My first language is Finnish but opportunities to speak it are now rare. Reading it at so many good blogs and news sites on the internet helps to keep me somewhat literate. One favourite place, though in English, is Books from Finland, ‘a journal of writing from and about Finland’.

Yesterday’s article particularly interested me: Why translate? by British poet Herbert Lomas (1924–2011) who was a prolific translator from Finnish. He describes the work and knowledge and understanding of language differences in order to capture the author’s intent. The following excerpts intrigued me and challenged my own rusty linguistic understanding of my mother tongue:

There are many differences between Finnish and English. Leaving aside for the moment the extraordinary disparity between Teutonic syntax and Finno-Ugrian syntax, the vocabulary alone puts you into a different climate and weather. Vowels are musical notes and Finnish is full of vowels.

Consonants are noises – and English is full of consonants. Finnish words are all stressed on the first syllable. English words simply alternate stressed and unstressed syllables – and the word may begin with unstress or stress. Finnish lends itself to dactyls. Dactyls have never been much at home in English. Most English poetry is written in iambs, with trochees coming second, a few anapaestic poems, usually not very good; and not even Hiawatha, imitating the Kalevala, resorted to the dactyl. But Finnish words are all Finnish – either invented from existing roots or naturalised beyond recognition.

Do read on if this subject interests you. Most of us know that the Finnish language is a difficult one for outsiders to learn so I have great respect for translators like Lomas and others who have mastered the language enough to note subtleties, especially in poetry.

More articles by Herbert Lomas here and about him and his list of works here.

Related posts on the Finnish language can be found in my archives under Linguistics.

PS: I just noticed that Herbert Lomas also translated Troll: a love story by Finnish author Johanna Sinisalo, which I was ever so lucky to find in our local library and enjoyed reading. It is rare to find Finnish books here.

the Finnish language

This sounds most interesting to me. As a member of this organization, I am going to attend and will report back here afterwards. Everyone is welcome of course.
from Canadian Friends of Finland in British Columbia
Added 9:30 pm. Sunday 22nd April:

The lecture was excellent, very informative and fascinating. Ms Elg began in Finnish, so wonderful and rare now to my ear – then switched to English, with a Finnish accent. I often have trouble understanding accents, even Finnish ones but still I was able to catch most of the information along with the help of the slides of language charts and maps. A good turnout and lots of questions throughout and everyone most appreciative.

Ms Elg described the Finnish language program at the University of Washington, one of many universities around the world that teach Finnish as I found out earlier.

I am poorly versed in the academic study of language and its structure and terms so hope I explain this correctly. The Finnish language is ‘synthetic’ or mostly agglutinating as opposed to ‘analytic’. What that means is that It modifies and inflects the forms of nouns, adjectives, pronouns, numerals and verbs, depending on their roles in the sentence. (thanks wikipedia). An interesting simple example she used was with the word:
talo – a house
talo/ssa – in a house
talo/ssa/ni – in my house
talo/ssa/ni/kin – in my house too (4 words)
So, one word replaces many words in the equivalent English and many other languages. Some words can be from 6 to 10 cases. Hungarian can have up to 24 cases!

The study of language can aid in the study of racial genetics. In the case of the Basque, they are a unique language and people unrelated to any other, never mixed. Not so with the Finns, it seems. They have lived in Finland up to 6000 years. Other peoples came in later at different times from east, southeast, south and west and blended genes and language, mostly along the coastal regions but not much in the north. (See more about the Finno-Ugric peoples in wikipedia.)

What I don’t understand is how the study of languge can determine its age. For example the oldest Finnish word kala (fish) is 6000 years old. Loan words have been dated to reveal the periods of movement by different groups into Finland. Very personal words like äiti (mother), which came from German less than 1000 years ago (a surprise to us all), reveal close relationships like marriage and children. Yet that word is not currently in the German language.

A brief mention was made of a controversial theory presented by Professor Emeritus Kalevi Wiik of the University of Turku in Finland. He argues that Finno-Ugrian languages may originally have been spoken by the whole of northern Europe, that it may be Europe’s oldest language. More about his theories here or his home page in Finnish.

So much more but I’ll leave it at that! No definitive answers but interesting food for thought on our language, where we came from and who we mixed with. This has been a wonderful addition to my readings over the years and to the numerous links, many in Finnish, which I’ve gathered here and there.

dying languages & technology


I’ve written before about my interest in the loss of minority languages around the world. The dominance of the English language on the internet and in popular entertainment is just one factor that is blamed, but here is a hopeful note about how young people are using today’s technology to communicate in their native tongues.**

This was accompanied by another article called Silenced Voices**, how a huge number of languages are dying along with the remaining few elders who still speak them.

