New Finnish Grammar

One day, I asked my Finnish teacher if it was true that her language had 30 different words for snow. She fixed me with her big, blinky eyes.

“No, you poor deluded fool,” she sighed. “We Finns only have one word for ‘snow’. The trouble is, you English think that everything white that falls out of the sky is ‘snow’.”

Finnish actually has more than thirty words for frozen precipitation in a variety of forms, including a word for “powdery snow that’s melted just a little bit” (nuoska), a “thin bit of snow on top of ice” (iljanne), and even “the grey lumpy stuff that turns up when slush refreezes” (kohva). Finns have a similarly large number of words for “reindeer”, and an oddly precise verbal toolkit for describing cupboards. However, their language doesn’t distinguish between sponges and mushrooms, and a single vowel sound separates the differing semantics of “My shelves are nearly full” from “My madness is soon to end.”

Of course, there is nothing “special” about Finnish. Every language has its little peculiarities, evolved in reaction to particular situations. The Navajo don’t distinguish between pilots, insects or helicopters, while the Chinese have over a dozen shades of red. And Japanese has 1194 ways to say “I love you”, along with a culture that refuses to use any of them. Having studied many languages and mastered none, I always return with joyous appreciation to English because it is such a catastrophic car-crash of Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Norman French and Viking Danish, with grammar rules deriving from several different countries, and a veritable multicultural bar-fight of contending nuances, much of which comes down not only to class, but to what someone’s great-great-great grandfather did for a living.

In his novel New Finnish Grammar, Diego Marani latches upon Finnish as a test subject for the human condition. In 1940s Italy, an expat Finnish doctor finds a patient with amnesia so severe that he cannot even remember how to speak. Finding evidence on the man’s person that he is a Finn, the doctor begins to teach him Finnish from scratch. As Sapir and Whorf once argued with their Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis, the language in which one thinks affects the thoughts that one can have. What if this man isn’t Finnish at all? What will this re-programming do to him?

And if he isn’t a Finn called Sampo Karjalainen, who is he? And who will he be when his brain is wired with thirty words for white stuff that falls out of the sky? There are numerous precedents in fiction, most notably the Kaurismäki film Man Without A Past, and many science fiction novels that deal with the power of language to shape thought. But Marani, a professional linguist, latches onto Finland and Finnishness itself for an extended meditation on human nature, patriotism and the soul.

Finnish has vowel harmonies and consonantal mutations like Turkish, and a cavalcade of odd little cases that make it infuriatingly precise. Most languages have basic items like singular and plural, nominative and genitive. Finnish has its own bonkers additions, like the abessive, which is the case you use for things that are nothing to do with you, and the partitive, which is a sort of superglue case to fix all the others.

Marani’s book returns to the age old tug-of-war between nature and nurture. Is Finnish the way it is because of Finland, or are Finns the way they are because of Finnish? He delves into the Kalevala, that crazy national myth of mighty duels over a sci-fi McGuffin, itself was knocked up as an exercise in bootstrap nationalism in the 19th century. He points to the savage rending of Finland into Reds and Whites during the Russian Revolution, an apocalyptic shattering of social cohesion that is still largely unspoken-of today, and yet which, only recently, I have still seen erupt into a bar-room brawl around me.

Talking to a Finnish history teacher this year, I heard the tale of her grandmother’s funeral, to which only a single cousin came. The reason: sixty years ago, grandma married someone of “the wrong colour”. Tellingly, I was not told which colour, Red or White, was wrong. It only mattered that the twain could never meet.

And, of course, there is Mannerheim, that national demigod – a former spy and orientalist, catapulted out of a dead-end military career into a role as the country’s leader in the unwinnable Winter War. Mannerheim, too, was a reluctant student of Finnish, living for most of his life with only a smattering sufficient to deal with the servants. It was only in middle age, called upon to deliver speeches to his public, that he swotted up sufficiently. Extant speeches show his Finnish to be halting and strangely accented – a sign that this hero of “Finnish” nationalism was a native speaker of Swedish, who had spent 30 years in the Russian army.

