Finnish is a Uralic language, belonging to the Finno-Ugric group. It is, therefore, closely related to Estonian, and also has commonalities with Samoyed and the languages of the Volga basin. The widest spoken of this group of languages is Hungarian, yet nowadays the similarities between the two are few.

It is spoken by around 5,000,000 people in Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Russian Karelia. It is not a Scandinavian language, however. Nor, is it a Indo-European language. It does, however, have many loan words from the Baltic, Slavic and Germanic languages, and many words are dervied from English.

The Finns on Åland, as well as on the coast near Helsinki, Turku, and Vaasa, generally speak Swedish, and most Finns learn Swedish at school.

Finnish uses the special characters ä and ö. Its orthography also includes the Swedish å.

Finnish is an extremely difficult language. Also, to native speakers of Indo-European languages, many of the constructions in Finnish would seem quite foreign and strange. However, Finland is a rather hi-tech country, and thus a lot of native Finnish speakers can be found on the internet. It is from a few Finnish linguists on IRC that I know most of the following:

Finnish is a very, very inflected agglutinative language. There are verb conjugations, for each tense. The personal pronouns are as follows. Note that the personal pronouns themselves inflect, the following are just the common, nominative forms of them.

minä - I
sinä - you (singular)
hän - he/she (no differentiation is made)
me - we
te - you (plural)
he - they (humans)
ne - they (inanimate objects, informally used for humans in some cases)

Verb conjugation in the present tense is actually fairly simple. The personal pronoun is often omitted in Finnish, although in formal or emphasizing situations it is often left in place. Most verbs follow a fairly normal pattern in the present tense. The verb "speak" in it's uninflected form (I'm not entirely sure if calling it the infinitive would be correct) is "puhua", and is conjugated thus:

(minä) puhun - I speak
(sinä) puhut - you speak
(hän) puhuu - he/she speaks
(me) puhumme - we speak
(te) puhutte - you all speak
(he) puhuvat - they speak

The pattern is -n, -t, double the final vowel (such as omista, own, hän omistaa, mene, go, hän menee etc. If the verb already ends with a double vowel, leave it as is), -mme, -tte, -vat. The pattern for the direct past (aka the "perfect" tense) is: puhuin, puhuit, puhui, puhuimme, puhuitte, puhuivat. So as you can see, the endings remain fairly constant.

As is usually the case in any language, the verb "to be" is somewhat irregular, although not quite as bad as you might think. The uninflected form is "olla", and it is conjugated:

(minä) olen - I am
(sinä) olet - you are
(hän) on - he/she is
(me) olemme - we are
(te) olette - you all are
(he) ovat - they are

Verbs in Finnish are negated with the word ei (which also means "no" when spoken by itself) (and, courtesy Loather, does in fact itself conjugate. Oops. I guess that would explain how we can have implicit subjects with negative verbs. I always wondered about that).
Minä en puhu ranskaa - I don't speak French
Hän ei mene asemalle - He isn't going into the station

As for the nouns and adjectives, they have cases much like in Latin. This is what I mean by "Finnish is really hard". In fact, Latin scholars might recognize some of the cases. But Finnish has not five, but fifteen main cases. Here, for the brave souls who wish to know, are the 15 cases, using kirja, book, as an example:

nominative, the basic form. Kirja (book)
genitive, possessive. Kirjan (the book's)
accusative, points to something. Kirja (this book)
partitive, points to something as object... Luen kirjaa (I'm reading the book)
essive, as something... Kirjana (as a book)
translative, refers to change... Sivut muuttuivat kirjaksi (pages bound into a book)
inessive, in something... Kirjassa (in a book)
elative, from something... Kirjasta (from a book)
illative, into something... Kirjaan (into a book)
adessive, on something... kirjalla (on a book)
ablative, from (on top) of something... Kirjalta (from on top of a book)
allative, onto something... Kirjalle (onto a book)
abessive, without something... Kirjatta (without a book)
comitative, Refers to doing something with possessive... Hän tuli kirjoineen (he came with his books)
instructive, by something.. Kirjoin (only in plural)

Prepositions, therefore, don't exist in Finnish. (correction, they do, sort of. But in a different way and purpose than in English) Some things are attached to end of the nouns as suffixes. For example, kirjani is "my book".

The word order in Finnish is more unfixed than English, but some word orders come off as being "normal" and others as being more archaic and poetic. (like "Into the woods I walk" vs. "I walk into the woods" in English). Most sentences do have the Subject-Verb-Object order, however.

