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In Finnish, I’ve only begun

Our exchange student’s English was perfect; my ‘suomi,’ not so much.

Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters
A woman pushes a stroller across a frozen lake near Lahti, Finland, last February.

My family recently had the distinct honor of hosting a young exchange student from Finland for a year. Edvin, age 17, came to us on a brilliant August day, after a long plane ride from Helsinki and an even longer bus ride from New York City to our home in Maine. Tall, blond, and blue-eyed, he struck me as the stereotypical Finn. His transition to life in America – where he would attend the local high school – was expedited by his remarkable command of English, which he spoke like a native, without the slightest trace of an accent, thanks to a Finnish educational system that commences foreign language instruction at age 7. Edvin also had attended an English-
language high school in Helsinki. No one who didn’t know better would ever mistake him for a foreigner.

But I did, of course, know better. I’ve always been interested in languages and with Edvin’s advent I found myself curious about Finnish, which I soon learned was so exotic that, in the words of a linguist friend of mine, it “sounds like something aliens beamed in from space.” I felt privileged to have a professional Finn in the house to introduce me to his mother tongue.

Finnish is not part of the three great European language groups – Romance (Latin-based), Germanic, and Slavic. It is, rather, off by itself, out in left field, in its own little language universe. It is vaguely related to Hungarian and, of all things, Estonian, but the three languages are not mutually comprehensible, allowing Finnish to honestly refer to itself as unique.

One of Edvin’s great virtues was his patience. Another was his deep interest and pride in his culture. A third was his willingness to share. Supper invariably included a discussion of Finnish, which involved my asking Edvin for vocabulary words, few of which resembled anything I had ever heard before. It was rarely possible to build bridges between Finnish and English the way one can with, say, German, where Haus = house, Butter = butter, Wasser = water, and so on. In Finnish, by comparison, “house” is talo, and “butter” is voi. When Edvin translated “water” as vesi, I told him I could accept this because “spilled water can be very messy.” But I rejected voi out of hand. “Just look at it, Edvin,” I said as I indicated the tub of butter. “There’s nothing voi about it.” My goodness, even the Finns’ name for their language – suomi – would blindside anyone looking for a thread of familiarity.

Edvin took all of this in good humor. He also regarded it as an opportunity to explain to me just how complicated Finnish is. It seems that in the 16th century a Finnish bishop named Mikael Agricola took it upon himself to write down the grammar rules and orthography of what until then had been an exclusively oral language. It was an enormous project. Modern Finnish, still reflecting Agricola’s work, is a behemoth of truly complex grammar. It has, for example, 15 – count ’em – 15 cases. (English has a paltry three.) Thus, “Talo on punainen” means “the house is red,” but “I see the red house” is “Näen punaisen talon” and “I sit in the red house” is “Istun punaisessa talossa.”

The message here is that a non-Finn would need a compelling reason to want to learn the language. I lacked any such compulsion, although, with a Finn living in the house, I did think it considerate to learn some pleasantries. Kiitos (“thank you”) is an easy one, as is Hei (“hello”). But when I greeted Edvin one day with a hearty “Hyvää huomenta!” (“Good morning!”), he winced at my pronunciation. “Well,” he said, conjuring up a generous smile, “almost.”

He did, in the end, throw me a lifeline. It seems that there is a Finnish word, noni, that contains a universe of meanings. Your small child is being unkind to a playmate? Caution him, “Noni,” with a note of disappointment in your voice. Someone is about to walk into a wall? Call out, “Noni!” You’ve reached the end of a conversation? Just sigh and utter a bittersweet, Noni ...

When it comes to the complexities of Finnish, one quickly learns to be thankful for such small favors.

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