See the big picture?

9 November 2012 | Extracts, Non-fiction

Details from the cover, graphic design: Työnalle / Taru Staudinger

In his new book Miksi Suomi on Suomi (‘Why Finland is Finland’, Teos, 2012) writer Tommi Uschanov asks whether there is really anything that makes Finland different from other countries. He discovers that the features that nations themselves think distinguish them from other nations are often the same ones that the other nations consider typical of themselves…. In Finland’s case, though, there does seem to be something that genuinely sets it apart: language. In these extracts Uschanov takes a look at the way Finns express themselves verbally – or don’t

Is there actually anything Finnish about Finland?

My own thoughts on this matter have been significantly influenced by the Norwegian social scientist Anders Johansen and his article ‘Soul for Sale’ (1994). In it, he examines the attempts associated with the Lillehammer Winter Olympics to create an ‘image of Norway’ fit for international consumption. Johansen concluded at the time, almost twenty years ago, that there really isn’t anything particularly Norwegian about contemporary Norwegian culture.

There are certainly many things that are characteristic of Norway, but the same things are as characteristic of prosperous contemporary western countries in general. ‘According to Johansen, ‘Norwegianness’ often connotes things that are marks not of Norwegianness but of modernity. ‘Typically Norwegian’ cultural elements originate outside Norway, from many different places. The kind of Norwegian culture which is not to be found anywhere else is confined to folk music, traditional foods and national costumes. And for ordinary Norwegians they are deadly boring, without any living link to everyday life.

Public debate about Norwegianness is also characterised by a horoscope-like vagueness thanks to which anyone can find whatever they like. Even completely contradictory claims receive widespread approval. One newspaper columnist writes that polite Norwegians have an unhealthy habit of avoiding conflict to the last, and everyone nods; a couple of days later, another columnist writes that quarrelsomeness is a characteristic Norwegian trait, and everyone nods again.

Is Johansen’s diagnosis also true of Finland? Here, too, it has been noted how oft-vaunted national characteristics actually appear to be interchangeable between countries. One scholar of working life writes how in Finland work is characterised by the necessity of getting by, the fear of humiliation and defiant survival with the taste of blood in one’s mouth. Another scholar comments that this may well be true, not only in Finland but in who knows how many other countries. As Professor Marja Keränen has remarked, ‘every nation imagines itself to be unique and separate. National symbols are nevertheless chosen from a very limited selection: the iconography of the nation is very similar everywhere.’


Johansen’s references to boring Norwegian national culture recall the historian Matti Klinge who, in his essay ‘Oma ja vieras’ (‘Native and foreign’, 1982), suggests that ‘Finnish culture, economy and government’ were created by people wearing evening suits just as much as those in national dress. But not only evening suits – also business suits, t-shirt and jeans, floral dresses, corduroy trousers, and so on. The imbalance between national culture and the culture valued by the people themselves is illustrated by a topical political example. In the spring of 2011, after a long gap, cultural politics became a topic of wide political conversation in Finland when the election manifesto of the True Finns party [Perussuomalaiset] opposed postmodernism to the national romanticism of a century ago. It judged the former as strongly as it praised the latter. The debate on the subject centred depressingly in objections to postmodernism. This was, in my opinion, completely beside the point.

The true, extraordinary oddity of the True Finns’ position lies in the fact that for many of their own voters national romanticism has no more meaning than postmodernism. Present-day artists have probably given True Finns voters (as well as those of all competing parties) many times more aesthetic pleasure than Sibelius or Gallen-Kallela. Nevertheless the party had not a single good – or bad – word to say about them. Shouldn’t politicians who consider themselves populists have the courage to champion what is popular, favoured? But when a party that opposes elitism in other areas of life addressed cultural politics, it hid behind the dustiest museum pieces of elite art.