One other interesting tidbit. In English, the names of a country and their respective languages are some different, and irregular. I.e., England; English, Japan; Japanese; France; French; Spain, Spanish, and so on. In Finnish, the name of the country and its respepctive language are always the same. The country is capitalized, and the language is all lowercase. For example, the word for Finland in Finnish is Suomi, while the Finnish language is suomi. France is Ranska, French is ranska. England is Englanti, English is englanti.

This guide is hardly comprehensive, and as most of you probably can tell, I'm a native English speaker, so my knowledge of Finnish pretty much consists of what you see here. If anyone who knows more than me has anything to add, I encourage them to add something below or /msg me with corrections.

6/1/01: Yeah, I figured I'd make a few mistakes. Thanks to Lother, vuo, Jope for the corrections. Keep 'em comin', guys. ;) I've ammended my writeup as necessary for said mistakes.

First, an example of text; in particular, legalese about international law. Loanwords are linked.

Kansainvälisen työoikeuden tarkastelu osana kansainvälistä yksityisoikeutta edellyttää oikeudenalan yleisten oppien kehityksen huomioon ottamista. Näiden tarkastelussa tutkimus ottaa huomioon myös kasvavaa merkitystä saaneet EY-oikeudelliset kysymykset.

Koska edullisemmuusperiaatteella on olennainen sija aineellisessa työoikeudessa, on luontevaa, että sovellettaviksi tulevien säännösten edullisemmuuteen työntekijälle kiinnitetään huomiota lainvalintasääntöjä laadittaessa. Rooman yleissopimus on aikaansaanut kansainvälisyksityisoikeudellisen edullisemmuusperiaatteen läpimurron kansainvälisessä työoikeudessa. Periaate on saanut ilmaisunsa lähetettyjä työntekijöitä koskevassa EY-direktiivissäkin.

Ulla Liukkonen in Lakimiesuutiset 06/2004 (Lawyer News)

This text is (c)opyright of me:

Monimutkaisuus tarkoittaa sitä, että johdetaan itseään monimutkaisempia asioita. On mahdollista "sukeltaa" aiheeseen, mutta silloin jäävät alaisten kyvyt käyttämättä. Alaiset ovat erikoistuneet, ja tietävät kustakin asiasta aina enemmän kuin johtaja, jolloin johtaja ei voi luoda kokonaiskuvaa täydellistä informaatiota käyttäen. Mielestäni tässä korostuisi tiimityön tärkeys; kukin tiimin jäsen tietää jotain jota muut eivät. Asiantuntijoiden johtamisessa on se, ettei tietoa voi enää käyttää vallan välineenä. Luottamuksen rakentaminen ja kannustaminen toimimaan yrityksen eikä vain omaksi eduksi on siis pääasiallinen johtamiskeino.

Text I have handed in for a course in work psychology

Examples can be found from these nodes: Urho Kaleva Kekkonen, Erkki Tuomioja, a society in extreme cold (a poem). If you want to listen to the language, go here: Select "Uutiset", then the transmission speed (modem or 512k), and click on the uppermost link below. That gives YLE news. (The item "Oddasat" in the drop-down menu gives news in Sami, and "YLE News" in English, not Finnish.)

In short, Finnish is an Uralic language, which is probably one of the most conservative languages of the group. Phonologically, it is relatively simple, and features few unusual things, at least in the Uralic group. It is agglunative, denoting grammatical relations with adding simple suffixes, e.g. maassanne "in your country", kirjoitettuani "after I had written".

Some things are also important to point out:

  • There is no umlaut in Finnish. Ä is unrelated to AE, both are different phonemes, and it is positively wrong to replace them.
  • Finnish is an Uralic language. Uralic languages are unrelated to Indo-European languages (Swedish, German, English, Russian, Latvian, etc.)
  • Yes, long vowels and consonants really do matter.



Vowels carry much information. For this reason, Finnish is an extremely clearly articulated language. There are eight phonemic vowels: the back vowels A U O, the front vowels Ä Y Ö, the neutral vowels I E. In the phonetic script (IPA), Ä is denoted with /æ/ and Ö with /ø/, otherwise the notation corresponds one-to-one to the IPA. The vowels are not interchangeable with each other; this is especially important in the initial syllable, which distinguishes most meanings, while noninitial syllables typically contain grammatical information. Virtually no vocalic allophony occurs: the exact formants of the vowels do not change, except for /u/, which is slightly centralized compared to /uu/. Finnish is written without accents or diacritics; the orthographies 'Ä' and 'Ö' (letter shapes taken from Swedish) are unfortunate, because they are confusing, as these are not "kind of" 'A' or 'O', or 'AE' and 'OE', just as 'R' is not a kind of 'P', or 'X' is not a kind of 'Y'.

