Rara Avis illustrates an entry on the former hierarchy of languages in Finland with this photo of a trilingual street sign, which reminds me of my only visit to Helsinki, back in 1971. At that time nobody in the city seemed to speak English, and I spoke no Finnish or Swedish, so the only common language available was Russian—except that nobody in Finland wanted to speak Russian (except for the aged caretaker of the Russian Orthodox cathedral), so I was effectively cut off from verbal communication. A very strange experience. (When I say I spoke no Finnish, by the way, I exaggerate slightly. I had painstakingly taught myself one Finnish sentence, which still rolls easily off my tongue over 30 years later: Puhutteko englantilainen englantia? Do you speak English? [Thanks for the correction, Dmitri!] Alas, the response to my fluently produced query was invariably a flood of incomprehensible Finnish. Belatedly, it dawned on me that the only useful sentence in that context is “Do you speak English?” In English. Live and learn.)

In an entry today, incidentally, Rara refers to the Academic Bookstore, which is apparently the Foyles of Helsinki; I suspect it’s the huge bookstore where I found all the Russian books I’d been unable to find in Russia itself (these were the days when the only books available in Soviet bookstores were the complete works of Lenin and whatever books had just been published that week—unless they were of any interest, in which case they had vanished within minutes). Thanks for the trip down memory lane, Rara!

Update (Mar. 2021). I’ve gotten spoiled by the Wayback Machine; I feel bitter and resentful that they didn’t capture any Rara Avis links from this incarnation (though they do faithfully preserve the one trial post from a later blog at the same URL). Needless to say, the links in the post are dead. Bah.


  1. Dmitri Evmenov says

    “Do you speak Englishman?”, that’s what you’ve asked. It should have been “Puhutteko englantia?”, or “Puhutko englantia?” (the latter variant is more familiar)

  2. When I was in Helsinki in 1997 (also my only visit, but one that left me with an abiding love of the city), I saw very few signs in Russian, and all of them were on stores. Street signs were in Finnish and Swedish only, and on the rare occasions when a public sign had a third language, it was English.
    By the time I left, I had learned a couple hundred words of Finnish by osmosis, but people always responded to me in English whenever I tried to use it.

  3. Sorry, Dmitri — I guess the last 32 years have eroded my one bit of Finnish!

  4. You’re welcome. About the memory lane. – These days you might even get some answers from the Finns on the streets. But I think it’s still a tough job. We do not talk so much, you know, only into our mobile phones. And our skills to send SMS-messages fast to each other is just amazing…

  5. You don’t hear much Russian on the streets nowadays And Russian signs have all but disappeared. But English as the third language in all walks of life is becoming QUITE common. If you come here as a tourist, you can assume some level of English competence for anyone in Helsinki under (say) 35.
    terveisiä Helsingistä.

  6. In some of the Finnish towns near the Russian border, Russian is reappearing in a very minor way. I’ve been to Imatra several times over the past year, and nowadays most restaurant menus, as well as tourist brochures, etc., are in both Russian and Finnish (in addition to the usual Swedish and English). In fact, one place I went to (the Imatran Kylpylä, or “Imatra Spa”) has a menu that is in Finnish and (very bad) Russian only. This, of course, is because the area now attracts large numbers of Russian shoppers and vacationers.
    Also, in 1989 I visited Petrozavodsk (Petroskoi), capital of the quondam Karelian SSR. Which, even though nearly its entire Finnish population left after World War II, was (and maybe still is) officially bilingual. Every sign was in both Russian and English; there was even a Finnish theater. But when I tried out *my* few words of Finnish at a newly-opened Western ice-cream parlor (mansikkajäätelöä, olkaa hyvä! – strawberry ice cream, please!) the only response I got was dull incomprehension.
    Maybe it was my accent.

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