What’s the longest word in the Finnish language? When I wanted a definitive answer to this question, I decided to go about it the old-fashioned way: email.
I directed my inquiry to a forum full of people who, by definition, must be proud to call themselves language nerds: the mailing list of translators at the Finnish government ministries. Some of them implied by their silence that they thought I was wasting their time, but responses began to trickle in.
However, before we get to that, I should explain, very briefly, how Finnish works. It’s a language where it’s easy to make compound words by smashing smaller words together until they stick to each other, forming one larger word. Add maahan, “into the country,” to muutto, “move,” and you get maahanmuutto, “immigration.” Put virasto, “authority,” on the end of that and you get Maahanmuuttovirasto, which is what they call the Immigration Service.
You can also add a great number of word endings – this is a point of contention because some people say it doesn’t count for purposes of finding the longest word. Most of our prepositions (on, at, to, for) are expressed in Finnish by sticking suffixes onto a word. Then you have additional suffixes that mean “also,” “neither,” “my” or “your,” or that symbolise a question. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Really.
Happily ever after
Back to the email: One of the first words to drop into my inbox is apteekkitavaraintarkastuslaitos, meaning “pharmacy product inspection office.” Not bad at 31 letters, but I have a feeling that we haven’t heard the end of this, and I’m right.
Next up is epäjärjestelmällisyydestäänköhän (32 letters), approximately “from its unsystematic nature?” Yes, the question mark is part of the translation, reflecting one of the endings, -kö. Some people would claim that this word doesn’t count.
To make a multisyllabic story short, the quest continues, and we finally arrive at the following 61-character creation, widely accepted as the longest Finnish word (drum roll, please): lentokonesuihkuturbiinimoottoriapumekaanikkoaliupseerioppilas.
Dear reader, I would love to leave it at that, allowing you to imagine that it means something glorious, artistic and divine relating to famous glass vases on lakeview windowsills in ascetic Northern architecture, but I suppose I’d better take a stab at translating this one, too.
It refers to someone who is an “aeroplane jet turbine motor assistant mechanic, non-commissioned officer, in training.” And that was the length of that story, as they say in Finnish – meaning, of course, “And they lived happily ever after.”
By Peter Marten, May 2010, updated October 2020