The Finnish language of statehood

The three-day weekend here in Finland has come to an end. Friday was Independence Day, so a belated hyvää itsenäisyyspäivää and god självständighetsdag to all.

Independence Day got me thinking about the words Finnish uses for state, government and the civil service. As anyone who’s even spent a short while living here will know, the state is … extensive. Multiple offices, agencies, and authorities abound, which is to be expected in one of the Nordic countries.

What I find most interesting about the particular words Finnish uses to describe governance is how unique many of them are. You’ll often hear it said about Finnish that it’s a language that doesn’t like foreign loanwords. Now, while this is a massive myth (Finnish is saturated with loanwords, particularly from that other language many people pretend doesn’t exist), there are certain lexical areas where it is none the less a reasonable claim. Governance and the state is one of those areas.

Let’s start at the top:

  • Suomen tasavalta. ‘The Republic of Finland.’ (Lit.: ‘Finland’s republic’.) From tasa, ‘equal’ and valta, ‘power’.
  • Suomen valtio. ‘The Finnish state.’ (Lit.: ‘Finland’s state’.) This word was coined in the mid-19th century when the very idea of a Finnish state was being born, and it comes from valta, ‘power’ and the -io suffix. Finnish had earlier used valtakunta, ‘kingdom’ (lit.: ‘power area’), riikki (from Sw. rik, ‘kingdom’) or kruunu, ‘crown’, but valtio went on to become the standard word.
  • Perustuslaki, n. ‘constitution’. From perustus, ‘foundation’ and laki, ‘law’ (itself a loanword from the Sw. lag).
  • Hallitus, ‘government’. From hallita, ‘to govern’ and the abstract suffix -us.
  • Eduskunta, ‘parliament (of Finland)’. From edus, ‘front’ and kunta, in this sense ‘group of people’: ‘the group of representatives’. This word, again, is only used for the Finnish Parliament. For other countries parlamentti (e.g., the UK), kongressi (US), valtiopäivät (Sweden, lit.: ‘state days’, a calque from Swedish riksdag) are used.
  • Kunta, ‘municipality’. The English translation of this word is an unfortunate headache for all of my students who work in the public sector! The contrast with the simple Finnish word is stark. These days the word kunta is in the news a lot as the government tries to squeeze savings out of the municipalities. I said above that kunta means ‘group’. It does, but it also means ‘a measure of land’. That gives us paikkakunta, a more accurate word for ‘municipality’, from paikka, ‘place’ and kunta; maakunta, ‘province’, from maa, ‘land’ and kunta; and, for Finland 1809-1817, ruhtinaskunta, ‘Grand Duchy’, from ruhtinas, ‘prince, duke’.
  • Virasto, n. ‘state authority, office’ and viranomainen, n. ‘official, authority’. Both words come from virka, ‘public office’. The k is dropped in a process known as consonant gradation (see here and here). Note the -sto ending, also present in valtioneuvosto.
  • Laitos, n. ‘department, institution’ (also in a university). Just two examples are Ilmatieteen laitos, the Finnish Meteorological Institute, and Terveyden ja hyvinvoinnnin laitos, the National Institute for Health and Welfare.

The above is just a small selection. As I’ve mentioned, there are often loanwords or calques available instead of the ‘native’ words: konstituutio, parlamentti, kabinetti. They aren’t normally used to refer to Finland, though. And I haven’t listed the cases in which Finnish has settled for a loan or calque, even for its own affairs: presidentti, ministeri, valtioneuvosto (‘cabinet of ministers’; lit. ‘state council’, from Sw. statsråd), valiokunta (‘parliamentary committee’, lit. ‘elite group’, from Sw. utskott), kanslia (‘chancellery’), sihteeri.

Those exceptions aside, I think it is very clear that in the 19th and early 20th centuries the growth of the idea of a Finnish state went hand in hand with the invention of words to talk about that idea.

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