Finnish Language

Posted On March 1, 2012

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I often wish that I could have picked up Finnish better while I was living there. It made no sense to me, with its complicated grammar, yet I studied it for two years. The problem I’ve found with Finnish courses is that they never teach you the spoken style. It’s hard to pick it up from listening to people around you, because the words are often completely different or shortened.

In terms of suomenusko, this can be a problem. While it is easy for those in other reconstructed pagan religions to go without learning the language of the culture, this is not possible in our case. One thing that suomenuskoiset lack is properly translated works. It’s not just modern-day works, but older as well. The only English version of the Kanteletar, for instance, has only a small fraction of the complete songs. If we want to get into books about modern-day Finnish pagan practice, I know none other than that awful Finnish Magic book (don’t buy it). So this means trying to tackle that crazy language known as Finnish. I’m not saying you need to be fluent at it, or even semi-fluent. Just having a good amount of vocabulary and idea of how the grammar works is good.

As I mentioned on another entry, some suomenuskoiset I met in Finland told me that sometimes they couldn’t understand all of the words being sung, because it was in old Finnish. So knowing this, you shouldn’t feel so bad. A basic vocabulary will let you know the names of the songs and what the subject is about at least. If you know that, then while you sing, you can reflect on the subject. For example “Oluen Synty”. I know olut is “beer” and synty is “birth”, so now I know what I will be singing about. A lot of the texts that I’ve read on ancient Finnish religion have words that are not translated (like “tietäjä” and “synty”), so it made it somewhat easier for me.

I know it’s hard to learn new languages, especially one like this (not to mention a lack of people to speak it with), but it comes in handy if you are very serious about getting into suomenusko. By the way, here is a great site to find old Finnish songs, broken down by area: In Finnish of course.

6 Responses to “Finnish Language”

  1. Jack

    I took the Finnish Magic book out of the local library and I have to admit it was pretty hilarious reading, but not very useful for information. (Odin and Mercury both wore hats! They’re practically the same god!)

    I recently ordered a copy of Snake Fat and Knotted Threads from a publisher in the UK precisely because it’s so hard to get ahold of anything really useful in English. Have you read this book/have any thoughts on it?

    Thanks for the link at the end, that looks very interesting!

    • Christine

      Hehe, and those random runes in the back. Proof that just because you have a phd, doesn’t mean you should write a book.

      I read parts of that book awhile ago and I thought it was quite good. Also if you haven’t checked it out already, Anna-Leena Siikala has some great scholarly works on the subject (just articles, not books). I’m not sure how easy it is to get ahold of though, unless you have access to a university library.

      • Kauko

        I had trouble getting past the author’s poor English in Snake Fat and Knotted Thread. I feel like there was some good information that the author had but that the book wasn’t great at communicating it.

        As far as Anna-Leena Siikala, I actually have a book of hers translated into English, Mythic Images and Shamanism: A Perspective on Kalevala Poetry (which is next on my reading list). It might be out of print, I seem to recall paying a lot to get my used copy.

        On the language issue, I’m still trying to work on my Finnish, but it can be slow going since I’m studying on my own. I’m hoping to go back to school and study Finnish one day when I can afford it (I know that the University of Minnesota in the Minneapolis/ Saint Paul area has a Finnish degree program, not sure how good it is). At the moment, I don’t have the best grasp on Finnish grammar, I just know lots of words and some basic grammatical forms. I’ve also been listening to spoken and sung Finnish since I was a teenager, so I have a decent feel for the sound of it.

  2. Christine

    Actually, I think the place where I read small parts of Snake Fat and Knotted Thread from was on Google Books, but they never give the whole thing.

    I read that Mythic Images and Shamanism book before (borrowed it from the university library). You will not be disappointed!

    The University of Washington has a program too, and University of Toronto. I also heard there is one in Wisconsin.

  3. Kauko

    I’ll have to look into those programs! One of the things that’s drawn me to the idea of trying out the program in Minnesota is that the Minneapolis/ Saint Paul area has one of the largest Pagan communities in the US, as well as there actually being people there with Finnish ancestry like me. Living in North Carolina the only local Pagan stuff going on tends to be Wiccan, which I have no interest in. I think there are also some local Heathen kindreds, but I don’t know anything about them. Also, there just aren’t Finnish people in the South! I feel like a weirdo with my strange Finnish last name that no one here has ever seen before. Without fail whenever someone has to say my name, they get to my last name (Niskala) and just freeze and panic and don’t know what to say.

    • Christine

      I always wanted to live in that area for the same reasons, especially to go to college (back in high school I was in love with Norway so I wanted to do St. Olaf College’s Norwegian program), but my dad wouldn’t let me go to an out-of-state school (he was paying for it afterall).

      I have the same experience with my last name! It was so rare for anyone in America to pronounce it right, and I always had to spell it out. Then I went to Finland and I never had to spell out my name to anyone when making an appointment or something like that! It was nice!

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