The first thing many people studying a foreign language for the first time want to learn is how to swear. To them, learning how to say “fuck you, asshole!” is much more important than being able to introduce themselves or have a basic conver­sation. The good thing for people that love to swear and curse is that these phe­nomena are universal. All cultures and languages have plentiful means for people to spew obscenities. Where differences occur are in the types of words which are seen as most offensive and the ways in which they are used. For example, it may be strange for an American English speaker, who is much more likely to be offended by sex than by religion, to understand why words such as “tabernac” (tabernacle) and “sacramant” (sacrament) are considered so offensive by French speakers in Quebec.1Steven Pinker, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature, (New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2007), 330. These differences can not only offer people diverse ways to piss other people off, but also to better understand both the cultures in question, i.e. American sexual attitudes and the Catholic history and culture of French-speaking Canadians. We can conclude, then, that the diverse and fascinating ways speakers of different lan­guages swear can offer us insights into the culture and history of those who speak that language.

This is true for the Finnish culture and language, whose curses will be the focus of this paper. These swear words can offer important insights into two important aspects of Finnish culture: the Finns’ pre-Christian tradition and their ongoing relationship with their natural world.

One of the best-known and most important Finnish swear words is perkele. When the Finnish Institute for Domestic Languages conducted a survey on what Finns felt was the most energizing word in the Finnish language, perkele was a sug­gestion because it “gave the most strength for the reconstruction of Finland after the wars.”2Pyhälahti Minna. “Sun, sun you showed your horns.” trans. anonymous Wikipedia user, The Institute for Modern Languages, Nov. 2010, 1 Dec. 2012, <http://www.kotus.fi/index.phtml?7934_a=comment&7934_m=8067&s=3916>. The word aurinko (sun) was eventually selected over perkele, but its consideration still suggests its cultural importance. In fact, perkele is one of the best words we can look to in order to help us better understand Finland’s pre-Christian roots and eventual conversion to Christianity.

In modern Finnish, perkele is an expletive similar to goddammit or fuck it! in English. It can be used as an adjective in the genitive form as perkeleen, which is similar to goddamn (as an adjective) or fucking in English. The literal meaning of perkele in modern Finnish is “Satan,” but this word has a colorful history leading up to its current use. Perkele originally entered the Finnish language as a loanword from the Baltic languages and was a name for the Finnish thunder god. Words for similar gods exist in many of the Balto-Slavic languages, for example perkúnas in Lithuanian and perkuons in Latvian. When the conversion of Finland to Christian­ity began in the 11th century, there was an attempt to demonize the native religion.3Unto Salo, “Ukko, the Finnish God of Thunder: Separating Pagan Roots from Christian Accretions–Party One,” Mankind Quarterly, (2005): 174. Part of this process included letting the evil heathens know they were damned to Hell by co-opting perkele as a synonym for Satan.

Another interesting phrase in Finnish is Painu helvetin kuuseen, which trans­lates to “Go to Hell’s spruce tree.”4Helena Halmari, “Finnish Maledicta and Euphemisms,” Maledicta: the International Journal of Verbal Aggression, 13, (2005): 71. It is probably not the “go to Hell” part of this phrase that surprises us—which is often our default phrase when we have the self control not to say “fuck you, asshole!”—but the “spruce tree” part probably sounds a bit odd. The fact that Finns swear about “Hell’s spruce tree” does not mean that they are using mind altering substances which cause them to see demons appear in the forests (although maybe they are), but rather reflects how widespread trees are in Finland and how important they are for Finns. Finland is the most heavily for­ested nation in Europe, with 75% of the total area covered with trees, and 24% of all of these trees are spruce. Finland’s extensive forests are important both for the large Finnish forestry industry and for recreation, with 75% of Finns saying they visit forests during their free time.5Finnish Forest Association, accessed Dec. 1, 2012, http://www.forest.fi/smyforest/forest.nsf. As for the amazing insult discussed above, it is clear that Finns are imagining Hell in terms of the world they already know and understand. This is an example of religious cursing intersecting with a very specific element of Finnish culture.

