April 25, 2004

The coolest language in the world

David Beaver appears to be suggesting at the end of Language Log's 800th post that I might really be a Finn, or at least might have an alternate Finnish identity. I wish! Finnish is the coolest language. And I did use it, impeccably, at least once. It felt so great.

While I was in Helsinki for over two weeks to be at the 2001 ESSLLI (it's an annual thing, this year in France), I developed a crush on Finnish. I tried to pick up as many snippets of information about Finnish as I could. I listened to every syllable I could overhear. I read to myself under my breath from every sign I passed. I was walking past a window near the university one day when I saw the word YLIOPISTOKIRJAKAUPPA, and I suddenly stopped and realized with a real thrill that I could understand it. All of it. It's in parts: yli "high", opi "knowledge", sto "location", kirja "book", kauppa "retailer": yli-opi-sto-kirja-kauppa "higher learning place book shop" -- it said University Bookstore!

That didn't define me as a speaker of Finnish (a language about which they tell the old tale that the devil was unable to learn it); that was just passive analytical competence. But it was a start. It gave me hope and confidence for my entry into active use of the language. And finally the opportunity came.

A week or two later my friend Polly and I were returning from a wonderful three-day trip we took to Russia by train from Helsinki (the same train to the Finland Station in St Petersburg by which Lenin traveled to Russia to start the revolution that renamed the city Leningrad). We needed to take a taxi to the small hotel where we would spend our last night in Finland before flying home to the States. And I decided that I was ready to tell the taxi driver where we wanted to go, in Finnish.

The Hotel Arthur (it sounded like Hoh-tel Arrh-toorrh, I had learned from overhearing a Finn mention it) was in a street called Vuorikatu (stressed on vu: you always stress the first syllable of everything in Finnish, whether that seems sensible or not; then the intonation just sort of drops off onto a low monotone as if you aren't very interested in the rest of the word). Katu means "street". Now, Finnish doesn't have a preposition meaning "in"; that isn't how things work. Instead you put the ending -lla on a noun that the preposition would go before if there were such a preposition. And what makes it a little trickier is that the ending changes the last consonant in the noun. The change that the t of -katu would have to undergo, I had learned, would turn it into a d. All I had to do was put all that together, and we wouldn't need to wimp out and rely on the taxi driver's ability to understand us naming the destination in what would essentially be English.

Polly and I slid into the back seat of the cab, and I leaned forward and said to the taxi driver in a carefully studied Finnish accent that I had practiced a few time in my head: Hotel Arthur, Vuorikadulla. And off the driver went. No chat; he had understood me perfectly well in the usual language of the city; he just assumed I was a Finnish speaker. I like to imagine that Polly was extraordinarily impressed with my linguistic skills, though she chose not to say anything. I, at least, felt supremely competent just to have fluently rendered the correct case ending and associated morphophonemic alternation and stress contour on an utterance in a language that the devil himself gave up on. Lucky Polly to have such a master of language, such a linguistic stud, as a travelling companion.

It still didn't define me as a Finn (though if David Beaver really thinks I might be one, I have apparently been mistaken for one twice). But it was more than a start. I didn't just take that utterance out of a phrasebook; I constructed it out of its parts; I phonetically honed the parts to fit them together properly; I did the stress pattern right. That's what command of a language consists in -- the ability to put an expression together to do the job you need to do, whenever the occasion arises. It felt great to do it even once. Some day I'm going back and learn some more. More of the coolest language in the world.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at April 25, 2004 11:34 PM