Thursday, September 28, 2006

Lingual

When I was in the selection process for a top-secret job at GCHQ, somewhere back in the early 90s, one of the things they tested me on was my ability to learn a new language at speed. They'd gone to the lengths of inventing a completely fictitious language that bore no resemblance to any existing language, so that no one would have an unfair advantage.

I didn't get selected in the end (though it was a close-run thing; it was only my total and utter ignorance of macrogeopolitical affairs that let me down), which was fortunate, because if I had, my entire life would have been subject to the Official Secrets Act and I would never have been able to have this blog.

But I keep being reminded of their fictitious language every time I see anything written in Finnish, which given that I'm currently in Helsinki, is quite often. I'm treating the Finnish language (which, as any fule kno, bears no resemblance to any other language apart from Estonian and Hungarian) as a giant crossword puzzle that I have to solve in its entirety before I leave on Saturday.

It's quite difficult, but there are helpful Rosetta Stones everywhere, as almost everything in Helsinki is written in Swedish as well as Finnish, and Swedish is practically German, which is practically English*, so that's OK. This is how I came to realise that keskus in Finnish means 'centre', and that keskiviikko, which means 'Wednesday', is literally 'centre of the week'. I got almost as much pleasure from linking these two words as I did from idly reading the signs in the hotel lift and suddenly realising that avain means 'key' and avoinnen** means 'open'. By my reckoning this means I've done 2,138 across and 25,876 down, and now I've only got 48 hours left to finish the whole thing!

Oh, the inside of my mind is a terribly interesting place, I can tell you. Luckily it's balanced out by the inside of James's mind, which is constantly inventing fantasy subterranean zoos and enumerating the physical attributes of the manticore***.

Meanwhile, in the real world, we had a top international blogmeet with the lovely Taiga, who gave us Moomin fridge magnets and Superlon photos, and showed us around her gallery, where there was a fantastic red painting by a person called Janne Kaitala, and a slowly revolving brass and mahogany Victorian-style globe that was also a music box and played the music created by the outlines of the countries. So you can see we haven't been putting our time by idly, oh no.


* Pace BiB, I know it's not really.

** Or avoinna. Oh I don't know, I'm confused now.

*** Apparently 'the body of a lion, the face of a man, the wings of a bat and the tail of a scorpion'. But it wouldn't bite you.

39 comments:

BiB said...

No, I agree. Swedish and German and English are all practically one and the same. When I spent time in Finland, studying the language, I used to listen out for the Swedish announcements so I could finally understand what they were on about.

Anyway, even if you've only worked out a couple of clues, it's a deliciously beautiful crossword nonetheless, n'est-ce pas? The most important sentence you'll need for the rest of your stay is: "Yöllä lyön höyhentyynyäni," meaning, obviously, "At night I beat myself with a feather pillow."

Billy said...

I love bilingual countries. When in Belgium I worked out all the Flemish from the French (even though Flemish is more like English)

By "all the Flemish", I do of course mean about 4 words.

Tamburlaine said...

I think the manticore's bite is deadly poisonous (at least it is in The Books of Magic) and they have three rows of iron teeth, according to Wikipedia...

Anonymous said...

The GCHQ revelation took me aback I must say.
On Spooks would you be the clever older lady or the new nasty one (who used to be in Cold Feet)?

james henry said...

Hurrah for Books of Magic! My favourite comic series ever, particularly later when John Ney Rieber and Peter Gorss took over.

patroclus said...

Tamburlaine: I was clearly mixing it up with the spider baby from Father Ted.

Realdoc: I've never seen Spooks, but I would have been a rubbish spy, so it's just as well I didn't get the job.

nibus said...

Spooks is apparently written by Raymond Khoury, author of sub-Da Vinci Code nonsense The Last Templar (beautiful, fickle and vulnerable archaeologist meets rugged, sensitive but troubled FBI man). I've never seen it either, and now I don't want to. Even if I could, my viewing is now restricted to the Satanic dual-pronged attack of Keeping Up Appearances and Cash in the Attic.

