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The Finnish Language in the United States

Selma Siiri Sahlman

The Finnish language in Finland has developed in a comparatively short time to such a great extent that individuals who have not had contact with Finnish in its native country have many difficulties in understanding it. The constant change in Finnish has been overwhelming. This accounts for the fact that Finns arriving today in the United States encounter a language spoken by the older immigrants that is very different from what they are accustomed to.

Inasmuch as immigration into the United States from Finland took place chiefly in the years between 1850 and 1914, it is only natural that the language which the immigrants carried over was a tongue spoken at the time of their departure from their native country. The first Finns, however, arrived on the Delaware at the time the colony of New Sweden was founded. It is believed that the Finns formed the majority of the settlers in that colony, and they cleared such regions as the site of Philadelphia for civilization. The Finnish language of these early settlers was, however, at an early date displaced by English.

The Finnish language before World War I had already achieved a standard speech level which, however, was greatly modified later on. Swedish had been the language of the educated classes in Finland, and it was the language of the schools during a long period. The Finnish nationalist movement, which started in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, maintained the equality of the Finnish language with the Swedish. The Finnish speech in common use contained a host of Swedish words for which there were native equivalents. Since the tendency to clear the land of Swedish elements grew stronger and stronger during the immediate period after Finnish independence in 1917, it is easy to understand that the transmission of those foreign elements to the American continent is largely due to the immigrants who brought their speech habits with them.

Although the Swedish civilization and the Swedish tongue enjoyed several rights of precedence in Finland, because Swedish was the language of the socially dominant classes, Finnish as a native speech of the great masses endured the oppression. The close contact between Finns and Swedes has, however, left many traces in Finnish. Finnish adopted a great many loan words directly from Swedish and several other foreign words indirectly. Later, most of these were replaced by native coinages and disappeared from use. Those that remained were often learned terms, which had been borrowed in the last centuries from one European language into the other and indicate no further kinship between Finland and Sweden. Thus words like abstraktinen (abstract), almanakka (almanac), arkkitehti (architect), ballaadi (ballad) are at once recognized as borrowings.1 On the common speech level, however, the Swedish words pertain to everyday life, and it is rather peculiar to encounter them among American Finns, because many of them have long since disappeared from modern Finnish.

Some examples of this type the writer has recorded among Finns living in Clinton, Indiana, and absent from Finland for many years. Here are some that have survived in daily use:

English Swedish Finglish Modern Finnish
bed bädd peti vuode
blanket filt filtti
kitchen kök kyökki
onion lök 1ööki sipuli
pancake, small plätt lätty
pork fläsk läski sianliha
potato potatis potaatti peruna
potatoes, mashed potatismos potaattimuusi perunamuhennos
sauce or gravy sås soosi kastike
soup soppa soppa keitto or liemi
telegram telegram telekrammi sähke
telephone telefon telefooni puhelin
towel handduk hantuuki pyyheliina

The words for 'kitchen' and 'blanket' have two parallels in American Finnish (Finglish).2 Kyökki represents the Swedish kök, kitsi the English kitchen, filtti and plänketti respectively the Swedish filt and the English blanket. Mencken mentions the word bed as an example of differences between English and Finnish sounds.3 The difference between English b and Finnish p is very slight. Accordingly, the English b in bed would be p in the Finglish (peti). The same holds true with Swedish. Many Finns in Finland use in common speech the word peti instead of standard Finnish vuode. Peti is apparently a loan word from the Swedish bädd. The American Finnish peti need not necessarily be an American loan word. The writer is rather inclined to believe it is a word dating back to the immigrant vocabulary carried over from Finland.

Another example Mencken mentions as an American loan word is tiskari, which would be the common term for 'housemaid', derived from dishwasher. (The Finnish equivalent is palvelijatar.) The writer, however, has never heard tiskari used in this sense among American Finns. Tiskari is, in fact, a 'dishwasher' in common speech. But this word is probably a loan word from Swedish diska, 'to wash dishes'; in common colloquial vernacular the Finnish verb is tiskata, still in use in Finland as well as tiskari, 'dishwasher', and tiski, 'dish'. The common word for the standard Finnish palvelijatar, 'maidservant', 'housemaid', in American Finnish is piika, which is also an old Swedish loan word in Finnish (Swedish piga). It is often used in Finland in a derogatory sense. A strange phenomenon, however, is that this word seems to the writer to have been elevated here in America. There is nothing derogatory in the present Finglish noun piika, 'domestic help' or the verb piikoa, 'to work as a domestic help' or the compound piika-paikka, 'working place of a domestic help'. These terms have a wide circulation among the numerous Finnish domestic workers in New York and other great cities.

