03 May 2016

Light and color from the far north

I spend a great deal of time on the internet, most of it pursuing interests which have nothing to do with politics or current events (I am so sick to death of everything having to be about goddamn Donald Trump and the US election).  As I've followed link after link in pursuit of whatever appealed to my personal sense of the aesthetic, the ingenious, the daring, or the bizarre, it began to strike me that a surprisingly-large fraction of the most interesting material out there originated from just one country.

When you first discover someone's blog or YouTube channel or whatever, in many cases you can't immediately tell where in the world the person is.  If I find someone's work interesting, I sometimes give myself a little challenge of figuring it out.  A word or two in the native language amidst a mostly-English blog, or a reference to a certain town or city as "here", or some other clue, can pin it down -- OK, now I know this person is from, say, Finland.  Something a YouTuber mentions about herself -- Finland again.  Or sometimes there's no guessing to do because the profile intro says it straight out -- Finland.

But wait a minute.  I have to admit Finland is a country I know very little about, but I know it has about five million people, which is just one-fifteenth of one percent of the world's total population.  Is the whole country populated by creative eccentrics?  Is there a special Finnish sense of weirdness that just happens to resonate especially well with mine?  Are they hugely over-represented on the internet for some reason?  One of the blogs I've most recently discovered is actually called Yet Another Suomi Blog (Suomi means "Finnish" in Finnish), implying that there are a lot of them, but there's a lot of everything on the internet.

This raises another point that intrigues me.  On some blogs, interspersed among the fluent internet English, I'll see occasional passages that look like this:

Mua ärsyttää ihan liikaa joidenkin opettajien suhtautuminen kaikkiin sukupuolivähemmistöjuttuihin. Syksylläkin meidän koululle tuli immeisiä kertomaan tyttöjen päivästä ja siinä sitten oli kysymys joka oli tyyliin mitä asioita tulee mieleen tyttönä olemisesta ja poikana olemisesta, ja koska me ei kavereiden kanssa haluttu alkaa latelemaan jotain "tytöillä on röyhelöhame ja pojilla on pieruverkkarit" juttuja, niin mehän kirjoitettiin vaan että tyttö on kun tuntee olevansa tyttö ja poika on kun tuntee olevansa poika.

When you look at a paragraph of German or French, even if you've never studied the language, you can often identify things like articles and prepositions and see words that look somewhat familiar (German is closely related to English, and a huge number of English words originate from French).  Even with something like Danish or Italian or Spanish, you can generally make out something of how the sentences are structured and what topic is being talked about.  For me, at least, most Middle Eastern languages have similarly recognizable elements because so much of their vocabulary is borrowed from Arabic, which I've studied.  But Finnish looks completely impenetrable.  Even the fact that it's written in the same Roman alphabet as English just highlights how fascinatingly alien it is.  Sure, there are occasional obvious borrowings from English:

Unohtu vielä sanoa, että ainakin missä piireissä olen täällä pyörinyt, niin varsin queer-friendly

.....but again, that just makes it more obvious by contrast how unlike English the language itself is.  And this impression is not mistaken.  Finnish doesn't belong to the huge Indo-European family of which most European, and several Middle Eastern, languages are members.  It's unrelated to all of those, belonging to the Uralic family, related only to Estonian and a scattering of minor languages in northern Russia (and, very distantly, to Hungarian).  It is, at least, a language boasting some interesting insults.

Seriously, I'm all the more impressed that many Finnish internetters can write English so well that one can hardly tell they aren't American -- English must seem just as alien to a Finnish-speaker as vice-versa.  Perhaps that's related to the fact that Finland (along with its close cousin Estonia) is among the world's top-ranked countries in education, one of the few non-East-Asian nations to achieve this.

Finland's geographical location makes it somewhat isolated yet not completely cut off from foreign influences, something also true of the two countries most noted for eccentric and imaginative pop culture, Britain and Japan (both being island countries just off the coast of major civilizations).  Perhaps such traits are best cultivated in places a little off the beaten path of history?  But Finland hasn't been left to develop in peace -- it spent most of its modern history before 1918 under Swedish or Russian rule, and had to fight off a Soviet invasion in 1939-1940.  Sharing a long common border with an aggressive superpower isn't conducive to a tranquil national existence.  Just ask Mexico.

Every society has its own character.  I pity those whose mental universe is limited to their own country, however large that country may be.  There is a whole colorful world out there.

9 Comments:

Anonymous Marc McKenzie said...

Every society has its own character. I pity those whose mental universe is limited to their own country, however large that country may be. There is a whole colorful world out there.

Well, as the great Louis Armstrong once sang..."What a wonderful world!"

I will say that I do like traveling, and I would love to travel to more countries and see more of the world, especially Japan (it's obvious from my art to see how one area of that country's culture--even if it is popular culture--has had an effect on me). But I am glad that I did travel to Europe as a teen and have visited Canada and several Caribbean islands. I just never understood the mindset of someone whose view of the world is limited only to one state or two or who feels that checking places out via the Internet is the be-all end-all of things. Sure, it's cool to see pictures of the Eiffel Tower, but NOTHING beats seeing it up close and going to the observation deck.

