Friday, 23 November 2012

The Tailor Began with a Button

A couple of weeks back, my friend Simo forwarded an email to me that had me smiling and frustrated in equal measure.

The email contained a short Finnish text with a series of word plays, which I thought were rather clever – that was the smiley bit. However, as I reached repeatedly for the dictionary to try and decipher the text, I also realised how far I was from ever understanding Finnish – and that was the seriously frustrating bit.

The text plays of the fact that some Finnish verbs in the infinitive form look identical to particular nouns in the "elatiivi" case (the noun case with a -sta/-stä ending that indicates provenance from somewhere). So the series of sentences can be interpreted as "someone started from something" or "someone started to do something".

These are not hilarious puns, just clever ones.

Below is the original text in Finnish, and a tentative English translation (it is a fairly tricky text to translate, and no doubt some readers will want to offer better interpretations).

Suomen kieli - ihana kieli

The Finnish Language - A Wonderful language

Mistä kaikki alkoi?

Where did it all begin?

Räätäli alkoi napistaThe tailor began with a button / to complain
Merimies alkoi hytistä.The sailor started from the cabin / to tremble
Vauva alkoi tutista.The baby began with a pacifier / to tremble
Satakuntalaiset alkoivat porista.People from the Satakunta region started from Pori / to hum
Pohjoiskarjalaiset alkoivat kolista.People from North-Karelia started from Koli / to clack
Narkkari alkoi piristä.The junkie began with speed / to tinkle
Kännykkämies alkoi jupista.The mobile-phone guy began as a yuppie / to mutter
Muusikko alkoi rapista.The musician began with rap / to rustle
Mielisairas alkoi pöpistä.The lunatic started by being nuts / to mumble
Sotamies alkoi lotista.The soldier began with Lotta (a Finnish voluntary auxiliary paramilitary organisation for women) / to squelch
Puuseppä alkoi rahista.The carpenter began with a footstool / to scrape
Laiva alkoi karista.The ship started from the rocks / to fall down
Saapas alkoi kumista.The boot started from rubber / to peel
Punoja alkoi korista.The weaver began with the basket / to wheeze
Kalastaja alkoi kuhistaThe fisherman began with a perch / to crawl
Tiskaaja alkoi mukista.The washer of dishes began with a mug / to growl
Automekaanikko alkoi rämistä.The car mechanic began with a rattletrap / to rattle
Kemisti alkoi kalista.The chemist began with potash / to clatter
Pankkiiri alkoi kopista.The banker started from the KOP bank / to clatter
Metsästäjät alkoivat supista.The hunters began with a raccoon / to murmur
Vuohi alkoi kilistä.The goat started as a kid / to jangle
Siivooja alkoi rätistä.The cleaner began with a rag / to crackle
Nalle alkoi puhista.The teddy-bear started from (Winnie the) Pooh / to wheeze
Maalari alkoi väristä.The painter began with colour / to shiver
Metsästäjä alkoi kutista.The hunter began with a bullet / to itch

Joku sanoo, että ulkomaalaisen on muka vaikea ymmärtää suomalaisten puhetta tai saada siitä jotain tolkkua!

And some people claim that it's difficult for foreigners to understand spoken Finnish or to make any sense of it!

Well yes, some people dare to claim that Finnish is a difficult language to understand! In fairness, play on words are always bit of a challenge in any foreign language, and in this case, the real difficulty for someone like me is actually the lack of vocabulary.

Still, thanks to this text, "this foreigner started with the dictionary / to learn".

Special thanks to Simo for forwarding the text and for providing the bulk of the trasnslation.



  1. These are quite interesting! Thanks to you (and your friend) for posting them. I too would've had a hard time understanding them without lots of thought if it weren't for those handy English translations. I did, however, understand the last sentence with ease, due to its familiar vocabulary and the fact that it applies to me!

    1. I am so with you, Elena! I got the title, the intro and the conclusion and the rest was a struggle!

  2. "Piristä" is to make the ringing noise that telephones and alarm clocks used to make back when they didn't play MP3 files.

    "Kuhista" refers to the noise or commotion made by e.g. small animals in some place, e.g. a busy anthill. A single fisherman crawling is not "kuhinaa", though. The word is not really used of a single person, but the meaning would be "to whisper excitedly amongst themselves".

    I don't know what "to peal" means and I can't find it in the Merriam-Webster dictionary. "Kumista" refers to a large object making an echoy or a reverberating sound, e.g. a church bell or a gong or an empty room. "Kumista tyhjyyttään" is expression used to emphasize that something is empty / that stuff has run out, e.g. "varasto kumisi tyhjyyttään" = "the warehouse was echoing with emptiness" (my crappy translation).

    "Mukista" is closer to complaining than to growling. You can "mukista" in a normal speaking voice.

    1. Mikko, this is excellent feedback. Clearly the dictionary and online resources I used were inadequate! As for peal, it was meant to be peel.

  3. As a native Finn some of these weren't readily apparent to me either. Especially "Kemisti alkoi kalista." is the one where I can find no other meaning besides the clattering part.

    1. I am somewhat relieved to hear it's not that straight forward for native speakers either!

      As for "Kemisti alkoi kalista", apparently "kali" means "potash" (an alkaline potassium compound) according to Hence the chemist bit.

    2. Might be an archaic term, because that's the first time I've heard it used. On the other hand, the word piri was introduced into the vernacular quite recently. At least I remember learning it only a few years ago.

    3. Sorry, being neither a Finn nor a chemist, I can't help you! ;-)

    4. Of course it's archaic. Who the hell talks about potash anymore?

    5. I only have heard that stuff being called "potaska". Though that almost always means a lie or something false.
      Usually combined into "puhua potaskaa" etc. I don't even know if I can say "usually", since the word is really damn old.

  4. I found your blog a few days ago and read every entry! I'm a Finn, but living in Germany right now. People ask me often questions about Finnish language, but for me it's hard to explain since it's so normal for me. Now I can just show them your blog. :)

    1. Well thanks! I am glad my rambling serve a useful purpose to someone at least! ;-)

  5. thanks for share.

  6. This reminded me of a thing that my American friend sent to me. It was a picture, called "Finnish Lesson #1." It was about this phrase, "kuusi palaa", which can mean 9 different things.

      There's a link to the picture.