Finnish is Perplexing…

A famous quote, often attributed to to American author and humorist Mark Twain, mischieviously claims: “Life’s too short to learn German”. Indeed, Twain penned an essay entitled “The Awful German Language” in which he explained why, in his opinion, “a person who has not studied German can form no idea of what a perplexing language it is”. Clearly he had not had a look at the Finnish language!

The Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California classifies Finnish as a Category III language (out of 4 categories) in terms of learning difficulty for an English speaker (German is Category II). The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) of the US Department of State puts Finnish amongst “Languages with significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English”.

Actually, Finnish is not that difficult per se, but it is certainly different. It is related to virtually no other language in the world except to Estonian and, remotely, Hungarian. For an ulkomaalainen (foreigner) like me, that is what makes Finnish weird and tricky to learn: it’s often impossible to relate Finnish words or points of grammar to anything else one is familiar with.

For example, whereas the word “telephone” is something like “telephone” in most European languages (including Estonian and Hungarian as it happens), in Finnish it’s “puhelin”. And while German has 4 cases for declining nouns, and ancient Greek and Latin have 5 and 6 cases respectively, the Finnish language has no fewer than 15 cases! It might all be very logical, but often it’s a perplexing logic!

Pity the poor Finns though: from their perspective, every language in the world is perplexing. Except Estonian of course.


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