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|Pronunciation||IPA: [ˈsuo̯mi] (listen)|
|Native to||Finland, Sweden, Norway (in small areas in Troms and Finnmark), Russia|
|5.8 million |
Finland 5.4 million
Sweden 0.40 million (2020)
|Latin (Finnish alphabet)|
Official language in
Sweden(official minority language)
|Regulated by||Language Planning Department of the Institute for the Languages of Finland|
Spoken by a minority.
Finnish (endonym: suomi [ˈsuo̯mi] (listen) or suomen kieli [ˈsuo̯meŋ ˈkie̯li]) is a Uralic language of the Finnic branch spoken by the majority of the population in Finland and by ethnic Finns outside Finland. Finnish is one of the two official languages of Finland (the other being Swedish). In Sweden, both Finnish and Meänkieli (which has significant mutual intelligibility with Finnish) are official minority languages. The Kven language, which like Meänkieli is mutually intelligible with Finnish, is spoken in Norway's Finnmark by a minority group of Finnish descent.
Finnish is typologically agglutinative and uses almost exclusively suffixal affixation. Nouns, adjectives, pronouns, numerals and verbs are inflected depending on their role in the sentence. Sentences are normally formed with subject–verb–object word order, although the extensive use of inflection allows them to be ordered otherwise. Word order variations are often reserved for differences in information structure. The orthography is a Latin-script alphabet derived from the Swedish alphabet, and for the most part each grapheme corresponds to a single phoneme and vice versa. Vowel length and consonant length are distinguished, and there are a range of diphthongs, although vowel harmony limits which diphthongs are possible.
Finnish is a member of the Finnic group of the Uralic family of languages. The Finnic group also includes Estonian and a few minority languages spoken around the Baltic Sea and in Russia's Republic of Karelia.
- Shared morphology:
- case suffixes such as genitive -n, partitive -(t)a / -(t)ä ( < Proto-Uralic *-ta, originally ablative), essive -na / -nä ( < *-na, originally locative)
- plural markers -t and -i- ( < Proto-Uralic *-t and *-j, respectively)
- possessive suffixes such as 1st person singular -ni ( < Proto-Uralic *-n-mi), 2nd person singular -si ( < Proto-Uralic *-ti).
- various derivational suffixes (e.g. causative -tta/-ttä < Proto-Uralic *-k-ta)
- Shared basic vocabulary displaying regular sound correspondences with the other Uralic languages (e.g. kala "fish" ~ North Saami guolli ~ Hungarian hal; and kadota "disappear" ~ North Saami guođđit ~ Hungarian hagy 'leave (behind)'.
Several theories exist as to the geographic origin of Finnish and the other Uralic languages. The most widely held view is that they originated as a Proto-Uralic language somewhere in the boreal forest belt around the Ural Mountains region and/or the bend of the middle Volga. The strong case for Proto-Uralic is supported by common vocabulary with regularities in sound correspondences, as well as by the fact that the Uralic languages have many similarities in structure and grammar.
Finnish is spoken by about five million people, most of whom reside in Finland. There are also notable Finnish-speaking minorities in Sweden, Norway, Russia, Estonia, Brazil, Canada, and the United States. The majority of the population of Finland (90.37% as of 2010[update]) speak Finnish as their first language. The remainder speak Swedish (5.42%), one of the Sámi languages (for example Northern, Inari, or Skolt), or another language as their first language. Finnish is spoken as a second language in Estonia by about 167,000 people. The varieties of Finnish found in Norway's Finnmark (namely Kven) and in northern Sweden (namely Meänkieli) have the status of official minority languages, and thus can be considered distinct languages from Finnish. However, since all three are mutually intelligible, one may alternatively view them as dialects of the same language.
Today, Finnish is one of two official languages of Finland (the other being Swedish), and has been an official language of the European Union since 1995. However, the Finnish language did not have an official status in the country during the period of Swedish rule, which ended in 1809. After the establishment of Grand Duchy of Finland, and against the backdrop of the Fennoman movement, the language obtained its official status in the Finnish Diet of 1863.