About umlaut: in Germanic languages, there is umlaut, which works this way: add a suffix containing front vowels I or E to a word, we get umlaut, as in ancient Germanic man+ir → männir "man, men". So, if you add front vowels into a word, the entire word must be changed into front vowels. This is why it's denoted "ae" in German. In Finnish, the process of vowel harmony is the opposite of this: if you have front vowels in the word, you must add front vowels, and vice versa. For example, pää+ta → päätä. Furthermore, I and E are consider neutral and transparent in the vowel harmony.

All vowels are affected by a chroneme, which is usually called "two phonemic lengths". It is better described like this: "short" vowels are simple vowels, and "long" vowels are followed by a "consonant" of sorts, which is always assimilated to the vowel. That is, the chroneme acts much like a consonant, and is actually traceable to one in some contexts. (The same is observed in English with 'r', particularly in Australian English, where 'r' is a chroneme, as in "beard" /biid/ vs. "bid" /bid/.) The chroneme is a phoneme, giving both lexical and grammatical differences, and if you ignore it, the results are much like removing any other consonant, as 'l' from "clock". Consider the meaning-distinguishing effect as in sika "pig" vs. siika "whitefish", or the grammatical role, as the ending for the third person is a chroneme, as in mene "go" vs. menee "goes".

There are 18 diphthongs, which is unusually high for a Fenno-Ugric language, but nothing out of the ordinary in the North Fennic branch. Also, even if Estonian has more diphthongs, it does not mean that the languages share all Finnish diphthongs, for example /uo/ is foreign to the Estonians. Historically, Finnish developed these from long vowels, e.g. from an unrounded long /o/ to a rounded diphthong: õõ → yö "night". In particular, the Karelian dialect and its derivations, such as the Savo dialect, have diphthong-producing processes, such as South Karelian koi uo cf. standard language kun ei ole "because (it) isn't". However, as long vowels itself have not disappeared, and new words are introduced using them, the diphthong-long vowel distinction has become lexical. The different phonemic vowels are these, with an actual word for an example. Notice that each word is independent and has a completely different meaning.

a sama   aa saama     y tykki   yy myydä   yi  hyi    äy  mäyrä   ie  tieni
u suma   uu suuna     ä täkki   ää jää     oi  loin   au  Mauri   ei  teini
o sota   oo hoonata   ö tökki   öö jööti   öi  löin   yö  lyö     eu  neula
i sitä   ii siima                          ui  luin   öy  löysä   iu  tiu
e setä   ee teen                           äi  täin   uo  suo     ey  leyhy
                                           ai  tai    ou  joulu   iy  siistiytynyt

(The last two are exceedingly rare.)

As in English, but unlike in Italian or Spanish, the first vowel is articulated short, and stronger than the second. This means that diphthongs like /uo/ might be difficult to pronounce, if the same diphthong doesn't exist in the learner's language. For example, /uo/ is a different phoneme from /uua/, /ou/, /oo/, /uu/, /o/, /u/ and anything else you can think of, for example, suo "bog" and suu "mouth". Also, /i/ is the tense short vowel, not a lax vowel /I/ (as in English or Russian) nor a consonantal glide /j/ (as in Romanian). It should be noticed that the Finnish word for Finland, "Suomi", has the "uo" diphthong, and that the "au" in "sauna" doesn't reduce to "oo" as it does in the popular English pronunciation. If you're a native English speaker, mind the Great Vowel Shift (and possibly being completely oblivious of the unusual English spelling).

This is only a list of diphthongs: polysyllablic combinations such as tau·oil·la or nä·ön are common. Consider, for example, hän "s/he" vs. haen "I'll seek". (Some linguists list things as the three vowels in "flow·er" as a triphthong, so should hää·yö·ai·e have a "hexthong"? How about riiuuyöaie? With Finnish, this would make little sense, because the aforementioned stems tau·o- and nä·ö- have undergone lenition from the basic forms tauko and näkö.)

For native English speakers, here is a list of the vowels if similar ones found; the accent I am referring to is non-rhotic British English unless otherwise noted. Notice that the English spelling system for vowels is completely different.