So, in light of the first article, is this not a very a good reason, amongst others, to provide the internet and related technology at a low cost to still-deprived isolated communities such as many of Canada’s First Nations and Inuit people to assist the younger generation in practicing their native languages in a lively manner? Language loss is surprisingly quick without usage, even for me since I rarely get to speak Finnish since my parents passed away two decades ago. The internet and reading Finnish blogs and news is preventing complete loss, and keeping me in tune with my original culture. Language and culture go hand in hand, or should it be, hand in glove.

For interested readers, more related links can be found under the linguistics theme. I would be happy to hear what experiences you, dear readers, have had with language loss, personally or in others you know.

Also, a bit about the photos here… how very timely for me to have suitably related images literally come up while reading and writing about this. This ancient typewriter, now old technology within just a generation, was retrieved out of the storage dungeon, erm, crawl space for our ten-year-old granddaughter who is eager to try it out. It needs a cleaning and new ribbon which I believe are still available in some shop in Vancouver.


P.S. This was probably made sometime in 1930’s, says husband. I also learned that the typewriter was invented in 1870 – so that is well over over a hundred years of steady use. A little off topic, yet interesting.

** UPDATE 15Dec2013 – links have expired already! I really must stop linking to the Vancouver Sun’s articles which are not kept active for very long!

language and place

Being an immigrant and interested in how language, culture and place affect us as individuals and as societies, a couple of months ago I became intrigued by the >Language > Place blog carnival. Edition 4 is now up, hosted by Jean Morris at tasting rhubarb. I’m pleased to say that one of my old posts from my archives is up there amongst some fascinating writers and artists (including another Finn!) which I’m slowly savouring. What a wonderful presentation especially with the excerpts, thank you, Jean!

Synchronicity rules! Today qarrstiluni, under the current theme of translation has posted my photos of an English-Finnish dictionary, also an old post from my archives. Thanks to the editors for choosing my piece for this most compelling issue!

UPDATE March 1st, 2011: This just came into my newsfeed: Language Diversity Index Tracks Global Loss of Mother Tongues

Euro language

A chuckle and a relief from flower photos… something I found at the bottom of my email inbox from three years ago when housecleaning…source unknown. Enjoy!

The European Commission has just announced an agreement whereby English will be the official language of the European Union rather than German, which was the other possibility.

As part of the negotiations, the British Government conceded that English spelling had some room for improvement and has accepted a 5- year phase-in plan that would become known as “Euro-English”.

In the first year, “s” will replace the soft “c”. Sertainly, this will make the sivil servants jump with joy. The hard “c” will be dropped in favour of “k”. This should klear up konfusion, and keyboards kan have one less letter.

There will be growing publik enthusiasm in the sekond year when the troublesome “ph” will be replaced with “f”. This will make words like fotograf 20% shorter.

In the 3rd year, publik akseptanse of the new spelling kan be expekted to reach the stage where! More komplikated changes are possible. Governments will enkourage the removal of double letters which have always ben a deterent to akurate speling. Also, al wil agre that the horibl mes of the silent “e” in the languag is disgrasful and it should go away.

By the 4th yer peopl wil be reseptiv to steps such as replasing “th” with “z” and “w” with “v”.
During ze fifz yer, ze unesesary “o” kan be dropd from vords kontaining “ou” and after ziz fifz yer, ve vil hav a reil sensi bl riten styl. Zer vil be no mor trubl or difikultis and evrivun vil find it ezi TU understand ech oza. Ze drem of a united urop vil finali kum tru.

Und efter ze fifz yer, ve vil al be speking German like zey vunted in ze forst plas.
If zis mad you smil, pleas pas on to oza pepl.

an English-Finnish dictionary




an immigrant’s tool, an almost-bible, a book of days
a history of heartache, homesickness, hope and a new home

UPDATE Feb.28, 2011: this has also been published in qarrtsiluni’s translation issue

dying languages

Image credit: Enduring Voices Project

Finnish was my first language. I was five years old when my family emigrated to Canada. Arriving in Winnipeg, I was promptly placed in school, not knowing a word of English. Now that was language immersion! I don’t remember much of those early scary days. I was already reading Finnish and we continued to speak Finnish at home. I learned English quickly enough as children do, but my parents’ English was never perfect. LIke many working class immigrants, they were too busy working hard to survive to take more than a couple of basic language classes. Some immigrant parents, wishing to learn English through their children, did not allow their native languages to be spoken so some of my friends lost most of their mother tongue. I’m sure this was typical of many immigrant experiences in North America and other parts. These days, I’m sad that my Finnish is not a strong as English from lack of everyday practice since my parents are no longer with us.

Perhaps because of that, I’ve developed strong feelings about language being part of a person’s identity and connection with his or her roots and culture. So whenever I read about how many languages are dying around the world, I feel sorrow at the world’s loss of so many cultures.

