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The Finnicisation of English in America

John Ilmari Kolehmainen

Western Reserve University

When the definitive history of immigrant life in America is written, the section on the rise and fall of the non-English languages will illuminate at least three highways of inquiry. To what extent has English replaced the foreign tongues? What changes, apart from replacement, have occurred in them? How much incorporation into the foreign tongue of words etymologically English has taken place; why were such additions necessary; and what was the mechanics of the process? This study of the Finnicisation of English suggests an approach to the third of these inquiries.1

Recent Finnish travelers in the United States have discovered to their confusion a large and increasing number of strange, meaningless words in the parlance of their ernigrated brethren. That such bewilderment was not altogether without foundation can be seen from this comparative list of commonly used words:2 




maanviljeliä farmari farmer
vakka pasketti basket
ornenia äpyliä apples
makeita käntiä candy
kauppa toori store
rnakuuhuone petiruuma bedroom
astia tiski dish
yhdistys klupi club (social)
välipala lunssi lunch
piha jaarti yard (lawn)
katukäytävä saitvooki sidewalk
leipuri pakari bakery
köykki kitsi kitchen
talo haussi house

The phenomenon, as one can readily see by comparing the middle and right columns, is the Finnicisation of English. Its significance is considerably enhanced by these facts: the list is typical, not exhaustive (the author has collected without effort over 150 Finnicised words) and is, as will be shown, susceptible of almost indefinite extension. Finnicisation, moreover, not merely creates new words for which there were no Finnish equivalents but sets into competition with Finnish originals synthetic substitutes of identical meaning (as those cited above).3 If the Finnish of New York City is then no longer the Finnish of Helsinki, what forces have operated to destroy the purity of the former? Was its perversion inevitable? How were respectable English words transformed into not so respectable Finnish jargon? Does the new coinage represent a permanent contribution to the Finnish language?

First let us examine, without becoming too involved in the many idiosyncracies of the Finnish language,4 the mechanics of Finnicisation. Two factors seem to determine the general pattern (to which there are exceptions) of incorporation: the character of the Finnish alphabet; and the phonetic system of Finnish.

The Finnish alphabet of twenty-one letters5 lacks the English b, c, f, q, x, and z. One of the simplest forms of incorporation rises from this condition. The b is replaced by p, as in basket to pasketti; the hard c changes to k (sceptic to skeptikko) while the soft c beomes s, as in ceremony to seremoni. While one naturally expects he Finnish v (or w) to be a substitute for the missing f, there seems to be evidence that the unfamiliar f is preferred in Finnicisation: s in telefooni, manifesti, and farmari. The English q turns to k, as in quart to kuorti; the x becomes ks, as in excursion to ekskursio. While the author has encountered no Finnicised words whose derivative contained a z, this letter would be logically replaced by s, s in zero to siiro.

The phonetic system of Finnish is characterized, as most scholars know, by the paucity of consonants (of which there are only thirteen) and the plenitude of vowels (of which there are eight).6 The role of the consonants in Finnicisation may be examined first. We have already noted the substitution of Finnish consonants for b, c, f (with exceptions), q, x, and z. The rule that no word can begin with two consonants without dropping one or rnore letters holds true in Finnicisation (the exception of skeptikko above notwithstanding): in the st combination, for example, the s is dropped: store to toori, stove to touvi. Double consonants occurring elsewhere often drop a letter: the -th combination ordinarily becomes t, as in athletic to atleikki; the soft -ch combination turns to s, as in kitchen to kitsi; the hard -ch combination becomes k, as in technique to teknikka. The Finnish consonant d is of recent origin and is never found at the beginning or the end of a word; in Finnicisation, the d always becomes t irrespective of position, as in dish to tiski. The consonant g likewise never begins a word, and when occurring elsewhere, is generally changed to k: as in telegram to telekrommi; to this rule one discovers a few glaring exceptions as geometria and geologia. These appear to be the more common forms that the conconants take in Finnicisation.

One of the features of the Finnish language is its vowel harmony which is retained in Finnicisation.7 If the first syllable of the word to be Finnicised contains a hard vowel, the vowels in the other syllables must be either hard or neutral but not soft: as in automobile to automopiili; if the first syllable vowel is soft, then the subsequent vowels must be soft or neutral but not hard: as in apples to äpyliä; if the vowel in the first syllable is neutral, the remaining vowels follow the quality of the second syllable vowel, as in evolution to evolutio. Other minor phonetic changes occur: the English long e usually becomes i; the long i turns to ai. The Finnish vowel y changes to j, as in yard to jaarti, or to i, as in buggy to poki.

Finnicisation is further marked by the widespread use of the terminal i (note the list above), although the hard a is sometimes utilized. While the consonants n, r, s, and t can be used as terminals in Finnish, they occur very rarely as such in Finnicisation. For the most part the terminals of both singular and plural forms are vowels. The plural of the Finnicised words is formed by adding the vowel a or ä (according to the rule of harmony) to the terminal i.8 But as in pure Finnish the use of the plural forms does not measure up to the standards of English.