  • no short A; long AA is the same as the broad A as in British Received Pronunciation (but not in American) "part"
  • no short U, similar to "would"; long UU is exactly as in "cool"
  • no short O, similar to "cod"; no long OO, same as "cord" in Australian English (non-rhotic)
  • short I similar to "bit"; long II exactly as in "beat"
  • short E as in "bet"; no long EE in English at all (the English "long E" is a diphthong and corresponds to Finnish /ei/)
  • short Ä is as in "bat" (but not in "cart"); long ÄÄ is as in "bad"
  • no short Y; no long YY; however, Y is simply the front equivalent of /u/, that is, a rounded /i/.
  • no short Ö; no long ÖÖ; however, Ö is the front equivalent of /o/, that is, a rounded /e/.
  • /ai/ similar to "pie"
  • /au/ similar to "cow"
  • /oi/ similar to "boy"
  • /ie/ similar to "beer"
  • /ou/ similar to "cold"
  • /ei/ similar to "Gaiman" (but not "Neil" /niil/, where English has a different spelling)
  • /yö/ front-vowel equivalent of /uo/, that is, rounded /ie/; round lips while pronouncing "beer"
  • /öy/ front equivalent of /ou/, that is, rounded /ei/

Again, I must stress that these are phonemes, or they distinguish meanings. There are unrelated words that are different only in the vowel their initial syllable contains. This is especially true for A vs. Ä and AA vs. ÄÄ, consider paatos "pathos" vs. päätös "decision", or talli "stable, garage" vs. tälli "(received) punch".

English speakers pronounce the distinction between A and Ä perfectly in their own language, but tend to mysteriously lose this ability when attempting to speak Finnish. This reminds me of people losing their common sense when using computers.

My personal opinion on Finnish vowels is this: in the Indo-European (and thus English-related) languages IE speakers usually learn, front vowels are created by "tensing" or "weakening" cardinal back vowels. The result is an "Euro-snob" pronunciation, which sounds pretentious. This is NOT the case in Finnish. Front vowels are cardinal vowels on their own right, pronounced in a relaxed manner. In fact, pronouncing 'ööö...', 'äää...' and 'yyy...' is the same as saying 'err...'. Front vowels are also accompanied by other cues: I think that Ö and Y are slightly centralized with respect to the unrounded E and I.


There are relatively few consonants, and none of them is "angry", I think. Almost all consonants are alveolar or do not require moving the tongue much away from that position. No voicing contrast is recognized; there is only a voiced or unvoiced form for each consonant, not both. There are no independent affricates ('ts') nor other initial clusters. Aspiration, which identifies English, is totally unknown in Finnish. Here is a list:

  • Fricatives: s/ss, h/hh; 'h' is just as in English; it's not breathy voiced like in Japanese or Russian.
  • Nasals: m/mm, n/nn; an allophonic velar nasal in 'nk', which is simply lengthened when the accompanying /k/ is deleted. Confusingly, this long velar nasal is written 'ng', when there is no /g/ here or in the entire language.
  • Stops: p/pp, t/tt, k/kk.
  • Liquids: r/rr, l/ll; 'r' is a trill and behaves as in Italian.
  • Single-length: j, v, d, ' (hiatus), ! (imperative).

The single-length consonants need some clarification. The phoneme 'd' is a mess; it's a weaker form of 't', which is most of the time a 't' that has undergone lenition, and it is more of a tap than a true voiced stop. But, the pronunciation of this letter varies wildly among the dialects, so that everything except 'n', 'm', 'p', 'k', 's' or 'h' is found in its place. (In my speech, it is either a voiced tap as in juoda "to drink", or when preceded by a long vowel, a geminate 'tt' as in niitteen "their", or even a short trill 'r', when I feel like it.). The hiatus is a form of 'k' that has undergone lenition, and might be articulated as a non-phonemic glottal stop /7/, e.g. vaa'alla /vaa7alla/ "on the scales". 'v' is much like German 'w', an approximant instead of a fricative as the English 'v'.

The imperative "aspiration" is not written, but it is a real phoneme nevertheless, even if it is abstract. It is realized as a half-long glottal stop /77/ between vowels (e.g. in ota omas /ota77omas/ "take! your own"), and as over-long gemination with a consonant (e.g. in ota ne /otanne/ "take! those"). Some other words also take the "aspiration" by analogy, especially words ending in /e/, e.g. hake "wood chippings". Grammatically, the imperative aspiration behaves as a consonant, e.g. adding the partitive -ta to /hake!/ gives haketta (not *hakea, as would be expected from a word ending in a vowel).

