Finnish – the fantasy language to rule them all


What if you want to create a whole new fantasy world, and you people it with beings who speak an utterly fantastic language that no mere earthling could understand? Where do you start?
You start with Finnish, of course.
And you start with the Kalevala.
David Peterson, the creator of Dothraki for Game of Thrones and world expert on created languages today, spoke at the Translation and Localization Conference last weekend. To create Dothraki, he used Finnish vowel harmony and doubled consonants, and plans to learn it to give an interview at the World Science Fiction convention in Helsinki, 2017.
How much does Peterson know now? He spoke to geekgirls in Finland about it:
“I think that it will be quite a challenge. Right now I know “kiitos” and the “Sampo” and “Ilmarinen” and “Väinämöinen”. I know those guys, I’ve read the Kalevala in English but I know virtually nothing else. I know it’s got a great big case system and I look forward to learning it.”
Kiitos means thank you – but sampo? Ilmarinen forged this magical object that brings its bearer fortune and wealth, so powerful and precious that it started a war. The witch Louhi stole it, and Väinämöinen fought to get it back (as in Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s epic painting  above, now in Turku Art Museum). The Kalevala,  the Finnish national epic compiled by Elias Lönnrot, tells their story.
There aren’t any bilingual editions, but what you need to hear is the rhythm. Try listening to an old 1933 recording of a few runes, with subtitles from John Crawford´s 1887 translation, by Olga Poppius, an actress famous for interpreting the folk poetry in the original style. Stay on YouTube for the even older recordings that follow her, in Finnish only. Or read Keith Bosley’s English translation for Oxford World’s Classics.

When I heard Peterson speak, my first thought was J.R.R. Tolkien. He taught himself Finnish aged 18 so he could read the Kalevala, which shaped his creation of Middle Earth. Finnish was his main source for Quenya, a language of the Elves. Tolkien described the finding of a Finnish grammar book as “entering a complete wine-cellar filled with bottles of an amazing wine of a kind and flavour never tasted before” (The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, number 214).
How absolutely, utterly right he was.

Translator, editor, writer, reader

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Posted in language, literature, poetry, translation
2 comments on “Finnish – the fantasy language to rule them all
  1. tomdawkes says:


    I share the feeling of your last paragraph: I can still recall the thrill of finding AH Whitney’s “Teach yourself Finnish” in the Cardiff Public Library while I was in secondary school and realising the kinship with JRR’s invented language. I never persevered when I bought my own copy but 20 years later I was able to pass it on to a maths lecturer who expressed a passing interest in Finnish: he did persevere and studied with a Finnish language teacher in Helsinki, Maija Hellikki Aaltio. He passed me his own copy of her “Finnish for foreigners”, and I was delighted when i came across a copy of Daniels Abondolo’s “Colloquial Finnish”, with its comments on noun and verb formation. Perhaps I should resume …


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