Four weeks ago I woke up in a cold sweat. By my fourth cup of coffee I’d broken into a hot sweat. And after pedaling myself over to a nondescript building near the railway station, I was glistening with a gooey, stinky sweat. It was, you see, my first day of Finnish school.

I locked my bike to the paw of a sleeping polar bear and sought out my classroom; it was empty, but students of all nationalities were waiting just outside the door. I assumed this was some sort of European thing. Being American, I went inside and chose the best desk and spread my belongings over a wide swath. I then marked my territory and drank some more hot caffeinated beverage. By the time the teacher showed up, I was panting heavily and stewing in a puddle of my own bodily fluids.

We didn’t actually learn any Finnish that first day, but we did learn not to wear perfume, and that our teacher is pregnant (which she conveyed to us by gesturing toward her nether regions while saying, “plop!”).

One month later, things are a little different: I can now say, in Finnish, how old I am. I can count to one hundred and I can tell time. Life is really progressing for me. This is exactly where I wanted to be at age 35.

I also now know that Finnish is not actually the most difficult language on the planet. It’s second, after Penguin. I won’t bore you with the ins and outs of it all. Just trust me on this one. Finnish is mouth murder.*

Fortunately I’m not alone. I’ve got twenty-two courageous and fantastic classmates. In fact, the rapport between us is frighteningly cordial. We greet one another with “hyvää huomenta” (“good morning”), handshakes and even slappy-hug-but-not-quite-hug things, even though many of our countries are at war with one another.**

It’s almost creepy. I’ve never been that type of person – the type who gets along with other people. I’ve always seen classmates as an obstacle between myself and the bathroom. But this is Finland, where things are different. Immigration is a relatively new concept for Finns (who aren’t quite sure why anyone would move here), often leaving us foreigners as befuddled as drunken elk. We foreigners stick together because we’re engaged in war of our own against this nation’s violent, spasm-inducing language.

And our teachers? They’re the language’s ninjas – hefty, female, Caucasian ninjas who replace one another without warning. Some of these ninjas are old and mean and loud, while some are ancient and aloof and Magoo-eyed. Some charge one euro every time a cell phone rings, or when an English or Arabic phoneme leaks out, while others freely quote Sex and the City or Serpico.

But one thing is for sure: you don’t mess with ninjas, and you don’t mess with Finnish teachers. The teaching profession is, for Finns, as serious as swordplay. Teaching is not only an honor, it’s a highly competitive field that puts one in the realm of lawyers and politicians.

Despite all this, Finnish teachers are no better paid than in the U.S. and their jobs require half a lifetime of education and certification. For many, it’s simply an honor – an act of patriotism. Yes, Finnish teachers are somewhat bad-ass. Our main teacher, despite being close to plopping, rarely sits down, doesn’t fill our hours with busy work, and after class arms herself with a thick binder and yardstick and prevents Russian samurais from infiltrating the country.

Her main job, though, is to prepare us for our first real test, which takes place one month from now. If we do not pass this test, we will be cut from the class. If we are cut from the class, we may be cut from the labor market program that oversees our integration. If we are cut from the labor program, we will be left to wander for all of eternity on the frozen banks of a country where we have no idea what anyone is saying. (Plus we won’t get our 25 € per day stipend, which is about what Finnish teachers are paid.)

I shouldn’t be worried. I do my homework, study, and honor the ninjas for five hours a day. I’m learning so much Finnish that it gurgles in the back of my head like a sewage pipe. I should be able to make the grade. But throw in words like “suuryritysrypäs”*** or “epäjärjestelmällisyydellis tyttymättömyydellänsäkään,”**** and all bets are off. I might as well take up Penguin. At least they tell good knock-knock jokes.

Ninjas and tests aside, here’s the thing that you’ll never here me say out loud: although I rebelled and sweated and suffered an infarction or two, after a couple weeks the truth became as evident as a big fresh reindeer turd – I like learning Finnish, despite having to leave the house to do so. It’s nice, after being in this country for 14% of my life, to be able to understand the label on a can of beans (contents: beans). It’s nice to be able to swear at the kids who are using a stolen lawnmower as a bongo at 4 a.m. It’s nice to pretend I have a future in this strange arctic wonderland. I’ve always been a dreamer, and soon I’ll be able to delude myself in two languages. Wish me luck.

