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.


  1. "Buchen kacken" is "Shit beech trees", not "shit books"

    Not sure why I feel the need to associate my online presence with a correction like that. Must be some hitherto undiscovered love of pedantry!

    Finding on Wikipedia that some Moomintrolls use sananmuunnos just confirms my feeling that the Moomintrolls are sinister i ways that are hard to pin down.

    1. Thanks for the correction, I surely feel like an idiot-barely-able-to-speak-German now. :)

    2. Where do Moomins use sananmuunnos though?

      (A fun fact: The first Moomins were originally written in English because they were published in an English newspaper. The author, Tove Jansson, is Finnish-Swedish and she wrote in Swedish, so the Finnish Moomin version are definitely translated from English / Swedish!)

  2. I always assumed that Finnish was the original language of the Moomintrolls.

    Apparently Thingummy and Bob (Tiuhti and Viuhti) use them. This is from the Wiki page on Spoonerisms. Swedish Wikipedia says they "have their own language".

    I don't remember how they spoke in the Danish translation I read.

    The sananmuunnos in the church video sounds a bit like the tradition of subversive acrostics:

    1. This is weird. Based on my 5 minute googling, I couldn't find any other references to them speaking in sananmuunnos. The Swedish wiki page you linked gives an example of their language in Swedish, which is just adding an extra syllable (la) to each word. The only concrete example of what they say in Finnish I could find was hyvääti päivääti which is also just adding "to" to each word. Other sources only said that they speak a weird language.

      Also, why in earth is the English name Bob, especially when the characters are based on women?

      By the way, are there spoonerisms in Danish?

    2. Peter (native English speaker)18 October 2017 at 10:16

      "Thingummybob" is a substitute word when you can't remember or don't know the correct word for something (also: whatsit, doodad, thingamajig, whatchamacallit). Sometimes this is shortened to "Thingummy", so I guess the translator split the word into two for two very closely related characters.

      I don't think the 'bob' part of the word is more than a nice-sounding syllable, since its 'real' meanings are completely unconnected. (Bob is a common shortening of the male name Robert, almost never of the female name Roberta which is shortened to Bobbie.)

  3. Bob is probably an abbreviation of a girl's name :-)

    I guess the Danish version is "Bakke Snagvendt" which is very like Spoonerisms, but there's no pretence of it being accidental.

    There's a rather famous children's song. The joke is that the kids see the inverted version coming, and the song has slight pauses to let them get it. Of course, genitals are involved!

    Missetand -> tissemand
    Pussy-cat tooth -> willie

    Actually most of the other examples in the song don't mean anything although some of them sound vaguely dirty.