These few examples must suffice to indicate that several Swedish borrowings have survived in American Finnish. When used today in Finland they seem old-fashioned and even vulgar. Many of the Swedish loan words have been considered English when it is not always true. Because of the resemblance of English and Swedish it is natural that many borrowings are regarded as English though in fact they are Swedish. On the other hand, it might be possible that the English cognates have reinforced the use of the original Swedish borrowings.

In Finland the tendency of present-day purists is to eliminate all Swedish elements. How well they have succeeded in this endeavor is shown in the fact that children of the last generation do not even recognize the old Swedish borrowings. The 'schoolmarms' have been largely credited for this result as well as the radio and the various periodicals and newspapers in which the language certainly is purified. The Finnish newspapers published in America have a wide circulation. According to Mencken, twenty-one Finnish publications appear here, including five dailies. Finns have settled down in various parts of the United States and Canada. The greatest settlements are in the northern states, in the region of the Great Lakes, Minnesota and Michigan, where the natural surroundings remind them of their native country of a thousand lakes. Wherever Finnish immigrants have settled they have remained faithful to their native tongue in their newspapers.

One specimen of any Finglish daily paper would serve as a good example of the special linguistic features of Finglish as compared with standard Finnish. Mencken in this connection says that advertisements are commonly translated into Finglish rather than into Finnish in the Finnish papers in the United States. Done into the latter, a grocery or automobile advertisement would be unintelligible to a great many readers.4

The writer has arbitrarily chosen one issue of New Yorkin Uutiset (News of New York) to check Finglish usages as well as common errors. The copy in question is of September 23, 1947. Since the Finglish expressions and errors represent several categories, a closer analysis of them will throw some light upon the question of how English usage has affected Finnish in the United States of America. In the following, certain expressions will be discussed in the order in which they appear in the paper, except for cases where the errors are similar.

On page 1, column 1, the term presidential election, or election of president, is translated as presidenttivaaleissa. According to standard Finnish usage the first part of the compound ought to be in the genitive case. The error is apparently not affected by the English. There is some confusion even in Finland in a similar expression. On page 2, column 2, we find the expression meidän nuoriso, 'our youth'. In standard Finnish the possessive suffix must be added to the noun. Thus the first person plural would be meidän nuorisomme. Mencken says that under the influence of English there is some decay of the case endings, especially in the genitive and accusative case. He gives the example of the way in which kirja, 'book', changes for person in the genitive case in Finnish and Finglish:

English Finnish Finglish
my book minun kirjani minun kirja
your book sinun kirjasi sinun kirja
his, her book hänen kirjansa hänen kirja
our book meidän kirjamme meidän kirja
your book teidän kirjanne teidän kirja
their book heidän kirjansa heidän kirja

The writer, however, has never heard the above Finglish forms in the genitive case. But in the nominative case, those forms in which the possessive suffix has been omitted occur frequently in the United States as well as in Finland. The writer doubts whether English has influenced the omission of the suffixes, since the same process seems to take place in Finland.

The Finnish forms above represent the correct forms in the nominative, genitive, and accusative case. The example in the newspaper is in the nominative. The omission of the possessive suffix may be explained by the fact that the person who has written the article seems not to be well versed in his native tongue. On page 6, column 5, there is a good illustration of the above-discussed matter. In the clause 'Tämän meidän "paksin" [quotation marks in the original] laidat olivat niin tummentuneet' (the edges of this box of ours had become so dark), the Finglish noun paksin is in the genitive case, but the possessive stiffix of the first person plural has been dropped. The proper genitive case is not substituted by the nominative case.

Confusion between singular and plural is rather common on the lower speech level in Finland. In Finglish this confusion seems to prevail. Some examples are found in the paper. On page 4, column 2, we read: 'Mrs. N. kuoli hospitaalissa niihin vammoihin, mitkä tuli' (pro tulivat, in the plural). English meaning: 'Mrs. N. died of the wounds she received.' Mitkä is the relative pronoun in the plural which ought to be followed by a verb form in the plural. On page 5, column 3, the following statement is found: 'Suurella joukolla olivat Quincyläiset edustettuna (pro edustettuina).' English meaning: 'A great many persons from Quincy were represented.' The passive participle is used here as an adjective. As a predicative in the sentence it must agree with number. On page 6, column 4, is a typical example of an error in the use of the plural instead of the singular. In the clause 'Kaksi viimeistä laulua kohosivat ohjelman korkeiksi sädekehiksi' (the two last songs became the climax of the program), the verb ought to be in the singular, although the subject indicates a plural meaning. In Finnish, however, the verb takes a singular form when the subject is preceded by a numeral requiring the partitive singular case. Thus the correct form would be: Kaksi viimeistä laulua kohosi ohjelman korkeiksi sädekehiksi.