* But let me bore you anyways: for starters, there are some 16 cases, which are all suffixal and conditional and constantly mutating according to context. The language is phonetic, meaning that one must pronounce each and every letter within a word. Finnish does not naturally use B, C, F, X, Q, W or Z, and A, E, I, O, U and Y (“eeyuu”) are all pronounced differently than English vowels (plus it contains Ä and Ö). Many words have double vowels and double consonants, and sometimes entire rows of these pairs are lined up just waiting to humiliate you. As well, the arrangement of letters within a word determines (in addition to the case!), what its respective suffix will be. IT’S F***ING INSANE.

** I suppose it’s more accurate to say that the U.S. is at war with their countries.

*** Pronounced something like soor-eeuw-reet-oos-reeuw-pass.

**** Seppuku is more preferable than trying to pronounce this, though it’s likely that any four-year-old Finnish child could tear through it with one eye closed.

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CHRISTOPHER RYAN writes and lives in Helsinki, Finland. He received his MFA from Naropa University's Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics and is the author of "The Bible of Animal Feet" (Farfalla Press, 2005). His debut novel HELIOPHOBIA is forthcoming, eventually, with a bit of luck, perchance, sigh, mumbles to self, etc. More info on this and that can be found at his website.

10 responses to “Go With the Floe: Vowel Movements”

  1. Chris Ryan says:

    And by *here I mean *hear.

  2. Don Mitchell says:

    Interesting you mention seppuku. Isn’t Finnish closely related to Japanese?

    • ChrisRyan says:

      Yes, they are both phonetic languages, and at times sound quite similar in sound. I have a Japanese classmate, and she seems to move at a much faster pace, but it could be that she’s simply much smarter. She has the disadvantage of a different alphabet though.

  3. jenni pääskysaari says:

    Just loving it! Thanks! 🙂
    I too have rebelled against the strange finnish customs, and entered the lecture hall _before the professor.
    But it did feel weird and kind of dishonest.:-)
    Please, dont forget the possessiivisuffiksi! It is important and almost extinct already!

    • ChrisRyan says:

      Oh wow, I am really sorry for not replying to this before. For some reason I did not receive alerts for these comments.

      Thanks for the input, Litsa. I will strongly consider Greek, after I master penguin (and Finnish, but I think Penguin will come first).

      • ChrisRyan says:

        Shit, that ended up in the wrong slot. This is what I get for doing this during Finnish class. A classmate alerted me to the comments on this page — I had no idea they had appeared. Anteeksi!

  4. Brian Eckert says:

    I feel your pain of trying to learn a difficult language. I’m currently in Beijing, and just completed my first Chinese class. While the pronunciations of Chinese can be tricky (there are four tones and many sounds that emanate from a part of the body I have yet identify), the characters alone are a nightmare. I know people who speak Chinese fluently but can’t read more than a handful of characters.

    But it is rather rewarding to have the vocabulary of a 3 year old, as opposed to acting like a grunting, gesticulating caveman in every interaction with a Chinese person.

    • ChrisRyan says:

      Wow! I am pretty sure Chinese exceeds Finnish in difficulty, but you have to learn a whole new alphabet too. I would love to hear more about your experiences there, with the language and culture. (Sorry for the late reply! Weird!)

  5. I think it’s great you’re giving this a concerted effort, Christopher. As an American, it’s not like you grew up hearing Finnish regularly or probably even ever. You’re diving headlong into a new experience w/ your tenacity and humor intact. Nice job. (Fun part of being Greek: it’s relatively easy to pick up b/c so much of English derives from the Hellenic. So if you’re looking for a third language, I can recommend the mother-tongue.)

    • ChrisRyan says:

      Oh wow, I am really sorry for not replying to this before. For some reason I did not receive alerts for these comments.

      Thanks for the input, Litsa. I will strongly consider Greek, after I master penguin (and Finnish, but I think Penguin will come first).

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