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Pronouncing it “Sow-na” or “Saw-na” is no different than “Por-tage” or “Por-tidge” but we have have something more important to worry about

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Why are we all hung up on how to pronounce the word “sauna?” If you are canoeing in Quebec you Por-tage your canoe. If you’re canoeing in Ontario you Por-tidge your canoe.

Either way, you get your canoe from one lake to the other.

To try to tell someone huffing their canoe that they’re pronouncing it wrong is a buzz kill, at best. We’re both out there enjoying Nature. We’re both out there appreciating the sport and its authenticity. Any attempt to correct or reprimand just makes that person seem like a snobby jerk.

Is it time we stop trying to correct peoples’ pronunciation of the word “sauna?”

Could our energy be better spent steering our pride and pretension more towards something along the lines of: “infrared shall not be called sauna, just because they panel their light bulb warming closets with cedar?”

After all, the universally agreed definition of sauna is something along the lines of “a room heated by a stove with rocks on which you can toss water.”

Crazy? Not so fast. Just think about what France was able to do regarding the word Champagne:

Sparkling wines are produced worldwide, but many legal structures reserve the word Champagne exclusively for sparkling wines from the Champagne region, made in accordance with Comité Interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne regulations.” Wikipedia entry.

Is Finland ready to create a “Comite introprofessionnel du sauna” and slap cease and desist orders on the marketing collateral from infrared light bulb closet hucksters?

We know the answer, of course: no. Why not? Because sauna manufacturers have already joined the dark side by hawking their own lines of infrared light bulb closets.

This is the real bummer. Sauna, however we pronounce it, is on the verge of losing its meaning.

Canoes have always been portaged about the same way. Tomatoes and potatoes have been grown and enjoyed about the same way. Yet the Finnish Cultural Society (and its members only by Nationality) seem more quick to try to want to preserve sauna’s pronunciation than to celebrate sauna’s authenticity.

Next time you may find yourself inhaling a breath, ready to scold somebody for saying “sauna” not the way you think it should be said, instead consider exhaling and taking a second breath, and give that person some credit for appreciating the authentic sauna experience.

Sauna or Sowwwwna: now is our time to lighten up on how to say it, and celebrate more on the goodness that comes with experiencing the real deal.

Dan between sauna rounds, January 29, 2019, Minneapolis, St. Paul

And we can read more about the Sanctity of Sauna here.

photo: Jim Brandenburg, Outside Ely, MN, USA

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11 thoughts on “Pronouncing it “Sow-na” or “Saw-na” is no different than “Por-tage” or “Por-tidge” but we have have something more important to worry about”

  1. Hi Glenn, I love this! And, I selfishly agree with you.

    I have a sad issue with the pronunciation of “sow-na”… I feel so self-conscious saying it! I try to pronounce it correctly but have to pause beforehand and then just hate the way it sounds coming out of my mouth. I try to mimic how others do it, but it’s awkward for me and I feel like a ‘poser’. Very serious issue here ;). I wonder if it’s because I didn’t grow up saying it? Do others have this same trouble?

    I also agree that protecting the word against other sauna-like things would be more useful – it’s difficult explaining to someone the experience of an authentic, outdoor, wood-burning sauna over their infrared. They may have the same name, but it’s a totally different outcome.

    Lastly, great comparison to Champagne!

  2. Agreed Glenn. It’s alienating something that for many is unfortunately already alien.

    Loanwords happen all the time. When speaking one’s language it’s impractical to switch for one word to the language of the loanword’s origin (which is likely foreign, elaborate and subtle). Sauna can be a word in many language’s dictionary including the American English one, a wonderful gift from the Finns.

    A wannabe Dutchman I know pronounces Gouda cheese HOW-da for “authenticity sake” and I think it’s compromised my relationship with him and the cheese.

    When others adopt and adapt things of ours it’s fantastic, and vice versa.

    You’re right. Infared light bulb closet crappy mail order “saunas” are more damaging to sauna culture than pronunciation, with a predictable pattern of underwhelm, have buyer’s remorse, reject sauna altogether.

  3. Have some respect for the culture and pronounce it right no matter how aquard. It’s simpler than writing an article to change a tradition.

