Kari Nahkola–Marja Saanilahti

Finnish slang as a linguistic and social phenomenon

In Finland the social status of slang has been so low that, for a long time, slang was not even considered worthy of linguistic study. Towards the end of the 20th century the situation changed. One reason for this was the birth of a general Finnish slang which comprises a considerable amount of words that have their origins in different kinds of slang but are now used (or at least known) by the majority of Finns. This type of slang words appear even in Finnish media — spoken and written.

Of the more specialised kinds of slang the one that is familiar to the greatest number of speakers is school slang. Practically all Finns use it when they are teenagers. The rate of the renewal of vocabulary is high in school slang: it seems that every generation wants to have their own kind of school slang. Another kind of slang with wide social coverage is military slang: Finnish males learn and use military slang as they serve their military time after school.

All other kind of slang are used by much smaller groups of speakers, and often speakers maintain the use of these kinds of slang for many years — even for decades. Typically these kinds of “minor” slang arise within groups of people who share, for example, the same profession or the same hobby. In these kinds of slang the vocabulary is relatively stable, because for these speakers an important motivation for using slang words is to ease communication, and slang words are usually shorter than their Standard Finnish synonyms.

Many Finnish slang words are Standard Finnish words which have been given a new meaning in slang. Many others are Standard Finnish words in which the lexical meaning has been retained, but the phonological form has been altered; this is often done by replacing the end of the word with a special “slangy” suffix (for example -is or -ari). Especially among verbal expressions there are also new coinages. Loans from other languages are rare in most Finnish slang.

In addition to the types of slang mentioned above, there is one special variety of Finnish which is also referred to as a slang. It is the old “Helsinki slang”, a mixture of Finnish and Swedish, which was used as a means of communication between the speakers of the two languages at the time when Swedish-speaking Helsinki was transforming into a bilingual speech community. Linguistically, this variety is a pidgin rather than a slang.