14 December 2006

Blood Language

Whenever I venture out of lovely Oulu, I consult my Lonely Planet guide to prepare myself. Last week, on the train to Tampere, under “Places to Eat,” I read the following: “The scary-looking Tampere specialty, mustamakkara, a thick black sausage made with cow’s blood, can be found lurking at any of the city’s several markets, including the kauppahalli (indoor market). Some locals insist mustamakkara tastes best with milk and cranberry jam.”

Well, that got my attention. I had seen mustamakkara (literally, black sausage) many times, but I had never tried it before. Tampere seemed just the right place to give it a go.

Blood sausage is scary-looking. I tried it with my scrambled eggs on the morning I checked out of the Hotelli Cumulus Pinja in Tampere. I immediately wished I had taken the nakki instead. They’re too bland! The blood is responsible for the color, but the flavor is mild, and the consistency is more mealy than meaty. Somewhere I have read that it contains rye, and it’s possible that there are other cereals in there. Once you get past its looks, mustamakkara is anything but scary. It’s Felix Unger "lurking" under the Lordi mask. I decided finally that it tastes best with milk and cranberry jam.

And that makes me think of the notoriously scary language that is spoken in these parts. Suomea is in fact a very hard language to learn, especially for a sixty-something guy who was never particularly good at learning foreign languages in the first place. (In an earlier post, I described myself as under-endowed, which elicited a number of private email messages, several of them hilarious. I know what you’re thinking: thanks for not sharing.)

Anyway, last Friday night, in Tampere, over a dish of Finnish meatballs, I told my dinner companion that I had found studying Finnish very enriching. He asked whether I intended to continue my language course when I returned to the States. I said I thought I probably would. “Why?” he asked. I wasn’t ready for that.

What I said, was, “I find it a really fascinating language, and language is the best route into the culture,” which avoided the question of whether I could ever hope to learn enough Finnish to get “into the culture,” or to actually use it in-country. I couldn’t tell what he was thinking, but I suspect it was something akin to “Sure, Finnish is a fascinating language. So is Chinese.” Good point.

Yes, Finnish is difficult. It’s not an Indo-European language, there are precious few cognates, and the nouns decline. Even the word for “no” declines. There are fifteen or so cases, and the language lacks articles, prepositions, grammatical gender, and future tense. It does have postpositions, though, and the challenging partitive case. Perkele!

But why should it be any harder for an American to learn Finnish than for a native speaker of this unusual language to learn English, which is not intrinsically easy, either. Surely English must seem just as bizarre to a Finn, at least at first, as Finnish does to us. Why should tit for tat not be identical to tat for tit?

To which there is one good retort, and it has to do with the World Wide Web, television, movies, and popular music. English is pervasive, and Finnish is arcane—everywhere but here.

Still, . . . One of my colleagues here complains that people in Helsinki think that the distance from Helsinki to Oulu is farther than the distance from Oulu to Helsinki. “They invite us to mid-week meetings in Helsinki,” he moans, “as if we were just down the street. When you invite them to come to Oulu for something, they act as if you want them to fly to the moon.”

In the gospel according to Jean Piaget, children go through an egocentric stage where they can understand that they have siblings, but not that they themselves might be someone’s sibling. Without a sense of reciprocity, you get the “My brother was an only child” phenomenon. People in this country take it for granted that it is unreasonable to expect an American to learn Finnish. They will tell you that in unaccented British English (though, granted, even some of the most fluent will stumble over our pesky articles, or mix up their third person singular pronouns). Frankly, I find this double standard a powerful incentive to re-up—I mean, just to prove a point.

There might be more to it than that. I wonder if, subconsciously, I’m not ready to let go of Finland just yet.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

but seriously, why would you bother? I mean of course it would be cool and neat and whatever to learn finnish and to be able to use it if nothing else, but to buy groceries. But the fact is that finns communicate mostly with english even with swedes(and swedish the 2nd offcial language of finland and compulsory to learn in schoold, though often questioned why?) and that really does rise a question: really, what is the point? Anyways, Im not saying that you shouldnt, im just saying "why" just like your local Tampere friend. In hundred years 5 billion people will be speaking english as second language anyways....

Well...second thing, this semester is very soon over, noly one week to christmass, I dont know when you're leaving the country but I wish you all the best anyway, make sure that you come back when it's warm and sunny instead of this depressing non-winter ^^

timo

10:18 PM  
Blogger fulbrighterinfinland said...

Kiitos, Timo. I do plan to come back some fine Kesäkuu or Heinäkuu day. It's been a great run. I know it's not entirely rational, but I would find it extremely gratifying to be able to use the language in public. The other day I saw a soldier drop a glove, and I said Anteeksi, hetkinen, but then I just had to point at the glove on the ground. Very frustrating. In greatest haste, Helsingista...

8:52 PM  

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