Finnish language flowers and Finnish accountability

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Aspects of the Finnish language happen to have come up a couple of times in recent weeks on Language Log ("Rare Finnish Crash Blossom", 1/13/2012; "It's baaack . . . and upside-down!", 1/2/2012). Lauri Karttunen, from whom I learned a bit about Finnish when I was a grad student, sent in these comments:

I did not know the technical term "crash blossom."  The equivalent term in Finnish is "kielikukkanen" (language flower). They are not rare in Finnish. The monthly "Suomen Kuvalehti" always has a couple in their column "Jyviä ja akanoita" (Seeds and Chaff).

I look forward to learning about those Finnish language flowers.  I can believe that Finnish crash blossoms are common, given relatively free word order combined with the morphological syncretism noted in the earlier post (singular accusative and genitive, plural nominative and genitive). And if "crash blossom" is "language flower" in Finnish, and the two terms were invented independently, that would be a curious and interesting coincidence.

Lauri continues:

Today Paul Kiparsky, Arto Anttila and I went down to Santa Clara together to cast our vote in the Finnish Presidential election. Neither one had seen the previous post about the "responsible/accountable" contrast. The two proposals mentioned in the Language Log, "tilivelvollinen" and "vastuuvelvollinen", don't sound right. Both exist and are quite common, especially in legal language, but they don't have the connotation that "accountable" has in alluding to dire consequences that may come your way for not meeting some goal. Arto came up with a word that we all think is the closest fit: "tulosvelvollinen" (result responsible).

Arto remembers from his time at the U. of Helsinki that the concept of "tulosvelvollisuus" was introduced by the ministry of Education in the 1980s. In practice it means that a department gets assigned a quota determined by the amount of money it spends. For example, the department of Linguistics might get the directive that it is expected to produce on the average one Ph.D. every year and should be prepared to see a decrease in funding if it keeps falling short of that goal.

This is especially ironic, then, given the rhetorical use that Anu Partanen made of the alleged Finnish lack of a word for accountability…

Lauri again:

Finnish has a wonderfully rich repertoire of specific responsibilities built on the noun "velvollisuus" (obligation):

asevelvolisuus (obligation to serve in the military)
verovelvollisuus (obligation to pay taxes)
maksuvelvollisuus (obligation to pay)
virkavelvollisuus (official responsibility)

And then there is the general adjective "vastuullinen" (responsible) from the noun "vastuu" (responsibility) and the more abstract "vastuullisuus" (having a responsibility) that covers all the more specific cases including

tilivelvollisuus (obligation to release financial or personal data)
vastuuvelvollisuus (legal responsibility of any kind)
tulosvelvollisuus (responsibility to achieve some result)

Overall it seems to me that Finnish has a richer vocabulary in this domain than English or Swedish. There is no one English word for "asevelvollinen" (required to do military service). Looking at the official bilingual law texts in Finnish and Swedish I see that Swedish has no word for "vastuuvelvollinen".


  1. Ilari Sani said,

    January 15, 2012 @ 10:52 am

    "Kielikukkanen" doesn't quite mean the same as a crash blossom. It means any kind of error in language use, and amusing errors in particular. There's also "käännöskukkanen" or "translation flower" for translation errors.

    As a side note, the "-nen" suffix is diminutive. And what are blossoms but diminutive flowers?

  2. Klein Erna said,

    January 15, 2012 @ 11:13 am

    German has Stilblüte "style blossom" in the same general sense. It might be a word play on the cognate Stiel "flower stem".
    "Stilblüte f. ‘komisch wirkender sprachlicher Mißgriff’ (19. Jh.). " (Pfeifer, Etymologisches Wörterbuch) Google ngrams sees it first around 1885.

  3. blahedo said,

    January 15, 2012 @ 2:30 pm

    So what you're saying is that Finnish has dozens of words for obligation? Maybe hundreds, or thousands, or some number I could make up on the spot? ;) ;)

  4. Tom Recht said,

    January 15, 2012 @ 2:37 pm

    Does Finnish really have "relatively free word order"? From what I remember it's fairly strictly SVO, and exceptionlessly modifier-head.

    [(myl) According to Elsi Kaiser and John Trueswell, "The role of discourse context in the processing of a flexible word-order language",Cognition 2004 :

    In Finnish, SVO is regarded as the canonical order and is also documented to be the most frequent order (Hakulinen & Karlsson, 1979). However, all six possible permutations of these three elements are grammatical in appropriate contexts (Vilkuna, 1989, 1995). For purposes of brevity, we focus here on the discourse requirements of SVO and OVS orders. For discussion of the discourse properties of the other orders, including the role of contrastive focus, see Hakulinen and Karlsson (1988), Kaiser (2000), Vilkuna (1989, 1995), Vallduví and Vilkuna
    (1998), inter alia.

    See also Lauri Karttunen and Martin Kay, "Parsing in a free word order language".]

