Perkele. It’s my favorite Finnish word, and I’m not alone. It’s perhaps the best known Finnish word, the most Finnish Finnish word. In fact, in one of my favorite web comics, Scandinavia and the World, the personification of Finland mostly only says “perkele” (when he speaks at all, Finns are known for their silence). (Except in sauna—which is actually probably the best known Finnish word that people didn’t know was Finnish and is usually pronounced wrong—which is the only place Finns, and the personification of Finland, make small talk.) Aaaaanyway. Perkele. Just to be clear, it’s a swear word, at least in contemporary usage.
One of the first things people like to teach you when you’re learning a new language are the swear words. There’s something utterly delightful and amusing about a person swearing up a storm and not really knowing the full context for what they’re saying. I’m not sure I fully understand it, but I accept that in my American accent, without obvious context clues, it’s absolutely hilarious when I swear in Finnish. And swearing in Finnish is satisfying. I can swear in three languages now, and Finnish is by far the most fun to swear in. I’ve heard that most Swedish-speaking Finns also prefer to swear in Finnish. There’s something truly powerful about those hard “k” and “t” sounds, and the ability to prolong the rolling “r” or vowel sounds to add emphasis. I like to swear in general, and often forget that it’s offensive to some people, and it’s been especially hard to avoid swearing all the time in Finnish.
But like most swear words, their meaning and their usage diverges in the not-too-distant past. Perkele is used as the strongest, most offensive, of the Finnish swear words, and a contemporary Finnish speaker will usually translate it for you as “devil.” Not The Devil, but a devil, lower case, one among many. But if you go further back, you find that perkele comes from the proto-Finnic perkeleh, which linguists believe derives from the name for the Baltic God of thunder, Perkwunos. According to some sources, Perkwunos was also the god of the forest, and the Finnish God of thunder, Ukko, was also called Perkele. It’s hard to tell, given that the words are 3000 years old, or so, but there is almost no written record from that period.
One of the most interesting things about Finnish is that it’s not really related to many other languages. It’s related to Estonian, which you’ve probably heard of, and Ingrian and Votic, Livonian, Karelian, Ludic, and Veps which you probably haven’t. These are the traditionally recognized eight (including Finnish) Finnic languages, which are a branch of the Uralic language family spoken around the Baltic Sea. The Uralic language family includes 30 additional languages, most notably Hungarian, bringing the language family to a total of 38. These include Sámi, Erzya, Mari, Moksha, Udmurt, and Komi. The Uralic language family is one of the world’s primary language families (meaning that it is unique), and has 9 subdivisions, of which Finnic is one. Approximately 25 million people total speak languages in the Uralic family, and approximately 7 million speak Finnic languages. There are approximately 5.5 million native Finnish speakers. It is a small language, by global standards.
The language is rooted in the land. The Urals are the proposed site for the homeland of the Uralic language, though no one knows which side: Siberian or European. There are linguistic arguments for both. A Siberian homeland on the basis of two coniferous trees, Abies sibirica and Pinus cembra, but these trees also grew in the far east of Europe. A European homeland on the basis of the words for ‘bee’, ‘honey’, and ‘elm’. Contemporary linguists place the linguistic homeland near the Kama River, in central Russia.
There’s genetic evidence as well, which strikes me as somewhat unusual for linguistic considerations. As a native speaker of English, and non-native speaker of Spanish, I imagine trying to determine a genetic marker for those global, colonial languages. Absurd. I wonder about smaller languages, indigenous languages, non-colonial languages, languages that remain rooted, tied to the places and people with whom they co-create the world. (But always remember, Heidegger was a Nazi.) I don’t know, maybe a question for another time. Maybe, like so many questions I have, I’ll never return to it, forget it entirely. In any case, there is a haplogroup, a characteristic genetic marker of Uralic-speaking peoples: N1c-Tat (Y-DNA), also known as N-M46. 63% of Finns, and 47% of Saami, and 41% of Estonians belong to this haplogroup, which originated in northern China 20,000 – 25,000 years ago, and spread to north Eurasia, through Siberia to Northern Europe. I learned a little about the Finnish genetic bottleneck at the end of the last Ice Age at the Finnish National History museum, but all I remember now is that it happened, and that’s why my Mexican-American friend was able to identify that he has 1% Finnish DNA. When I first visited Finland, he told me to “say hello to his ancestors,” and I did.
Finnish linguists have studied and written about perkele pretty extensively, of course in Finnish which I do not yet speak. My friend Reetta Ranta, who produces and hosts a phenomenal nature show called Back To Nature and is an expert in Finnish mythology, sent me a couple of articles on perkele which I read through the help of Google translate. Google translate is pretty good with Spanish, I use it often to double check colloquialisms I’m not 100% sure I’ve registered. It’s OK with French, Italian, Portuguese… but with Finnish it’s another story. I’d say that from context I can work out about 50-70% of a Finnish article through Google translate. It also gives me delightful sentences like: “After the war, there were a lot of weevils in the air in Finland” and “When a Finn is right, it becomes very succulent.” In this case, the weevils are curse words, and the “it” refers to the word perkele which in the Finnish mouth does indeed sound juicy and plump. These are from this article, which claims that Finns, along with Russians, Scots, and Irish, are the most prolific swearers in Europe. The Finnish linguist Ulla-Maija Kulonen wrote in this article about the history of perkele, among other ‘words of power’ as Google translated it. An expression I really like.
Perkele does have power, that much is evident even to a non-Finnish speaker. The rolled ‘r’ (the Finns roll all their r’s, like the Spanish rr), the sharp ‘k’, the emphasis on the first syllable of the word (all words in Finnish have the emphasis on the first syllable) making the ‘p’ almost a spitting sound. Explosive. It’s deeply satisfying to say it, especially when frustrated. Studies have shown that swearing actually does help one tolerate negative feelings, emotions, and painful sensations. Try saying it: PERR-ke-lay. Roll the “r” longer. PERRRRR-ke-lay. Words have power. Though modern Finns use perkele as a curse, extending the r depending on how upset they are, historically it was used to call upon the god for power. For strength.
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Having patrons means that I’m able to focus more on my art work, and take less gig work, and helps me survive the world as a (still somewhat-newly disabled), neurodivergent, queer Puerto Rican artist. I have a bunch of levels, starting at $1 a month, and $5 a month gets you monthly REAL MAIL, usually in the form of a handmade letterpress printed postcard made by me. All patrons with an address just received (or will receive, depending on mail delivery) this foil-stamped notebook featuring my current favorite Finnish word, perkele, along with a little blog post on the etymology and usage of the word (because I love language!).