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?