You are here

To Really Understand Hevibändi, It Helps to Know the Language (Wall Steet Journal)

Submitted by Jessica M Larsen on June 7, 2013 - 12:34pm

An American international-relations major at the University of Washington in Seattle, he aims for a life in foreign service. Finland's strategic role in the Arctic and as a vocal member of the euro zone means his investment in the language could be a good bet.

But, Mr. Brown's interest has a much more casual origin.

"It was heavy metal, unmistakably," Mr. Brown said when asked what inspired him to pursue a language spoken by a nation that has fewer people, at 5.4 million, than Washington state. Finnish bands perform with a "dark woodsy resonance" that he has come to love, he says, and "the poetic and obscure nature of the Finnish tongue really gave it a unique wave."

Mr. Brown isn't the only one to channel a love for the metal genre into the pursuit of learning an obscure tongue. A band of young metal heads—spanning Romania to Singapore—have taken up a Northern European language in order to better appreciate or even mimic their favorite metal bands.

Mara Nicollini, a 22-year-old Italian from Florence, has a broad interest in "pagan and folk metal," with a list of favorite bands that includes Tyr from Denmark's Faroe Islands and Manegarm from Sweden. While studying in Italy, her heart is in Norway where bands such as the Viking metal group Einherjer dominate the musical landscape.

Typically clad in dark T-shirts and sweatshirts advertising her favorite bands, Ms. Nicollini studies Norwegian and would "like to work in Norway when I finish." Her professor, a Norwegian named Siri Nergaard, has seen it before.

"It's quite a well-known phenomenon that students in Italy study Norwegian because they're interested in metal," Ms. Nergaard said. Irene Burdese, currently teaching Norwegian to 92 people in Turin, and Milan-based Kristian Bjornsen, who is also teaching the language to Italians, both say Norway's unique brand of "black metal"—a darker blend of thick beats and sometimes-Satanic themes—is a big inspiration.

The thick, massive and amplified distortion that metal bands rely on may not dominate the global music industry. But metal bands hailing from the furthest reaches of Northern Europe have amassed a global following and have become integral to the genre.

"Every time someone tells us that our music has inspired them to learn, for example, Nordic languages, it gives me another reason to keep doing music," Sami Hinkka, the 35-year-old bassist for Finland's Ensiferum, said. Growing up, he read the lyrics of Iron Maiden and Metallica and used a dictionary to help translate the words.

"But it's quite far from studying an internationally rather useless language," Mr. Hinkka said. Still, he says, "studying is always good for your brain and it broadens your mental horizon, so if someone has a passion for something, even if it might seem really trivial to others, I say go for it. Follow your heart."

Andrea Balogh, a Hungarian with no previous ties to the Nordics, dove into Finnish studies five years ago. Inspired by bands like Moonsorrow (the self-proclaimed "crusaders of epic heathen metal"), Ms. Balogh learned to speak the lingo with impeccable precision "solely because of Finnish metal."

Mathias Nygard, a singer with Finland's Turisas, was mingling with the band's devoted followers after a show in Beijing in May, and was greeted by a fan who spoke fluent Finnish. "We don't even get very impressed about it anymore."

Whereas Norwegian black metal is generally sung in the native tongue, Finnish metal—ranging from a softer "love metal" to heavier versions of "death metal"—is often performed in English. So it may seem odd that fans want to actually learn a language with words as lengthy and difficult to pronounce as jäätelöbaari (ice cream parlor), valkopäämerikotka (bald eagle) or aseleponeuvottelutoimikunta (a single compound word that efficiently expresses the same thing as "the working group for cease-fire negotiations" in English).

Norwegian has some long words too, such as fylkestrafikksikkerhetsutvalgssekretariatslederfunksjonene, a not-commonly used word meaning a county's traffic security committee's leader's functions. Engstelige toner is Norwegian for "anxious notes," referring to music, and ansiktsmaling means face paint. Some words are the same as in English; headbanging is called headbanging in Norwegian too.

Ms. Balogh recently rattled off a list of her favorite Finnish bands—Apocalyptica, Stratovarius, Children of Bodom, Ensiferum, Wintersun—while sitting in a cafe near Finland's National Library. She clutched a leather-bound copy of her master's thesis, written about international students motivated by metal to learn Finnish.

Olivia Lucas, a Harvard doctoral candidate who is working on a dissertation about Nordic metal, said people "simply want to understand what the culture is like that has produced this music." It doesn't take long, she said, to draw a parallel between the melancholy and gloom that underpins Finnish metal and the wider Finnish psyche. "Finns are comfortable with this feeling, and don't feel pressure to be cheerful all the time," Ms. Lucas, 25, said. Their music "embraces this view of the world."

Finnish metal permeates the society. In 2006, the nation took home its first and much-cherished win in the Eurovision song contest—a competition among countries held in Europe since 1956—thanks to the aggressive tunes of a band called Lordi, which performed "Hard Rock Hallelujah" wearing morbid monster costumes.

These days, a band called Hevisaurus performs metal in Finnish while wearing wacky dinosaur costumes to entertain children, and the Church of Finland arranges Metal Masses where evergreen Christian hymns are adapted to heavy-metal music. In 2009, when Finnish President Tarja Halonen hosted Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, the frontman for metal band Stratovarius was tapped to entertain guests at the state dinner.

Norwegian black metal, meanwhile, reflects a much darker mind-set. First popularized in the early 1990s, the genre has been scarred by an association with violence. After spending several years playing an underground role in Norway's music scene, it has recently been more accepted, with some bands given monetary support from the state.

Its reputation has grown to the point where the Norwegian Foreign Ministry gives its trainees a seminar in black metal due to the litany of requests embassies get about it. The ministry has tapped Haavard Rem, author of a book about Norwegian black metal, "Innfodte Skrik," or "Indigenous Screams," to teach on the subject. "This has not been a passing phenomenon," he said. "It continues to grow."

Write to Juhana Rossi at and Ellen Emmerentze Jervell at            

A version of this article appeared June 5, 2013, on page A1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: To Really Understand Hevibändi, It Helps to Know the Language.