Finnish also enjoys the status of an official minority language in Sweden. Under the Nordic Language Convention, citizens of the Nordic countries speaking Finnish have the opportunity to use their native language when interacting with official bodies in other Nordic countries without being liable to any interpretation or translation costs. However, concerns have been expressed about the future status of Finnish in Sweden, for example, where reports produced for the Swedish government during 2017 show that minority language policies are not being respected, particularly for the 7% of Finns settled in the country.
The Uralic family of languages, of which Finnish is a member, are hypothesized to derive from a single ancestor language termed Proto-Uralic, spoken sometime between 8,000 and 2,000 BCE (estimates vary) in the vicinity of the Ural mountains. Over time, Proto-Uralic split into various daughter languages, which themselves continued to change and diverge, yielding yet more descendants. One of these descendants is the reconstructed Proto-Finnic, from which the Finnic languages developed, and which diverged from Proto-Samic (a reconstructed ancestor of the Sámi languages) around 1500–1000 BCE.
Current models assume that three or more Proto-Finnic dialects evolved during the first millennium BCE. These dialects were defined geographically, and were distinguished from one another along a north-south split as well as an east-west split. The northern dialects of Proto-Finnic, from which Finnish developed, lacked the mid vowel [ɤ]. This vowel was found only in the southern dialects, which developed into Estonian, Livonian, and Votian. The northern variants used third person singular pronoun hän instead of southern tämä (Est. tema). While the eastern dialects of Proto-Finnic (which developed in the modern-day eastern Finnish dialects, Veps, Karelian, and Ingrian) formed genitive plural nouns via plural stems (e.g., eastern Finnish kalojen < *kaloi-ten), the western dialects of Proto-Finnic (today's Estonian, Livonian and western Finnish varieties) used the non-plural stems (e.g., Est. kalade < *kala-ten). Another defining characteristic of the east-west split was the use of the reflexive suffix -(t)te, used only in the eastern dialects.
The birch bark letter 292 from the early 13th century is the first known document in any Finnic language. The first known written example of Finnish itself is found in a German travel journal dating back to c.1450: Mÿnna tachton gernast spuho sommen gelen Emÿna daÿda (Modern Finnish: "Minä tahdon kernaasti puhua suomen kielen, [mutta] en minä taida;" English: "I want to speak Finnish, [but] I am not able to"). According to the travel journal, the words are those of a Finnish bishop whose name is unknown. The erroneous use of gelen (Modern Finnish kielen) in the accusative case, rather than kieltä in the partitive, and the lack of the conjunction mutta are typical of foreign speakers of Finnish even today. At the time, most priests in Finland were Swedish speaking.
During the Middle Ages, when Finland was under Swedish rule, Finnish was only spoken. At the time, the language of international commerce was Middle Low German, the language of administration Swedish, and religious ceremonies were held in Latin. This meant that Finnish speakers could use their mother tongue only in everyday life. Finnish was considered inferior to Swedish, and Finnish speakers were second-class members of society because they could not use their language in any official situations. There were even efforts to reduce the use of Finnish through parish clerk schools, the use of Swedish in church, and by having Swedish-speaking servants and maids move to Finnish-speaking areas.
The first comprehensive writing system for Finnish was created by Mikael Agricola, a Finnish bishop, in the 16th century. He based his writing system on the western dialects. Agricola's ultimate plan was to translate the Bible, but first he had to develop an orthography for the language, which he based on Swedish, German, and Latin. The Finnish standard language still relies on his innovations with regard to spelling, though Agricola used less systematic spelling than is used today.
Though Agricola's intention was that each phoneme (and allophone under qualitative consonant gradation) should correspond to one letter, he failed to achieve this goal in various respects. For example, k, c, and q were all used for the phoneme /k/. Likewise, he alternated between dh and d to represent the allophonic voiced dental fricative [ð] (like th in English this), between dh and z to represent the geminate voiceless dental fricative /θː/ (like th in thin, but longer in duration), and between gh and g to represent the allophonic voiced velar fricative [ɣ]. Agricola did not consistently represent vowel length in his orthography.
