It’s been said that the best way to get to know a society is through language, for it reflects the idiosyncrasy, values and worldview of its speakers. Take Finland, the land of a thousand lakes and the midnight sun. Its dense forests, fertile mires and pristine lakes, as well as its harsh weather conditions and traditional lifestyles, have shaped the linguistic landscape of the Finnish language throughout the years, from surname conventions to everyday expressions.
One instance of this ever-present connection with nature is the obsolete unit of measurement poronkusema, used by the Sami people to describe the distance a reindeer can travel without having to stop to urinate – roughly 7 to 7.5 km. The compound is made of the elements poron (reindeer’s) and kusema (from the verb kusta, to pee; and the suffix -ma: the amount peed in one visit to the bathroom).
Another example of nature’s presence in the Finnish language is the expression peninkulma, which refers to the distance a barking dog can be heard in still air (approximately 10 km after the 17th century conversion of Swedish versts to kilometers). Another interesting etymological fact: the compound is made of the words peni (archaic for dog, again penin being the genitive case; dog’s) and kuuluma (to be heard).
Moving on from travel distances to farming soil, back in the day the Finns used the units tynnyrinala, panninala and kapanala to refer to the area that could be sown, respectively, with one barrel, half a barrel and one thirtieth of a barrel of grain. But Finns weren’t the only ones having their linguistic baggage shaped by agricultural practices: “a barrel of land” was a widespread unit throughout Scandinavia (Danish tønde land; Swedish tunnland); Norwegian tønneland).
And since we are putting all the units on the table, here’s another voluminous fact: foods such as strawberries, cherries, mushrooms, peas and even potatoes are sold by liters in Finland. Why is that, you ask? Imagine the old John Doe farmer – or in this case, the old Matti Meikäläinen, since we are in Finland – collecting strawberries from the field and throwing them in a basket as he harvests. Back in the day, scales were not as reliable or affordable as they are now, so our Meikäläinen guy would go to the marketplace and use his strawberry basket as measurement of his goods, selling his produce by volume instead of weight. What started as a thrifty method of commerce stretched out to the current times. So, whenever you happen to be in Finland and the vendor asks how many liters of cherries you’d like, panic not, he’s not offering you smushed-cherry goop. But whether you end up with a carton of cherries or a glass of cherry milkshake, hyvää ruokahalua!
Ps. This article was written under the musical influence of Sibelius’s Finlandia, Op. 26.