Let your Finnish-language animal run free

Splendiferously long words, complex grammar, inscrutable sayings – the Finnish language contains many idiosyncrasies that fascinate and challenge learners. For a light interlude, take your Finnish to new heights of animalistic self-expression.

Former journalist Veli Holopainen, a self-confessed meanderer of the dark alleys of the Finnish language, recently entertained his Twitter followers by highlighting Finnish verbs based on animal nouns (his handle is @VeliHolopainen).

His guiding idea was that the animal’s name “would appear in the infinitive form of the verb.” Jänistää (to lose courage, to get cold feet) contains the word jänis (hare); pyytää (to ask, to hunt) contains pyy (hazel grouse), which is a popular game bird in Finland; and pukata (to head something, such as a football) derives from the word pukki (goat).

Incidentally, there’s a Finnish soccer star called Teemu Pukki. So you could say, Teemu Pukki pukkasi palloa (Teemu Pukki headed the ball).

Complex derivatives

Footballer Teemu Pukki jumping to head the ball.

Finnish footballer Teemu Pukki (yellow shirt) heads the ball into the goal for Norwich City against Stoke City. The Finnish verb pukata, meaning “to head” (a football, for example), is derived from pukki, the word for “goat,” which also happens to be Teemu’s surname.Photo: Carl Recine/Reuters/Lehtikuva

Inevitably, the animal side of Finnish also has its complexities. “Because of the presence of nature in Finland’s everyday life, it’s tempting to say that Finnish verbs and animal names share the same etymology, but this is not always the case,” says professor Ulla-Maija Forsberg, director of the Institute for the Languages of Finland.

Compared to other languages, she thinks, Finnish might have more homonyms – words that have the same stem or spelling but different meanings – than words that have a similar spelling and meaning.

“In the Finnish language there are many derivative words, so from one stem we get plenty of words, but with different meanings,” says Forsberg. “That’s why it seems as if these animal words are related.”

Don’t be fooled

Tall-legged reindeer sculptures in front of Oodi library.

The Finnish words poro (reindeer) and porottaa (to shine) are not actually related, although the sun is shining on these reindeer sculptures by Timo Heino outside Helsinki’s grand Oodi Library.Photo: Martti Kainulainen/Lehtikuva

The harsh truth is that varistaa (to drop, to lose) doesn’t come from varis (a crow); the source of the verb hirvittää (to horrify) is not hirvi (moose); and porottaa (to shine) is not related to poro (reindeer). Still, don’t let that stop you from saying, Aurinko porottaa (The sun is beating down).

Also, don’t be fooled by verbs such as kanavoida or emuloida, even though they include the words kana (chicken) and emu (yes, an emu). They actually mean “to channel” and “to emulate.” These are loanwords. Kanavoida comes from kanava (canal, channel) and emuloida emulates the English word “emulate.”

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Animal verbs

Finnish animal name English Finnish verb English Origin
ahma wolverine ahmaista to eat quickly the verb comes from the animal’s name
hirvi moose hirvittää to be frightened homonym, just happens to sound similar
hukka wolf hukata to lose the animal’s name comes from the verb
jänis hare jänistää to lose courage verb from animal’s name
karhu bear karhuta to demand payment verb from animal’s name, loanword
katka crustacean katkaista to cut animal’s name from verb
kettu fox kettuilla to bully, to annoy euphemism
kotka eagle kotkata to clinch animal’s name from verb
kurki crane kurkistaa to take a peek homonym
kyy adder, snake kyyditä to drive, to offer a lift homonym
poro reindeer porottaa to shine homonym
pukki buck, goat pukata to head, to headbutt verb from animal’s name
pyy hazel grouse pyytää to ask or to hunt verb from animal’s name
repo fox repostella to criticise homonym
saivare louse saivarrella to nitpick verb from animal’s name
varis crow varistaa to drop homonym

Plenty of other words and idioms can take your Finnish to new heights of animalistic self-expression. Ketunhäntä kainalossa, which literally translates to “a fox’s tail in the armpit,” describes someone who is dishonest. When you are jäniksen selässä, it means you are “on a rabbit’s back” – in a hurry.

Finnish Lapland, the northern third of the country, is reindeer territory. They say that any distance can be expressed in terms of poronkusema, the distance a reindeer can pull a toboggan without stopping to urinate. It needs a break after about 7.5 kilometres (4.6 miles) at the most – which is good to know in case you are advised that the nearest bar, shop or phone charging station is ten poronkusemaa away.

And while you’re up north, if you’re lucky, you may see revontulet (fox fires) – the Northern Lights.

By Carina Chela, July 2019