Sauna pronunciation battle boils, but don't sweat it

A person converse outside the Viking Floating Sauna
Sauna enthusiasts converse outside the Viking Floating Sauna Saturday during the annual Sauna Days at Larsmont Cottages near Two Harbors, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

resurgence in the Finnish cultural tradition of sauna bathing in Minnesota and beyond has rekindled a debate that has raged among sauna enthusiasts for years — just how do you pronounce the word anyway?

In Finnish, sauna is pronounced “sow-nah,” with the first syllable rhyming with the word for a female pig. Finnish speakers, though, will even quibble with that, saying it doesn’t quite capture the accurate pronunciation.

The Americanized version is pronounced “sah-nah,” or “saw-nah.”

So which is correct?

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A mobile souna is seen
The NorthUp, a mobile sauna by Urban Wing, sits along the shore of Lake Superior Saturday, May 6, 2023 at Larsmont Cottages near Two Harbors, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Some people in northeastern Minnesota are incredulous the question would even be asked.

“‘Sow-na,’ 100 percent!” said Ashley Grimm of Duluth, who recently rented a mobile sauna to celebrate her husband’s 40th birthday. That’s the way Grimm has heard it pronounced ever since she was a kid growing up in a "very Finnish family" near Kettle River, Minn., where she would jump in the sauna with her family “and then go jump in a snowbank and come back in.”

Danielle Tikalsky — also from Duluth, and also from Finnish heritage, confessed she said it differently.

"Oh, the great debate. Back in the homeland, I'm pretty sure it's ‘sow-nah,’ but I am a bad Finn, and say ‘sah-nah.’"

For Brooke Wetmore, who moved to Duluth about 10 years ago from the Twin Cities, peer pressure has played a role in how she says the word.

"I usually use ‘sow-na’ only because I grew up with some very Finnish people who if I said the word ‘sau-nah,’ they would correct me. And so I learned that people who pronounce it ‘sau-nah’ aren’t offended if you call it ‘sow-nah,’ but people who call it ‘sow-nah’ are offended if you call it ‘sau-nah,’ so I just always do ‘sow-nah.’”

Got that?

Wetmore's experience is actually backed up by research, said Wil Rankinen, a linguist at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich.

Rankinen grew up in the Upper Peninsula, and has long been fascinated by the fierce debate he heard over this one word. One sentiment, he said, is quite clear. “There's a strong passion for one pronunciation over the other.”

A person takes in a cold bath
Chad Crutchley (in a tub) takes in a cold bath while receiving a venik sauna experience from Yar Andreyevskiy Saturday during the annual Sauna Days at Larsmont Cottages near Two Harbors, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

The sauna survey

Rankinen has long studied the unique “Yooper” dialect in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, but a few years ago he decided to dig more deeply into the specific debate over the pronunciation of sauna.

So he wrote up a short survey, and posted it on social media. The response was overwhelming.

“We ended up getting, within a three-week period, around 2,000 responses,” said Rankinen.

He found that northeastern Minnesota and much of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula strongly preferred the Finnish pronunciation. That wasn't too surprising. That's where Finnish immigrants flocked in the late 1800s and early 1900s for jobs in the mining industry. Those regions still boast the highest percentage of people claiming Finnish ancestry in the country.

But he was surprised to find that several places in the Upper Peninsula leaned toward the Anglicized pronunciation of the word. And in Minnesota, south of Duluth, he said you're also more likely to hear it pronounced “sau-nah.”

Rankinen also found that people who pronounce it the Finnish way are far more likely to be willing to correct someone they feel is pronouncing it incorrectly.

“And that just shows how strong people are willing to, not just out themselves, but to defend this seemingly innocuous word,” he explained. “It's connected so strongly and fiercely to identity, a way of being, a cultural practice.”

Rankinen has first-hand experience with this. He's Finnish on his dad's side, and even though he's a linguist who studies the word “sauna,” his dad still corrects him.

“He says, ‘Oh yeah, you don't say it the right way.’ Even though I say it ‘sow-nah.’ He says, ‘No, you've got to say it, “soow-Nah,’” Rankinen said, drawing out the vowel sounds. “So it's a different pronunciation. Similar, but different.”

He said people like his father have an incredibly strong sense of ownership to the word.

“There's this badge of honor, of ownership, to this particular term, and how it's connected to their identity, even though he doesn't speak Finnish.”

A mobile sauna is seen
The Sisu + Löyly mobile sauna Saturday during the annual Sauna Days at Larsmont Cottages near Two Harbors, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Not out to shame anyone

So is there a correct way to say it?

Rankinen said he often hears people who back the “sow-nah” pronunciation argue that it’s a Finnish word, so it should be pronounced the Finnish way.

But he also points out that American English is made up of many words borrowed from different languages, and many of those don't maintain the original language’s pronunciation.

For example, Megan Kress, who owns the mobile sauna business Sauna du Nord in Duluth, said her American friends would look at her like she’s crazy if she said she was going to “portage” a canoe in the Boundary Waters, and pronounced it with a French accent — “pour-Taj.”

But that’s exactly how her Canadian friends pronounce the word. “I do find myself code switching depending on who I'm talking to," she said.

Kress, who is not Finnish, said she nonetheless tries to pronounce sauna the Finnish way, to honor the cultural heritage. Still, she said she has a lot of friends outside of Minnesota who will do a double-take when she pronounces it that way.

“I am not going to shame anybody that says ‘sau-nah,’” Kress said.

Many sauna entrepreneurs in Duluth and the Twin Cities take a similar approach.

While most prefer the Finnish pronunciation, they stress that it’s much more important to share and promote an authentic sauna experience than it is to police how the word is pronounced. If anything, they say, that could turn off people who might otherwise be open to trying it out.

The potential worry, said Rankinen, the linguist, is that if people stop defending their more Finnish pronunciation, then the ties to the cultural tradition could be weakened.

“These individual fights may not seem like a big deal, but to maintain a way of speaking, a way of using language, but also shared norms culturally and societally, a lot is really at stake here.”

For the record, according to Webster's Dictionary, both “sow-nah” and “sau-nah” are correct. Whether you feel strongly enough about it to correct someone who says it differently? That's up to you.

Dan Lentz makes his way into the waters of Lake Superior
After exiting a sauna, Dan Lentz makes his way into the waters of Lake Superior Saturday during the annual Sauna Days.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News