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Elefantti or Norsu? Loanwords vs Finnish Words

Should you call an elephant elefantti or norsu in Finnish? Does it matter? Why are there two words when one would be enough?

Table of Contents
  1. Loanwords versus language purists
  2. Why use a loanword when there’s a Finnish word?
  3. Loanwords of equal status
  4. Often used, less accepted loanwords
  5. Spoken language loanwords

1. Loanwords versus language purists

Loanwords are not a new phenomenon. Finnish language purists have always resisted loanwords and foreign language constructions. Nowadays, many loanwords come from English. In the past there have been large amounts of words taken from Russian and especially Swedish. German and Latin have also been at the base of many loanwords.

The earliest records we have of loanwords and their “more Finnish” equivalents are of course tied to the birth of the Finnish written language. Mikael Agricola used a lot of “loan translations” when he was translating the New Testament to Finnish. A loan translation is a word or phrase that’s loaned from another language, and then translated literally. Agricola borrowed for example the Latin word “benedicere” (to bless) and translated it literally as “hyvästipuhua“. This is no longer an accepted Finnish word; it’s called siunata now. Some of the loan translations were changed as soon as the next version of the Bible was published, while others stayed.

2. Why use a loanword when there’s a Finnish word?

I don’t have an answer to the above question. As you will see further down in the article, there are multiple layers of words with different degrees of acceptability. My own stance is generally to put communication before form. If the word “bussi” comes to mind faster than “linja-auto“, then why not use that one? The same issue is also true for using elefantti or norsu, in my opinion.

There are words where one version (eg. klovni) can be considered much “uglier” than the more native Finnish word (pelle). However, that’s for you to judge. The main purpose of this article is to get acquainted with the different levels of loanwords. The more information you have, the better you can make your own decisions about the language you use.

3. Loanwords of equal status

The following loanwords all have a status that is more or less equal to the more Finnish equivalent. When looking in a Finnish-Finnish dictionary, the loanword will mention the Finnish equivalent, and the Finnish equivalent will mention the loanword as an explanation, without saying one is better than the other.

Loanword Original word English
elefantti norsu elephant
negatiivinen kielteinen negative
positiivinen myönteinen positive
firma yritys business
klovni pelle clown
lavuaari pesuallas wash basin
kravatti solmio tie
bussi linja-auto bus
normaali tavallinen normal
organisaatio järjestö organization
projekti hanke project
parfyymi hajuvesi perfume
systeemi järjestelmä system
instrumentti soitin instrument
injektio ruiske injection
invalidi vammainen invalid
filmi elokuva movie
amatööri harrastelija amateur
melodia sävelmä melody
struktuuri rakenne structure
sekundaarinen toissijainen secondary
stabiili vakaa stable
infektio tartunta infection
probleema ongelma problem
artikuloida ääntää articulate
kaaos sekamelska chaos

4. Often Used, Less Accepted Loanwords

The following loanwords are very commonly used and will definitely appear in a regular Finnish dictionary. However, when looking up the original Finnish word (eg. yritys), the description won’t include the loanword as an explanation (firma). The words below can be found in Kielitoimiston sanakirja.

Loanword Original word English
printteri tulostin printer
firma yritys company
bändi yhtye band
slogan iskulause slogan
brändi tuotemerkki brand
terassi parveke terrace
fööni hiustenkuivain hairdryer
irrelevantti epäolennainen irrelevant
serveri palvelin server

5. Spoken Language Loanwords

Next, there are spoken language words that you will find in a Finnish-Finnish dictionary, but they will be marked with “slang” or “colloquial”. I’m not going to list too many of these below, as there are thousands of them.

Loanword Original word English
tsekata tarkistaa, varmistaa to check
treenata harjoitella, harjoittaa to train
fiksata korjata to fix
keissi tapaus case
biitsi ranta beach
broidi veli brother
frendi ystävä friend
diili sopimus deal
feikata teeskennellä to fake
jeeppi maastoauto jeep
kombo yhdistelmä combo
masiina kone machine
miitti tapaaminen, kokous meeting

6. Slang Loanwords

This last group of words won’t appear in a regular Finnish-Finnish dictionary, but you will find them in Urbaani Sanakirja, where they will probably have acquired many “thumbs up”.

7. Links

You can find a lot of really interesting and entertaining articles and forum posts about loanwords. They cause resentment and annoyances for many. Below are some fun links to read through, if your Finnish is good enough:

So which one will you be using: elefantti or norsu?

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