Thursday, 26 February 2009

What have the Finns ever done for us?

There is a famous scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian in which the leader of an anti-Roman faction asks the question, ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ The answer, of course, turns out to be quite a lot: sanitation, the aqueducts, education, the roads, wine …

The influence of Roman culture on the English lexicon is similarly pervasive. Every page of the dictionary teems with words that have their origins in the Latin language. Yet English has also taken in words from some more improbable sources, and I propose to consider the influence of a less heralded culture in this blog. What have the Finnish ever done for us?

The chief contribution of the Finns to our language has to be the word sauna, the type of steam bath that originated in Finland and spread all over the world, a much more successful export, it has to be said, than either the kantele (a type of zither) or the pulka (a Laplander’s boat-shaped sledge), the two other Finnish objects that appear in The Chambers Dictionary.

However, two Finns have lent their names to respectable English words. The chemical element gadolinium and the mineral gadolinite are both named after the Finnish chemist Johan Gadolin, while the computer operating system Linux was named after its Finnish developer Linus Torvalds.

And then there is the political term Finlandization, defined as ‘a policy towards a superior power of accommodation rather than confrontation, as in the relations between Finland and the former Soviet Union’.

Add to this the fact that Finnish grammar is a somewhat singular affair which makes use of categories such as adessive, elative, essive and translative which are not found in other European languages and we start to see that you don’t have to have invaded the British Isles to have made a contribution to the melting pot that is English.

Ian Brookes

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