Others revised Agricola's work later, striving for a more systematic writing system. Along the way, Finnish lost several fricative consonants in a process of sound change. The sounds [ð] and [θ(ː)] disappeared from the language, surviving only in a small rural region in Western Finland. In the standard language, however, the effect of the lost sounds is thus:
- [ð] became [d]. The sound [ð] was written ⟨d⟩ or ⟨dh⟩ by Agricola. This sound was lost from most varieties of Finnish, either losing all phonetic realization or being pronounced as [r], [ɾ], [l], or [h] instead (depending on dialect and the position in the word). However, Agricola's spelling ⟨d⟩ prevailed, and the pronunciation in Standard Finnish became [d] through spelling pronunciation.
- [θː, θ] became [ts]. These interdental fricatives were written as ⟨tz⟩ (for both grades: geminate and short) in some of the earliest written records. Though these developed into a variety of other sounds depending on dialect ([tː, t], [ht, h], [ht, t], [sː, s], [tː, tː], or [ht, ht]), the standard language has arrived at spelling pronunciation [ts] (which is treated as a consonant cluster and hence not subject to consonant gradation).
- [ɣ] became [v] but only if the [ɣ] appeared originally between high round vowels [u] and [y], otherwise it was lost entirely (cf. suku 'kin, family' : suvun [genitive form] from earlier *suku : *suɣun, and kyky : kyvyn 'ability, skill' [nominative and genitive, respectively] from *kükü : *küɣün, contrasting with sika : sian 'pig, pork' [nominative and genitive] from *sika : *siɣan). (A similar process explains the /f/ pronunciation for some English words with "gh", such as "tough".)
Modern Finnish punctuation, along with that of Swedish, uses the colon (:) to separate the stem of a word and its grammatical ending in some cases, for example after acronyms, as in EU:ssa "in the EU". (This contrasts with some other alphabetic writing systems, which would use an apostrophe.) Since suffixes play a prominent role in the language, this use of the colon is quite common.
In the 19th century Johan Vilhelm Snellman and others began to stress the need to improve the status of Finnish. Ever since the days of Mikael Agricola, written Finnish had been used almost exclusively in religious contexts, but now Snellman's Hegelian nationalistic ideas of Finnish as a fully-fledged national language gained considerable support. Concerted efforts were made to improve the status of the language and to modernize it, and by the end of the century Finnish had become a language of administration, journalism, literature, and science in Finland, along with Swedish.
In 1853 Daniel Europaeus published the first Swedish-Finnish dictionary, and between 1866 and 1880 Elias Lönnrot compiled the first Finnish-Swedish dictionary. In the same period, Antero Warelius conducted ethnographic research and, among other topics, he documented the geographic distribution of the Finnish dialects.
The most important contributions to improving the status of Finnish were made by Elias Lönnrot. His impact on the development of modern vocabulary in Finnish was particularly significant. In addition to compiling the Kalevala, he acted as an arbiter in disputes about the development of standard Finnish between the proponents of western and eastern dialects, ensuring that the western dialects preferred by Agricola retained their preeminent role, while many originally dialect words from Eastern Finland were introduced to the standard language, thus enriching it considerably. The first novel written in Finnish (and by a Finnish speaker) was Seven Brothers (Seitsemän veljestä), published by Aleksis Kivi in 1870.
The Finnish language has been changing in certain ways after World War II, as observed in the spreading of certain dialectal features, for example the spread of the Western dialectal variant for the written cluster ts (mettä : mettän/metän [forest : forest's] instead of metsä : metsän) and the Eastern disappearance of d (tiiän 'I know' instead of tiedän) and the simultaneous preference to abandon the more visible dialectal features. Some scientists[who?] have also reported the low front vowel [æ] (orthographic ⟨ä⟩) moving toward [ɑ] (orthographic ⟨a⟩), theorising that the Finnish speakers would start to pronounce [ɑ] even more distantly from the changing [æ] in order to preserve the system of vowel harmony.