Such, in brief, is the mechanics of Finnicisation. But why did the process take place? From what conditions did the need for Finnicisation rise? Why were satisfactory Finnish words discarded in favor of the new coinage?

Let us examine the lingual equipment of both foreign- and nativeborn Finns. It is obvious that the former's command of the Finni language was most complete at the moment of immigration. Since then - due to such factors as the cessation of immigration, diminishing contacts with the Old Country, decay of the language press,9 and general assimilation - this command of Finnish has been weakened. On the other hand, the foreign-born Finn's command of the English tongue is increasing yearly. The enforced use of English in all contacts with the outside, non-Finnish speaking world, its use by the native-born, and the mixed marriages of the second generation,10 all have tended to give impetus to the physical encroachment of English upon Finnish. Yet if the foreign-born are thus approaching a bilingual condition, the process is far from complete. Finnish remains almost exclusively the medium of conversation of the foreign-born.

lt is perhaps paradoxical that as the foreign-born Finns are slowly becoming bilingual, their children are rapidly losing all claim to bilingualism. The native-born Finns generally learned Finnish before English; but the vocabulary of Finnish words which they came to possess was, at the best, very limited. Moreover, as the period of attendance in the American school system lengthened, English first competed with and soon engulfed the fragile Finnish of the native-born. Although English replaced Finnish as the medium of the native-born among themselves, it left unsolved the problem of conversational medium between them and their immigrant parents. The latter, as we have noted, were not yet in a position to use English; the Finnish of the native-born was utterly inadequate to make that language the basis of conversation. If neither Finnish nor English per se could be utilized, what was to be the medium between father and son, mother and daughter?

This hiatus in the respective lingual equipments of foreign- and native-born Finns was solved by the "great compromise" - Finnicisation. It represented the easiest and most logical adjustment of the weak, inadequate command of Finnish by the second generation to the hesitating, incomplete command of English by the foreign-born; the ground had been prepared by the increasing knowledge of English words by the first generation. And as long as Finnish is spoken in America, resort will be had to this compromise; for the alternatives to Finnicisation - speeding up the foreign-born Finn's command of English, or exhorting the native-born to regain a lost language are contrary to the logic of events.

Where does one seek Finnicised words? They are encountered most frequently, to be sure, in the conversation of foreign- with native-born; once the new words have met the tests of time and usage, they occur surprisingly often in the speech of immigrant with immigrant. The native-born, as noted before, use English in speaking with each other. But speech does not hold a monopoly of the new coinage. In the documentary records of the Finnish institutions, founded partly to "preserve the Finnish language in America", are to be found hundreds of words which a patient search in a Finnish dictionary falls to disclose as of Finnish origin. Less rarely do the Finnicised words make their way into the literary language; yet the writer has found a number of them in the language press and elsewhere.

The inquiry remains as to the long-time effects of this wholesale Finnicisation.11 Do the new words represent a permanent contribution to the Finnish tongue? The writer ventures a negative answer. With the exception of the few words incorporated into the literary language, the entire imposing list of Finnicised words will ultimately disappear from sight. The new words will live and increase as long as the contact of Finnish and English is maintained; but when the Finnish language in America dies, as it inevitably must,12 the creations of the past decades will pass away, leaving to posterity scarcely a trace of their significant role in lingual accommodation.


[1] Dr. Manuel Gamio in his Mexican Immigration to the United States (Chicago, 1930) treats briefly the incorporation of English words into the Spanish, 230-234.
[2] Compare with list in Gamio, supra., 234.
[3] The wholesale substitution of Finnicised words for the Finnish often attains the ridiculous. The familiar Finnish-American saying, "pussaa peipin poki petiruumaan", for example, does not contain a single Finnish word; indeed, a native Finlander would say, "lykkää lapsen vaanu makuuhuoneeseen".
[4] Consult any standard Finnish grammar for details.
[5] a, d, e, g, h, i, j, k, l, m, n , o, p, r, s, t, u, v (interchangeable with w), y, ä, and ö.
[6] Vowels: a, ä, e, i, o, ö, u, and y.
[7] Finnish vowels are divided into three quality groups - hard, a, o, u; soft, ä, ö, y; neutral, e, i.
[8] Compare with plural formation in pure Finnish
[9] Of more than eighty-five newspapers disseminating at one time or another Finnish words on American soil, less than a dozen remain.
[10] For a study of intermarriage and the decay of old-world culture patterns see author's "A Study of Marriage in a Finnish Community", in the Amer. Jour. Sociol., November, 1936, 371-382.
[11] Finnicisation of English is not confined to America. The identical process takes place in Finland but incorporation is at an extremely slow rate, and usually of words having no Finnish equivalents. It is merely the continuation of Finnicisation going back as far as the incorporation into Finnish of the German of the Hanseatie traders. There is little if any transfer of American Finnicised words to Finland.
[12] When the generation of immigrants is gone, the Finnish language in America will lose the foundations upon which it rests. As a whole the second generation has proved to be an unreliable guardian of the language; and to their children, Finnish will be an alien tongue.

Published by American Sociological Review 2, p. 62-67, 1937.

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