On learning Finnish

Babies can’t recall the first words they speak, but I can remember the first words that  I spoke in Finnish: “please pass the butter.”

Everyone around the table stopped talking and looked at me in wonder.

“She can talk now!”

My memorable speech in Finnish took place during the second summer I spent as a girl in Finland with the family I think of today, more than four decades later, as my own.

The fact that I couldn’t speak Finnish when I first arrived to stay with them at their farm didn’t matter: I would be able to help my Finnish “sister” practice English.

And Mummo, then the grandmother and matriarch of the multi-generational-family, didn’t care at all if I understood her: she spoke to me non-stop, as you do with babies, as she cooked, worked in the vegetable garden or milked the cow.

Where I learned to speak Finnish. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

The farm where I learned to speak Finnish. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

I wanted to understand her and the others in the family, but I had no choice but to listen mutely. That is, until that day when suddenly the flow of words around me started to make sense to me and I was able to surprise everyone — and myself — by talking.

“Saanko voita” (please pass the butter) — those being my first, unforgettable two words — showed that my brain had somehow, like that of a young baby, absorbed some important grammatical elements of Finnish.: “Saa” being the root for the verb (receive), “n” the marker for the first person singular, “ko” the interrogative ending, “voi” the stem for “butter” and “ta” the ending meaning “some.”

Of course, I wasn’t aware of any of that. I just somehow knew how to say it, after listening to conversations for weeks and hearing little English during that period.

The summer when I first opened my mouth and Finnish came out marked the beginning of what turned out to be a talkative summer, during which I asked what things were called and constantly added to my vocabulary.

I also figured out more grammatical issues in Finnish. I recall suddenly realizing that “mitä” (what) and “missä (where) came from the same base “mi” with place endings which I would soon see cropping up everywhere attached to nouns.

Harder for me was the realization that “kuka” (who) and “kenen” (of whom) were also the same, but I was on my way towards sliding through the changing roots and multiple cases which, to many learners of Finnish — or similar languages like Inuktitut or Saami, which also use similar endings for possession, movement and location — seem impossible to master.

I worked in Marimekko clothing stores to improve my Finnish. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

I worked in Marimekko clothing stores in Finland to improve my Finnish. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

Verbs also required another way of thinking: for example, to add make “haluan” or “I want” into a conditional verb I needed to tack onto a marker at the end of the root, not put a word in the front to show conditionality — “haluaisin” or “I would like/want.”

I also became aware that there was no future tense in Finnish.

So, I still invented novel ways to talk about the future in Finnish that would leave Finnish-speakers wondering what part of the country I came from because I had little accent but such an odd way of saying things.

I didn’t actually study Finnish grammar until years later at the University of Helsinki, when I took three levels of “Finnish for Foreigners” simultaneously. These courses settled some of the questions I had about Finnish grammar — along with a handwritten book on Finnish that a Swedish-Finnish friend wrote for me to help me understand issues that had stumped her, such as ‘He needed no money (Hän ei tarvinnut rahaa)’, but ‘He didn’t need to borrow money (Hänen ei tarvinnut lainata rahaa)’, which require different grammatical constructions.

To build up my vocabulary I would read simple stories and look up words for hours on end.

Easy-to-read Seitsämän päivää, the TV guide that's right at my level.

Easy-to-read Seitsämän päivää, the TV guide that’s right at my level.

Today, even ‘though I sometimes hear no Finnish for three years at a time, I can still speak and understand Finnish well although I still have trouble with the complex grammar of the written language seen in newspapers such as the Helsingin Sanomat which is different than that of the “puhekieli” or spoken language.

This leaves me stuck reading a lot of magazines aimed for Finns with low literacy — but reading these still helps me (and amuses me).

But it’s a gift to speak and understand Finnish, which to me feels like water bubbling over stones.

While I get to show off my Finnish occasionally at conferences with visiting academics, Finnish has also proven to be useful on visits in Norway. There, many Saami along the northern border with Finland also speak fluent Finnish in addition to Saami. My Finnish enabled me, for example, to spend a memorable evening in Karasjok, Norway with new Saami acquaintances, making jokes in the two languages.

A boat, a lake, sunny skies in Finland. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

A boat, a lake, sunny skies in Finland. En tarvitse mitään muuta. All I need. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

And I can relish contact with older Finnish-speakers. This includes listening to songs which my Finnish “mother,” now 89, often breaks into when something happens or reminds her of a song.

Speaking to her in her own language is a gift that I took away from her family,  which offered me a language and world view which I still honour today.

In a future post, I’ll talk about what this language-learning experience says about learning languages like Finnish (or Inuktitut), languages related in the past through the common Uralo-Siberian language proposed by linguist Michael Fortescue.

(Finnish, by the way, is ranked number four amongst the 10 most difficult languages in the world for English-speakers to master before Hungarian, in a list that does not include other similar Uralo-Siberian-related languages such as Saami or, for that matter, Inuktitut.)

Did you read my previous post on Saami, Finnish, Inuktitut, ancient cousins once removed?

Saami, Finnish, Inuktitut: ancient cousins, once removed

Wouldn’t it be great if everyone in the circumpolar region could understand each other without translators or interpreters? At least one linguist thinks that may have been the case about 20,000 years ago.

