Rare Finnish Crash Blossom

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From Miika Sillanpää:

A Finnish tabloid presented this beautiful crash blossom today:

Disregarding the tragic subject, it can be read either as
"Father kills his daughter's dog with hammer"
"Father kills his daughter with dog's hammer"

Well-tended crash blossoms such as this are exceedingly rare in the Finnish-language media, so it was a pretty delightful find on this grim and dark Friday the 13th. Though I wonder where the dog had gotten the hammer in the first place.

Google Translate presents another possibility (I think incorrectly): "The father of her daughter's dog was killed with a hammer".

Why should crash blossoms be rare in Finnish? Well, the fact that Finnish inflects nouns for case, and inflects verbs for person, number, tense, and mood, should help Finns to keep straight who did what to whom.

On the other hand, Finnish allows pretty free scrambling of word order within clauses (and sometimes outside them). And there's one big gotcha in the whole case-marking thing: a morphologically distinct accusative case exists only for certain pronouns. Otherwise, singular direct objects look just like the genitive, and plural direct objects look just like the nominative.

Based on my limited memory of the limited amount of Finnish morphology that I learned as a graduate student from Lauri Karttunen, supplemented by online access to FINTWOL, I conjecture that in this case we have:

isä father (nominative singular of isä)
tappoi killed (3rd singular past active of tappaa)
tyttärensä his daughter (nominative singular OR genitive/accusative singular of tytär + possessive nsä)
koiran dog (genitive/accusative singular of koira)
vasaralla hammer (adessive singular of vasara)

(Apologies for what I've probably gotten wrong.)

Oh, I forgot to mention that the "adessive" case has the following collection of meanings:

  • expressing the static state of being on the surface of something ("on the table")
  • used with the verb olla (to be) to express possession ("be at X" = "belong to X")
  • expressing the use of something ("at X" = "with X")
  • expressing the time at which things take place ("at noon")
  • expressing the general proximity in space or time at which something takes place ("at school")
  • in certain expressions expressing mood ("in a rage")

So in Finnish, to kill someone with a hammer, you kill them at a hammer.

Anyhow, I think we know that the father must be the subject of the verb killed, and we know that he killed with a hammer. (Or maybe at or on a hammer, but let's not be pedantic…)  However, his daughter and the dog each might be the (accusative) object, or might be a genitive connected to something else in the clause. In particular, the father might have killed his daughter with the dog's hammer, or killed his daughter's dog with a hammer.

I leave it up to our Finnish readers to tell us whether he might have killed the dog with his daughter's hammer.

Not a nice story, any way you parse it.


  1. Eric P Smith said,

    January 13, 2012 @ 8:08 pm

    I don’t know a word of Finnish, but purely on the basis of the information given in the post, I wonder if the caption could also mean “Father kills the dog’s daughter with a hammer”?

  2. Tom Recht said,

    January 13, 2012 @ 9:02 pm

    Lovely. One would think highly inflected languages were immune to crash blossoms, but there's often some corner of morphological ambiguity which makes them possible. This is a bit like the subject/object ambiguity in Latin and Greek subordinate clauses, which ancient oracles made such entertaining use of.

    He couldn't have killed the dog with his daughter's hammer, I believe, nor killed the dog's daughter with a hammer, since in Finnish the possessor immediately precedes the possessed NP.

  3. Tom Recht said,

    January 13, 2012 @ 9:10 pm

    By the way, if I'm remembering my own limited Finnish correctly, tyttärensä could also be nominative/accusative plural, so the father might have killed his multiple daughters; though not his multiple daughters' dog.

  4. Joyce Melton said,

    January 13, 2012 @ 9:19 pm

    Not to go all Whorfian but what social or intellectual consequences might follow from using a language in which the ambiguity necessary for crash blossoms is rare? Does that question even make sense?

  5. Aaron Toivo said,

    January 13, 2012 @ 11:02 pm

    @Joyce: I can't imagine there would be anything profoundly different, but it seems possible that it could result in writers being less primed to notice whatever garden paths and ambiguities do occur, and perhaps less likely to employ deliberate ones as a form of humor. But that's just my own speculation.

  6. Garrett Wollman said,

    January 13, 2012 @ 11:05 pm

    I was an exchange student in Finland back in 1988-89, and a working (by no means deep) understanding of the morphological system is one of the few things I still carry with me. Well, that and Eugene Holman's Handbook of Finnish Verbs, which is on the reference shelf somewhere near me. He also wrote a BASIC program, distributed on floppy, that could correctly inflect nearly any Finnish (given the base form and the part of speech), although it's been a long time since I had any computer that could read it.

