagues, Simo, is fond of saying (I suspect only half jokingly) that Finnish is the second best encryption language in the world. By that he means that Finnish is virtually undecipherable to anyone who doesn’t know it, and spoken by sufficiently few people globally to make it pretty secretive.

I was reminded of Simo’s comment this week, as I came across a clip of the 2000 movie Charlie’s Angels, in which Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore, and Lucy Liu are heard speaking Finnish for a few seconds, in order to discuss Eric Knox (played by Sam Rockwell) in his presence.

By the puzzled look on Mr Knox’s face, it seems the message was well encrypted! All the more so, because the Angels’ accents are pretty terrible.

The lack of widespread understanding of Finnish, means that the Finns can go abroad and get away with saying virtually anything they want.

For example, I was amused on a recent trip to Iceland to see a small designer shop in Reykjavik called Suomi PRKL! Anyone with a modicum of Finnish will immediately decipher PRKL as standing for “perkele”, which is a fairly rude word expressing discontent or frustration, but also a determination to overcome a difficult problem. Loosely, the English version of the shop would be something like Finland FFS! Not your average name for a designer shop.

However, in my own experience, Finnish people can get a bit over-confident that no-one will understand them when abroad. I was once in a Middle-Eastern country, relaxing in the hotel bar with another colleague from Finland, when we both noticed that the people behind us were speaking Finnish. As it turned out, they worked for a competitor, and were openly discussing their offer to a prospective customer, whom my colleague was going to meet the following day!

Not surprisingly, Finns have developed their own additional layer of encryption, in the form of secret language games. The simplest I have heard of is the a-kieli (a-language), which I think even I could speak (though probably not understand): simply replace every vowel with “a”, so that “minä olen Olli” (I am Olli), becomes “mana alan Alla”.

Much more tricky though is the sananmuunnos (word transformation) game, which is similar to spoonerisms, and involves swapping the first syllable (actually the first mora) of words – so “Olli Miekka” becomes “Mielli Okka”, I believe. But there is an added layer of complexity, as the Finnish rules on vowel harmony and other such grammatical wonders need to be applied, modifying further the resulting words, and effectively adding a 3rd level of encryption. I will spare you the details, not least because I am not sure I really understand them myself. What I do understand though is that, when you apply the sananmuunnos rules to the word itself, it becomes munansaannos, which in slang means "the yield of a penis". No comment.

Returning to Simo’s initial assertion though, if Finnish is merely the second best encryption language, what is the first? Well, apparently it is Navajo, which was actually used by the US Marines in World War II to transmit coded messages. Now that’s impressive, PRKL!

How good is Finnish as an encryption language in your opinion? Do you know of other movies or books in which Finnish is used to communicate secretly? Have you ever been caught out trying to discuss something without being understood by others?



  1. Finnish has been our family's secret language when travelling. We change from English to Finnish even mid-sentence if we need to make a private comment about something. It is very useful to switch mid-negotiation about a room rate for example in the Greek islands. As we live in Finland, my kids naturally speak Finnish together but always use English with me. When the kids were small we spent long summers in the UK. We were once in Victoria Park Bath and I sat on a park bench while my kids were busy playing. A group of Finnish au pairs came to sit on the bench next to me. They were chatting pretty loudly all about their employer families and going into all kinds of details. Of course they heard us talking to each other like any English family and had no idea I understood their conversation. I sat for a long time eavesdropping on their lively gossip, rather bemused. It was much more interesting than reading the newspaper. I heard all about how terrible English families were etc, etc. I called my kids over to leave in English and then started to speak to answer them in Finnish. The group of au pairs suddenly became very red faced and as I walked away I just wished them hyvää jatkoa and smiled. You cannot take it for granted that the person next to you doesn't understand you! What I overhear in the bathrooms in airports before catching return flight to Finland is also very funny. And maybe again today when I fly back to Helsinki from Dublin via London :-)

  2. Kontinkieli adds even more complexity to the sananmuunnos game: It's similar to pig latin in English. It is quite hard for native Finns too.

    Also about dirty word transformations, if you can understand Finnish well enough, you should check Pastori Luttinen out from YouTube.. "Nautinpa pikaiset limpsat" (Imma enjoy a quick soft drink) turns into "nautinpa likaiset pimpsat" (Imma enjoy some dirty p*ssies)

    1. Fixed link:

  3. Great post!

    I remember reading somewhere that Finnish words which are particularly difficult for non-Finns to pronounce - like höyryjyrä (steamroller) - were even used as passwords for soldiers during WWII.

    1. There exists some other good sentences which make particularly useful as shibboleths, e.g. "Älä rääkkää kärpästä" - ("Don't torment a fly") - has been used in WWII to reveal otherwise linguistically fluent infiltrators.

  4. I heard rumor that Finnish (or an altered version of Finnish) was used as some creatures' language in Lord of the Rings, though that is unconfirmed.
    Using a language as a code language isn't necessarily only for more uncommon languages like Finnish. I was raised bilingual and my mother and I find it very useful to switch to Japanese in public when making certain comments, and we can still be fairly certain no one will understand.

    1. Apparently, Quenya was inspired by Finnish (

      Many people seem to use their own language in public hoping it remains secret. I one overhead a couple of Dutch men making some derogatory remarks about someone. I stared at them indicating that I had undersood what they had said, and they looked somewhat embarrassed. Dutch is hardly a good secret language though. It's spoken by close to 25 million people and it's closely related to other European languages...

  5. I remember using i-language with my best friend as a child when other of my friends were around if we wanted to say something they wouldn't understand. We spoke in i-, o-, a-, y-, e- and the other vowel languages a lot, even when there wasn't anyone around.

    Also, in a Finnish comedy show called Putous, the actors had to create comedy characters for themselves, and one of them used a lot of word transformations, such as: Pehmeä jänis (jähmeä penis), hillitön kurvi (kulliton hirvi), virtakäyttöinen kettu (kertakäyttöinen vittu), and others that I don't remember right now.

    Since I live in America, I use Finnish a lot to say things I don't want other people to hear. When we fly to Amsterdam to fly to Helsinki, we don't do that, because there usually are other Finds at the airport.