  5. Henning Makholm said,

    January 15, 2012 @ 2:42 pm

    Danish has "sprogblomst", literally "language flower", with about the same semantics as Ilari Sani describes. I believe "blomst" is cognate to "blossom".

    Some newspapers carry columns collecting these. Typically they don't seem to distinguish between ambiguous phrasings and genuine errors. The underlying theory must be that ambiguity is itself a kind of error — though the columnists typically point it out by affecting that the wrong resolution is the only one possible.

  6. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 15, 2012 @ 3:19 pm

    As to one of the claims above about the inadequacies of the English lexicon, a moment's googling turned up a Time magazine story from 1942 titled "Manpower: Who Is Draftable?" "Draftable" in context of course meant "(potentially) obligated to do military service," and I think that meaning would have been pretty transparent to any AmEng speaker living during the part of the 20th century where military conscription was in effect or at least under active consideration, since "draft" as both verb and noun was the word standardly used to refer to such conscription in non-technical contexts, and the -able suffix is quite productive with transitive verbs. Admittedly, "draftable" has a broader range of possible meanings in other contexts; it wouldn't surprise me if Selective Service bureaucrats had also used "conscriptable" in their internal jargon, but I haven't taken enough time to see if I can dig up an actual example.

  7. Jason said,

    January 16, 2012 @ 2:02 am

    Even if the meanings of the words aren't completely coterminus, surely that both "crash blossom" and "kielikukkanen/language flower" use a flower metaphor is rather interesting, maybe even revealing?

  8. Rubrick said,

    January 16, 2012 @ 2:59 am

    @Jason: Except that "crash blossom" isn't metaphoric in origin at all; it was lifted from a specific example, the headline "Violinist linked to JAL crash blossoms". Since the term in English is only a few years old (Wikipedia gives its date of origin as 2009), "a curious and interesting coincidence" it seems indeed.

  9. LDavidH said,

    January 16, 2012 @ 3:47 am

    @J.W. Brewer: "Draftable" isn't an exact equivalent, since the -able suffix in itself refers to a possibility/potential, not an obligation or requirement. It's true that in war times, the draftable will sooner or later be drafted (i.e. the potential becomes an obligation), but that's not inherent in the term. Compare "marriageable" – or, to create a new (?) term: from a murderer's point of view, we are all killable – but I sure hope nobody therefore feels obliged to kill me!

  10. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 16, 2012 @ 10:36 am

    I will defer to those who actually know Finnish as to whether "asevelvollinen" refers only to those who have actually been drafted as opposed to those who are legally subject to conscription at the military's option. I took the gloss provided in the original post as broad enough to be coterminous with AmEng "draftable," but I suppose a narrower reading is also possible, just because "required" in this sort of context can be ambiguous in English between the legal obligation to do something if/when called upon and the obligation as crystallized after you have actually been called upon. On the other hand, wikipedia claims that the related noun "asevelvollisuus" can refer both to obligatory military service and the various sorts of alternative civilian service available under Finnish law to conscientious objectors etc., which suggests that the adjective might also in that dimension be equally broad.

    It may also be the case that since the mechanics of conscription apparently work differently in Finland then they historically did in the U.S. (where it was generally not the case that every male turning draft age presumptively had to either serve or do some acceptable alternative – rather, the percentage of the draftable population that was actually drafted or otherwise served would vary up and down signficantly over time depending on the circumstances) any lack of perfect lexical correspondence would track the local variation in the details of the practice being described. Thus, for example, probably the majority of AmEng speakers don't have the word VAT (value-added tax) in their active lexicons, because it's not a type of tax generally used in the U.S., so you only have occasion to talk about it if you visit or otherwise deal with certain foreign countries and/or are part of the tiny minority who gets involved in discussions about whether we should change our existing tax system to include a VAT. If there weren't other English-speaking countries which do have a VAT in their tax systems, there might be no English word for it whatsoever unless and until the tiny number of academics who had occasion to write in English about foreign tax systems managed to converge on a single standard bit of jargon for it.

  11. Tom Recht said,

    January 16, 2012 @ 8:05 pm

    Thanks for the references, Prof. Liberman; it looks like Finnish constituent order is freer than I'd realized. Still, the variation isn't likely to make good crash-blossom fertilizer, I would think: it appears to be conditioned by information structure and discourse pragmatics, and headlines, being generally 'all-new' sentences by their very nature, should tend to follow the unmarked SOV pattern. Maybe some Finnish reader can tell us if non-SOV headlines are at all common?

  12. Tom Recht said,

    January 16, 2012 @ 8:27 pm

    Sorry, for 'SOV' read 'SVO'.

  13. This Week’s Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik ~ all the words said,

    January 27, 2012 @ 1:52 pm

    […] Mair also discussed pinyin faux amis and Google translate and Chinese. Mark Liberman explored Finnish language flowers (crash blossoms in English), snowmanteaux, the word quite, and the phrase only and only if. […]

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