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.
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.
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.