Sunday, 1 May 2016

First of May spoonerisms

Happy First of May! In Finland, First of May is a huge carnival-like celebration. In Germany you barely notice it. We went for a First of May walk and all we saw was a red balloon and a pile of puke. Can't get much lamer than that.

And since First of May is also the day of bad student humor, this episode is about a category of bad jokes I often miss in my current language environment. Kitchen linguistics presents: sananmuunnos (word transform). Sananmuunnos jokes are all about dirty anatomical expressions straight from elementary school backyards, preferably combined with religious vocabulary, so if you don't like that kind of humor... why are you still reading this blog?

Seriously speaking, it's somewhat non-trivial to explain why such childish and inappropriate jokes are entertaining also for people who consider themselves intellectual. At the end of the blog, I'll tell my guess.

So, sananmuunnos works like this:

pehmeä nis (a soft bunny) - hmeä penis (a stiff penis)

There are a couple of extra rules for how diphthongs and long/short vowels work, then just a dash of vowel harmony... all of those come naturally to us Finns, a certain way to transform just "feels correct" (or produces a result that means something naughty).

An example of a Finnish sananmuunnos joke: "Vaikka piha on liukas niin pulu ei kaadu." (Even though the courtyard is slippery, the pigeon doesn't fall over.) It's left to the listener to find the applicable transforms, so the sentence becomes "Vaikka liha on piukas niin kalu ei puudu." (Even though the flesh is tight, the cock won't harden.)

Sananmuunnos jokes are similar to - but not the same as - spoonerism in English and Spoonerismus in German. Often they follow a slightly different logic than the Finnish ones:

"Three cheers for our queer old dean!" (rather than "dear old queen")

Or, the transformed version is something somebody accidentally says: "Ich werde zu deinem Geburtstag nachher noch Buchen kacken, äh, Kuchen backen." (I'd shit books… beech trees (Hello, I'm an idiot!) eh, bake a cake, for your birthday.)

In the pure Finnish sananmuunnos jokes, the transformed version is never said aloud.

Now that's the theory. To illustrate the importance of sananmuunnos to the Finnish society, I have two anecdotes.

The first one (link in Finnish): A colleague of my mother in law died, and he was famous enough to have an obituary published in the main newspaper. In addition to his day job as a teacher he was a sananmuunnos hobbyist. And so it was written in the obituary that he wrote a book Paljas uneksija ("Bare dreamer" - although "uljas paneksija" is "a brave fucker") under names "Rudolf Ankku" ("Adolf Runkku" means "Adolf Wank") and "Pertti Joffán" ("jortti peffaan" means "dick into butt"). "I'm not sure if such jokes are appropriate in an obituary", I commented. "That person's obituary wouldn’t have been appropriate without such jokes", said my mother in law.

The second one (link in Finnish): To increase the voting rate in the Finnish church elections, the Finnish (Lutheran) church published a video, written by an independent screenwriter, where animated characters were debating the role of the church in the modern society. One of the characters criticized the "musty masses" of the church. Only that "musty masses" (tunkkaiset messut) is a sananmuunnos of "menstruating pussies" (menkkaiset tussut). "Oops, we didn't realize", commented the representative of the church. "Maybe it's a sananmuunnos, maybe it’s not", said the screenwriter.

And finally, my guess on why all this is socially appropriate: since the naughty version is never said aloud, sananmuunnos allows Finns to use weird, cryptic and improbable expressions, and all the naughtiness is in the head of the listener. Maybe the listener won't notice and just thinks "well, that was a weird choice of words", or maybe he notices, and that creates a shared, secret joke between them.

Saturday, 26 March 2016

A successful shirt

I recently had a confusing clothing discussion with a German friend. We were sorting, counting and noting down some baby clothes I was borrowing from her.

There were some like these:

I just put all of them into the same pile, counted them together and referred to all of them as Hemd. I had learned in school that paita = das Hemd, and in Finnish all these are different types of paitas, especially in the colloquial language. From the top: neulepaita (knitted shirt), paita (shirt), T-paita (T-shirt) and... I guess another paita. We do have a separate colloquial word for a hoodie (huppari), but nobody would be surprised if you said "I'll put my paita on" and then put your hoodie on. Basically the same thing as when you "go out for a coffee" but drink tea instead. Similarly, paita is often used in the broad sense of an upper body garment (except a bikini top, which is definitely not paita). The most typical paita would be a thin, long-sleeve cotton shirt without buttons:

But it turns out, Hemd only means a specific kind of paita, namely this (in Finnish kauluspaita):

And the other paitas are Pullover, Jäckchen, T-Shirt, and so on. We eventually de-confused the discussion and ended up making more than one pile of baby paitas - still probably less than a German would, because I said I'm not able to tell the difference between some types of garments because they're both paita to me.

If a Finnish novel is translated into German, and the main character puts a paita on, it should be translated differently based on what kind of person he is. Maybe he puts a Hemd on if it fits his character, but it can also be something else. A good human translator would be able to pick an appropriate word, but I can imagine this problem is very difficult for machine translation! Using the wrong word would make the atmosphere all wrong, for example if a rascal puts a button-down shirt on and goes out, the German reader would be left wondering why he's suddenly dressing up so formally.

In a similar vein, I recently read a column about the differences of being successful and being successful. Namely, there are two words for "to succeed" in Finnish, onnistua and menestyä. Onnistua (in this context) means more like "to produce something of good quality" and menestyä more like "to produce something popular" or "to rank highly compared to others". Similarly, there are two words which roughly translate to successful, onnistunut (something which has high quality) and menestynyt (something which has gained popularity). The column was about how we should strive to "onnistua" and not "menestyä", that is, we should focus on quality and not popularity / winning. It went on to list examples, like, an athlete should strive to onnistua (perform as well as he can) instead of menestyä (it might be possible to win even if you under-perform if the others are even worse, and it's also tempting to cheat in order to win, whereas cheating won't help you to onnistua). And at work, we should also try to onnistua (do our job well) instead of menestyä (achieve a high position).

I hope nobody needs to translate that column into English! In many contexts onnistua and menestyä would be translated into "to succeed" / "to achieve" / "to accomplish", but I don't think these English words are able to express the difference the column focuses on.

The dictionary definition of "to succeed" matches "onnistua" better, but if we say "she has been successful in her career", we'd use it in the sense of menestyä. We can also say "she has achieved a high position" to mean the same thing. To say that somebody wrote a book of good quality (which was not necessarily popular), I wouldn't use any of these words, I'd just say "she wrote a great book". "She wrote a successful book" would mean the book was popular. It would be weird to say "the movie was a success" to mean that it was a great movie although it didn't sell well.

(But anyway, as in all kitchen linguistics episodes, this is just my view on these words as a non-native English speaker, and I'm welcoming further insights into what these words mean and enlightening example usages.)

(A note to Germans, successful is spelled with one L. It can be also thought of something full of success but that's how it's spelled anyway. It's one of the most common misspellings I see in when I read English texts written by Germans.)