03 May, 2016 05:16  
Anonymous Zosimus the Heathen said...

An interesting introduction I've had to Finnish culture and its myriad idiosyncrasies has come from listening to quite a bit of Finnish heavy metal - there're a lot of weird and wonderful bands in that genre that hail from that part of Europe. A few good examples would be Children of Bodom (a group that named itself after a lake near the capital, Helsinki, that was the site of a gruesome mass murder some decades back now), Korpiklaani (a group whose music combines metal with elements of Finnish folk music), and KYPCK (a band whose name is the Cyrillic spelling of the word "Kursk", and who write songs about life in the former Soviet Union*). Probably the most (in)famous metal band from Finland, however, is one called Impaled Nazarene, who've become notorious for writing songs that express strongly Social Darwinistic sentiments or a Finnish nationalism that borders on outright fascism/xenophobia. One of their albums, Suomi Finland Perkele, apparently generated a bit of controversy because of its title (I gather "perkele" means something rude in Finnish), and one of the group's former members died after falling off a bridge while drunk, and landing on the frozen river below (which seems an appropriately Finnish way to go!). From all the stuff of theirs I've listened to, I suspect they don't believe half the shit they spew, and that they're just one massive Poe - at least, I hope so!

I remember reading a bit about the Winter War - apparently, despite losing in the end, the Finns put up a very good fight (because of this, I gather many in the country look back on the war with pride). Interesting that the country avoided the fate of some of its Baltic neighbours and didn't end up being absorbed into the USSR after war's end (or, at the very least, having a Stalinist puppet government forced on it). I'm sure there were some interesting politics behind that!

"Comma fucker" is a great insult. I'm going to have to remember that one!

*Given the history the two countries have had with each other, that's probably a bit like a band from Israel composing songs about the Third Reich!

03 May, 2016 05:29  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Marc: I've been to Japan and would encourage you to go if it all possible (knowing some of the language would really help). I was a manga and anime fan for quite a few years and can certainly see those influences in your work! Just wish I could draw.....

The traveling I've done is among my best memories. I still hope to do more of it.

Zosimus: Yes, popular music is another huge area I didn't even touch on here, though some time back I did post these videos. Most hard-core heavy metal doesn't do much for me, I'm afraid. And it's hard for me to discuss music since I'm just not familiar with a lot of the necessary vocabulary. I do know what I like, though.:-)

"Finlandization" -- a policy of never challenging the USSR in foreign affairs in exchange for being left alone otherwise -- became something of an epithet among more militaristic Americans during the Cold War, but it seemed to work out well for Finland.

03 May, 2016 06:02  
Blogger Shaw Kenawe said...


Fascinating. I would love to visit Finland.

Did you know about their passion for the Tango?

And here are some likes and dislikes if you're considering traveling to Finland.

My step-son had a Finnish roommate in college here in Massachusetts, and he visited us often, much to our delight.My step-son's been to Finland several times and loved it. At some point we hope to do the same.

03 May, 2016 10:49  
Blogger Ahab said...

Zosimus -- Let's not forget the most awesome Finnish band of all, Nightwish! \m/

I like Korpiklaani's songs too ("Wooden Pints" and "Beer Beer" are two of my favorites). I will definitely look into the other Finnish bands you listed ... with the exception of Impaled Nazarene.

Infidel -- I would love to travel abroad, but it's too expensive for my budget. A trip to Australia or New Zealand will have to go on my bucket list.

03 May, 2016 19:03  
Anonymous NickM said...

Finnish is not an Indo-European language. It is related to Hungarian and Mongolian (also, I think to Estonian).

They are an odd lot. I had intercourse with a Finn. She had jet black hair, ice-blue eyes, a "Marilyn" mole and was dirtier than a coal miner at end of shift. She was a force of nature.

And dear gods can the Finns drink? Oh yeah. They make the Poles look like amateurs at the game.

As to Finnish culture I would recommend Sibelius most highly. My favourite is the awesome Symphony #7 but work your way up to it. But also highly recommended is the violin concerto and the best I have heard is with Kyung Wha Chung on the fiddle.

04 May, 2016 00:40  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Shaw: Interesting. I've heard very divergent claims about how friendly Finnish people are to foreigners. I guess it all depends who you run into. Just consider how varied Americans are in their reaction to non-Americans. It also probably depends on what attitude an American visitor takes. Some Americans in foreign countries are pretty disrespectful.

Ahab: I first found out about Nightwish from your blog. including one of the videos I posted last year (linked above). They fit well with my sense of how offbeat the pop culture there is -- how many bands sing about subjects like evolutionary biology?

Nick: Yes, as I mentioned in the post, it's closely related to Estonian. (Not to Mongolian though -- Mongolian is in the Altaic group with Turkish and Korean -- it used to be thought that Uralic and Altaic were related somehow, but this is no longer accepted).

There are a lot of jokes on Finnish blogs about the heavy drinking. Maybe they picked that up from the Slavs (or vice versa). Rather unfortunate, given the health consequences.

04 May, 2016 03:25  
Anonymous NickM said...

Sibelius himself drank like a fish. And he didn't just enjoy a nice bottle of Pinot Noir. He drank this kinda vodka made with tree bark. It is psycho-active. He had a cabin in the woods where he would repair to compose. Anyway, one snowy night he became convinced there was a prowler so went out to investigate. He discovered footprints in the snow. It was quite some time he realized he'd been following his own footprints round and round the cabin.

04 May, 2016 07:52  
Blogger Pinku-Sensei said...


"how many bands sing about subjects like evolutionary biology?"

I'm a already a fan of Nightwish because of its metal version of "Phantom of the Opera," but it looks like I should listen to them more. As for the answer to the question you asked, I can think of one, Shriekback. Here's what I wrote about them in
Nemesis: essay and song.

"'(Nothing but) Flowers' may be the theme song for the blog and as such may be my theme song now, but 'Nemesis' was my personal theme song before that. It mentioned both prehistoric animals and parthenogenesis, which were subjects of my M.S. and Ph.D. research respectively and was a cool song to boot."

08 May, 2016 08:38  

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