Michael Fortescue, a linguist and expert in Eskimo–Aleut and Chukotko-Kamchatkan, believes that a group of people, all speaking a common language that he’s dubbed “Uralo-Siberian,” then lived by hunting, fishing and gathering in south-central Siberia (an area located roughly between the upper Yenisei river and Lake Baikal in today’s Russia, as shown in the map).

The area between the Yenisei River and Lake Baikal in central Siberia where early residents are thought to have spoken a common language that gave rise to Saami, Finnish and Inuit languages.

The area between the Yenisei River and Lake Baikal in central Siberia where early residents are thought to have spoken a common language called Uralo-Siberian that gave rise to Saami, Finnish and Inuit languages.

There, families whose migrations were ruled by the coming and going of glaciers during the Ice Age moved northward out of this area in successive waves until about 4,000 BC.

Some headed west along the northern coasts and others went east, eventually crossing the Bering Strait to North America.

They would end up living across the circumpolar region, with Inuit living from Alaska through to Canada and Greenland, Saami in Sápmi (northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and northern Russia) and Finns in Finland (or Suomi in Finnish.)

During those long-ago migrations, travelers took their common language, Uralo-Siberian, Fortescue suggests.

You can still hear today’s version of that language in Nunavut — where Uralo-Siberian developed into Inuktitut — and in Finland — where that language survived as Saami and as Finnish.

To me, someone who has lived in both regions and speaks Finnish (fairly fluently) and Inuktitut (not nearly as well) and can understand when people speak Saami (usually), the idea that there was once a united Uralo-Siberian family of languages makes sense.

That’s because the grammars of the three languages feel so similar (not to mention many shared cultural elements).

Map of the Uralo-Siberian languages.

A family tree of the Uralo-Siberian and related languages which shows the various Inuit languages as well as Saami and Finnish and how they are related.

Indeed, on this family tree of Uralo-Siberian languages, Inuktitut and Finnish look like fairly close cousins.

This map shows the spread of the genetic marker Haplo group N "Y", which goes from the northern coast of Scandinavia through Siberia towards North America.

This map shows the spread of the genetic marker Haplogroup N “Y”, which goes from the northern coast of Scandinavia through Siberia towards North America.

This language family was first proposed in 1998 by Fortescue in his book Language Relations across Bering Strait . But some linguists still don’t embrace his proposal, because it looks at the spread of languages and people in a new way.

More recent genetic tests do show Saami and Finns share more genetic markers linked with Asian populations in the Bering Strait and beyond than do any other European populations.

As for this early language, Uralo-Siberian, Fortescue argues that some common grammatical marker features are recognizable in the Inuit languages, Saami and Finnish, namely:

*-t   — plural

*-k  — dual

*m — 1st person

*t  —  2nd person

*ka  —interrogative pronoun

*-n —  genitive case

And you can still find verb roots in the Inuit languages of Canada and in Saami or Finnish as well as words in all three that appear to stem from that ancient common language:

Proto-Uralo-Siberianaj (aɣ) — ‘push forward’

Proto-Eskimo–Aleut ajaɣ —‘push, thrust at with pole’

In today’s Finnish —  ajaa, ‘drive’

Or you can hear similarities in other words used today, such as:

• kina (who) in Inuktitut, ken in Finnish;

• mannik (egg) in Inukitut, monne in Saami, muna in Finnish; and,

• kamek (boot) in Inuktitut, gama in Saami, kenka in Finnish.

The spoken languages also sound similar because they’re spoken with a word-initial stress (that is with the first syllable being emphasized — i.e. Nu-navut, Su-omi.)

As well, words (both nouns and verbs) get their meaning from many added-on chunks that tell you, among other things, who did what and when and to whom. This allows for a precision that  you don’t find in English.

For example, in Inuktitut and Finnish, even the notion of saying “there” must be precise — you need to say exactly where something is, whether it’s at a certain point nearby, here or there or further away.

For some experts, the enduring similarities in these languages, spoken by a majority of people who live within the jurisdictions of Nunavut, Greenland and Finland, reflect the amazing survival of that early  Uralo-Siberian grammar and lexicon of words.

But its isolation in the North in may also have had something to do with the Uralo-Siberian language’s endurance.

The Origin and Genetic Background of the Sámi suggests that Saami and, to a lesser extent, Finns were able to maintain their separate language identities over the centuries due to their geographic isolation in the Arctic while other peoples were losing their languages to Indo-European speakers from the South.

We now see different situations between the Inuit languages, Saami and Finnish — the largest of the three languages, which is spoken by more than five million people in Finland.

In Like an iceberg. I talk about learning Inuktitut.

In a future post in A Date with Siku girl, I will talk about what it was like for me to learn Finnish as a young girl and what this experience reveals — at least to me — about language learning and preservation.

Rock art in northern Norway from the earliest inhabitants of the region. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

Rock art in northern Norway from the earliest inhabitants of the region. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

(For this post, I consulted so many sources online that I have not provided links to them all, but if you’re curious about the relationships between the ancient Uralo-Siberian languages, I urge you to do your own online searches and see what turns up. There appears to be many disputes over all the genetics and linguistics about which I could write a book, not simply a blog post. As for me, I’d be interested in receiving feedback from those more knowledgeable than I am in this area. Since publishing this blog in 2014, I received this very interesting list of words in Inuktitut, Finnish and Estonian: