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Ville Laakso

Born March 5, 1972, Helsinki

Master of Arts (General Linguistics), University of Helsinki

Entrepreneur, Paletti Oy, 2005–
Researcher, PhD student, part-time teacher 2000–2004, University of Helsinki

Photo: Ville Laakso
Written by Ville Laakso (Kaija Hartikainen, ed.)
Translated by Matthew Billington

Faced with choices

I may have jumped the gun on my higher education, since every summer in upper secondary school I sampled the varied and inspiring offerings of the Summer University. So when the time came for me to choose what to study, I had already acquainted myself with several subjects, but even so that didn’t help narrow down my options. So I ended up experimenting with how many subjects I could keep up concurrently. I began studying general linguistics at the University of Helsinki, electrical engineering at Helsinki University of Technology, and culinary studies at the Helsinki Culinary School Perho. I wanted to give each school a fair chance.

Perho already ruined its chances in the second year with its strict attendance requirements in classes such as mathematics and languages. I tried to argue that my mathematics grades from HUT and language exams from the University demonstrated my de facto compliance with the degree requirements. Luckily I did get to attend the practical training in restaurant kitchens, since it taught me the practical daily work of a chef – and also the logic of the restaurant business.

In hindsight, this perplexing encounter with consumer choices and aspects of marketing was the first small crack in my unshakable conviction that I would never stoop to working in business – or at least not in our family business. At the time, I saw restaurant marketing as an amusing game in which suitably chosen foreign language terms and quotations as well as allusions to different cuisine and cultures sometimes strike a chord with customers and at other times fall flat.

The University of Technology lost me later, when it came to the mathematical modelling of language and meaning. The engineering perspective struck me as so hopelessly atomistic that I was at a loss as to how I could get two such vastly separate fields of study to mesh with each other. It didn’t help that at the Department of Linguistics Computer Linguistics appeared to be similarly undermining my cherished theories of language. It rather seemed like a spiritual war on two fronts, where I dared not risk becoming a double agent.

In the end I had to escape to the Basque Country. Beforehand, I thought I was choosing a comfortable European environment for acquainting myself with the ergative case. (Footnote: The lure of the ergative seems to be a family weakness, even if some more daring relatives of mine had braved the Hindukush in its pursuit, where I suspected things were much less charming than in the lyrics of Norah Jones.)

I ended up just marvelling at how invigorating it was to learn a language out in the field and how a minority language can conduct a determined campaign for its survival. Activism, demonstrations, arrests and the brutality of the French and Spanish police inoculated me against idealism and also kindled in me a new sensitivity to everyday power structures and their daily turf disputes. I began to see language as an ongoing ‘vote’ by the community or an articulation of how we live meaning as part of the community. In other words, pretty “deep shit, as the youth of today seem to say.

Life in the Pyrenees among the Basques was almost like home: lots of silence and short sentences, just like in Finland. Photo: Ville Laakso’s personal archives.


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