Archive for October, 2013

Colloquial Finnish

The Finnish language often comes up in discussions about languages and their relative difficulty for a non-native speaker. Some believe this is because Finnish evolved from Klingon. Laurie Anderson may have had a point when she, inspired by William S. Burroughs, told us that “Language is a virus from outer space.” (Her ode to Finnish Farmers, on the other hand, takes a few liberties with historical fact, but I digress.) Others, such as those contemplating the adoption of Finnish as the universal language, consider the perceived difficulty to be a minor obstacle.

As a native Finnish speaker, I believe it is my duty to spread the joy of Finnish, especially among those unfortunate enough to speak some other language as their first. For instance, I have introduced the wonderful word “hölökynkölökyn” to natives of Germany, Belgium, Italy, Australia, New Jersey, and other developing countries, often with great success, although just as often after quite a few repeated lessons.

I would now like to introduce a few Finnish sayings and idioms, with the intent of making the study of colloquial Finnish just a little bit easier for the newcomer.

“On se ilmoja pidellyt.”

Lit. “It has been keeping airs,” as a (native Finnish) friend of mine likes to say. More boringly, “How ’bout that weather, eh?” A prime example of a sentence with no information content.

“Hyvää päivää kirvesvartta.”

Nine out of ten Finnish Zen masters recommend using an axe handle as a meditation prop.

Nine out of ten Finnish Zen masters recommend using an axe handle as a meditation prop.

Lit. “Good day axe handle.” Originally a two part conversation: “Hyvää päivää!” “Kirvesvartta.” The joke (yes, it’s a joke) is that the second person, who is whittling an axe handle, is hard of hearing, and has mistaken the greeting for an inquiry about his pastime. Often shortened to just “Kirvesvartta.”

“Pidä ittes miehenä.”

Lit. “Keep being a man.” A traditional farewell, especially from a father to a son. Also what I said to my ex-wife upon parting, having just signed our application for divorce.

“Vituttaa kuin pientä oravaa.”

This little squirrel is a bit late to the party and presumably not too happy about it.

This little squirrel is a bit late to the party and presumably not too happy about it.

Lit. “Pissed off like a small squirrel.” Of note, incorporates what is possibly the most popular and versatile Finnish word in its many forms: vittu, literally referring to female genitalia, but in modern parlance almost always understood to stand on its own as an equivalent to the English fuck.

Just why a small squirrel would be pissed off enough to warrant its own idiom is lost in the mists of time, but could possibly refer to harsh winter conditions in which it can be difficult to find suitable nourishment. A small squirrel, compared with a large squirrel, would be particularly at peril, not having too much in the way of reserve energy stored as body fat.

“Vituttaa niin ettei veri kierrä.”

Lit. “I’m so pissed off my blood no longer circulates.” Obviously a condition best avoided.

“Joulu juhlista jaloin.”

Lit. “Christmas is the noblest of all celebrations.” Often followed by “Pikkujouluista kontaten,” lit. “Getting back from the office Christmas party on all fours.”

This witty (well, it would have been witty back in the Bronze Age when it was coined) pun hinges on the fact that “jaloin” means not only “the most noble” but also “by foot,” and that “joulujuhlista” means “from the Christmas party”. Note that this only applies to the one word spelling “joulujuhlista,” as “joulu juhlista,” even though pronounced exactly the same, means “Christmas among all celebrations.” Take that and smoke it in your pipe, dear student of elementary Finnish.

Guggenheim, Mannerheim, What’s the Difference?

The Guggenheim Foundation seems to think it would be just mahvelous to put another museum bearing the Guggenheim brand in Helsinki. The soon-to-be-ex US ambassador Bruce J. Oreck reckons getting a Guggenheim branch would be a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Helsinki“. I wonder what the German ambassador would have to say about the one in Berlin, which closed its doors earlier this year.

Anyway, the Foundation wants to put yet another Guggenheim in a prime location on the waterfront in downtown Helsinki. Somewhat unsurprisingly, they are keen to get local support for their project, which means they want the locals to chip in. A lot. And why shouldn’t they? After all, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity seeing as there are no art museums whatsoever in Helsinki just yet.

I am happy to announce that I have figured out a solution that should please everybody.

Guggenheim Helsinki (formerly the Presidential Palace)

Let’s indeed put a Guggenheim Museum in downtown Helsinki. There’s already a prime location on the waterfront that is not being used for anything (except renovations) at the moment: the Presidential Palace. The office of the President is already a ceremonial one, so s/he doesn’t really need a downtown spot. Even the traditional Independence Day celebrations are held in Tampere this year – why not move the office there permanently? The President could, for instance, take over the revolving top floor of Näsinneula. Keeping an eye on the tax-paying peasants down below was never easier.

Now we’ve figured out where to put Guggenheim Helsinki, we of course have to fill it with suitable artwork. But where would one find works of art worthy to be blessed with the Guggenheim stamp of approval? The answer is obvious. Let’s pack up all the works from the New York branch and ship them to Helsinki. Easy as, and this brings me to what I consider the best selling point of this cunning plan.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Public Sauna on 5th Avenue

Let’s turn the (now empty) Guggenheim museum building on Fifth Avenue, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, into the world’s biggest sauna. The heater could be a classic design: a pile of rocks on the bottom floor. This would join the renowned Finnish sauna tradition with the native American sweat lodge tradition, symbolizing the cross-Atlantic reach of the Guggenheim Foundation. The famous spiraling corridor sprawling on the walls of the building is already pretty much made for installing pews for sauna visitors. A cool, refreshing swim is also available no further than across the street in any of the artificial lakes in Central Park.

So there we have it, a plan that should please Finnish tax payers, the Guggenheim Foundation, sauna-loving New Yorkers, and quite probably everyone else in the Northern hemisphere who cares about this one way or the other. As the father of the idea, I am available to throw the first ceremonial scoop of water on the heater in the newly renovated Solomon R. Guggenheim Public Sauna. Looking forward to it!