Marani is a good linguist, with a fine ability to romanticise issues that most people would find dull. He describes the construction of a Finnish sentence with allusions to orbits and trajectories in an imaginary solar system. He delves into the etymology of the simplest words with a verve that conjures wizards in primeval forests and witches chanting spells over swamps. He also writes himself a get-out-of-jail-free card, using his narrator’s student status as an excuse for numerous typographical and grammatical errors – annoyingly, even in a book that sings of the joys of vowel harmony, there are misplaced umlauts and errant letters.

One day, New Finnish Grammar is going to be a great movie. Some worthy agglutination of government funding bodies will knock up a Europudding that shoots in Trieste and Helsinki, starring a great Finnish actor like Mikko Kouki as the amnesiac Sampo. There is just enough plot in Marani’s narrative to sustain a movie, with cutaways to the essence of Finnishness, and fight scenes on the Eastern front against the Russians, perhaps even with magic-realist scenes that illustrate the wonder of Finnish grammar with Marani’s warlocks and witches, paintings of Akseli Gallen-Kallela come to life, or symbolic representations of what happens when a subject switches from accusative to partitive.

Well, maybe not the last. Three years into my Finnish lessons at the London School of Slavonic and East European Studies, mere weeks away from attaining my Lower Intermediate diploma, my teacher coughed nervously, and told the class to prepare themselves for a Finnish bombshell.

“The thing is,” she said, “Finnish doesn’t really have an accusative case. Don’t panic, we can use the genitive or partitive just fine, but everything I have told you so far about the accusative has been a convenient lie.”

She patted the arm of one of my fellow classmates, who had started to sob.

“Don’t cry,” she said. “It’ll be all right. It’ll be all right.”

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland.

Academic Spats

Kyoto’s Seika University now offers a PhD in manga, intended to train “researchers, professors, and manga artists.” Imagine them mumbling the last bit, because nobody in their right mind will spend seven years in tertiary education to become a pro artist, not when they can become one aged 17 if they win the right competition.

Perhaps that is what Scottish MP Tom Harris was reaching for when he recently attacked the new postgraduate course in Comics Studies at Dundee University, claiming that it was useless. Well, to him, maybe, but not everyone wants to be a politician. Harris’s comments were particularly baffling because he appeared to be setting standards that he had not attained himself. He carped that a degree from Oxford in Politics, Philosophy and Economics was a sure-fire means of success in government – an odd thing to hear from a man with an HND in Journalism from a former polytechnic.

Public rebuttals have confused several issues – including funding, credentialism, and the relative merits of subjects. If someone wants to cough up for an M.Litt in Comics Studies at Dundee, they are free to do so. It’s not like they are going to cost the taxpayer any more! It is unlikely to be much use in seeking a political career, but only an idiot would think otherwise. I wrote my Master’s thesis on manga and anime. It helped get me this job, telling you this. Or did it? NEO never asked to see my resumé; they only cared about what I wrote.

However, Dundee is not necessarily a magic portal to a career in comics, either. A Master’s degree is a “licence to practice”, but Dundee’s degree is in Comics Studies. Just as would-be filmmakers pick Film, and would-be film critics pick Film Studies, there is a difference in discipline. It won’t turn you into Neil Gaiman, more likely the guy who talks about Neil Gaiman at a conference. Like Kyoto’s new doctorate, it is liable to create researchers and professors, maybe even editors, but if you want to be a comics artist, study Art. And if you want to be a politician, apparently an HND in Journalism is what you need.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. This article first appeared in NEO 88, 2011.

Eating Chinese

There are many apocryphal stories about Chinese food, dating back to the dual fallacy that Marco Polo introduced ice cream and pasta to Europe – he didn’t. According to Lily Cho, the story of Chinese food is also the story of those moments where modernity stumbles, pausing for a moment to glance into a parallel world, not only of alien foodstuffs, but also of the great diaspora of Chinese emigrants. In a cheeky sense, her book Eating Chinese: Culture on the Menu in Small Town Canada presents it as the story of the Chinese discovery of the rest of the world, as coolies on the trans-Canadian railroad set up shop in obscure one-horse towns, serving food at first to their co-workers, and then to locals when the construction work carries on its way.

