Stephanie Pearl-McPhee at Yarn Harlot has a great post about the hilarity that ensued when she settled down with needles, yarn, and a mitten kit… in Finnish.

I knew the intructions were in Finnish – but I really didn’t see that as a barrier to understanding.

I’m an optimist, I feel pretty good about my intelligence, and as a general rule, if I’m interested in something …I can make it work. Perpetually (and despite failing miserably at things on a regular basis) I’m convinced that if I really try and am really motivated, I will really be able to do something. This means that even though I don’t speak Finnish, have never had a Finnish lesson, don’t speak with Finnish people so can’t have even picked up a word or two, don’t have a Finnish radio station I like to listen to….in effect, have no working knowledge, relationship or ability in this area….

I believed that if I really made an effort. I could read Finnish.

It turns out “The online Finnish translator knows very little…perhaps nothing, about knitting”; “My best try (which is really just making up whatever I want) is very much wrong”; and “I really don’t speak Finnish. Even if I really make an effort.” But she does deduce that “Peukalo is definitely thumb.” Fortunately, she has a loyal crew of commenters, some of whom actually know Finnish, so it looks like there may be a happy ending. (Thanks for the link, Leslie!)


  1. Mmm, should I follow example with my knitting book in Magyar?

  2. I’ve tried reading crime novels in languages I don’t know. It worked very well for Catalan, Dutch, and Norwegian, but Finnish was impossible. Not enough cognates. Czech was easier than Finnish, but not by a lot (I don’t know any Slavic language).

  3. michael farris says

    Personally, I find Czech very tough going though I’m pretty fluent in Polish, which is genetically very close.
    This is partly caused by false friends (extensive at every level of the two languages and you have to muddle through each one on its own). But a lot of the noun and verb endings can also be misleading (to me). Finally, there are close-to-diglossic differences between written and spoken Czech. The dialogue often has colloquial features that weren’t/aren’t in my textbook resources which focus on literary Czech. In Polish, the difference between spoken and written forms is much smaller and when they do differ, the colloquial forms almost never make it into print, even in dialogue in genre literature.
    I also couldn’t make out much of a Jugoslav comic book I found once (Shtokavian in roman script but I’m not sure which micro-variety).
    The problem with Slavic languages is that they all developed their ‘educated’ vocabulary separately often with the expressed aim of being as different as possible from some other Slavic language.
    Romance, on the other hand, differs in basic everyday terms, but most of the advanced vocabulary is very similar so on the basis of knowing Spanish, I can read lots of Italian, Portuguese, Catalan and French (and if it’s the right kind of text, even Romanian).
    For anyone who knows English and German (one of them natively) Swedish, Norwegian and Danish are pretty easy to learn to read (speaking and understanding are very different matters). I came across a stack of Dutch detective novels recently at a second hand bookstore and of course bought them. I find it’s not that hard to puzzle out a lot of it.

  4. That’s a good point about the Slavic languages. It is indeed much harder to extrapolate from one to another than it is with Romance or Germanic.

  5. It’s strange what you all say about Slavic languages. I’ve had some fellow native Czech speakers claim that they find it much easier to learn or extrapolate from other Slavic languages than to learn English or Romance languages. Could be that the difficulty works both ways. Personally, I find Romance languages (with their cultures) and, of course, English more attractive and therefore easier. 😉

  6. michael farris says

    For native slavic speakers the particular differences are easier to navigate. For non-native speakers, the differences are far more difficult. Maybe tomorrow I’ll slurch through a paragraph or two of Czech from my point of view. (what’s written, how I perceive it and what it really means)

  7. Stravinsky said something to the effect that he could fake it in Polish, except that they were always saying things like “That perfume stinks good”.

  8. Stephanie’s blog is probably the funniest on the internet, barring none (go through the archives – she really pushes the envelope on humor) but it was not hard to find a resource to help her – I googled a couple of the words she referenced and the wors knit and glossary, and found a lovely resource for knitting translation.
    I wish I’d had that back when I was in my t33ns, and the only available knitting patterns were in German…

  9. You’re kidding! I know nothing about knitting except that my wife enjoys doing it, but why wouldn’t knitting patterns be available in English?

  10. I imagine that certain styles of knitting are more developed in some countries than in others.
    The link is well worth following. There are quite a few knitting vocabularies up on the net, and several bilingual finnish-english knitting blogs.
    Something with a limited and stereotyped like knitting helps a lot in this kind of thing.

  11. Knitting also seems to be marginally more popular here in Finland than in the midwest, U.S., where I’m from. At least, I see a lot more knitted hats and gloves that people have clearly made themselves.

  12. Andrew Dunbar says

    Ha. This reminds me of my attempt to figure out my Finnish copy of Cien años de Soledad a month or so ago. I also have a Spanish copy. I decided to figure out some vocabulary and verb and noun endings and then check what I had on the Internet the next day.
    I was surprised that my endings werent coverd by the online Finnish grammars. I also had trouble finding a list of the most common Finnish words with glosses.

Speak Your Mind