Don’t you just love the word ’perhaps’? The promise that it suggests and the little whisper that tickles your ear. I do. However, most words are my favorites at the end of the day. They all have their unique form and feeling. Tomorrow I might have another favorite, and I probably will. I can’t think of a word that I’d dislike. Even the crudest ones belong to a moment, not a familiar one, but perhaps an essential one, nevertheless.
A famous Finnish theater director and writer Neil Hardwick, who immigrated to Finland from the UK in the 70s has once said in an interview that his favorite Finnish word is ’illalla’ (’in the evening’). I can’t remember the rest of the interview, I read it a long time ago, but assumably he meant the songlike pronunciation of the word, with the repeated long and soft consonant ’l’. If it was typed in English it would look something like this: ellollo, where o’s are pronounced as in ’love’ and the initial e as in ’evil’, and the first syllable stressed, as in all Finnish words. It is a soothing word that makes one feel light and carefree. And perhaps a bit onomatopoeic as well, sounding like the last few relaxing hours of the day, when you can put your feet up and take a deep breath after a hard day’s work.
When we’re picking our favorite words, we can either think about what they sound like, what they look like, what it is like to write them or combine them with other words, or perhaps what ideas or memories that they bring to mind. When I’ve spent time abroad I’ve heard people say that Finnish sounds soft and soothing. Perhaps it is because the first syllable is always the one that is stressed and that creates a steady rhythm to it, or perhaps because we have lots of vowels in our language. ’Aion’ which means ’I’m going to’ has only one consonant, and so does ’öitä’ meaning ’nights’, just to mention a few.
Finns themselves often think that their language sounds crude, rough or cold. If you think about how the word like ’love’ sounds like, and compare it to its Finnish translation ’rakastaa’ with the heavy rolling of the r in the beginning and the hard consonants k and t to follow, you will see why. (You can read Finnish the same way you read Italian, if you know how to do that. Letters are pronounced the way they are written. For a sample, listen here.) In my opinion, this probably is just another way of Finns downplaying themselves, which we love to do.
Finnish, together with Icelandic are known as languages that are striving to keep their unique form in the globalizing world. For example the word ’volume’ is about the same in many different languages, like many such words are that are new additions due to innovations in technology. However, Finns and Icelanders like to make their own. So, in Finnish we say ’äänenvoimakkuus’ and Icelanders say ’rúmmál’ for volume. Why settle with something given, when you can have fun by inventing your own words?
We love a little word play with my younger son sometimes, using our own words, twisting the old ones and bending the rules to fit our purpose. I think it’s fascinating how languages evolve and change form. Some of them seem to be guarded more than others, whereas others are allowed to alter more freely. There are features in Finnish that hardly anyone uses in spoken language, but they are still required in the correct written form. When speaking Finnish hardly any native speaker says ’minä’ (’I’ in English) but instead ’mä’, or ’mie’ or ’mää’ according to the regional dialect. However, when writing in first person only ’minä’ is allowed in anything even a bit more official than chatting. Then again, my students often find it unfair that ’u’ or ’gonna’ are not okay even though they’ve grown to see them on their screens.
Whatever the rules of language may be, the best words are the ones that evoke feelings. ’Doodle’ makes me smile every time someone uses it, but when I hear the word ’gloomy’ I immediately feel my shoulders sink a bit. Most of all I want to use the word ’perhaps’ just to remind myself of the spectrum alternatives there always is. What’s your favorite word?