New Finnish Grammar

I’m currently reading New Finnish Grammar, an English translation of Diego Marani’s novel Nuova grammatica finlandese. It is the story of a man who is found unconscious with a serious head injury on a street in Trieste and who is cared for by a Finnish doctor, who believes he is Finnish as his jacket has a name tag with the Finnish name Sampo Karjalainen. When the mystery man regains conscious he has no memory or language so has no idea who he is, where he’s from or how he ended up in Trieste. The doctor does his best to teach Sampo, the name he adopts, to speak Finnish, then later arranges for him to continue his treatment in Helsinki.

It’s a really good translation that reads as if it was originally written in English, the language used very expressive and interesting, and there are lots of interesting bits about language acquisition and about the Finnish language. Here is a selection:

“In the Finnish language the noun is hard to lay hands on, hidden as it is behind the endless declensions of its fifteen cases and only rarely caught unawares in the nominative.

Is this true?

In the Finnish sentence the words are grouped around the verb like moons around a planet, and whichever one is nearest the verb becomes the subject. In European languages the sentence is a straight line, in Finnish it is a circle, within which something happens.

Is this a good description of Finnish sentences?

I was beginning to be able to express myself, even if somewhat stiltedly. I would learn the words already declined, a different one for each case, and when I did not know how to put them together I made do with saying them at random, hoping that intonation and gesture would go some way towards making up for lack of syntax. And yet, while still lacking firm banks, the Finnish language was gradually carving itself out a bed in the quicksands of my mind, with the words that I had tamed coursing down it and gradually informing me of the meaning of others. Branching out and joining up, they sent the thousand drops of sound which make up a language into circulation, watering and strengthening my awareness, my ability to sense the boundaries of meaning.

I haven’t finished the book yet, but am enjoying it so far and would certainly recommend it.

9 thoughts on “New Finnish Grammar

  1. It’s quite bullshit.

    Yes, obviously there’ll be a lot of inflected nouns around (but the nominative, for quite purely statistical reasons, is more prominent than other cases – most sentences have a nominative subject (and those that don’t have a nominative subject but do have an object have a 20% chance or thereabout of having an object in the other accusative form – identical, in form, to the nominative), most don’t have a locative or a direction or a possessor or so. The partitive might compete as far as prominence goes, maybe.

    As for the “planet and moons” description – no way, the subject can be anywhere, the object can be anywhere – minä auton ostin – I.nom car.acc bought-1sg still has minä as subject even though it is the most distant noun. Even non-nominative subjects (such as genitives with certain modal auxiliaries, partitives with existential intransitives, and so on) can be freely placed anywhere, and will still be subjects.

    The author of that book seems to know a bit of Finnish, but no linguistics, and desires to describe Finnish as way more exotic than it is, by using bogus descriptions.

  2. I have to agree with Mr. Miekk-oja. The statements seem a bit far-fetched. Although the word order “Minä auton ostin” would probably never be used in a normal conversation. It would, on the other hand, be perfectly plausible in poetry.

    As for the name Miekk-oja, I find it quite fascinating. It is, of course, nominative singular, but I can’t help but see it as partitive plural with a random infixed hyphen. Miekkoja = ‘swords’, so miekk-oja would be something like sw-ords. The intended meaning must be ‘sword-ditch’ (miekka + oja, with apocope), which doesn’t seem to make much more sense 😀 The Population Register Center name service tells there are only 17 people with that last name living in Finland.

  3. Miekk-oja derives from a short run of water between Miekkajärvi and some other lake in Lavia. Apparently along the ___ there’s been three houses, and all three have left surnames in Finland – Alamiekk-oja and Ylimiekk-oja also occur in small numbers!

    Anyways, the hyphen was inserted just in order not to be mistaken for a plural partitive. (And that’s why the “oja” part isn’t “Oja”.)

    Also, I think minä auton ostin could occur in normal discourse if you’re trying to make some kind of point about what you were buying – but again, it’d be an unusual kind of point you’d be making.

  4. I don’t speak Finnish, but I occasionally make my way through a text with a dictionary. It seems pretty much Standard Average European to me. The only strange feature to a Western European is the use of locative cases, but they work like prepositional phrases — and are arguably simpler since there seems to be less idiom and more system to the choice in each case. A word can be moved for emphasis or poetic purposes, but that happens in every language.

    Critics of the novel character’s description of the language should bear in mind that he’s a novel character. The author may have other than purely linguistic reasons to let him feel that way.

    Sampo Karjalainen is obviously a consciously choicen name. Sampo is a mythological hero of Kalevala fame, Karjalainen means “Karelian” (but is also a usual surname). Elias Lönnrot collected the myths and songs he synthesised into Kalevala mainly from Karelia, which has a reputation as the most truely Finnish of all Finnish regions.

  5. chosen. I started with a conscious choice of name and misedited.

    (And I’m obviously no expert on Finland, be it language, history or culture. I hope that much was clear.)

  6. I’ll answer that as soon as I’m finished banging my head.

    (… but that much would be clearer.)

  7. In the Kalevala sampo is apparently “a magical artifact of indeterminate type constructed by Ilmarinen that brought good fortune to its holder.” [source]. This, and much else from the Kalevala, is discussed in the novel. The character who describes Finnish in the ways above is a priest who is possibly mad, so might not be the most reliable source of information about the language.

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