When prescriptivism gets mentioned, the formidable Académie Française inevitably crops up. The French Academy – beacon of proper French, publisher of dictionaries, and watchdog of all utterances – is regularly mentioned for its fight against Anglicisms, bringing down one loanword at a time: you send un courriel rather than an email, using a laptop that runs a certain logiciel, rather than software. Time to break for ‘le weekend’? Don’t even dream of it.
There may be more than a hint of over-exaggeration in how the media and popular linguistics report about the Academy’s antics (and with the Academy calling its members les immortels ‘immortals’, it’s not exactly helping its cause), but whatever the truth, it casts a bit of an Orwellian shadow on the idea of language institutes. There’s no equivalent governing body for the English language – which is why some English speakers like to think of their language as more liberated than the supposedly oppressed French – but broadening one’s prescriptivist horizons shows that language institutes really aren’t that totalitarian. I bring to you the Finnish take on the matter – Kotus.
“Time to break for le weekend? Don’t even dream of it.”
Just like its French counterpart, Kotus (or Kotimaisten Kielten Keskus, Institute for the Languages of Finland) is a state-run body. It’s in charge of the study and planning of Finland’s two official languages, Finnish and Swedish, steering and developing language standards and compiling dictionaries, as well as coordinating some of the work on the official minority languages Sami, Romani, and Finnish Sign Language. Researchers find materials in its archives and corpora, while people confused about correct language use can turn to their linguistic guidance and counselling services. It’s not that different from Ghostbusters, really: if there’s something strange in your text, who you gonna call? Kotus!
Also like Ghostbusters, Kotus moves with the times. It accepts that language changes, and that its rules aren’t set in stone, even if that were to give it some extra gravitas.
Ever heard of Prince Yrjö of England? No? I’m talking about the product of the St Andrews -based love story of Vilhelm and Katariina? Still no? Well, worry not, for neither have most Finnish people – under those guises. I’m talking about the Duke, Duchess, and Prince of Cambridge. In the olden days, all royal Georges were referred to as Yrjö, Catherines/ Katherines as Katariina, and Williams as Vilhelm. Mentioning that Yrjö’s aunt Pippa once made Rear of the Year would have been a giveaway, though, not only because of the esteemed prize but because names outside the standard royal paradigm have never been translated, nor will they be in the future. In 2002, the Institute recommended that future European monarchs be referred to with their native names: all Georges up to George VI will continue to be Yrjös, but when the next George hops on the thrown, there won’t be any funny naming business. Other countries still like to hold onto nativising names: in Latvia, for example, the US elections battle was fought between Donalds Tramps and Hilarija Klintone.
Not all Finnish loanwords bow to originals as they do to monarchs, though. In keeping with modern times, puzzled language users can now contact Kotus through a chat function on their website – only instead of chat, the interface referred to as tsätti. While both forms are used in Finnish, and both are equally accepted by the Institute, Kotus defends its choice to use the latter with an argument for user friendliness. Tsätti eliminates issues with the non-Finnish ch-sound ([tʃ] for the phonetically inclined) by replacing it with the more manageable ts. It also conveys a degree of casualness: a rather different approach from naming one’s workers les immortels.
Going casual is not just about appearances, either. Going against the Académie Française stereotype of extreme conservatism, Kotus is quite happy to acknowledge that variation is a thing in language. Back in the 70s, the correct spelling and pronunciation for ‘pharaoh’ was ruled as farao over its rival faarao with a long vowel, the former form being backed up by its appearance in the Bible. But in the latest issue of the Kotus journal, the happy news that faarao is back on the cards was announced. As the variation persisted throughout the decades, there was no point in clinging on to the superficially imposed form, et voilà (loanwords are totally cool, too), both the alternative forms were officially approved.
Revealing how Kotus oppresses people in a Nineteen Eighty-Four way would probably have attracted more readers. Alas, no – go and enjoy your freedom in using Finnish.