Alias Lucy Diamond said...

Oh right, I was expecting all the above comments to be about the Moomin fridge magnets. Just me, then.

the whales said...

I remember going to the cinema in Helsinki to see The Full Monty. The subtitles (Finnish and Swedish) covered half the screen.

the whales said...

The Netherlands is a great place for languages. Whenever i practised my Dutch they immediately replied in English. Train conductors used to try a sequence of English, French, German on tourists quite easily. I once guessed that they had such a facility for them all because they had all the TV stations in their natural languages (subtitled to Dutch). I asked a taxi driver about it and he agreed, but when i mentioned German he interrupted me "I don't watch German TV".

patroclus said...

Ooh, whales, there you are. I was wondering what had happened to your blog. Hope everything's OK.

Wyndham said...

I actually watched Spooks for the first time the other night. It was rather good with lots of shouting and split decisions and surveillance operatives saying things like: "He's buying a Kit Kat! Move in!" Being of a nervous disposition, living near central London and being allergic to massive explosions, I don't think I'll watch it again.

taigathefox said...

It was lovely to meet you too, Patroclus.
Oh, the globe is Lauri Astala's "Songlines - A composition for globe and music box"(-93). And the word for 'open' is avoin or avoinna.

Er...have almost all your blog readers visited Helsinki?

Urban Chick said...

now, see, i'm confused

i had to sign the OSA before i was even interviewed (i was young and stoopid and just signed)

admittedly this was not for the phone-tapping, cheltenham-based lot, but for the pretend-to-be-a-diplomat, james bond wannabe lot

so am i covered or can i blab everything i know* to an uninterested world?

* not much at all

patroclus said...

Shhh, UC - I'm now expecting masked MI5 ninjas to kick down my hotel room door at any moment.

LoRi~fLoWer said...

I tried to learn Welsh once, using a tape. The only thing I remember how to say is "Don't be nervous, it's going to be all right." Which might come in handy in certain situations I suppose.

I also know how to say "I have a date with a chicken" in Spanish.

I've been longing to use both phrases in one conversation.

Tim Footman said...

I recently met an Irishman who'd learned Finnish, and then Thai, in a matter of weeks. But, despite several years of school lessons, he could only manage about half a dozen words of Irish.

Rafael said...

I love Finland. Great country, lovely people, fantastic, dark, self-deprecating sense of humour. Go Finland!

Don't believe me? Check out this Finnish short animated film.

First Nations said...

manticore: it might not bite, but it'd sting the crap out of you, i bet. ow.

my paternal grandfather was finnish. it is a marvelous language to swear in, something he did frequently.

Spinsterella said...

Irish is VERY difficult. I did it for A-level, ffs.

But compared with Thai? Jaysus. At least Irish uses the roman alphabet.

frangelita said...

Wow, two almost spies! Very jealous. I was told recently I would make a rubbish spy. I disagree, I think I would be ace.

I've been to Helsinki. Finnish people are weird. Blonde and pretty to look at, but a bit weird. Nice though.

the whales said...

When i arrived in Helsinki off the plane, it was early evening. I remember being near the big department store, Stockmann? I can't remember what it was called. A chap in a business suit (ie a businessman) weaved his way towards me. Drunk clearly. It was about 6pm. Suit, check. Briefcase, check. He weaved too much - ie into a hedge.

The Finns seemed to get drunk a lot.

DavetheF said...

A very tricky language to actually speek is Portuguese, because of all the arcane pronunciation rules. I am very much into Brazilian music, esp Jobim, but it's a bugger to sing in as well. (Beautiful though: "Teus beijos, nunca mais" ...)

Word verification "imusibol"? Get away.

cello said...

For someone who is relatively shy, P, you're doing extraordinarily well on the meeting-cyber-friends-in-the-flesh stakes. Are you sure you weren't just pretending to be a little reserved?

And I used to work in a theatre-in-education group called Manticore. I still have a programme to prove it. Never bothered to find out what it meant though.

Pashmina said...

