Language, linguists will tell you, doesn’t exist in a hermetically sealed vacuum: it has speakers, and those speakers exist within a particular time, place, and context. That means that the language is also affected by time, place, and context. Nowhere is this more apparent than in a quick-and-dirty overview of common Finnish swear words.
Finland is, for those who don’t know, the Nordic country bordered by Sweden on the west and Russia on the east. It is, as a country, a bit of a cipher: in spite of spending most of its medieval and modern history as either a duchy of Sweden or Russia, it’s neither Scandinavian nor Slavic, but its own little island of Finno-Ugricness. Finns on the whole are reserved folks, yet their best-known export is Lordi and they proudly support what might be the only Men’s Shouting Chorus in the world. They’re also people of very, very few words, no doubt because they must regularly rassle with the likes of peruspalveluliikelaitoskuntayhtymä (which refers to a regional community health provider). In short, they are a people of contradictions, and their swearing is no different.
There are three primary words that make up most Finnish swearing (both historical and current). The first two are saatana and perkele. When uttered by themselves, they are interjections that roughly mean “goddammit,” though perkele is reckoned to be a little more severe, somewhere between “goddammit” and “fuck” (the official dictionary for the Finnish Language Office defines this sense of perkele as “a rough curse word”). Perkele is the sort of word that gets euphemized–one my Finnish grandmother would edit into per-sana, or “the per– word,” and that other Finnish friends merely refer to as “that word.” Saatana is less bad, though still not for formal settings or polite company. They’re slightly more popular with older Finns.
There’s some semantic connection between the English “goddammit” and the Finnish saatana and perkele, though the Finns cut right to the chase: saatana means “Satan” and perkele means “devil.”
(And now for a little pronunciation primer: Finnish is an initial-stress language, so all the words discussed here get stressed on the first syllable. Double vowels don’t signal a change in the vowel quality, but the actual spoken length of the vowel: it’s about double that of a single vowel. Double consonants are also held for twice as long as single consonants, which means that there is a glottal stop between consonants in many words. “R”s are rolled for maximum fun. You can find a decent (if somewhat slow) pronunciation of saatana by clicking the audio icon under the Finnish word. Same goes for perkele. You can also draw out that “r” in perkele for emphasis, as the audio example here does. And now: jatka!/carry on!)
It may strike you as odd that a people known for their comfort with public nudity as well as their love for a cussing hedgehog should use the proper name of the Prince of Darkness and his generic epithet as “rough curse words,” but they do. Remember that while Finland has a national epic that is a pagan tale (Kalevala, if you’re interested), the country has been both (nominally) Lutheran and Orthodox in turns since about the 11th century. Some have claimed that perkele actually stems from Ukko, the name for the Finnish god of thunder, weather, harvest, and the sky, but none of the Finnish dictionaries I have at my disposal give much credence to that derivation.
Both saatana and perkele show up modified by voi (Voi saatana! Voi perkele!) or “oh,” though the register-appropriate translation of these wouldn’t be “Oh goddammit” or “Oh fuck,” but rather “Goddammit” or “FFFUUUUUck.” You can, in Finnish, literally give many devils/fucks (Perkeleen paljon); someone can be as annoying/irritating/stupid as the devil (Suututtaa/ärsyttävä/tyhmä niin perkeleesti); and if perkele isn’t enough, you can always go with the intensive form, perkeleenmoinen (perkeleenmoinen valhe, “suuuuuuuuuch a fucking lie”).
There are a handful of other damnation-related swear words in Finnish that are less strong than perkele and saatana (notably hitto, which means “damn,” and helvetti, which means “hell”), but much more common, by far, is a curse word from the opposite end of the sociological spectrum: vittu. Vittu means “cunt.”
Vittu is a favorite of Finnish swearers, and it generally translates as “fuck.” It appears in Voi vittu (“Oh fuck”), no voi vittu (“for fuck’s sake”), mita vittua (“what the fuck?”), and painu vittuun (“GTFO,” with implied movement away from the speaker). The adjective vitun, best translated as “cunting,” gets applied to a whole host of nouns, including urpo (“idiot”) and kusimulkku (literally, “pissdick”). You can even append vittu to both perkele and saatana for a little extra crispy-spicy swearing (Vittu perkele! Vittu saatana!), and every once in a while, you might see the triumvirate vittu saatana perkele (or some combination thereof), though sometimes it’s only used as a joke.