Amazon has an aggressively negative review of Cho’s book, from a reader who seems to have been expecting a cookbook or a set of breathless anecdotes, and who balks at the level of high-falutin’ big words. But this is a disservice to Cho, whose book is actually far more approachable than the work of many other cultural theorists, offering a witty, perceptive analysis of a distinctly odd corner of Western culture – the seemingly ubiquitous small-town Chinese restaurant. In the process, she offers some illuminating stories about the history of Chinese food abroad, particularly such foreign interpolations as lemon chicken, sweet and sour pork, and chop suey.

Cho is interested in the menus themselves, and what they tell Canadians about their own cuisine. There is, in a sense, no such thing as “Canadian” cuisine, until the day that a Chinese restaurateur added some Western dishes at the end of his menu for those diners who were afraid of “foreign food”. Cho uses the Chinese menu as a window into what was thought to be “Canadian” food over the last century.

Her cover speaks volumes to the oriental linguist. Its image addresses two different audiences, depending on the language they can read. To Anglophone readers, it shows a shabby café with kitsch bamboo lettering proclaiming it to be “Shangri-La”. The restaurant’s name in Chinese is “Peach Garden” – an identity rooted in much deeper, classier classical resonances. This dual identity is repeated throughout the Chinese restaurant world. One of my favourite London eateries, a diner near King’s Cross, has the awful English name Chilli Cool, and the classier Chinese name Lao Chengdu. It is the latter that identifies it for Sinophone customers as an authentic Sichuan restaurant, and not just another dive. I have seen this pattern repeated throughout the world, from Australia to Aberdeen, with twee, middle-brow English names balanced by far more meaningful, resonant titles in the proprietors’ native language. Sometimes, the pun is much cleverer: Bar Shu, in London’s Soho, is both an oriental-sounding establishment, and an evocation of the two ancient names of Sichuan: Ba and Shu. However, even then it has a “secret” Chinese name: Shuiyue Bashan, or “Moon on the Waters and Mountains of Ba.”

There is one odd mis-step, in which Cho dismisses as “urban myths” rumours of restaurants with one menu for Westerners and another for Chinese (p.36). This makes me wonder if her experience is not entirely limited to small-town Canada, as I have regularly asked for, received, and ordered from Chinese-only menus all over the world. In my experience, most restaurants have special menus for the use of Chinese patrons, although they are happy to provide them for anyone else who can read them.

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals.

100 Animated Feature Films

Doing exactly what it says on the tin, this friendly, accessible volume from the British Film Institute showcases a hundred cartoons, highlighting their points of interest, importance in the history of film, and impact on audiences. Since only a hundred films are listed, there will undoubtedly be gripes from aficionados who feel that their favourite film has been slighted. Far more relevant to this book’s long-term value is its placing of all animation in an international context. The likes of Hayao Miyazaki and Satoshi Kon are not rated in an anime ghetto where everyone gets a prize, but against the entire world of animation where everyone has to play with the big boys – a mature and welcome appraisal of Japanese cartoons, well overdue.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. This review first appeared in the SFX Ultimate Guide to Anime, 2011.

Writing for Games

The Writers’ Guild of Great Britain has released some very sensible guidelines for games writers. I note with interest a number of things that I have had to hammer into the heads of certain producers, would-be producers and self-styled producers over the last ten years, now set out as gospel entitlements for professional authors, which is all to the good.

I’m not pleased with the setting in stone of “English script by” as a circumlocution for “not translated at all by” or “substandard translation knocked into shape by“. At least as far as the WGGB wording goes, a tin-eared monoglot hack who changes a couple of typos on a script gets to put his name after the words “English script by” — a pretension that has been commonplace in the anime world for 20 years. In fact, as the wording currently stands, our hypothetical tin-eared monoglot hack can actually ask to be credited as the “translator”, even if he can’t speak the language he has supposedly translated.

But otherwise very nice indeed — a truly useful document, and not only for writers; it’s very handy for producers who genuinely want to know what is considered good business etiquette. In one case from my past, it would have saved me from the embarrassing situation in which I would have been considered in breach of contract if I didn’t hand in a 100-page script only an hour after signing.

Ill Winds

In late 2007, I was drawing money out of a Kyoto cashpoint at 240 yen to the pound. In the time since then, the relative value of the pound to the yen has fallen a terrifying 40%. What this means, for you and me, is that anything Japanese is 40% dearer. A CD that once cost you £20 is now more like £28. A tenner’s sushi is now four quid more.

