Two little words: Sisu and Sauna

Two little words, sisu and sauna, are perhaps the most meaning linguistic features signaling ‘Finnish American’. These words are what are called shibboleths—words that signal insider and outsider by way of pronunciation. For example, most people in the US who live outside of the UP and who are not Finnish American, pronounce saunaas [sanə] (san-nuh) rather than [saʊnə] (sow-nuh). Some folks don’t know what a sauna is or that sauna is an important cultural practice among family and friends and that there are rules and rituals when taking sauna. In addition, most people don’t know what sisu is, ‘persistence in the face of adversity,’ and how this little word is a significant marker of Finnish American identity. It can be seen as linguistic practices of this identity on bumper stickers, t-shirts, ball caps, baby bibs, and other objects in the linguistic landscape. So, as shibboleths, sisu and saunarepresent place—the UP, ethnic identity—Finnish American, and ways of knowing—specifically, how to “correctly pronounce sauna.” The significance of sisu and sauna in defining identity is reflected in the shared understanding of sisu and the pronunciation, as well as the cultural practice, of taking a sauna. Through these words emerges the idea that Finnish American identity is located in the language of a specific place—Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Sisu and Sauna: In honor of St Urho’s Day

Today, St Urho’s Day, I have sisu and sauna (pronounced [saʊnə], sow-nuh) on my mind. Sisu is particularly significant: a Finnish borrowing that has no one-word translation in English. Terttu Leney (2003) defines sisu as “fortitudinous staying power and tenacity in the face of adversity, against insurmountable odds”, in other words, ‘having guts’. I named my cat Sisu. She was a stray who persisted through three weeks of cold, snow, and rain to convince me that she should live inside the house, not out in the field. Her sisu-ness won me over and got her inside, where she fattened up and now lives happily with two Labrador Retrievers and two humans. In the UP and other parts of the Upper Midwest where Finns settled, you can see bumper stickers, t-shirts, and license plates proclaiming “sisu.” Sauna is also a significant dialect feature in that it functions as a shibboleth, or password of sorts. Many residents of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula pronounce it as [saʊnə], whereas outsiders typically pronounce it as [sanə], (sah-nuh), thus marking them as outsiders. St Urho, today’s (March 16) fictional patron saint who drove the grasshoppers out of Finland to save the grape crop, as well as Heikki Lunta,  the snow god of the UP, are also important UP symbols, both folk characters that represent local cultural practices and values. So, today in honor of St Urho wear purple and green and have some sisu to carry you into spring.

Leney, Tertu. (2003). Teach yourself Finnish. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Virtanen, Hilary. (2006). Heikki Lunta.