Finnish is one of the most energetic borrowers of words of all the world’s languages.
Plus, some languages are more prone to borrowing than others, and some societies try to protect themselves more than others. In France, efforts are ongoing to purge the language of foreign invasion and protect it going forward. In Finland, however, Finnish may be the world champion of borrowing.
A Dwindling Core
It’s actually estimated that only about 300 words remain in Finnish from its theoretical ‘proto-Uralic’ roots. They can be identified because they are the only words remaining in Finnish that don’t have a clear line of descent from another language. The word musta, for example, means black in Finnish and has no obvious link to any other language. But almost every other word in Finnish has a connection to another language, believe it or not!
Not only that, but the borrowed words are often remarkably similar to their source. For example, the word for king in Finnish is kuningas. It comes from the Germanic (not specifically German, mind you) word kuningaz. This preservation of the phonology (or close-kinship) of these words is relatively rare; usually in borrowing the words are greatly transformed by the local pronunciation and sensibility.
Much of the borrowing has occurred in more recent times. Sweden dominated Finland for much of its history, and thus Swedish is not only a co-official language in Finland, Finnish contains many words borrowed directly from Swedish, generally in the realm of government – which makes sense when you consider that Sweden governed the country for centuries. What’s really interesting is that since the Swedish domination of Finland began in the 12th century, many of the borrowed Swedish words are actually the oldest forms of those words, such as laki, “law.”
This process continues today, but English is the new invader. Finnish has borrowed many words from English in the modern age, generally in the realm of the cultural. What’s really interesting is that some of these borrowings from English are even displacing older borrowings from Swedish! For example, to say “to date” in romantic terms in Finnish you once would say treffailla (from the Swedish, träffa) but these days it’s more common to say deittailla, which comes literally comes from the English date.
Most loan words in Finnish are eventually “calqued,” which means they are literally translated into Finnish. For example, many computer terms have undergone this transformation. The term “hard disk” from English has been adopted by Finnish, but instead of using the English phrase they have literally translated it into kovalevy. This still counts as a borrowing, but it’s a more subtle one, and probably the eventual fate of most borrowed words in the modern era.