Obviously, these issues trouble you a lot more if you are spending large amounts of money. One pound on the cover price of the magazines I read each month for NEO’s Manga Snapshot isn’t going to make that big a difference to me. But if you’re an anime distributor, used to writing cheques for six-figure sums, you’re going to feel the pinch. If you’re mastering or duplicating your DVDs in, say, Poland, you’ll be paying more in Euros for what used to be a cheaper option.

But it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good, as a bunch of amateur economists recently realised. In late January 2009, as the sterling exchange rate sank to a shameful 128 yen, a blogger in Japan began posting his musings on grey imports. Blimey, he said, I can buy Monty Python for a fraction of the Japanese price, and have it sent to me from the UK. Come to think of it, I can buy a LAPTOP, too. A different plug on the cable, and I’m laughing!

Initially, activity was timid. A few early adopters broke out their credit cards to see how it might work out. When one of them posted a happy photograph of the battered but solid Amazon UK parcel on his Tokyo doorstep, the floodgates opened.

The first I heard about it was a day later, when a worried anime distributor called to pick my brains. UK online sales of one of his company’s titles, which we shall have to call Schoolgirl Milky Crisis, had suddenly, dramatically spiked. Initial elation turned to concern – why was he suddenly rushing to meet orders so much larger than usual? It turned out that the orders were mainly going abroad, and that’s when he asked me to dig around on the Internet.

It took less than a minute for me to track down the anime speculators and their excited bloggery. Which only made matters worse, because if I could do it, so could the Japanese licence holder. Many Japanese companies are utterly petrified of this sort of thing. You wish your anime were cheaper? They wish it were more expensive, because grey imports give them nightmares. It was only a few months ago, in this very column, that I was discussing the symptoms of Blu-Ray Blues, whereby a company tries to centralise and standardise all editions of a release into a single Japan-made disc. But if that super-master-disc, containing all language versions, is 40% cheaper abroad than it is in Japan, it would play havoc with a company’s Japan-based statistics, economics and decision-making. Domestic sales will always come first for the Japanese, as foreign money, in these credit-crunchy times, is back to being just gravy. This, in turn, will present accountants in a Tokyo office with a sudden desire to force distributors in the UK to raise their prices to discourage Japanese grey-import opportunists!

Of course, if the pound goes up any time soon, everyone will probably just forget about it and chalk it up to economics. What are the chances of that…?

Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. This article first appeared in NEO #65, 2009.

Fools' Gold?

For readers of a certain age, the news that The Mysterious Cities of Gold is returning stirs up memories of hazy autumn days in 1986, rushing home to see the latest instalment of a cartoon series with a difference. MCoG had adventure and action, a complex storyline and believable characters… it was also an anime. MCoG was one of the last of the “hidden imports”, Japanese animation shows released in the UK with no discussion of their origins. Four years later, Akira changed everything.

MCoG gets a mention here because the animation was done by the famous Studio Pierrot, including early directorial work from Mizuho Nishikubo, the director of Musashi: Dream of the Last Samurai. But considering that the original was a French co-production (run by Ulysses 31’s Jean Chalopin), and there is currently no mention of Japanese participation in the sequel, I may not have cause to mention it again.

MCoG is thirty years old. As is the way with such multinational productions, the ownership of the original was a nightmare. For years, it seemed that the sticking point was the Japanese end of production, with the network NHK refusing to give up its share or sell it on so that others could do something with it. The deadlock was broken in 2007, with Chalopin’s new company Movie Plus buying NHK’s interest in the franchise, in turn freeing it up to be released on DVD, and indeed, for discussions to begin about a remake.

Initial discussions seemed to centre around a film production, although all mention of that was soon taken down from Movie Plus’s website. Instead, these speculations were replaced with an announcement that Mysterious Cities of Gold would be brought back as three 26-episode TV serials, moving the action from South America to Asia – 1532, the setting of the original series, is conveniently close to the samurai warring states period and the peak of China’s Ming dynasty.

But even if the setting is Asia, the animation companies listed so far are resolutely French, a fact liable to classify MCoG as a “mere” cartoon. That doesn’t mean it won’t be great; just that it’s likely appeal to fans of Japanese animation will surely be diminished.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. This article first appeared in NEO 87, 2011.