There is a consonantal chroneme, which occurs only medially. When affected by a chroneme, stops are held, other consonants simply articulated twice as long. This is called gemination; the resulting consonants are geminates. This difference is lexical as well as grammatical, and wholly independent of long and short vowels. The typical example is taka- "back-", takka "fireplace", taakka "burden"; adding -a to each gives the partitive case.

The consonants listed as "single-length" above (V, J, D, ', !) are not affected by a chroneme, and while they may be pronounced phonetically long, this is merely allophonic and is not written down. For example, kaava /kaava/ but vauva /vauvva/, or hae aamulla /hae77aamulla/, or raijaa /raijjaa/. The occurence of the single-length consonants is restricted. First off, they never occur in a syllable coda (that is, they never end a syllable). V and J may freely be a syllable onset ('va' but not *'av', 'ja' but not *'aj'). D and the hiatus occur only medially (within a word) as syllable onsets (sy-dän is OK, but not *dilli; the loanword is tilli "dill"). The imperative aspiration is traceable to a grammatical ending (Proto-Fenno-Ugric perfective nonpast *-ka) and thus occurs only finally.

In foreign words, 'f' is recognized to the same level as a native sound. The voiced counterparts of 'p', 't', and 'k', namely 'b', 'd' and 'g', and the postalveolar 'sh' are recognized also, but poorly. It is not a "hard" phonological requirement that stops are unvoiced or that 'sh' is pronounced 's', but many speakers don't care if there's a difference. Thus, we do write banaani and shetlanninponi, but it depends on your elitism whether you pronounce them panaani and setlanninponi or not. Other foreign sounds are not recognized, in particular, English 'z' and its postalveolar counterpart as in "measure".

Processes and phonotactics

Syllable structure is such that one consonant may be the syllable onset, one to two vowels must be the syllable nucleus, and one consonant may be the syllable coda (that is, terminating the syllable); a small set of two-consonant codas are allowed, if the first consonant is a sonorant; nasals N, M and liquids R, L count as sonorants. That is, (C)V(V)(C), or (C)V(SC), S = sonorant. Long vowels and the diphthongs listed are always contained by a single syllable (tuu-len "of the wind"). Long consonants always syllablicate between the consonants (tul-lee "may come"). There are restrictions for which consonants may occur in a coda. The single-length consonants (d, v, j, ', !) never occur in a coda, and stops are found basically only in loans or half-onomatopoetic words like katketa "to snap". Characteristic of Finnish is that /h/ is an allowed syllable coda, and this is found quite often. For example, pihlaja is a native Finnish word, and jahti is a Germanic loan (from "jakt"). I must remind that it contrasts with long and short vowels, consider pika- "fast", pihka "resin", piika "maidservant".

Affricates or other initial consonant clusters are not allowed by native phonotactics, but this is not a hard phonological requirement, but simply something foreign. Speakers of modern Finnish can reproduce them, even if awkwardly, because of some rare loanwords, e.g. presidentti, strutsi. However, this was not always the case, and reliably pronouncing consonant clusters really began only in the 20th century. In older loans, consonant clusters were systematically abbreviated to leave only the final consonant, e.g. the Swedish + Russian + English stool "small chair" is reflected as tuoli "chair", or Swedish + English strand is reflected as ranta "shore". Epenthesis (as in Japanese suturito ← "street") in consonant clusters in unknown; either Finnish abbreviates the cluster or swallows it whole.

Finnish has front/back vowel harmony. There are two neutral vowels I and E, which are unaffected. There are three pairs of vowels, one front vowel for each back vowel: A, U, O and their fronted counterparts Ä, Y, Ö. The initial syllable controls the choice between front and back vowels. That is to say, this "fronting" is a phonemic feature (such as English voicing in "pat" vs. "bat") in the initial syllable, but rarely so in noninitial syllables. This is the diametrical opposite of the German umlaut, where suffixes control the initial syllable.