Another highly offensive and very creative Finnish phrase is Suksi vittuun, which in English is “ski into a cunt.” Some people reading this may be trying to visualize how skiing into a cunt would actually work, while others may be wondering why the Finns use this outrageous phrase in the first place. Given the climate and geog­raphy of Finland, cross-country skiing has long been an important part of Finnish culture, with 38% of Finns saying they partake in the activity, even if only on an occasional basis. In the days before motorized transportation, skis were often used as a method of transportation.6Eija Pouta, Marjo Neuvonen, and Tuija Sievänen, “Participation in Cross-country skiing in Finland under Climate Change: Application of Multiple Hierarchy Stratification Perspective,” Journal of Leisure Research, 41 (2009): 91–92. As we can see, “ski into a cunt” is a phrase that is uniquely Finnish.

The third and final expression is a bit archaic, but is so colorful and unique that it rivals “ski into a cunt.” That phrase is vittujen kevät ja kyrpien takatalvi, which in English is “the spring of cunts and the late winter of dicks.” This list of seasonal genitalia is really an expression of frustration and could be figuratively translated as “oh fuck!” in English. The second season mentioned, which is associated with dicks, is takatalvi, which describes a situation in Finland during springtime when winter weather makes a comeback. The reason that spring is associated with female genitalia is that during spring, women in Finland would begin to wear shorter dresses, making it easier for men to see that part of their body (and maybe take a ski trip there?).7Jari Tammi, The Big Book of Swear Words, (WSOY, 1993), 211 and 360. The fact that the male genitalia is associated with the return of winter, and women once again wearing less revealing clothing, could be interpreted as an expression of sexual frustration. It is a statement of sexual, as well as general, frustration that also is a strong reflection of Finnish seasons and climate. As previously described, Finnish is a language with many creatively offensive ways of swearing and blaspheming. These swear words are not only interesting for how odd they can be, but also for how well they reflect different aspects of Finn­ish culture. This is a fact that can be extended to the languages and cultures of the world; swear words are not only interesting because everyone wants to learn to say “fuck” in 237 languages, but because swear words can teach us so much about the different cultures around the world.

 

Bibliography

Forest.fi. Suomen metsäyhdistys. 1 Dec 2012. <http://www.forest.fi/smyforest/forest.nsf>.

Halmari, Helena. “Finnish Maledicta and Euphemisms.” Maledicta: the International Journal of Verbal Aggression. 13. (2005): 71.

Minna, Pyhälahti. “Sun, sun you showed your horns.” Translated by anonymous Wikipedia user. The Institute for Modern Languages. 11 2010. 1 Dec. 2012. <http://www.kotus.fi/index.phtml?7934_a=comment&7934_m=8067&s=3916>.

The Dictionary of Modern Finnish. 4. Porvoo: Werner Söderström osakeyhtiö, 1956. 270.

Pinker, Steven. The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2007. 330.

Pouta, Eija, Marjo Neuvonen, and Tuija Sievänen. “Participation in Cross-country skiing in Finland under Climate Change: Application of Multiple Hierarchy Stratification Perspective.” Journal of Leisure Research. 41. (2009): 91–92.

Salo, Unto. “Ukko, the Finnish God of Thunder: Separating Pagan Roots from Christian Accretions–Party One.” Mankind Quarterly. (2005): 174.

Tammi, Jari. The Big Book of Swear Words. WSOY, 1993. 211, 360.

References   [ + ]

1. Steven Pinker, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature, (New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2007), 330.
2. Pyhälahti Minna. “Sun, sun you showed your horns.” trans. anonymous Wikipedia user, The Institute for Modern Languages, Nov. 2010, 1 Dec. 2012, <http://www.kotus.fi/index.phtml?7934_a=comment&7934_m=8067&s=3916>.
3. Unto Salo, “Ukko, the Finnish God of Thunder: Separating Pagan Roots from Christian Accretions–Party One,” Mankind Quarterly, (2005): 174.
4. Helena Halmari, “Finnish Maledicta and Euphemisms,” Maledicta: the International Journal of Verbal Aggression, 13, (2005): 71.
5. Finnish Forest Association, accessed Dec. 1, 2012, http://www.forest.fi/smyforest/forest.nsf.
6. Eija Pouta, Marjo Neuvonen, and Tuija Sievänen, “Participation in Cross-country skiing in Finland under Climate Change: Application of Multiple Hierarchy Stratification Perspective,” Journal of Leisure Research, 41 (2009): 91–92.
7. Jari Tammi, The Big Book of Swear Words, (WSOY, 1993), 211 and 360.