The Savonian dialect of Finnish

Dear reader, if you are an exchange student in Finland, you might be in for a lot of trouble.

Namely: Though you learn Finnish, you learn the sort of correct, “official” Finnish that’s used in writing and in radio and TV — but if you go and talk to a Finn, he most likely will be speaking some dialect or the other.

Now, in Finnish dialects aren’t as bad as they can be in some languages — apart from a handful of dialectal words in ever-diminishing use, the difference is just in the mangling of the way words are ordered and said. Some youths hardly speak in a dialect at all, unless the usual youthful combination of orkish profanities and Valspeak counts.

Since I am less than an amateur on linguistics, I’ll just give a few comparisons between (standard) Finnish and Savonian, the sweet and roundabout dialect of the old provinces of Savo and Karjala, the middle and eastern parts of middle Finland, just below the “neck” of Kainuu. (Or the “Savo triangle”; find Kuopio, Joensuu and Varkaus from a map and draw a generously padded triangle around them and you’ll catch a good chunk of the ground.)

Since the Finnish dialects have no “official” forms, I hereby declare this dialect of mine is Savonian as it should be spoken. Everyone else does this; thus I do it too. Don’t come complaining to me.

First, numerals from one to ten.

Finnish: Yksi, kaksi, kolme, neljä, viisi, kuusi, seitsemän, kahdeksan, yhdeksän, kymmenen.

Savonian: Yks, kaks, kolome, nelejä, viis, kuus, seittemän, kaheksan, yheksän, kymmene.

Then a few phrases — first in English, then Finnish, then Savonian.

Good day! / Hyvää päivää! / Hyvvee päevvee.

I cannot imagine a Savonian saying this in a way that would be accurately described by an exclamation point. Also: the phrase is word-by-word the same in all three ways.

Hi! How are you? / Hei. Mitä kuuluu? / Hee. Mitteepä kuulluu?

The “How are you?” is actually “What [do you] hear?”; maybe not what an exchange student will be taught, but a plausible thing to be said by a Finn.

Then again, teaching phrases like this is pretty hopeless since any given Finn (and especially a Savonian!) will have a dozen or more different ways of expressing or returning this sentiment of “I have seen you!” — for example, in Savonian / Finnish / English:

Onko mittään ihmeemppöö tapahtunna? / No, onko mitään ihmeellisempää tapahtunut? / Any especially miraculous events lately?

The following greetings just can’t be said in standard Finnish without sounding like a total moron, so they’re just in Savonian and in English.

Sitäkö on vielä elossa pysytelty? / So, you’re still hanging to life[, are you]?

Ee uo vielä henki lähtennä? / [So you] haven’t died yet?

Mitteepä miehelle kuulluu, vai onko piässynnä korvat kerreemmään vaikkua liikkoo? / So, whatcha hear, or have you’ve been gathering a bit too much earwax [to hear a thing]?

It gets even worse when a Savonian responds to something like that, since in Savo you either leap into this verbal sparring or very quickly learn to stay with monosyllables.

And then there’s the problem that some things just aren’t said the same in standard and in dialect, even correcting for pronunciation. For example, a “standard” Finn might say:

“Pureskele 2 purukumityynyä joka aterian jälkeen 5 min”

That could, word by word, be unravelled as “Bite 2 bubblegum-pillows every meal after 5 min” or “After each meal, chew on 2 bubblegum ‘pillows’ for five minutes”.

Actually, a standard Finn might be more likely to read that from a gum wrapper like I just did instead of saying it out loud, but anyway.

A Savonian, in contrast, and in my (by definition) correct opinion, simply wouldn’t and couldn’t phrase the thing that way if he was speaking normally. It would be more like

“Aena äpöstämisen jäläkeen ota ja äyrihe purukumipalasia, vappaasti yhtä enempöö ja kolmea vähempöö, siinä suunnilleen viijen viisarin väppäyksen verran.”

That could be, word for word in the same order, parsed as “Every-time munching after take and chomp-on bubblegum-pieces, freely one more-than and three less-than, for-roughly approximately five clock-hand’s swing’s while.”

A Finnish reader might point out I exaggerate — well, I do, but only slightly, and mostly to illustrate the points that the ordering of the sentence is wholly scrambled, and “formal” words are replaced by dialectal alternatives or lengthy circumlocutions, or them just switched for made-up words. For example, the verb “äyriä” for chewing/chomping, with “äyrihe” as its imperative form, is something that just popped to my mind trying to say the this. It’s a totally spurious made-up word, but the Savonian dialect lives by the wit and ingenuity of its speakers; the new words are understood from the context and then, most probably, never used again.

Unless a hapless dialect collector comes by; then he’ll hear fifty words for chicken genitalia, little guessing that five minutes earlier none of those had ever been used, or ever would be again, though they are all given in honesty and pure willingness to give the “city fellow” exactly what he wants. When you have a language that’s spoken, hardly ever written, words come and go. When you have a “tribe” that is known all Finland over as people you should never, ever buy a horse from, words come and go all the quicker.

The horse-buying, mind you, isn’t risky because of Savonians being dishonest or anything like that. No, they just are opaque and playful. I’d guess something like this would be the sales pitch for a horse in good ol’ Kuopio marketplace, a century or so ago:

“Well, here’s this oat-powered biological locomotive. Has a front part up front, a back part in the behind, and the rest in the middle. Rests on four legs of roughly equal length, all of which touch the ground, except when moving. If all four point straight up, that’s a sign the motive needs maintenance, possibly replacement. Has a pull-string in the back; pulling it will stop the motive, and produce a cry of alarm. Also another cry, if the puller doesn’t dodge the leg. The whole thing is covered with a luxurious brown coat of horsehair, except those parts that are uncovered or covered by something else. All the teeth in this model are collected in the mouthparts; all the shoes in the hoofparts. Comes equipped with a spare shoe, which can be easily utilized on the road, if one has a hammer, tongs and forge handy. Also has a well-functioning generator of combustible nodules, which can also be used for natural-medicinal dyes and insect repellent if still wet. Indeed, smearing them on one’s face will probably repel anything smaller than your uncle, and maybe the uncle, too! The same orifice produces wind, so that a carriage behind this fine beast will be buffeted by the warm fragrances of summer pastures even while not moving. As for a pedigree, a lineage even, this beastie was fathered by an actual stallion which later became a gelding, and birthed by an honest-to-God mare. As far as the eye can see, all the female horses on the mare’s lineage have been mares as well! As far as the eye can see, and two miles after that, too! Mares, would you believe? So, interested in making a purchase yet?”

Not a single lie, but not a whole lot of useful information either. That’s Savonian.

Oh, and the Finnish word for a human being is “ihminen”. The corresponding Savonian form, “immeinen”, is often used to differentiate between mere Finns and real Savonians — or as many a Savonian has been heard to say, finding another in a foreign place (say Helsinki):

“No mutta tiällähän on toenenniin immeinen!” (Why, fancy finding a second human being in around here!)

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