In a single (non-compound) word, if the initial syllable contains:

  1. back vowels, then only back (and neutral) vowels occur in the word (A, U, O, I, E)
  2. front vowels, then only front (and neutral) vowels occur in the word (Ä, Y, Ö, I, E)
  3. neutral vowels, then only front (and neutral) vowels occur, unless there already is a back vowel in the word, when only back (or neutral) vowels occur.
As Finnish is an agglunative language, this process is applied often. Grammatical endings (case endings, suffixes) have no intristic front or back voweled forms, and take the frontness or backness corresponding to the initial syllable (e.g. tuotteeseensa, cf. täytteeseensä). Derivational endings are intrisically back-voweled, appearing as such when the initial syllable is back-voweled (e.g. suhahtaa) or neutral (e.g. sihahtaa), but when the word is controlled by a front vowel, they become front-voweled (e.g. sähähtää). Clitics (e.g. -päin "towards") are unaffected by vowel harmony, which is their key difference from grammatical endings.

Consonant gradation is a lenition process for the plosives P, T and K. It affects only the last consonant of a word, if it is a plosive, or a cluster, which ends in a plosive (but does not begin with one; 'tk' in hutkia is immutable). The consonant affected is mutated to a "weaker" form, when you add suffixes to the word. For a geminate (PP, TT, KK), the weaker form is a simple consonant (P, T, K). For a simple consonant (P, T, K), a weaker archphoneme (*β, *θ, *γ) is allocated. These archphonemes have no single value, but are realized according to their phonetic environment. Usually:

  • p → β → v, e.g. tapa → tavan
  • t → θ → d, e.g. pata → padan
  • k → &gamma → hiatus, e.g. vaaka → vaa'an
All may become chronemes following sonorants:
  • β: lampi → lammen
  • θ: parta → parran
  • γ: kenkäkengän (recall 'ng' = long engma /NN/)
There are also exceptions, e.g. kyky → kyvyn.

The history of this process is rather straightforward; back in the 1600's, while the English were busy chain-shifting their vowels, the Finns were occupied with the total and complete obliteration of all fricatives other than 's' and 'h'. The voiced bilabial /β/, dental /þ/ and velar /γ/ fricatives were systematically replaced by anything else that resembles them. This created an immensely complex system, where the environment controls what is produced when the consonant is weakened.

Finnish, most completely Standard and Western Finnish have a process called vocalic paragoge. This means that word-final consonants must be "covered" by a paragogic vowel in native words or when adding case suffixes. If the word is native, the paragogic vowel is -i when final (nimi "name") and -e- when case suffixes are added (nimen "of the name"). This is often perceived as "I ~ E alteration". With loans, old Finnish added -a, e.g. fysiikka. (The modern Karelian language still does the same, e.g. Internetas "in the Internet".) Modern Finnish adds -i, e.g. teksti "text", Bushilta "from Bush".

Sandhi is common, both word-external and word-internal, but it is not written down in Finnish; Finnish orthography is morpheme-based, not phonetic. Sandhi is assimilation when two incompatible sounds meet, e.g. syön + pä /syömpä/. This sandhi is much the same as in English. In addition, with consonant gradation of 'k', the allophonic velar nasal 'ng' has become phonemic, as in HelsinkiHelsingin. Finnish, in particular, has an external sandhi pattern, where the word-final consonant, if omittable, changes into a glottal stop, e.g. nyt on /ny77on/ "now there is". The stop assimilates to the following consonant if available, e.g. nyt ne /nynne/ "now they", and ota se! /otasse/ "take it!". Yes, we speak "lazy" too, we just mutilate consonants, not vowels.

Some major dialects, but not standard language, add an epenthetic vowel to L, H, and in Savo, N, when they begin a medial cluster (-VCCV-). For example, the standard language Pohjanmaa is pronounced by a native Pohjanmaa dialect speaker as Pohojammaa. Standard vanha is pronounced as vanaha in the Savo region.

Timing, stress, prosody

There are no tones or tonal accents. None. The tonal contour is basically straigthforward: start the sentence a little bit high, and decrease the pitch, until you reach a comfortable monotony, which continues until you reach the end of your utterance, where the pitch and volume go down rapidly unto silence. This pattern is especially true in male speakers, while female speakers might add some tonal color. Nevertheless, rising intonation is deeply foreign. Tonal variation is reserved for expressing emotions, and this must be the reason why Finns think foreigners are overly emotional. This absence of tones contrasts strongly with near-tonal languages such as Estonian, Swedish and Russian, where the tonal contour is phonemic, denoting stress and word limits, or helping with distinguishing phonemic length levels as in Estonian.

