Tag Archives: language politics

Speaking of language

Overheard in an R-Kioski. Young woman behind the counter angrily to older woman customer: “I am sorry but I really can’t speak Swedish. At school I learned English and French.” Eventually the woman realising she couldn’t make herself understood, walked out of the shop. I couldn’t tell whether she was in fact Swedish or a Swedish-speaking Finn.

About six per cent of the population of Finland have Swedish as their mother-tongue. They certainly consider themselves Finns and also feel they have the right to communicate in what is, after all, one of the two official languages of the country as guaranteed by the constitution.  Thankfully, most people I speak to here are supportive of the Swedish speakers’ linguistic rights. However there is a fair bit of low-level and not so low-level resentment too.

I don’t think I can do justice to this  complex and controversial issue but there’s a good blog by a Swedish-speaking Finn and there’s also a Wikipedia article on the subject.


Mind your language

Something unusual happened to me yesterday — somebody refused to speak to me in English. In Helsinki. They were under 70 years of age and over 7, stone-cold sober and very polite. And I am very grateful to them.

Just to explain. As any alien will tell you, the hardest thing about learning to speak Finnish in Helsinki is that most people you come into contact with not only speak excellent English but they enjoy doing so. They take such pride in it that, even say in the local R-Kioski they can be almost insulted if you don’t allow them to demonstrate their prowess.

So, I was in the Rikhardinkatu Library, returning a DVD called Mustaa valkoisella (1968) — a rather dry example of sixties realism made by Jörn Donner, good for learning Finnish as it continued the tradition of the actors speaking mostly kirjakieli or formal language which I can just about understand (although annoyingly, no one speaks it). As it happened I wanted to tell the library that there was a fault and it cut out in the last minute of the film. Having begun speaking in Finnish and soon running out of the vocabulary to describe this unfortunate turn of events, I politely asked the librarian if he spoke English. It’s a kind of non-question that I use by way of a polite request which is invariably answered in English in the affirmative. But to my surprise, the man said, in Finnish, “I speak English badly and you speak Finnish so we can talk in Finnish.” This I could hardly deny and even the recognition that I could speak Finnish at all I took as a huge compliment.

And in fact the encounter continued with my actually making myself understood as I asked if there was another copy of the film in the system. And I even understood him explaining that there was a copy in Espoo somewhere and he could have it for me by Friday.

If only this would happen more often. It’s hard enough keeping up the motivation to learn a language with no relation to any other Indo-European language, with its intricate grammar (21 noun cases and counting), similarly spelt but totally different near-homonyms, and exacting pronunciation. But, when you find that no one deigns to speak their language with you, it’s easy to get downright disheartened.

And it’s also very sad that Finns seem to hold their own beautiful language in such low esteem that many advertising slogans are in English, perhaps to convey some ersatz feel of cosmpolitan sophistication. In fact, so much has English become a third domestic language (after Swedish) that annoying salespersons accost you in Kampi Shopping Centre saying, “Can I ask you a question?” Well I have a question for you — what’s wrong with speaking Finnish?

So a big thank you to the man in Rikhardinkatu Library. May you continue to stick to your guns, or rather to your pyssyt. After all, try going into a library in say, Lewisham and insisting on speaking in Finnish, or for that matter, any language other than English.