English word order probably influences Finglish in some degree, causing occasional strange word positions and errors in certain constructions. On page 4, column 1, we have a statement as follows: 'Poika vietiin lääkärin tarkastettavaksi, joka sanoi ei olevan luuvikoja vaan on muuten pahoja kuhmuja' (The boy was taken to the doctor, who said that he had no fractures but bad bruises). The negative participial construction takes the ordinary negative verb. Corrected, the above sentence would be: Poika vietiin lääkärin tarkastettavaksi, joka ei sanonut olevan luuvikoja vaan muuten pahoja kuhmuja. The error has scarcely anything to do with English usage. It seems rather due to the wrong verb position. On the same page, column 3, another report of an accident is given: 'Poika vietiin hospitaaliin, jossa tohtori Pardii sitoi jalan ja laittoi kipsiin ja jalka pitää näin sidottuna olla ainakin viisi kuusi viikkoa' (The boy was taken to the hospital, where Dr. Pardii put the leg in a cast and the leg has to be kept thus at least for five or six weeks). The more natural order in Finnish would be: ... ja jalka pitä olla näin sidottuna.... The English word order has probably nothing to do with the above poor construction. On page 5, column 3, an offense of the worst kind occurs in the following sentence structure: 'Tässä juhlassa se antoi juhlatunnelman saada kuulla suomalaisia säveliä.' The same in good Finnish: Suomalaisten laulujen kuuleminen antoi tälle juhlalle juhlatunnelmaa (It cave a festive atmosphere to hear Finnish songs at this party). The English influence is evident in this case. Se antoi is simply a literal translation of 'it gave'. The impersonal 'it' is not used in Finnish in a corresponding construction. The verb in the third person singular is sufficient. It contains a definite substitute actor he, she, or it. The whole construction sounds spurious and seems to be affected by English word order.

Finnish affirmative and negative constructions differ from those in most other languages. The negative is expressed by a negative verb which takes the personal endings. On page 5, column 2, a typical bilingual construction is represented: 'Ei yksikään n.k. prefabricated house on rikkoutunut' (Not one of the so-called 'prefabricated' house(s) has broken).

Affirmative On rikkoutunut 'has broken'
Negative Ei ole rikkoutunut 'has not broken'

In the example, the substitution of the English prefabricated house probably causes the confusion of the negative.

A weather report is found on page 5, column 7. It says: 'Nyt sunnuntai-iltana alkoi satamaan' (Now on Sunday night it began to rain). There are two verbs in Finnish meaning 'to begin'. They are alkaa and ruveta. The former takes the ordinary infinitive as in Alkoi sataa, 'It began to rain.' The latter takes the illative case of a special construction as in Rupesi satamaan, 'It began to rain.' This distinction between the two expressions is a matter of learning and has nothing to do with English precept.

There are few prepositions in Finnish. The various case endings compare with the corresponding prepositions or postpositions in other languages. Finnish has fifteen cases, and all of them save the nominative are indicated by adding postpositions to the root. The nouns usually end in a vowel, and the root itself must always end in a vowel. A loan word, if it ends in a consonant, has a vowel ending attached to it.5

Here is a paradigm of ruuma, 'room,' which has displaced the standard Finnish huone:

Case English Finnish Finglish
Nominative room huone ruuma
Genitive of the room huoneen ruuman
Accusative room huone, huoneen ruuma, ruuman
Essive as a room huoneena ruumana
Partitive some of the room huonetta ruumaa
Translative into the room huoneeksi ruumaksi
Inessive in the room huoneessa ruumassa
Elative from the room huoneesta ruumasta
Illative into the room huoneeseen ruumaan
Adessive at (on) the room huoneella ruumalla
Ablative away from the room huoneelta ruumalta
Allative toward the room huoneelle ruumalle
Abessive without a room huoneetta ruumatta
Comitative with a room huoneineen
Instructive with rooms huonein ruumin

In Finnish, the case endings in both numbers are the same for all nouns or pronouns and for adjectives and adverbs, which mimic the endings of the nouns associated with them.