The stress is on the first two mora of a single word, with the first mora the strongest. The result is similar, but not necessarily equivalent, to stressing the "first syllable". Stressing patterns different from this are never recognized, and accordingly, Finnish spelling does not include accents. (In the colloquial, spoken Finnish, some grammatical words such as ja "and" might be unstressed.) Stress is indicated by principally adding length to the stressed vowel, as in English; stress is not indicated tonally. That is to say, when unstressed, a short vowel is 40 ms and a long vowel is 70 ms, but stress adds 90-100 ms to each, giving a stressed short vowel as 120-130 ms and a stressed long vowel as 170-180 ms. Additionally, when a short vowel is found in the second mora, it is lenghtened to something between 40 and 70 ms; this "half-long vowel" is rare and found only in words of structure VCV, e.g. iso "big", ala "area". From the two lengths recognized as phonemically different by native speakers we get five physical lengths.

Finnish doesn't readily fit into any timing category, since a large number of lengths are reliably produced, and no isochrony — invariant length — is found in syllables, stresses or even morae. Finnish is a syllable trochee language, with a "+-+-..." pattern. The closest model is a mora timing, as Finnish distinguishes long vowels and long consonants independently, like Japanese. In my opinion, there is little difference between the rhythm of Finnish, particularly the Pohjanmaa dialect, and Japanese. (Still, Finnish lacks the tonal accent.) There are countless "what's Japanese for" jokes in Finnish, for example:

What is Japanese for a car mechanic? Hayosiko Toyotasi ("did your Toyota break")
What is Japanese for a boxer? Yokoha ma humahutan ("will I hit you now")
What is Japanese for a sharpshooter? Yoka kuti huti ("each bullet misses")
However, as Finnish syllable structure is not by a hard requirement CV, there is an important difference in what the language sounds like. Another language with a similar rhythm is Arabic, which also has the free chronemic distinction, and final devoicing, which English-speakers hear and write as word-final h's. Spanish and Italian also sound very similar, and Finnish lyrics have been mistaken for Latino lyrics. Consequently, of Indo-European language speakers, Italians have the least accent when speaking Finnish. On the other hand, English and Russian speakers have a terrible accent.

Genetic classification

As indicated, Finnish is a Fenno-Ugrian language, unrelated to and unlike the neighbouring languages, except for Sami and Estonian. Finnish represents the extreme northwestern end of the distribution of Fenno-Ugric languages. Special features, compared to other Fenno-Ugrian languages, include these, as mentioned above: vocalic paragoge, loss of palatalization, none of this "streamlining" by deletion (as in Estonian), extensive and complicated consonant gradation, noninitial labial vowels, development of numerous diphthongs.

Differently from other Uralic languages, Western and standard Finnish do not include palatalization in the phonology. (It would be a secondary articulation at the palate, for example, T is an apical /t/, T' is a palatal or laminal /c/.) I believe we can blame the paragoge for this; for example, my grandfather, speaking a dialect that retains palatalization, says the word for "home" as kot' /koc/ while I say /koti/. You could call this "depalatalization". Since the vowel indicates the phonemic difference between koti and -kot (plural of the derivational ending -kko), the palatal articulation becomes allophonic, thus meaningless, and disappears.

In Finnish words, there are none where other noninitial vowels than 'a' and 'i' are traceable to Proto-Finno-Ugric. This indicates that Proto-Finno-Ugric had a hard phonotactical rule that only 'a', 'i' and their allophones were allowed phonemes in noninitial syllables; in addition, noninitial reduced vowels (schwas) were also allowed. Consequently, in modern Finnish, the vowels 'a' and 'i' are still by far the most common noninitially. When Proto-Finno-Permic branched off from Proto-Finno-Ugric, it produced other noninitial vowels. In Finnish, there are several grammatical endings which feature labial vowels such as -ton/-tön "-less" and -uus/-yys "-ness". But, even today, labial noninitial vowels rarely distinguish stems (that is, completely different words).

The noninitial labialization is still seen in action in Finnish dialects, e.g. Pohjanmaa tuloo cf. standard tulee "(it) comes". Here, you should notice that the 'e' is paragogic: the stem is tul-, and because it ends in a consonant, it gets added with -e. This 'e' is extended by a chroneme to indicate a declination in the third person, thus we get the standard tulee. Now, the Pohjanmaa dialect continues with a further sound change, where the final 'ee' is rounded, giving *tulöö, which is adjusted to conform to vowel harmony to produce the aforementioned tuloo.


Simply: prepositions ("in", "at", "as", "off"), persons ("I", "you") and possessors ("my", "your") in English correspond to suffixes in Finnish (maa+ssa "on the ground", tei+n "I did", maa+si "your country"). This is not very special in my opinion, although everyone makes a point of it. The case government is particularly important and requires extensive learning (to avoid making the Finnish equivalent of the mistake "I'm gonna blow you" for "I'm gonna blow you up").