Being alone in a good way – Finnishness in English

Scholars of the Finnish language have remarked that it differs from other languages in certain ways which can, at least to some extent, be interpreted as evidence of the straightforwardness of Finnish culture and the demand for trueness to life in communication. The translation researcher Andrew Chesterman has commented that in order to convey a message of the same ‘strength’, fewer words are needed in Finnish than in, for example, English. In fact, in Finnish it is even necessary to be curt and laconic; otherwise the message becomes overemphasised and begins to sound quite wrong. Finnish omits many adjectives, adverbs and other auxiliary words which appear in English texts of the same kind. If, on the sports pages of a Finnish newspaper, a sportsman ‘made good last year’s defeat’, in a British newspaper he ‘was finally able to expunge the painful memories of his surprising defeat a year ago’. It has also been noted that the lack of auxiliary words ‘travels’ into English as written and spoken by Finns: even those who are technically able to produce almost faultless English use as few auxiliary words as in normal Finnish.

The differences are particularly marked in the language of marketing and advertising. If an English advertisement mentions ‘cleaner and healthier hair than ever’ or promises ‘truly good results very quickly’, the Finnish version will only promise ‘clean and healthy hair’ or ‘good results fast’. I have myself sometimes noted in my translation work that in translating a certain type of English-language sales talk the only way to get a bearable Finnish version is to omit at least half of the original.

Studies of spoken communication, on the other hand, have noted that the rules concerning pauses in speech, and the length of those pauses, are different in Finnish from other European languages. Finns are quite happy with very long pauses both within utterances and between them. It is also difficult for them to make interjections in the seamless conversation of foreigners, which they are apt to consider mere incessant babbling. Once they begin to speak, there is always the threat of being interrupted, as their companions easily interpret a long pause as meaning the Finn has already said what he or she has to say.

This does not necessarily make the Finnish language inferior or less useful for everyday communication. But it is interesting that the difference between Finnish and English is also true of British English, even though the Brits are considered emotionally reserved, controlled and sophisticated. Compared to their Finnish equivalents, British newspaper texts, too, appear like trivial chatter – and Finnish texts compared to British ones seem brusque and direct to the point of lack of subtlety. As anyone can see from, for instance, newspaper websites, British English uses words such as anger or fury with astonishing ease. Almost any publicly spoken expression of dissatisfaction with almost any social phenomenon uses one, and often both. The word fury brings to my mind Fritz Lang’s movie of the same name, in which a demented crowd razes a prison to the ground because it is unable to lynch an innocent man. The fact that a bus route is changed or that the European Union allows carrot farmers an extra two cents is undoubtedly not agreeable to everyone, but the question is of a slightly different order.

When Finns talk with foreigners about their attitude to language and other particularities of Finnish culture, this conversation, too, can be affected by the differing strength of expressions. If a speaker whose native language is English uses, of a Finn, the adjectives silent or brooding, the Finn will interpret this to mean, with the directness of a dictionary, that he or she is hiljainen (quiet), or mietiskelevä (thoughtful): national characteristics in which there is nothing shameful or pitiable. But to a native speaker, silent is a much stronger word. It does not mean ‘quiet’ only in the sense of laconic or curt, but is aligned with such Finnish words as, for example, mykkä (mute) or tuppisuu (tongue-tied); in other words, complete, unbroken soundlessness.

Since the Finn does not understand this, he may for example nod at the silent accusation and wonder what on earth is wrong with the fact that Finns are a little more silent than others may be. This, again, may seem a completely strange, even incomprehensible move on the part of his interlocutor. Yes, yes, we’re silent, what’s so strange about that? If the Finn were to be sensitive to the difference in strength between the languages, he might defend himself against the accusation: yes, we’re laconic, but for heaven’s sake, we’re not quite silent. But if he does not sense the difference, his unapologetic nod in response to a word that is intended to be shocking may only widen the gulf between him and the foreigner.

Similarly, if someone is brooding, as Finns are often said to be, this does not merely mean a thoughtful or philosophical nature. There is often an implication that the person under discussion is over-serious and turns tiny details obsessively over in his mind. He does not understand that it is possible to lighten his burden by talking about these matters with other people, or simply to let them go. In this connection it is interesting that American scholars of spoken communication have commented that the English language is lacking in an expression equivalent to the Finnish olla omissa oloissaan. The fact that a person is socially alone or isolated – the meaning of the familiar Finnish phrase – is, in the English-speaking world, immediately considered divergent from normal human life.

