How Not to Speak Finnish by Jim Thompson

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I’ve posted a pronunciation guide of some Finnish names, words and phrases to be found in my Inspector Vaara series, on my website, courtesy of she of the lovely voice, Maritta Hakola. I’m frequently asked how long it took me to learn to speak Finnish. The answer: I’m still learning and always will be.

I have a minor in Finnish from the University of Helsinki, but learned the language in nightclubs, in which I worked, for the first several years I lived here. That learning method caused all sorts of problems. I learned like a child, one word at a time, matriced English grammar on top of Finnish language, often was uncertain whether a word was Finnish or Swedish, the list is long, and it led to all sorts of bad habits, I’ve un-learned most of them, but never managed to get many of them out of my speech. Still, my Finnish is functional and gets me through the day. Additionally, there are so many dialects of Finnish that although many cite ‘book’ Finnish as correct, I don’t believe there is a right or wrong way to speak the language. Word order isn’t particularly important. It’s even acceptable to create words. To me, if people manage to carry on a conversation, their Finnish is fine, but I’m writing this in the hopes that, if you’re trying to learn the language, I can make it a little easier for you.

It’s often said, although I know of no measure by which such a thing could be quantified, that Finnish is the world’s second most difficult language, behind Mandarin Chinese. In contradiction, it’s also said that the rules of the language are 100% consistent, and is always pronounced exactly as spelled, so that if approached methodically, Finnish is an easy language to learn. I take exception to this. When studying at the university and on occasion asked an instructor why a word didn’t bend according to the rules, her answer was “just because.” A simple truth. There are some differences in spelling and pronunciation, largely loan words. And even if this claimed consistency were true, learning the rules seems futile when there are about 100,000 of them (an exaggeration, but thousands, far too many for my tiny brain to absorb). In the end, I found that the key was to not worry about the rules or to ask questions, but to approach the language with simple acceptance. With seventeen noun cases and six verb conjugations, which many times render the root word unrecognizable, it works better for me to memorize than theorize.

So-called ‘book Finnish’—proper written Finnish—is taught at the university, and a great deal more emphasis is placed on writing than speaking (despite two years of study, my written Finnish remains abysmal). This is problematic. Properly written Finnish is nearly a separate dialect from colloquial spoken Finnish in its other many dialectic forms. Foreign students often earn degrees in Finnish language, believing it will make them fluent, and this sometimes leads to disappointment. They graduate, discover that they can write and even translate Finnish, but can’t hold a conversation. I co-authored a textbook, Steps Into English 3 (part a series of I think four books), meant to teach English to Finnish adult learners. It’s earned surprisingly good royalties over the years and so must be popular with teachers in the classroom. So I hope that gives me some credibility with you as proof that I have a clue what I’m talking about. I’m writing this from memory, no resources, so if you find a mistake, feel free to correct me in ‘comments’, for the further edification of readers.

As an English speaker—and this essay is largely geared toward English speakers who face the same problems I did and do—there are concepts difficult to grasp. To name some major ones: no articles; no gender marker; no future tense; rather than hyphenating words, they’re simply strung together, sometimes to make a word upwards of twenty letters long; no accenting of syllables, so the language is spoken in a monotone; some sounds don’t exist in English and are similar, e.g., recognizing the difference between Y (a vowel in Finnish) and Ö was difficult for me; when letters are doubled in a word, they’re both pronounced. AA—pretend you’re at the doctor, “let me here you say aaaa;” consonants, like TT and KK can’t be elongated an a vowel can, so the result is a sort of snapping emphasis and full stop (you need a language tape or Finnish friend to grasp it).

The language has many hard sounds, and this, along with the combination of the noted difficulties, may make the beginner feel that they’re only hearing akkkakkakkakkakkaa, and are unable to differentiate where one word ends and the next begins. Most of the above obstacles disappear, with exposure, over time, even the overwhelming length of words. You just get used to it.

When I reached the point that I could get through my day in Finnish, people still often looked at me like I had three heads, as my accent screamed foreigner. I hated drawing that attention to myself. Finnish and English not only don’t translate well, but Finnish spoken with an English accent is grating, truly a butchery and hard to listen to. I learned how to cure this problem in one day, through a lecture at the university on how the sounds produced in Finnish are physically made, as compared to the way sounds are produced in English. Once I practiced and learned these physical skills, although my accent remains soft compared to a natural born Finn, I lost two of my three heads and stopped attracting attention when I spoke. I’ll share some of those tips.

English is a nasal language. When speaking Finnish, don’t let air come up through your nasal passage. It’s that nasal twang that grates. The New England accent—think Robert F. Kennedy as an extreme example, can reach up to 4000 HZ. In Finnish, it hurts. A Finnish male voice can sink to as low 40 HZ, so low that the voice begins breaking up like a radio that needs better tuning to a station. If I speak only Finnish for a few weeks on end, my voice will get lower and lower and eventually will do that. Incidentally, I’ve always been fascinated because Finns, especially women, can continue speaking while inhaling without pause. I haven’t a clue how it’s done.

Finnish is spoken from a different part of the throat than English. Put three fingers on your throat and start talking. Move the top finger to where you feel the main vibration as you produce sound. Continue speaking and force the vibration lower, until sound is generated from where your lowest finger rests. Lower if possible. Voila! You may have reduced your tone by an octave, your grating on the ears of others is over. It sounds difficult, but after you get the hang of it, speaking in this way requires much less effort and is more comfortable than your higher pitched English accent. You’ll draw far less attention and go back to having one head instead of three in public.

Aspiration. I still sometimes have trouble with this. Don’t do it. When you make, for instance, a P sound, don’t let air pass beyond your lips. The combination of all I’ve mentioned will likely, for a time, make you feel as if you’re holding your breath while trying to talk. It will come to feel natural over time.

The: the TH sound. It’s made by touching the front of your tongue to your front teeth and pushing air out. You no longer need this sound, and remember, you shouldn’t aspirate anyway. Make a similar sound required in Finnish by putting your tongue to the back of your front teeth. The result is more DA or TA sound. You may find you feel like you’re faking a Brooklyn accent and it make stick in your English speech as well. That’s just the way it goes.

And lastly, the all-important rolling of Rs. Touch your tongue to the top front of your upper palate. Force air through that point until you’re able to make a low-pitched trill. You may want to do this in privacy to avoid feeling silly. A few Finns have a speech impediment that won’t allow it, so they use the same tactic, but with the back of the tongue against the back of the palate, in effect, rolling Ks. I even met a guy who had, through lifelong practice, managed to eliminate all words with the letter R from his speech. But, it’s really not that hard to roll an R. You’ll find a way.

And here endeth the lesson for the day. Go forth and jabber Finnish!

James Thompson
Helsinki, Finland

James Thompson is an established author in Finland. His novel, Snow Angels, the first in the Inspector Vaara series, was released in the U.S. by Putnam and marked his entrance into the international crime fiction scene. Booklist named it one of the ten best debut crime novels of 2010, and it was nominated for the Edgar, Anthony, and Strand Critics awards. His second Vaara novel, Lucifer’s Tears, released in March, 2011, earned starred reviews from all quarters, and was named one the best novels of the year by Kirkus. The third in the series, Helsinki White, was released on March 15 to critical acclaim.

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