An important distinction one needs to understand before creating a sentence with an object is telic grammar. Finnish distinguishes whether the object is successfully finished, or not, and marks this on the object using the accusative suffix -n and the partitive suffix -ta.

Finnish is reasonably logical. The "logical" bit means that words contain information what they should mean, had you never seen them before. The system is extensive, complicated and extremely expressive. Many nouns are derived. (E.g. ampua, ampuja to shoot, shooter (marksman); puhua, puhelin to speak, phone; Lontoo, lontoolainen London, "Londoner".) Verbs can be marked with "being forced", "several instances across time", "single instance", "erratic movement", transitivity vs. intransitivity and so on. Even some loanwords have to use them, e.g. "to shop" gets the indicator for frequent action: shoppailla. (Because - how do you shop once?) For example, "turns" is "kääntää", and in third person with English examples this derives to these verbs:

kääntää       turns an object              He turns a knob (transitive)
kääntyy       turns by itself              He turns right (intransitive)
kääntelee     erratically turns an object  He turns over his head {watching a game of tennis}
käännyttää    makes someone turn           He turns them back at the border
kääntyilee    erratically turns by itself  The steering wheel turns in rough terrain
käännähtää    suddenly turns by himself    He turns around when he hears the scream
kääntelehtii  turns around (e.g. in agony) He rolls (turns) in bed in pain

Finnish is absolutely full of these words. For example, haihtuu "evaporates", haihduttaa = "makes-something-evaporate" = "vaporizes". Or, "juoksee" = "runs", "juoksentelee" runs around (volitionally), "juokseskelee" runs around (casually and volitionally), and so on. Usually these translate to pure "runs" in English, and significant information is genuinely lost. It's not that they're some mystical "untranslatable" words; but their complete translation produces far too long texts. (Exceptions exist: English has a frequentative, which is no longer productive, but with those few frequentatives, it does translate: räsähtää "cracks", räsähtelee "crackles".)

Finnish is not an inflected language, like Latin, Sanskrit or many other Indo-European languages, where a word in another grammatical function is almost another new word in itself. For example, Latin has "rex" (nominative) and "regem" (accusative), but "femina" (nom.) and "feminam" (acc.) The endings (-a and -x) have no connection; they are irregular. Rather, Finnish is an agglutinative language: the endings are independent of the word stem. This makes the language much easier to learn. The case adessive (on something) ends in -lla/-llä, no matter the word: kissalla, koiralla, naisella.

Errata for nine9:

  1. No, Finns near the coasts don't "generally" speak Swedish, even if there are local majorities in rural areas. Illustrative of this is that there are only three unilingually Swedish municipalities (Närpes, Korsnäs, Larsmo) out of the total 430 of continental Finland. Everywhere else there is Finnish in the street signs.
  2. Finnish speakers go to Finnish-speaking schools. There is a subject of "Swedish" in school, which consists of a Swedish class once a week in lower secondary school. Not many can actually speak enough Swedish to maintain a conversation.
  3. The orthography of the Finnish language does not include the Swedish 'å'. However, for historical and practical reasons, Finnish uses the same alphabet as Swedish. (For example: some Finns, even those unilingually Finnish, may have a Swedish surname.)
  4. "Many" words are not derived from English, except in some jargons. Those that are might be calques instead, e.g. näyttö "display".

Comments for xmatt:

  1. Those are correct. However, in Finnish, pronouns have much less use than they do in English. More important than pronouns are the verb inflections and possessive suffices. For example, "Teen teesi" does NOT mean "teen thesis", but consists of "tee-n tee-si", literally "make-(I) tea-(your)", i.e. "I will make your tea". Notice the lack of pronouns.

Writeup changed to a different one on Sunday, December 11, 2005 at 20:24:16

Since I've often had to tell about my mother language (and culture I live in) to the English-speaking world, I've now decided to start to maintain a list of nodes that tell about about the Finnish language (and culture, in cases it collides with the language).

Feel free to /msg me nodes you'd like me to link from here.

See also Finland.

Generic nodes about the language

Interesting words & phrases & expressions

Names & Things

Weird translations

Loosely related

Finnish names for weird foreign things

Finn"ish (?), a.

Of or pertaining to Finland, to the Finns, or to their language.



A Northern Turanian group of languages; the language of the Finns.


© Webster 1913.

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