I spent part of the summer in China a few years back and tried to get a handle on survival Mandarin– you know, the basics, nihao (hello), zaijian (goodbye), hěn gāoxìng rènshí ni (nice to meet you), jiaozi (dumplings), and píjiǔ (beer). Those phrases were all I needed until an unfortunate incident landed me at the police station (read more here) where I was really wishing that I could ask for more than another zhūròu bāozi (pork bun). But what I remember learning about Mandarin was all of the nuance and context involved. Rick Belsky, a professor with whom I traveled, had been studying Mandarin since the late 1970s and likened its mastery to the “puzzle of a lifetime.” Instead of creating new characters for new words, the Chinese language combines existing characters literally when in need of a new word, hence, computer, is two characters which translate, literally, to electric brain and movies, following similar logic, translates to electric shadows. Supposedly, Mandarin has more than 50,000 characters with most Chinese people knowing about 8,000; so, they have gotten creative with designing new words instead of constantly creating new characters.
Which brings me to the nuances and contexts of the Finnish language. Johanna, a colleague at Fulbright Finland, told us “Swahili is considered easier than Finnish” before she launched into some advice about how to deal with nouns that have 15 different possible forms: “When you are about to face a noun, stay calm and do not panic,” she said, “then ask yourself, is it possible to avoid using a noun?”
Common Finnish language features include no gender, no articles, no future tense, really long words, and as Johanna put it, “no restrictions on the consecutive number of vowels in a word.” Also, since there are about 15 different ways to use the same noun, I am getting a (slightly) clearer picture of what my new friend Petteri meant when he commented on my last blog about the absence of the word please: “I might disagree to a certain point about how much politeness Finnish language lacks. It’s in the nuances and therefore probably very difficult to point out.”
Ahh, nuance and its not-too-distant relative context. The wrong context is the difference between a slap in the face and baked goods. Sunday morning when Chris was trying to cook the buns he bought, he was using Google translate to help with the directions: out of context korvapuusti means slap in the face while used in the context of cooking directions it means cinnamon buns. The night before, we were looking at our grocery bill and trying to figure out what the 0.60 Euro charge was for something called reissumies, a word which translates to vagabonder. “Maybe they’re charging us for being tourists,” Chris mused as we buttered some bread to go with our soup.
We laughed but after lots of awkward language moments over the last month it didn’t seem all that far-fetched. We try to use our new Finnish phrases but we often muddle them, mumble them or are stopped mid-phrase by a Finn saying “English, right?” It is fun but exhausting, exciting but isolating. I pondered the concept of a “vagabonder tax” and what that might mean for a wanderer in life…yes, I know it’s ridiculous and would not fit with most of the Finnish ways to which we are becoming accustomed but sometimes I can convince myself of things that seem absurd!
Then, I picked up the bread from dinner to put it away, saw the label, laughed out loud and had to remember that context, my dear, is everything.