    I'd actually be curious if anyone has written a good, understandable historical explanation of how the inflectional system came to be quite so odd as it is. (Knowing that Hungarian is even more complex hardly helps matters.) Why do two cases only exist in the plural (and barely exist at all)? Why does modern Finnish prefer to use a postposition rather than the perfectly serviceable abessive case? Why all those "infinitives"? And above all, why is the accusative so weird? (Is the fact that the accusative of the singular pronouns is the same as a regular nominative plural would be formed from that stem relevant?)

  7. Joyce Melton said,

    January 14, 2012 @ 12:38 am

    @Aaron Which must make Marx Bros. films untranslatable into Finnish. But then wordplay is often untranslatable, whatever the type.

    It looks to me that if you shot an elephant in your pajamas in Finnish, there might be some doubt about who owned the gun but not the pajamas. But the elephant would still be done for, not to say finished.

  8. Ilari Sani said,

    January 14, 2012 @ 3:43 am

    Hi, I'm a Finnish reader.

    That headline has exactly two possible parsings. It's not possible for the father to have killed the dog with his daughter's hammer. That would be "Isä tappoi koiran tyttärensä vasaralla", which has a different word order. (Yes, the word order is not entirely free!) Incidentally, that sentence has unambiguous grammar.

    @Tom: "Father killed dog's daughter with hammer" is "Isä tappoi koiran tyttären vasaralla", which has different cases and word order. That one can also be parsed as "father kills dog with daughter's hammer", analogous to the original headline.

    "Tyttärensä" is exclusively singular. The plural for can be either "tyttäriensä" or "tytärtensä". Both are functionally identical. I have no idea why there are two possible forms, but I suspect they come from different dialects.

    @Joyce: The ambiguity in the elephant joke does in fact translate to Finnish. "In my pajamas" is slightly tricky to translate so that it doesn't sound clunky, but an idiomatic translation might be "Ammuin norsun pyjama yllä". That's "I shot an elephant wearing a pajama" in English.

  9. Peter Taylor said,

    January 14, 2012 @ 3:56 am

    @Joyce, there's no doubt in English about who owns the pajamas. The ambiguity is who's wearing them at the time.

  10. Joe said,

    January 14, 2012 @ 8:44 am

    I'm not sure how many people could read it, but the Iso Suomen Kielioppi is available online:

  11. Dan Lufkin said,

    January 14, 2012 @ 12:30 pm

    It seems odd that Finnish needs to borrow the word for daughter from IE Germanic. Estonian does, too tütar. You'd think that would be part of the Finno-Ugric root vocabulary.

  12. blahedo said,

    January 14, 2012 @ 1:55 pm

    @Dan: It may have been (and presumably was); but "needs to" is an overstatement. Plenty of languages have plenty of serviceable words for things and borrow another word anyway. It's not the *normal* thing to do, but it's not *that* rare.

  13. Rebecca said,

    January 14, 2012 @ 2:01 pm

    Not being a Finnish speaker (though knowing a tiny bit about the morphology and syntax), I'm wondering:

    – do other Finnish speakers (other than the guy who sent the example) find this to be a crash blossom, or just (theoretically) ambiguous? Based on the possible meanings, it seems possible that many people would hit on the intended meaning without difficulty. Or, to pick up on another post today, they would find it ambiguous, but not ambiguous-ambiguous

    – Are Finnish headlines written in a style that differs much from ordinary written Finnish? English crash blossoms arise in part because of headline style that leaves out small words thar would disambiguate. If Finnish writers keep to "normal" syntax/morphology, that could also be why crash blossoms are rarer.

  14. Tom Recht said,

    January 14, 2012 @ 2:30 pm

    @Ilari: "Tyttärensä" is exclusively singular. The plural for can be either "tyttäriensä" or "tytärtensä".

    I hesitate to challenge a native speaker, but aren't those genitive plurals rather than nominative/accusative plurals? Wiktionary says tyttärensä, Nominative singular and plural form of tytär + the suffix -nsä (3rd person possessive suffix), and the Iso Suomen Kielioppi (thanks, Joe!) says:

    Taivutuspäätteen loppu-n ja ‑t puuttuvat possessiivisuffiksin edeltä (a). Nominien possessiivisuffiksilliset muodot ovat siis samanasuisia yksikön nominatiivissa ja genetiivissä ja monikon nominatiivissa

  15. Poika said,

    January 14, 2012 @ 3:32 pm

    A couple of comments from a Finnish speaker with no real background in linguistics.

    "Do other Finnish speakers (other than the guy who sent the example) find this to be a crash blossom, or just (theoretically) ambiguous?"

    It's not that ambiguous, but that's only because of the context. As such, the sentence is ambiguous and can be read either way. Actually, I had to reread the sentence because it seemed to make no sense :) I think this is mostly because the first part of the sentence ("Isä tappoi tyttärensä", Father killed his daughter) is so striking it kind of dominates the rest of it. "Isä tappoi vasaralla tyttärensä koiran" would be unambiguous, and probably should have been used instead.

