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Aimo Sori, what's your name?

By Jens Alderin, April 2009

Photo: Matti Hurme
Nobel Peace Prize winner from the island of the sea god (right) takes part in a conference. If you don't understand what we're talking about, see below.

Meeting new people from different backgrounds is always exciting, but sometimes you run into unexpected complications – for instance, pronouncing the name of your new acquaintance. Finns are no exception.

The Finnish language in general is regarded as difficult and Finnish names have an exotic ring to them. For example, you introduce yourself to a Finnish woman and it sounds like she responds, "I know." She might not be saying that she is aware of who you are, but that her name is Aino. Perfectly normal.

Understandably, Mr Aimo Sori (pronounced "I'm oh sorry") also had a hard time getting his name across initially. But most problems occur with long names including the letters å, ä and ö. Therefore names such as Äkäslompolo or Yrjönen often raise eyebrows and give rise to verbal acrobatics. However, your new Finnish friend will appreciate your effort. At worst, you'll have a laugh together.

When being introduced, a follow-up question in many countries is about the meaning of your name. Let's present some well-known Finns and explain what their names mean.

Nomen est omen

It seems as if some people were destined for their vocation the moment they were christened. Weather forecaster and television profile Pekka Pouta is one. To the regret of many Finns and tourists alike, he all too seldom forecasts the type of weather associated with his last name, which means "sunshine". That of course, is not his fault, but an occupational hazard of working in Finland.

Mika Ihamuotila, the CEO of leading Finnish clothing and textile design company Marimekko, has been dubbed Mr Marimekko by Finnish media. Probably a name and a title to his liking, but his surname already contains the word "muoti", which means "fashion" in Finnish. Did they hire Ihamuotila based purely on his CV, or should Marimekko's choice of CEO be seen as part of a branding strategy?

The kindest man and the fastest man

Most Finns were proud, and with good reason too, when former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari was awarded the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize. Interestingly, in contrast to his nonbelligerent nature, Ahtisaari's first name actually means warlike. It can be traced back to the Latin name Martinus, which in turn is linked to Mars, the god of war.

What about Ahtisaari's surname? "Ahti" is the sea god in the Finnish national epic Kalevala, and "saari" is Finnish for "island". So the name of the current Nobel Peace Prize holder can actually be loosely translated as "Warlike, from the island of the sea god". A patriotic Finn could try to excuse this juxtaposition between character and name by noting that Ahtisaari's grandparents were Norwegian and changed their surname from Adolfsen to Ahtisaari in 1929.

Nicknames, on the other hand, do often describe character. Therefore, it might be plausible to assume that Finnish Formula One driver Kimi Räikkönen gets his Finnish nickname, Räkä, which means "snot", from his childish looks and unapologetic behaviour.

Trying to pronounce Finnish names just adds to their charm. But sometimes even a Finn is left wondering if there might be a hidden meaning behind all those ä's and ö's.

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