Tripping Over My Words

You thought I was done, didn't you? Think again!

So, I've been back for two weeks now. I'd say that's long enough to have re-acclimated to being in the US again. So with that in mind, today's post is going to be a language lesson. Obviously, when visiting a foreign country, unless we're talking about the U.K., Canada or Australia, chances are good that English is not going to be the native tongue, and you will have to deal with another language. And when you're exposed to a language for a long period of time--say, a month--then you start noticing certain characteristics about it.

Let me be frank: speaking Finnish is like pronouncing a series of landmines. Your tongue is jumping all over from place to place, and the oral gymnastics that are required to keep up are, quite frankly, astounding. As a simple barometer of average word complexity, let's take a look at average word length. In English, the average word is 5 letters long. 5.10, if we're being specific. Finnish? It's harder to find solid numbers, but 8 seems to be about on-target. Think about that for a moment. "Catch" is a five-letter word. "Stricter" is eight letters long. Imagine an entire sentence made of up Stricters, rather than Catches.  Now, keep that in mind! That is an important piece of information! Got it firmly nested into your noggin? Good. Now! Recall, if you will, that averages don't account for outliers. Just because the average English word is five letters long doesn't mean that we can't have ridiculousness like "antidisestablishmentarianism". Since Finnish's average word length has an extra three letters going for it...that means they have THAT MANY MORE ridiculous words skewing the average toward a higher number.

Still don't quite grasp it? Okay, let's look at some examples. I have, in front of me, a copy of From Finland with Love by Roman Schatz. It is written in both Finnish and English and is a lovely bit of writing, a fact which is entirely beside the point. In the opening sentence of the Finnish version of the book, is the word "Lukukokemuksesi". It's pronounced exactly as it looks. Seven syllables. It means "your reading experience" in English. Luku- is a root word (or something close to it. My knowledge isn't exactly top-notch here) that just means "chapter" by itself. When combined with other words, it means "something to do with reading". Kokemuksesi means "your experience".

Impromptu language lesson aside, I want everybody reading this to take a moment to pronounce that word. Lukukokemuksesi. It helps if you break it up. Luku. Koke. Muk. Sesi. Now say it all quickly as if it were, you know, actually all one word. Tricky, huh? No? Okay, try this on for size.

"Juonnettavakseni." This one's a little trickier. Remember that the Scandinavian J works like an English Y. So in Finnish, "jo" is actually pronounced "yo".

Juo. Netta. Vak. Seni. You can do it.

I'll wait.

Got it? No you don't. Know why? You have to pronounce the double-t and the double-n. It's like a tiny pause on the sounds, with an emphasis afterward. JuonNEHtTAHvakseni. Double-letters in Finnish work very differently from English. Instead of modifying the sound to something completely different, they just lengthen it. Which...really makes more sense, don't you think?

Okay, okay, I've bored you all to death with 500 words of rambling about how funny the language sounds, and how hard it is to pronounce. What's my point? Simple! Being completely surrounded by a language that sounds so different from your own is a profoundly strange experience. Everything from the written language to the ambient buzz of conversation around you changes completely.  And it changes your brain a little bit, ever so slightly. I'll see a familiar words or phrase, and I'll accidentally pronounce it with a Finnish accent.

It was especially noticeable within the first few hours of returning. I had gotten off the plane from Amsterdam about an hour ago, and was eating in a California Pizza Kitchen somewhere near L.A. with Jake (Hi Jake!) when my head started to swim a little. It was about lunchtime, and as a result, the place was pretty crowded. But instead of just tuning out the dull roar of conversation around me, my brain kept homing in on bits and pieces of it. Because there were words it actually understood! It wasn't just meaningless static anymore, they were sounds with meaning! It was about the time I asked for the check, and marveled at our server's lack of accent that I realized I was suffering from a mild dose of culture shock. In my own country. Wild.

And next time I grab some spicy molcajete with my chips, I have to remember that it's molca-HEH-tay. Not molca-YEH-tay. Damn j's.

P.S. Next post is going to be a big fat picture dump, and a final wrap-up. Be excited.