Do you know what “Rally English” is? If you regularly consume motorsport — ideally rallying, though the Finnish people tend to excel in various trials of piloting things moving quickly — you’ve surely heard Rally English, but you may not have known it was a thing with a name. I grew up watching Marcus Grönholm and Tommi Mäkinen dominate the World Rally Championship years before I knew who Kimi Räikkönen was. All three drivers were champions in their respective disciplines; they also all spoke what could be described as Rally English, or rallienglanti in Finnish.
See, the particular way that one of Finland’s top five exports — racing drivers — tend to speak English has been informally colloquialized as “Rally English,” even though Finland recently ranked sixth out of 80 countries in non-native English-speaking skill. The growth of global motorsports like Formula 1 and of course one driver in particular within the last 15 years or so has popularized the accent.
There’s no shortage of YouTube videos by native Finns about what Rally English is and why people use it. There are some general rules to it, but the basic gist is that English words are pronounced with the same intonation and sentences structured with the same syntax as they would be in Finnish.
More specifically, the stress of a word is always placed in the beginning. Sounds and consonant clusters that don’t exist in Finnish are replaced or avoided for the most part, which is a big component because Finns don’t typically employ sounds like “th-” or “wh-” as English speakers do. And articles such as “a” and “the” tend to be bypassed altogether. Anssi Kivistö, a Master’s student at the University of Jyväskylä, unpacks what happens when these rules are imprinted on English:
Prosody includes phenomena in speech that relate to the pitch and the intensity of the sounds, and prosody can be examined on word level and utterance level. ... Suomi et al. (2006: 219) state that while some languages have word-level prosodic features that have to be marked in the lexicon, Finnish does not have such requirements, excluding situations where quantity affects the meaning of the word. For example, the primary stress falls on the first syllable, and therefore there is no need to mark it explicitly in the lexicon.
When I think back to how, say, Mika Häkkinen spoke in interviews back in the day, there’s sort of a rhythmic, gentle intonation as his voice rises and falls with every word. That’s because he’s stressing the beginning of words most of the time, with little deviation. That’s not to say Rally English doesn’t allow for emphasis on parts of sentences that especially deserve it depending on context. But Finnish is generally monotonous by nature, so when its rules are applied to another language, the result becomes a little more monotonous, too.
Depressing but not at all surprising, some Finnish people are uncomfortable about the global pervasiveness of Rally English, particularly stemming from criticism by native English speakers that they’re not speaking the language properly. Liisa Toivonen of Tampere University reflected on this in their Master’s thesis, highlighting surveys illustrating that Finnish people aren’t necessarily proud of their English, even though — again — the data shows that they happen to be pretty good at it:
This self-deprecating quality seems particularly characteristic of Finnish users of English. The National Survey on English Language in Finland (Leppänen et al., 2011) reported, among other findings, that:
• The majority of participants (53 %) felt they do not know English well enough. (pp. 98)
• Only 4 percent of participants did not feel their English skills were inadequate in any situation. (pp. 99–100)
• 17,2 percent of participants reported that they are “ashamed” of their English skills. (pp. 98)
• 18 percent of participants chose Finnish English as the least appealing variety of English, surpassed in unpopularity only by Indian English. (pp. 72)
That’s heartbreaking, especially because English is the lingua franca of our times. If people across the world are all using it and understanding each other for the most part, then it doesn’t really belong to any one group and therefore no approach really has a claim to be the correct one. After all, people from Britain, the United States, Australia, and Canada generally speak English as a first language, and everyone pronounces and uses the language differently.
Anyway, that’s a cursory explainer on Rally English from someone who is 1) American and 2) not a linguist. If anyone in the comments happens to be a Finnish speaker, feel free to correct me or merely leave your thoughts. I for one think it’s cool that there’s a variation of a language out there associated with what is objectively the best form of motorsport and popularized by those who thrive in it. And if anyone deserves a claim to it, it’s the Finns.