But a vittu’s still a vittu, and there are common swears where it refers to a cunt. The most well-known swear also highlights one of the favored Finnish action verbs of swearing: haista, or “to sniff.” Haista vittu, a common way to tell someone to fuck right off, means “go sniff cunt.” A bowdlerized version, one every American Finn knows, is haista napa: “go sniff bellybutton.” (You can also haista paska, or “sniff shit,” which is a less inflammatory way to go fuck off.)
But as creative as all the vittu combos are, Finnish swearing reaches its apotheosis in what is perhaps the most Nordic swear ever created: suksi vittuun. It means “go ski into a cunt.” Kippis—holler it in good health.
It should also be mentioned that just like “fuck”, the word “vittu” is used by some people as a general fill-word in speech, and can also be used to indicate approval, as in “vitun hyvä”, “good as fuck”. Of course that means it has much lost its power; it is nowhere as strong as the English “cunt” and can appear without too many eyebrows being raised even in newspapers. Some people use the corresponding word for the penis, “kyrpä”, instead, for more effect and/or gender equality also in swear-words.
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It’s not that perkele is a derivative of Ukko, but that it is thought by some to be a name for Ukko, the chief pagan god of the Finns. Not everyone believes that, though. What does seem pretty certain is that perkele is a borrowing from Proto-Baltic Perkūnas, the thunder-god, who appears in modern Lithuanian in lower case as the word for ‘thunder’, and in Latvian as pērkons, also ‘thunder’. Later his name was applied by the Finns to the Christian Devil, and then became a generalized swearword. Other Indo-European connections of Perkūnas are the epithet τερπικέραυνος ‘delighting in thunder’ of Zeus, the Hindu rain god Parjanya, and (thanks to Grimm’s Law) Fjörgyn, the mother of Thor (whose name also means ‘thunder’).
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As a Swede I’m noticing quite the overlap between ours and the Finns’ swearing. (Perhaps because we share such a long, unequal, history? Would be interesting to see a study on the relationship and how our political situation has affected both our languages — there are still quite large communities of Swedish-speakers in Finland and Finnish-speakers in Sweden. I’ll be the first to admit my ignorance on this topic.) For instance, we both use similar-looking and sounding words for “hell” and using “satan” as a curse word: Fin. “helvetti”, “saatana”, Swe. “helvete”, “satan”. We also use linguistically equivalent words for “damn”: Fin. “hitto”, Swe. “fan”. We both also use variations of “the devil” as a curse word: Fin. “perkele”, Swe. “jävla”, “jädra” (both Swe. variants can have the -r suffix for a slight change in usage), and lastly, of course, we both use “cunt” as a swear, Fin. “vitto”, Swe. “fitta” (and as mentioned by Tor Lillqvist above we both also use “penis/dick” as a curse word, Fin. “kyrpä”, Swe. “kuk”, “snopp”, “pitt” etc.).
My favourite thing about swearing in Swedish though is when something goes really bad we can let out a plethora of curse words which actually makes sense (sort of, in context at least) as a sentence. Say, for instance, that you’ve just dropped a hammer on your toe and want to cuss the hammer out, then it could go something like this: “satans helvetes jävla kukiga fitthammarjävel!”
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@Christoffer Levin: Finnish helvetti is a Swedish borrowing (cf. Suomen sanojen alkuperä (1992). Helsinki: Kotimaisten kielten tutkimuskeskus & Suomalaisen kirjallisuuden seura). Saatana probably is one as well, though being a religious Wanderwort it’s hard to be certain.
there are still quite large communities of Swedish-speakers in Finland and Finnish-speakers in Sweden
I used to share an office with a sverigefinn— a charmingly chatty guy, quite exceptional for a minority reputed to be able to be fluently silent in at least three languages.
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I appreciate the detailed exposition. As a former New Yorker now living in Helsinki I am familiar with the words but never got the details before this.
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Great article! I’m an American living and working in Helsinki currently doing a PhD study about attitudes towards obscene/offensive language In English (including swearing) and the Finnish respondents make up quite a lot of my data. Another angle I guess… I plan to compare Finnish attitudes towards swearing in Finnish with my own research and if anyone is interested I can post the results when (and if 🙂 ) I finish my thesis. Thanks for keeping me inspired to continue my study. I love this blog in general!