  4. As a Finnish American whose last name has the “au” sound I feel personally attacked by this stupid post. There is a fine line between sincere appreciation and colonizing appropriation and this post shows which side of the line you bloviate from.

  5. Well hi there Connie. Thanks for chiming in from your perspective. Great this platform enables it.

    My (and everyone’s) perspective is different. To share a little of mine, I did not move here from Finland like you nor am I of Finnish descent. My family emigrated from Germany too many generations ago for me to say I’m German or German American but I will proudly say I am an American of German descent. I, like you, appreciate that my last name reflects my ancestory.

    Words can be a deeply personal thing, especially when it is one’s name. I think that one gets to decide about their name’s pronunciation, what’s right and what’s wrong. As a personal example my name is Benjamin, pronounced like you think. I often interact with people who because of their background (which I honor) pronounce it Ben-ha-meen. Is their way of saying it right, or is mine? I get to decide and I choose…yes! Them saying it how they say it, feels like being welcomed in. We know that they and I pronounce it not identically. It’s okay. There are subtleties, intonation, cadence, timbre and entire sounds that exist in some languages but not others.

    I get it, that some see any deviation from how words are said as an unacceptable degradation of a core virtue, especially when it’s their Name. But I choose compassion and relish anyone’s sincere saying of my name as an expansion of it, not a degradation of my ancestory, culture, or self. It costs me nothing.

    Proper nouns and names aside, linguistics sure are interesting. Language lives. It simply can’t be stopped from evolving. I’d be curious to hear how sauna is pronounced in other countries. I bet there’s some variation out there in the world, and our country isn’t the only one that doesn’t speak Finnish. It’s innocent. Rest assured though, my attitude to a fellow human will never be to say it right or don’t say it all. That would be greedy and exclusive and make it go away.

    Here’s the thing Connie, bloviate is a fun word isn’t it, but you are not being attacked. You are attacking. If you espouse a right/wrong dichotomy about pronouncing sauna you could have helped tease out why it’s important and even taught, but you didn’t. The fine line of which you speak is fuzzier than you think. There’s no colonizing or appropriation here though. Everyone can keep their own sauna. To say “attack” is unfair and very unhelpful, but I sincerely am sorry you feel that way. To say “stupid” is just mean.

    You nor I get to decide the sincerity of someone’s appreciation, but I’m pretty sure people, especially those here to whom you wrote, respect sauna, Finnland, Finnladers, and that sauna is Finnish. The point being obscured by aggression is not “colonizing appropriation” of a word via mispronunciations. It’s to relax a little when people say it differently. To share sauna, not covet it. It should be noted too I’ve only heard our host speak the word with the utmost fidelity to the Finnish language, full of sincerity and respect. Let’s have a little reciprocation.

  6. I’m going to continue pronouncing it the way that I’m pretty sure the guy in that bottom photo pronounces it.

  7. Pronunciation is an arbitrary thing. Even in the same language, a region can pronounce something entirely differently from its neighbours – and it evolves over time through random circumstance. A foreign word kept perfectly intact across a globe of languages? Not going to happen. MNice job, Glenn, having some fun and prodding this in the right direction: going away. I sell Sauna almost every day, and make a point of connecting on that word right away so that we can depart from its emptiness, and talk about the fullness of the EXPERIENCE of Sauna. The experience of Sauna is an ineffable thing. Like religion, people just sound stupid/snobbish when they try to impose their rules/traditions upon others.

  8. Just came in from sauna with my son who is visiting. Authentic sauna creates authentic dialogue, and so much more for those who truly know the experience.
    I too stumble around how to pronounce it, yet, the connection of the experience melts that concern away as we begin to wonder whether we will be able to last until the timer goes off.
    The essence of sauna lies not in the term but the joy of the experience.

  9. I slaughter any French word but cringe at “sawna.” But it’s ok if you say it that way…I still say Oregone instead of Oregyn.

  10. I don’t think either one is correct, but that’s just me. I was trying to think what word would come close to the first syllable “sau” and maybe if you say “sour” and leave out the r at the end. Not “saw” or “sow”, try “sou”, if you must.

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