Yesterday’s Vancouver Sun has one such story, B.C.’s native languages rapidly dying: linguists

Indigenous languages are dying off at an alarming rate in British Columbia, prompting linguists to include the province on a list of the five worst global “hot spots” for language extinction. Most fluent aboriginal speakers are aged 60 or older, and their languages will be lost forever when the last speaker dies, said David Harrison, co-director of the Enduring Voices project, which seeks to document and revitalize languages slipping towards oblivion.


Much of the blame for language loss can be tied to residential schools, UBC linguistics Prof. Suzanne Gessner said. For decades, children were taken away from their families during the school year and educated in English. A compensation package designed to address the wrongs of residential schools did nothing to revitalize languages, she said — and last November, the federal government cut $160 million in funding for aboriginal languages.

Further links:
Enduring Voices Project
Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages
Why preserve languages? – my post of spring 2004


I’ve recently come across some great links on a couple of interesting subjects – the first an important environmental story and the second a fascinating linguistic and ethnological one.


1. At Biodynamic Farming and Gardening I found out about a film called How to Save the World – One Man, One Cow, One Planet. View the short video excerpt about how India’s marginal farmers are saving their poisoned land by reviving biodynamics, an arcane form of agriculture, based on the teachings of an elderly New Zealander many are calling the new Gandhi.

2. Brazil’s Pirahã Tribe – Living without Numbers or Time (via mirabilis):

‘The Pirahã people have no history, no descriptive words and no subordinate clauses. That makes their language one of the strangest in the world — and also one of the most hotly debated by linguists.’

‘Living in the now also fits with the fact that the Pirahã don’t appear to have a creation myth explaining existence. When asked, they simply reply: “Everything is the same, things always are.” The mothers also don’t tell their children fairy tales — actually nobody tells any kind of stories. No one paints and there is no art.’

language leak

I must still be thinking about accents and language and identity because this article caught my eye and really struck a chord. A study says that languages ‘leak’ into each other in subtle ways:

While linguistics experts are reluctant to talk of a ‘third language’ being formed in the brain of an immigrant, studies are now beginning to show that the brain does find it difficult to completely compartmentalize two distinct languages without merging them in subtle ways, says U of T linguistics professor Ana Teresa Pérez-Leroux.

What we are finding is that we don’t and can’t have complete separation between different languages in our heads. Yes, you can become very talented with your acquired language but there will always be a kind of window in our brains where one language will always ‘leak’ into another.

For example, a fluently bilingual speaker may say something in almost perfect English with the exception of one or two words or word structures from their mother tongue infiltrating the sentence. One instance is a person whose native language is German and who has mastered the English language saying something like, “I to the dining room go.

(via mirabilis)

My own experience is that this language merge isn’t always so subtle, especially amongst the less educated working class immigrants. As regular readers know, I’m an immigrant, but I learned my second language as a child going through school. I was always very aware of the struggles with English that my parents’ generation of Finns and other immigrants experienced. Something very interesting happened to many of the Finns (and I believe this happens in other languages too) – they developed amongst themselves what became called “finglish”, a mixture of English and Finnish. They would take an English word and add a Finnish ending to it, usually a vowel. For someone who was unfamiliar with it, it sounded hilarious and puzzling. Long ago, I bookmarked an actual article about finglish as practised in the US. Some of the examples given are unfamiliar to me so they must be locally variable.

One time we were visiting with some family in Finland, at the same time as some other older relatives from Canada happened to also be there. My young Finnish cousin, who knew English fluently, was listening to their speech with a puzzled look on his face. He commented to me later that he was amazed that they could not speak English correctly nor could they speak Finnish properly either! Funny yet sad.


Artist Karen D’Amico of fluid thinking** wrote about how her accent betrays her roots even after 15 years in her new country. It got her “thinking about the notion of accent as a marker for identity.”

This subject always fascinates me too. I’m always interested in learning where people are from when I hear a foreign accent. Because I emigrated to Canada as a child and was educated here, I sound Canadian, unlike those who emigrate when older. (In Finland I sound Finnish, but what gives me away is my somewhat limited vocabulary.) Sometimes I wish I had a little bit of an accent for it sounds charming to my ear and would match my foreign name, a bit of vanity perhaps. A few people have said they detect a slight difference in the way I speak. Once I had a weird experience – an appliance salesman, who did not know my name, asked me if I am Finnish. This totally astounded me and I asked how he knew. He said his mother is Finnish, and it was the way I moved my mouth that was like hers. Isn’t that amazing?

Anyway, Karen found a fascinating link for a speech accent archive that I intend to explore in my leisure (not much of it these days).

** Reedited March 15th, 2013: Karen has not been at this blog address for some years, so link has been removed. I have now at last and quite accidentally found her new eponymous website: Karen Ay