English-language culture is thus lacking the entire field of meaning that makes olla omissa oloissaan a positive, desirable and even in some way luxurious state of being. For example, the English expression to be on one’s own means something negative, or at least challenging. One scholarly article on this linguistic difference translated olla omissa oloissaan as being alone in a good way. The delightful strangeness of this translation to the Finnish ear demonstrates how deep some of the peculiarities of Finnish culture are. And in this particular example, for a change, Finnish culture appears richer than its American or British counterparts.

Finns and truth

One phenomenon that appears to support the idea of the Finns’ longing for truth is their attitude to literature. In the 1980s and 1990s Kimmo Jokinen examined Finns’ views of the nature of literature and what they think of as good literature. He drew attention to the fact that in Finland the work of the writer is considered a responsible, heroic enterprise. It is classed with sport, physical labour or other similar activities which are directed at material reality and produce measurable results.

Even in light entertainment, for example historical romances, factual details are expected to be accurate. A writer may receive angry letters from his readers if, for example, a real village, river or building is, in his book, in a slightly different place from where they are in reality. Literature has been both criticised and praised for the fact that it offers its readers an escape from reality, but Finns appear to use it to escape towards reality, and not away from it.

Jokinen quotes a description from Paul Auster’s City of Glass of an American thriller writer who has never been to a police station, met a detective or talked to a criminal. Auster’s writer in no way considered this an impediment; in writing a story, he was not interested in its relationship with the world so much as its relationship to other stories. Jokinen cuts straight to Finn’s responses in which they say what they feel makes a thriller good: the fact that the writer is personally acquainted with the work of the police and the judiciary, or is even himself a policeman, like Matti Yrjänä Joensuu.

Worthy of separate consideration is the fact that the readers’ demand for truthfulness is taken seriously in the publishing world. An outsider might imagine that literary professionals might giggle ruefully at naïve readers who cannot distinguish fact from fiction. But in Finland this is not so. The reality-centred idea of literature beloved of readers is not necessarily personally shared, but neither is it considered of lesser value or out of the literary court. Keeping to the facts is a widely approved aspect of literary culture, and it is also respected by critics, writers, literary editors, literary prize judges and others. I have also noticed, in my work in book publishing, that there is nothing more embarrassing to Finnish literary authors and their publishers than factual errors appearing in novels or short stories. Some books are also offered to buyers and readers through literary institutions in such terms that this offer really makes any errors that appear in the books serious. In Finland ‘you must not lie to the reader’, as Jokinen expresses it in the title of one of his articles.

Finland has also been the scene of many book wars in which writers are accused of presenting wrongly what has really and historically appeared in the word. Accusations of this kind were leveled at Väinö Linna for his war classics Tuntematon sotilas (The Unknown Soldier, 1954) and Täällä Pohjantähden alla (Here under the North Star, 1959–62), Paavo Rintala for his Sissiluutnantti (‘Lieutenant commander’, 1963), Hannu Salama’s Siinä näkijä missä tekijä (‘No crime without a witness’, 1972) and Anja Kauranen’s Pelon maantiede (‘Geography of fear’, 1995). The freshest debacle of this kind arose around Jari Tervo’s novel Layla of 2011. These book wars have also sometimes broken political and social boundaries: for example, critical comments on Linna and Rintala came from completely different philosophical directions from the judges of Salama’s and Tervo’s work.

The attempt has been made to counter such accusations with the claim that these are fictions created in the mind of the writer, who has made no claims that they are anything more, and that this should be clear to anyone. A novel is not a reference book. This has, however, been ignored in the book wars as irrelevant hair-splitting. The book wars seem to have been an almost unique Finnish phenomenon which has not appeared in other western cultures on anything like the same scale.

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1 comment:

  1. Christian

    Very interesting and insightful. I’d say however that the “book wars”- phenomenom exists also in Sweden, the latest example being the movie Call Girls. There’s an “anonymous primeminister” in the movie who could identified as Palme. The makers claim the nameless minister is fictional character, but the son of Palme has sued the company and might even win.

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