YOU STUDY FINNISH PHONOLOGY. WHAT’S USEFUL TO KNOW ABOUT IT?
In Finnish, the primary stress is always on the first syllable, with the secondary stress two syllables later. In general, English places the primary stress toward the end of the word—so you get MinneSOta. Finns would say MINNesota. They would also say HELsinki, DAkota, and KARvonen.
IS FINNISH HARD TO LEARN?
Structurally, sentences are put together very differently in Finnish than in English. That’s one hurdle. Another is vocabulary—you can’t guess at what words mean. There’s so little overlap, very few words are cognate. Finnish isn’t related to other Scandinavian languages, by the way, but to Estonian and Hungarian. Finns were part of Sweden for centuries, from the mid- 12th century to 1809, so the culture does reflect influences from Sweden.
STUDENTS ARE FLOCKING TO YOUR CLASSES. HOW COME?
There’s consistently high interest, especially for a language that doesn’t have great global cachet. Only 10 universities in the country even teach Finnish. Yet I had 46 students last semester, split among three levels of instruction. Students generally are of three sorts. One consists of Finnish Americans interested in their heritage. Minnesota has a thriving Finnish-American community— the second largest after Michigan. That’s why you see so many cultural activities here—Finnish folk dancing, film series, genealogy groups. Last year Minneapolis hosted Finn Fest, a big national thing. Finns in Finland see all this as a little odd, by the way. They see it as retro—as preserving customs that don’t exist anymore in Finland. Finland is bent on being very global, very modern. Back to my classes… I also get people who are married to Finns or people who’ve been exchange students in Finland. A third group is people who think Finnish is interesting because it’s so different. They were looking for a language to take and thought, “Why not Finnish?”
YOU GREW UP IN A FINNISH-AMERICAN FAMILY IN MINNESOTA. THE “CHURCH
FINNS” OR THE “RED FINNS”?
My paternal grandparents were Church Finns from New York Mills, near Detroit Lakes. Minnesota does have these two different Finnish strains—the Red Finns, mainly on the Iron Range, who worked in the mines and were active in the labor movement, and the Church Finns, whose lives revolved around the Lutheran church. The churches in Finnish communities were a big factor in language preservation. That was true for my father’s parents who spoke Finnish, with an accent even, although they grew up in the United States. You can find a similar phenomenon in Chinatown in San Francisco. My father grew up within this very Finnish community, very tied in to this large Finnish Lutheran church. Everyone read Finnish newspapers. Finnish was spoken not only at church, but at the hardware store, the grocery store. My grandparents lived in Crystal when I was a kid, but even there, their house was like a different country. I especially remember the smells. Finnish flatbread, mojakka (a stew), and squeaky cheese—really flat cheese called leipäjuusto that squeaks when you eat it.
SURELY THERE WAS A SAUNA?
What I remember best is the wood-burning sauna at my uncle and aunt’s cabin, where my family went a lot. Sauna has always been a very Finnish thing. It’s seen as a place of cleansing both physically and spiritually, traditionally the place where babies were born and where people would go to die. I remember it as a Saturday night tradition. We would sit happily in this hot little room, beating ourselves with birch switches, then go out and cool off in the lake. Then back to the sauna. It was both very invigorating and very relaxing. We’d all eat together afterward. You have the most amazing sleep after taking sauna.
ONCE AND FOR ALL, IS IT SAWNA OR SOW-RHYMES WITH NOW-NA?
SOWna. Finns are very insistent about that.
PEOPLE HAVE DESCRIBED FINLAND AS VERY QUIET. WHY IS THAT?
Finns don’t chitchat much. They’re reserved with strangers. And they tolerate silence in conversation much better than Americans do. The silence is unnerving to outsiders. You can be on a bus and it’s absolutely quiet, everyone reading the newspaper. But behind the initial reserve, Finns are very warm, very sincere. If they say “We’ll call you this weekend,” or “We’ll invite you to our summer cottage,” they will. They just don’t engage in idle banter in the coffee line. If you tell a Finn to “have a nice day,” the response might be, “Do you know me?”
YET AREN’T FINNS THE INTERNATIONAL LEADERS IN CELL PHONE USE?
Finns do love their cell phones. Finland also is home to Nokia, the world’s biggest cell phone company. With people they know well, Finns are very talkative. It can seem incongruous that the same person gabbing with friends on a cell phone will hardly talk to you if he or she is next to you in a cafe.
DO FINNS HAVE A DISTINCT WORLD VIEW?
Compared with Americans, Finns place great stock in egalitarian ideals and the well-being of the entire community.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO “HAVE SISU”?
If you “have sisu,” it means you have tenacity, guts, stick-to-it-iveness. It’s very much part of the Finnish character. You only have to remember that in World War II, the Finns were fighting the Russians—Finland was a country of just under 4 million people then—and they didn’t lose.
DID YOU HAVE SISU LAST YEAR WHEN YOU WERE IN A SAUNA COMPETITION?
The goal was to show how long you could last in sauna. I didn’t last very long, but in my defense, I have to say it was really, really hot.