It is indeed Stockmann, Whales. I used to do business with them, back when I had a job. Those were the days...

Anyway, never been to Helsinki but have had a yen to do so ever since seeing Billion Dollar Brain, which features lots of cold war-era espionage in '60s Helsinki. Marvellous.

Can't help but be vaguely disappointed that a Norse country doesn't name its days of the week after Norse gods, though.

BiB said...

Pash, the rest of the days of the week - he says, desperately trying to dredge up his Finnish-for-beginners - are maanantai, tiistai and the like. Don't know why they went all Mittwoch for Wednesday.

Helsinki is heaven, though preferably in summer. Finns are my favourite nation on earth. Entertaining, friendly, kind and gloomy. And huge. Woof!

patroclus said...

I'm quite amazed at how many of my lovely blog readers have been to Helsinki. The department store is indeed Stockmann, where J and I sourced the World's Most Expensive Adapter, which not only converts any plug to any socket, but if the plastic flanges are correctly aligned with the phases of the moon, also opens the gateway to Agarttha.

GreatSheElephant said...

Ha. I've also signed the official secrets act. It must be a blog thing.

I also got the letter from what purported to be MoD but was clearly MI5 but by the time I'd reached the bit where it sternly told me not to tell anyone about the letter, I'd already shown it to 3 people so I decided I'd better not apply.

I found the whole thing a bit confusing anyhow because at that point I had family in a communist bloc country (which presumably they knew) so I wouldn't have been eligible to work for them anyhow.

the whales said...

Me too. (Official Secrets Act.) I must remember sometime to blog about the "Oops, what is that carrier bag full of documents stamped 'Secret' doing under the stairs and how long has it been there?" story.

Spinsterella said...

Never mind how many people have been to Helsinki - I can't believe how many of you have had to sign the OSA!

The nearest I can do is when I temped at Microsoft for a week and I had to sign some big not-telling-any-trade-secrets form. But fuck 'em, I'm telling you lot all I found out.

1 - They're actually quite disorganised.

2 - But the canteen's great.

(It was really boring actually.)

cello said...

I had flanges once upon a time.

patroclus said...

Oo Spin, spill the industry secrets! Was it at MS in Reading? If so I used to work next door. More than that I'm not at liberty to say.

Do you think the government should be worried that half the nation's bloggers have signed the OSA?

Paul Pennyfeather said...

Howard Brenton (Romans in Britain) writes for Spooks.
Why do I find this odd?

Betty said...

Okay, I'll come clean - despite being the chaviest of all bloggers, even I've signed the Official Secrets Act, although I was only working as a clerical assistant in the DSS.

There was no espionage, intrigue, glamour, adventure or even inter-office romance in the lower levels of the DSS.

That is all.

Marsha Klein said...

I also signed the OSA before joining the civil service. I think menial civil servants, like me, sign a different version which makes us promise never to reveal how monumentally disorganised ans generally crap the domestic civil service is. We are also not at liberty to reveal the fact that 99% of all government statistics are made up on the spot...

D'oh!

BiB said...

I went to a university where 99% of the students were hush-hushly invited to go and become spies and everyone talked about exciting interviews where they'd first been told one thing and only the truth once actually there and once they'd signed the... OSA. I think I was about the furst student in the 9-million-year history of the place not to even get to the exciting interview stage. Bugger.

Spinsterella said...

Yes, it was MS in Reading. They had big pictures of David Brent on the walls (cos Ricky Gervaise really needs the money).

It was my worst job ever. Worse than the apple-packing factory. Worse than the dish-washing.

Staring at a screen clicking a mouse 5,000 times a day. Awful.

Free fruit though.

Next door, eh? That's either Oracle, or the Regus building so that could be anyone.

First Nations said...

all ive ever signed was an' agreement of non-competition' in order to recieve chiropractic adjustment. hithero i had not been aware there was so much that was proprietary in the sublexing game.

First Nations said...

...sublexation. is what i meant.
yanking and cracking.

and now we're in to another kettle of fish, eh?
god i can't stop.