Naked Cavalier and the Mystery of the Missing Umlaut

ft-finnish-language

Ugh, a sense of fear and anxiety has arrived, darkening the already dark summer holiday period. In two weeks’ time I shall be returning to Immigrant School so I can attempt my final tests. I anxiously await this momentous day with the same anticipation as a thief has for the gallows. For anyone who has attempted to learn Finnish they will know that it is a formidable foe, an arduous linguistic beast to slay.

For me it has become a Hydra.

For every grammatical rule I remember I forget two, for every tense I learn, another one will vanish from memory. I can learn to spell a handful of new words only to forget the significance of the umlaut. It is an arcane lingua franca, a punishing obscurity.

I always assumed that the more I used the language the more I would learn, but this has not turned out to be completely true. All I seem to have done is refine my Finnish into a few essential pieces of dialogue that I can use with friends, family and shopkeepers. Depending on the topic of conversation I have set pieces of dialogue that I can use when I hear particular “trigger” words, a bit like the computer game Monkey Island, except imagine playing it in another language.

This doesn’t help when conversations containing words like “tuli” are being used as I have to piece together whether we are talking about the wind, coming from somewhere or something being on fire or something being spicy. I have had occasions where I have heard “Tuli kotiin,” and for a moment thought that someone’s house was on fire. The thoughts, oh dear! Where are they going to live? I hope everyone is OK? Come to mind until I remember that it actually means “came home”. And don’t get me started on the issue of saying you’re going to meet friends: tapaan = I meet, tapan = I kill.

If the police ever ask what you’re up to it would be best to lie, tell them maybe you’ve just been to the zoo and that you “saw an elephant” = nain norsun*. Actually on second thoughts saying that would probably get you locked up too, and all for the sake of an umlaut. *Non-Finnish speakers will have to do a bit of work to understand that joke.

I have had occasions where I have heard “Tuli kotiin,” and for a moment thought that someone’s house was on fire.

Using the language and picking it up slowly as I have done, and even establishing the set pieces of dialogue is of course very good overall, the problem is that it means nothing when you are trying to get a decent result on one of these tests. The test is not a “Having a chat with mates at the pub” test, or a “Did you see that thing on the TV last night” test.

This is a “You have been here long enough to know the Finnish language inside out and upside down, better than your own mother tongue, better than the Finns know the language, with the poetic eloquence of Aleksis Kivi, no joking, no smiling and if you forget an umlaut you’ll fail” test.

The reading test is going to be awful, I know that the language is very phonetic, but it is only phonetic to Finns. Here’s an example: juusto (cheese) is pronounced “you-stow” – to me it still looks like “juice-two”.

Also, Y makes an “oo” sound, and there is no C, B, F, Q, W, X, Z in any purely Finnish words, which still makes me sad as I love those letters! The Finns use Ä and Ö which I still cannot pronounce and I cannot help regarding the umlaut of an equal importance to putting hyphen in “sugar-free” and the only time I ever remember to use them is when writing Mötörhead.

One of the biggest problems about the test will be remembering the genitive, imperative, participles, comparative, fixes etc. etc. In fact I’ll make this easier: I don’t fully understand grammar!

This is a “You have been here long enough to know the Finnish language inside out and upside down, better than your own mother tongue, better than the Finns know the language, with the poetic eloquence of Aleksis Kivi, no joking, no smiling and if you forget an umlaut you’ll fail” test.

The first time I ever had to really use grammar was when I started going to Finnish language lessons. I wasn’t even totally sure of the difference between a verb and a noun, as I thought I was way too real for that! Yes, it was secondary school all over again, except this time when asked a question by my teacher, no wise cracking would trigger a shield of laughter from my school mates like back in the good old days. No, in this classroom I would be struck by the silence of incomprehension of the whole classroom at my retort and shown up for my lack of knowledge by one of the several more studious students.

We never had to learn much grammar at school as we spoke English already and that was deemed somewhat enough for the rest of our lives. The real understanding of grammar comes when learning a new language. Learning foreign languages in England has always sadly been a subject languishing somewhere between Religous Education and learning the high jump and the general attitude was that learning a new language would be akin to learning the straddle technique whilst English is the equivalent of the Fosbury Flop.

I know I should just keep on studying and trying to speak the language but it is so hard to open a language book on page one, skim through and realise that you’re having difficulty remembering how to say the time or know left from right, let alone know how to structure a comparative sentence in the imperfect passive.

Another off-putting thing about trying to study is the picture on cover of the Finnish books. I’m using the Suomen Mestari series and they always have the smuggest, awfully dressed buffoons adorning the covers, gloating at me with their supercilious eyes.

I think one of the biggest tribulations of learning the Finnish language for me is my mother tongue: the English safety net always trumps my daring when attempting to speak Finnish. Many times when stuck in that situation of not knowing how to finish a sentence or forgetting the name of something, I just blurt it out in English and then the conversation will continue in English at a normal pace. It may seem silly to give up on the first hurdle but so often it feels like it’s the communicating equivalent of walking on your hands, then walking on your feet when your hands get tired then continuing on your hands again.

Finnish people like to speak English to me as well – I can’t blame them as I do speak slowly with a very deep middle class mellifluous tone, which I think is very easy to follow and understand. In fact the Queen actually speaks my English!

It may seem silly to give up on the first hurdle but so often it feels like it’s the communicating equivalent of walking on your hands, then walking on your feet when your hands get tired then continuing on your hands again.

I do hope to one day be able to speak the language properly, perhaps I won’t be best in class for the upcoming test but that won’t stop me from trying. I guess I have the weather on my side when it comes to spending hours indoors in front of my text books studying. It’s also reassuring to know that the test is very hard, as it shows that my teacher must have some faith in me to put me forward for the test.

Negativity and passing the buck never helps either, so I will now stop blaming the Finnish language, secondary school education, the cover of my study books and the fact that my first language is English and lay the blame where it belongs for me not being fluent in Finnish . . .

My parents! For not foreseeing the future and sending me to Finnish lessons as a child instead of those useless Judo lessons!