Use of rising intonation gains ground in the Finnish language
Trait associated with young girls in Southern Finland spreads gradually across the country and all demographics
By Johanna Tikkanen
A squeaky voice and a weird rising intonation at the end of a sentence seem to have already become rooted in the way the Finnish youth use their mother tongue.
It never used to be like this, but while older people still consider this manner of speaking somewhat ridiculous and characteristic only of little girls, many of them fail to realise that they, too, have assumed the same mannerisms.
Even though the rising intonation is not part of the conventional Finnish language, more and more people have started using it at the end of a sentence or a part of a sentence:
Mulla on sellanen projekti, että kokeilen kaikkea uutta, oon alottanu showtanssin ja salsan. (“I have got this project going, where I will try out anything new. I have taken up show dance and salsa.”)
The rising stress on the end of the word uutta in this case is as new as the word itself.
“The fact that the younger generation now use many different languages, each with their typical cadences, must have caused them to assimilate this type of intonation into their mother tongue as well. In the Finnish language, however, this trait is used in its own unique way”, says researcher of linguistics Sara Routarinne.
It is quite true that younger Finns speak other languages more freely than their elders, something that was pointed out in an earlier article on politicians' use of English, and young people hear - and mimic - foreign language patterns very easily.
Rising intonations have in any case become a global trend. According to Routarinne, young girls started favouring the trait in Australia sometime in the 1980s.
The same phenomenon has been noted in Japan.
Also in Finland, the rising intonation first gained popularity among trend-conscious girls in Southern Finland.
Now the habit has gained ground among older people, and it is found in men as well.
The fashion has also spread in geographical terms: rising intonations have already been observed among young people for example in the Tornio River Valley in Western Lapland.
Not everybody welcomes the invasion of the alien rising intonation into the Finnish language. The trait can even be a cause of ridicule.
“For some reason the rising intonation causes very strong reactions among the Finns.”
As a researcher, however, Routarinne has observed a good explanation for its use:
“The rising intonation is used in order to hold the listener’s attention and to ensure that he or she will not fall off the wagon, so to speak.”
Instead of delivering meandering monologues and hoping that the listener will not fall asleep, the speaker tries to give navigational aids with his or her voice.
“Rising intonations are used as ‘do you understand what I am saying’ bookmarks in a sentence, or signposts like ‘please note that this relates to what I am about to say next’”, Routarinne explains.
The rising intonation is not a completely new phenomenon in the Finnish language, however. Already in 1901 Vihtori Peltonen, a.k.a. the author Johannes Linnankoski, observed some use of the rising intonation among the Finnish-speaking Finns.
First the trait established itself in familiar double-check questions: Mitä? Kuinka? Huomenna? (What? How? Tomorrow?)
In the 1960s, the rising intonation was heard from the mouths of the Stockmann department store lift-girls as they announced the floors: viides, kuudes... (fifth, sixth...).
Occasionally the trait was observed in other contexts as well.
“The linguistics specialists wagged their fingers disapprovingly when rising intonations were detected among the Finns living amidst Finland’s Swedish-speaking population. The rising intonation has tried to invade the Finnish language several times, but each time the assault has been fended off”, the researcher notes.
Towards the end of the 1980s a new kind of intonation was observed in the speech pattern of the Finns.
This time the rising intonation was placed at the end of a sentence, or a part of a sentence.
“By this the speaker demonstrates that he or she is about to come to the very point that she is trying to make. For the listener, this provides an opportunity to interject with ‘I do not understand’, whereas a simple ‘mmm’ or ‘yes’ signals to the speaker that he may continue”, Sara Routarinne explains.
So, if the reason for using a novel linguistic trait is so friendly and respectful of others, should not everyone learn how to use the rising intonation, alien or not?
The conservatives oppose the idea.
“Also those in power could not possibly adopt the habit into their public use of language”, the researcher says.
“For one, we do not have politicians who would use the rising intonation. A squeaky-voiced young woman speaking with a rising intonation would not survive long in Parliament. In Finland she would not be taken seriously.”
In Routarinne’s view, the simple reason for this is that in the corridors of power, room is not traditionally given to the opponent:
“Finnish politicians are not big on listening to those that they are speaking to. Rather, they prefer simply to pontificate on their own causes.”
Do you listen to what others have to say?
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 26.10.2009
Tongue-tied (6.10.2009) (Part Three deals with the subject in hand)
JOHANNA TIKKANEN / Helsingin Sanomat