Certain adverbs in Finnish require particular cases. Lähellä, 'close', or 'near to', requires the partitive case when it precedes the noun but the genitive case when it is a postposition. In Finglish, the foreign proper names usually are subjected to the same inflections as the native words. Thus, for instance, 'in Terre Haute' would be Terre Hautessa. Accordingly, 'close to Terre Haute' or 'in the neighborhood of Terre Haute' would be Lähellä Terre Haute'a, or Terre Hauten lähellä. In our paper on page 4, column 7, a New York lawyer has an advertisement including the address of his office with an additional hint of the location as follows: Lähellä City Hall, The word 'Hall' is supposed to take the partitive ending in this case. Since Finnish nouns seldom end in a consonant, an additional 'i' is attached to 'Hall', and the final result in the partitive singular is Hallia. The same rule applies to another advertisement on page 5, in columns 6 and 7: 'Yhä useammat ihmiset polttavat Camels kuin koskaan aikaisemmin' (More people smoke Camels than ever before). In standard Finnish: Yhä useammat ihmiset polttavat Camels'ia kuin koskaan aikaisemmin. Camels is the partitive object and takes the same partitive ending as in the preceding example. In these two examples the omission of the case endings is evidently due to the foreign elements. Since the English equivalents have no corresponding endings, they are not felt necessary in Finglish either.

The most interesting divergences between Finnish and Finglish are the direct English borrowings. In a few instances they are recognized as Finnicization of English and indicated by quotation marks, as for instance heinä-'baana', 'hay barn'. This compound is a curious hybrid in which the first part is standard Finnish and the latter Finglish. The standard Finnish heinälato, 'hay barn', is not hyphened. The Finglish spelling follows the rules of the Finnish.6 Thus the silent r is not marked at all, the long vowel is indicated by a double a, and the noun takes the additional vowel at the end.

Some examples of Finglish words illustrating the principle of spelling are listed below. It is not necessary to transcribe the sentences in which they are used. For our purpose, it will suffice to enumerate them in the order in which they appear in the paper:

Page Column English Finnish Finglish
one seven hay barn heinälato heinä-'baana'
four one hospital sairaala hospitaali
four two county kunta kaunti
five two cocoanut palm kookospähkinäpalmu cocoanut palmu
five two co-operative osuustoiminnallinen co-operatiivi
six five box laatikko, rasia paksi
six five hall juhlahuoneisto, juhlasali haali
six six farm maatalo farmi

These examples show fairly well to what extent the English words are revised in spelling to agree with the phonemic system of Finnish.

One of the characteristic features of Finnish is that the vowel of the stem determines that of the suffix. This phenomenon, known by the name of 'vocalic harmony', is mechanically an assimilation.7 In our English column the added vowels harmonize with the root vowels. The so-called 'hard vowels' (a, o, u) take correspondingly hard end-vowels, and the soft vowels (ä, ö, y, e, i) take soft vowel endings. A native Finnish word never contains a, o, u together with their mutations (German umlaut). On page 5, column 3, in the sentence which has been discussed earlier in this study, Quincyläiset represents a word meaning persons who are living in Quincy. The derivative ending -laiset or -läiset must harmonize with the preceding vowels. Though Quincy contains both hard and soft vowels the letter y has determined the harmony, and we have ä instead of a. A regular vowel harmony applies to the foreign loan word rekisteri, 'register' which is found on page 6, column 6, in a comment on a concert: 'Ääni, joka juoksee tasaisesti kaikissa registereissä' (a voice running in all registers). The statement in Finnish is a poor construction, and the spelling of rekisteri has been influenced by the English register. Since there is no independent g in the Finnish alphabet except in the softening of nk into ng, the voiced stop g is usually substituted by the voiceless stop k, which accounts for the correct spelling of the Finnish rekisteri. (Notice also the added vowel i to the loan word, which lacks one.)

The errors which are discussed in the last catecory consist of misspelled words. It seems obvious that the American spelling has affected the Finglish in words like Amerika (Finnish Amerikka). Since there is no c in the Finnish alphabet, it has been substituted by k. In Finnish, Amerikka is pronounced with a long quantity of k, and in spelling the word the consonant k is geminated. The result is thus two k's for the English c. (Amerika occurs on page 6, column 2.)

Finally, mention should be made of those words which have no direct equivalents in Finnish. On page 5, in columns 4 and 5, we find an undertaker's advertisement. There is no word in Finland for 'undertaker,' because there is no corresponding occupation. Bodies of the dead are prepared for burial by their relatives or by a certain agency attached to the church or by the officials at the hospitals. However, among Finns in America, the need for the word has been coined in Hautaantoimittaja (literally, a person who provides a grave for the dead one).

The political faith of the paper is reflected in the use of a derogatory word for Russian. On page 6, column 1, the word Ryssät occurs in the editorial. The correct standard form is Venäläiset (from Venäjä, Russia). Ryssät, 'the Russians', implies a low estimation of the eastern neighbor of Finland. In the same editorial, Russia is once referred to by the word Soviet. The Finnish equivalent would be Neuvostoliitto. The Russian word sovet, 'council', is in Finnish neuvosto. The Russian loan word has not entered the Finnish vernacular as it has many other modern languages (English Soviet; Swedish Sovjet).

