The discussion of the Finnish word “elaytya” is taking a curious turn. Jaana Wessman writes:


I am just reading your intro to the Programmer’s stone (which Sampo Smolander pointed out to me and which I find highly interesting and intuitively appealing). Like him, I am a native speaker of Finnish and I do not recognize the meaning “excellence-forming” for “eläytyminen” - I have never heard anyone use it that way, and if someone had I would not have understood it the way they meant.

Eläytyä (from which that is the corresponding noun) to me means to empathize with someone, to imagine what it would feel like to be someone or something in a particular situation, or to gain insight by such an activity. It is sometimes also used as translation for “immersion” in the sense of total immersion to a particular subject (or character in roleplaying games or method acting), which is related but not the same. It does not however have any connotation whatsoever to excellence to me.

Most importantly, the Finnish word eläytyminen to me implies a conscious (emotional, not intellectual, but still conscious) effort to imagine a particular situation, even when it is done to gain possibly new insight to a particular situation — not the kind of sub- or semiconscious thinking that happens before a lightbulb goes on in your head. I do not think there is a Finnish word for that; if there is I am not aware of what it is. In any case, if a word exists it likely does so in some academic circle, not used in every-day speech, and as such it is unlikely to explain any possible excellence of the performance of children. (The measuring of which is another topic I could rant about… but maybe another time.)

Google, on the other hand, implies that Mr Mik Seljamaa is Estonian, not Finnish. While related, the two languages are quite different — maybe there is a word in Estonian?

Again, thank you for the text, excellent reading, and seems to fit not only programming but also making science.

Jaana Wessman

That’s interesting. Two people have now proposed an alternative definition of “elaytya” which does not seem to fit Mik’s “excellence-forming”. Mik had proposed the word as a candidate for “setting out to find an insight”, and he thought “excellence-forming” fitted the bill.

These other definitions seem to be closer to another word which did not exist in English, until Robert Heinlein invented “grok“. Hmm… Might we say that grokking is the passive, observational part of setting out to find an insight?

Jouni K. Seppänen then did some digging into recent history, and came up with something fascinating:

Hello from another Finn (and hi Sampo!),

My instinct is to agree with Sampo Smolander that “eläytyä” mostly means trying to identify with another person’s feelings. However, I checked a dictionary of “modern” Finnish and was surprised. The dictionary is Nykysuomen sanakirja, finished in 1965 after almost 40 years of work, so it reflects the Finnish of that period (but probably remains the best general-purpose dictionary of Finnish).

The first meaning given (implying that it is the most usual) is “sisäisesti mukautua, sopeutua, totuttautua”, which I would translate as “internally conform, adapt, get used to something”. As a special case of this the dictionary mentions “to become immersed in something with all one’s soul, forgetting oneself, especially in creating or performing a piece of art”. I sort of vaguely recognize the general meaning, though it sounds somewhat antiquated, but this special case is new to me, except for performing a piece of art, but in that case I thought it just means identifying with the feelings of a character in a play.

The second gloss is what I (and Sampo) recognize: to identify with others’ feelings or with a character in a play. There is also a third meaning, “to be refreshed, rejuvenated”, but it is marked rare even in this dictionary.

So, apparently in 1965 the word had the meaning mentioned by your correspondent, but at least two Finns in their thirties did not know about it.

Jouni K. Seppänen

So it would seem that “eläytyä” has weakened within my lifetime, never mind living memory! Here’s a wild conjecture, bizarre in that it is explicitly based on a claim of ignorance :-) :

When I was a kid in Britain in the 1960s, the only thing I knew about Finland was that the Moomin trolls lived there. Later my knowledge expanded greatly, when I learned that Sibelius was Finnish, and he did the music for The Sky at Night. Finnish culture was not closely coupled to British culture. If Finns were, through historical and geographical accident maintaining a pre-Industrial level of background social stress, the cultural interaction to shift norms and make life more stressful wasn’t there to raise it.

Today, Nokia and Torvalds to name but two are making respectable bids for Total World Domination in their respective fields, and Finnish culture is much more closely coupled to everyone else. Might a consequence of this be increased background stress, leading to a reduction in effective PFC use and a withering of the word used to describe it - before our very eyes?

Perhaps the Minister of Culture should be granted Emergency Powers!