    "It seems odd that Finnish needs to borrow the word for daughter from IE Germanic. Estonian does, too tütar. You'd think that would be part of the Finno-Ugric root vocabulary."

    It's not that odd, considering the major influence of neighboring, often more advanced IE-speaking populations. Even "äiti" (mother) is Baltic or Germanic in origin. However, emo/emä (from Proto-Uralic *ämä) was used on the side, too, until quite recently (now it's used mostly referring to animals). The corresponding male versions isä (father) and poika (son) derive from Proto-Uralic, though ( *ičä, *pojka). It's a shame there aren't so many of them, especially since the ones we have are so amazingly well-conserved compared to other Uralic/Fenno-Ugrian languages. Actually, the borrowed words are often better-preserved compared to their current IE counterparts, as well.

  16. Ilari Sani said,

    January 14, 2012 @ 3:52 pm

    @Tom: You're right, "tyttärensä" can be be singular or plural in the accusative or nominative. I didn't read your question carefully and was thinking of the original context, where "tyttärensä" is (intended as) in the genitive.

  17. Toni K said,

    January 14, 2012 @ 5:36 pm

    Ilari Sani: "That headline has exactly two possible parsings."

    It has three, if you allow for the possibility of the sentence having no object, excusable and even common in newspaper headlines. In that case it would be "father killed with his daughter's dog's hammer", with the victim left undefined…

  18. Dan Lufkin said,

    January 14, 2012 @ 9:47 pm

    I really should have been thinking more analytically. Swedish uses pojke for boy. Maybe Swedish and Finnish just made an even swap — "daughter" for "boy". Fair exchange.

  19. Jussi Piitulainen said,

    January 15, 2012 @ 8:14 am

    @ Rebecca: Are Finnish headlines written in a style that differs much from ordinary written Finnish?

    I think Finnish headlines are more or less ordinary Finnish. I went through all the headlines now on http://yle.fi/uutiset to check. The only markedly headlinese things I was able to notice are the frequent omission of the verb "on/ovat" (is/are) ("Käytetyissä autoissa [on] enemmän vikoja – laatu [on] kuitenkin parantunut") and the occasional practice of preceding the content of the headline with the source ("Suomalaisasiantuntija: Vain ilmataskut pelastavat loukkoon jääneet").
    Otherwise the headlines tend to be complete sentences or noun phrases.

    Finnish doesn't have some of the little words that the British headlines omit, notably articles like "a", "the". Finnish has productive compounding: "accident ship" is "turmalaiva" so there is no attachment ambiguity. Adjective-noun or noun-postposition attachment may be shown by morphological marking, and noun/verb ambiguity is not as pervasive as in English (rather an understatement, I think).

    On the other hand, if dogs had hammers, the present headline would be a genuine ambiguity.

    (Disclaimer: I do know something about computational linguistics and language technology, but in Finnish grammar I am merely a native speaker and I have had ridiculous ideas of my native tongue in the past.)

  20. Jenni said,

    January 19, 2012 @ 10:52 am

    @ Rebecca

    I'm native in Finnish and I found it ambiguous, for the reason mentioned already by someone else; "Father killed his daughter" in the beginning evokes such a big emotional reaction that the rest of the sentence is interpreted in that light. And I've also seen the original article being shared in Facebook by someone else who commented "Where did the dog get the hammer anyway?" so apparently I'm not the only one… Obviously it doesn't take long to figure it out but it does take a second or two which is understandable given that such ambiguities are quite rare in Finnish.

  21. Atro said,

    March 28, 2012 @ 7:28 am


    If we don't require the presence of an overt object in the clause, and allow for a locative reading for the adessive reading ("vasaralla"), at least eight translations seem possible (though not equally likely):

    Isä tappoi tyttärensä koiran vasaralla.

    Father killed his daughter's dog with a hammer.
    Father killed his daughter's dog at/on/near a hammer.
    Father killed his daughter with a dog's hammer.
    Father killed his daughters with a dog's hammer.
    Father killed his daughter at/on/near a dog's hammer
    Father killed his daughters at/on/near a dog's hammer.
    Father killed with his daughter's dog's hammer.
    Father killed at/on/near his daughter's dog's hammer.

    Atro Voutilainen

  22. László said,

    July 4, 2012 @ 10:22 am

    @Dan Lufkin The use of a Germanic word for daughter in Finnish is fascinating. Hungarian uses the word for "boy" for son and "girl" for daughter (or perhaps son became boy? who knows!). Doesn't tend to cause confusion in context or with the use of a possessive suffix ("my boy" for example, sometimes also heard in English). However, perhaps there is therefore a general lack of a root Finno-Ugric word? And in turn,perhaps this explains the eventual popularity of a Germanic equivalent in Finnish?

    p.s. I'm by no means a linguist and clearly I could therefore be entirely incorrect. However, this possibility just struck me as interesting!

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