These various examples and considerations show clearly that Finnish has been influenced in many ways by American English. They constitute the most interesting features of the Finglish and show plainly the assimilating process that is going on between English and Finnish in America, although they are two extremely different tongues. In colloquial Finglish, Finglish words occur more frequently than in written texts. A conversation carried on between two Finns in America is crowded with Finglish. The writer has checked innumerable similar instances, such as the following: Minä ajan kaaralla vilitsiin (I'll drive to the village). In standard Finnish: Ajan autolla kylään. Pikkaa munat ja pane ne keisiin (Pick the eggs and put them in the case). In Finnish: Kerää munat ja pane ne munalaatikkoon.

Errors in grammar, omission of suffixes, confusion of the plural and the singular, wrong inflections of verbs, and wrong negative constructions are common in Finglish. The grammatical errors seem largely due to a poor linguistic background or lack of formal education on the part of the speaker.

The checked errors and Finglish usages described show a wide range of variation. One important group, however, is lacking from our survey. In the paper which has been examined, the writer tried in vain to find English idioms carried over to the Finglish. All languages have their own special phrases or expressions, known as idioms. If these are translated literally into another tongue, the meaning is often ambiguous or even obscure. English is not alone in containing a host of idioms. Finnish has a great number of them, too. In rendering idioms from one language into another, it is often necessary to paraphrase the whole construction. Idioms of this kind do not easily carry over from one language into another. But idioms which make sense in a literal translation seem to enter in Finglish from English. When speaking of Finglish John E. Rantamaki has said:

Many Finns who do not actually mix English words into their Finnish speech use forms that are idiomatically more English than Finnish. For example, consider the sentence 'Take care of the boy'. In correct Finnish, the verb is pidä, but most American Finns use ota, which is a literal translation of take.8

The writer has heard the same Finglish idiom on several occasions. A Finnish chicken farmer in Connecticut told the writer that his daughter had 'taken care of the chickens' as follows: Seidi otti huolen kanoista (Seidi took care of the chickens). When the writer departed from Finnish friends in New York the last wishes included: Ota huolen itsestäsi (Take care of yourself). In expressions like take the taxi, take the train, take the bus, and take me to the station, the verb to take is often translated with ottaa, and the corresponding Finglish expressions are used: ota auto (or taxi), ota juna, ota bussi, and ota minut asemalle, where in correct Finnish usage we would find mene autolla, mene junalla, mene linja-autolla, and vie minut asemalle. Another common Finglish idiom influenced by English is found in the expression Hän on saanut kylmää (He has a cold). In standard Finnish, the verbs kylmettyä and vilustua signify 'to have a cold'.

It is a natural consequence that the close contact between the two languages tends to promote Finglish usage. Many newcomers have attempted to cleanse Finglish of impurities. Much has been written and debated about its imperfections, but it has always had its defenders among the great reading public. The American Finns consider it a language of their own and dislike any interference from purists.

The destiny of Finglish in the United States seems to rest with the descendants of the first and second generation of immigrants. These are usually bilingual. English has taken the first place, and Finglish is the home tongue spoken most with parents. It seems inevitable that Finglish will gradually disappear from use. As long as the mastery of English remains an obstacle for the Finns, Finglish will be spoken. But it will be faced with an increasing competition from English, as that language becomes more familiar. Finglish seems destined not to survive.

[1] Leonard Blomfield, Language (New York, 1933), p. 298.
[2] The Finnish language 'has been so greatly modified in the United States that Professor Nisonen, of Suomi College, Hancock, Mich., has proposed that it be called Finglish'. H. L. Mencken, The American Language (4th ed.; New York, 1936), p. 676.
[3] Ibid., p. 679.
[4] Ibid., p. 680.
[5] Cf. ibid., p. 676.
[6] Finnish is one of the few langages in which the traditional alphabetic writing is accurate. Finnish has adequate forms of the Latin alphabet. This result has been reached by the use of diacritical marks. The Finnish method of indicating long quantity of vowels and consonants, is to write the symbols twice; e.g., kaappi, 'cupboard', with long a and long p. Cf. Bloomfield, op. cit., pp. 86, 109, 291.
[7] On vocalic harmony, see Willem L. Graff, Language and Languages (New York, 1932), p. 150.
[8] Quoted in Mencken, op. cit, p. 676.

Published in American Speech 24, p. 14-24. 1949.

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