The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Saturday, September 21, 2002  

East Timor is “Finnished” with Colonialism

East Timor, the Southeast Asian nation wracked by violence for more than twenty years, has been looking for a national language and now appears to have found one in the most unlikely of places.

Considering East Timor’s location, one might assume its residents might, out of practicality, choose Indonesian, English, Malaysian, Thai, Vietnamese, or even Chinese. Instead, East Timor appears to be on the way toward adopting Finnish as its new language, according to a recent article in a Helsinki newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat, by Inkeri Koskela. [Ed.: Linked article has been translated into English.]

Why not stick with what they know?

Well, there’s the fly in the proverbial ointment: not everyone in East Timor speaks the same language. The country previously was a Portuguese colony and its older citizens still speak Portuguese, while most of the young speak a dialect known as Bahasa Indonesian. Moreover, according to Sanomat, “The original East Timorese language, Tetum, has a fairly primitive grammar and thanks to eight or nine different tribal dialects, even this language does not unite the population.”

Quite a conundrum.

“The language question surfaced when East Timor, together with the United Nations and the World Bank, started rebuilding the country’s educational infrastructure,” Koskela reports. “What would be the language of tutoring? Which language would be suitable for the schoolbooks?”

Early in 2000, the United Nations Transitional Administration for East Timor (UNTAET), established in October 1999 to administer the territory, began searching for a textbook series to educate the nation’s schoolchildren, their schools largely decimated by Indonesian, uh, militias.

The World Bank hired Nigel Billany, chief executive officer of Opifer Ltd., an education consulting firm owned by Tammi Publishers, which sent 30 different book series to East Timor for evaluation. “The evaluation team, which consisted of local teachers, finally came down in favour [sic] of the Finnish book series,” Sanomat reports.

“The fact that they wanted the books in a politically neutral language definitely contributed to the selection outcome. Portuguese, Bahasa Indonesian, English, and French are all associated with colonialism,” Billany told Sanomat.

“We did offer to translate the books into some other language, but they insisted on having them in Finnish,” said Tammi’s managing director, Pentti Molander.

In response to the local agency’s request, Tammi Publishers sent 220,000 copies of Opin Itse, or I’m Learning, a book intended for first and second graders, to East Timor, a country with a population of nearly 800,000. “There’s a book for every fourth East Timorese,” Koskela reports. “After the first year the feedback on the Finnish books has been good, report UN officials,” the reporter continues. “Local teachers have been satisfied with the material they chose.”

Why, oh why, Finnish?

Frankly, I can’t quite decide what to think of this.

As one who has been dabbling in self-instruction of the Finnish language, part of me wants to shout “HURRAY!” while the other part of me wants to catch the first flight down to East Timor and scream, “STOP BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE!”

As I understand it, children can pick up one language as easy as another, and more quickly than even the most linguistically oriented of adults, so everything will likely work out in the end. But Finnish? Finnish?

Finnish is, without a doubt, the most complicated and difficult language I ever have encountered. It shares almost nothing with almost anything.

Although Finnish and Hungarian are distantly related languages, they have little in common in their current forms. Finnish shares some similarities with Estonian and various regional and ethnic-minority dialects in northern Russia. And while Finnish has borrowed a little from Swedish and Russian, and a bit from German, and more, inevitably, from English, it stands on its own, reflecting the uniqueness of the people we call Finns.

Knowing a language other than English, even knowing any language at all, is of no help in learning Finnish. One who knows English and German, for example, can quickly pick up Dutch and will recognize at least some words in Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian, even Icelandic. A person who speaks, say, English and Italian is well prepared to study French, Spanish, Portuguese, and even Romanian. Such is not the case with Finnish.

Yet Finnish, after considerable study, is incomparably logical, almost mathematical in its precision. And Finnish is a beautiful language, rhythmic and rather musical, with fewer consonants than English and other Western European languages, a preponderance of vowels and vowel combinations, and spoken with a slight Scandinavian-style lilt, though the Finns themselves are not Scandinavians.

Those who have studied Latin will remember the ancient Romans’ six cases in the declension of nouns and adjectives: nominative, vocative, genitive, dative, accusative, and ablative.

Too much to handle? Try Finnish. It has 15 basic cases: nominative, genitive, accusative, partitive, essive, translative, inessive, elative, illative, adessive, ablative, allative, abessive, comitative, and instructive.

And if that’s not enough, there are 12 adverbial cases: superessive, delative, sublative, lative, temporal, causative, multiplicative, distributive, temporal distributive, prolative, situative, and oppositive.

Children can pick up one language as easily as another when it is an integral part of their environment, but I worry about the parents and teachers in East Timor who must quickly learn this unusual language in order to communicate effectively with their children and students, respectively.

Why would the authorities in East Timor choose a language so maddening in its complexity? Why choose a language spoken by so few outside of its home country? Why not jump head first into global commerce? Is this perhaps a nefarious plot by Nokia Corp. to establish a new low-wage manufacturing center?

Regardless, have these people not suffered enough already?

The Rittenhouse Review | Copyright 2002-2006 | PERMALINK |