The dialects of Finnish are divided into two distinct groups, Western and Eastern. The dialects are largely mutually intelligible and are distinguished from each other by changes in vowels, diphthongs and rhythm, as well as in preferred grammatical constructions. For the most part, the dialects operate on the same phonology and grammar. There are only marginal examples of sounds or grammatical constructions specific to some dialect and not found in standard Finnish. Two examples are the voiced dental fricative found in the Rauma dialect, and the Eastern exessive case.
The classification of closely related dialects spoken outside Finland is a politically sensitive issue that has been controversial since Finland's independence in 1917. This concerns specifically the Karelian language in Russia and Meänkieli in Sweden, the speakers of which are often considered oppressed minorities. Karelian is different enough from standard Finnish to have its own orthography. Meänkieli is a northern dialect almost entirely intelligible to speakers of any other Finnish dialect, which achieved its status as an official minority language in Sweden for historical and political reasons, although Finnish is an official minority language in Sweden, too. In 1980, many texts, books and the Bible were translated into Meänkieli and it has been developing more into its own language.
The Southwest Finnish dialects (lounaissuomalaismurteet) are spoken in Southwest Finland and Satakunta. Their typical feature is abbreviation of word-final vowels, and in many respects they resemble Estonian. The Tavastian dialects (hämäläismurteet) are spoken in Tavastia. They are closest to the standard language, but feature some slight vowel changes, such as the opening of diphthong-final vowels (tie → tiä, miekka → miakka, kuolisi → kualis), the change of d to l (mostly obsolete) or trilled r (widespread, nowadays disappearance of d is popular) and the personal pronouns (me: meitin (we: our), te:teitin (you: your) and he: heitin (they: their)). The South Ostrobothnian dialects (eteläpohjalaismurteet) are spoken in Southern Ostrobothnia. Their most notable feature is the pronunciation of "d" as a tapped or even fully trilled /r/. The Central and North Ostrobothnian dialects (keski- ja pohjoispohjalaismurteet) are spoken in Central and Northern Ostrobothnia. The Lappish dialects (lappilaismurteet) are spoken in Lapland. The dialects spoken in the western parts of Lapland are recognizable by retention of old "h" sounds in positions where they have disappeared from other dialects.
One of the Lappish dialects or its own language, Meänkieli, which is spoken on the Swedish side of the border, is taught in some Swedish schools as a distinct standardized language. The speakers of Meänkieli became politically separated from the other Finns when Finland was annexed to Russia in 1809. The categorization of Meänkieli as a separate language is controversial among some Finns, who see no linguistic criteria, only political reasons, for treating Meänkieli differently from other dialects of Finnish.
The Kven language is spoken in Finnmark and Troms, in Norway. Its speakers are descendants of Finnish emigrants to the region in the 18th and 19th centuries. Kven is an official minority language in Norway.
The Eastern dialects consist of the widespread Savonian dialects (savolaismurteet) spoken in Savo and nearby areas, and the South-Eastern dialects now spoken only in Finnish South Karelia. The South Karelian dialects (eteläkarjalaismurteet) were previously also spoken on the Karelian Isthmus and in Ingria. The Karelian Isthmus was evacuated during World War II and refugees were resettled all over Finland. Most Ingrian Finns were deported to various interior areas of the Soviet Union.
Palatalization, a common feature of Uralic languages, had been lost in the Finnic branch, but it has been reacquired by most of these languages, including Eastern Finnish, but not Western Finnish. In Finnish orthography, this is denoted with a "j", e.g. vesj [vesʲ] "water", cf. standard vesi [vesi].
The language spoken in those parts of Karelia that have not historically been under Swedish or Finnish rule is usually called the Karelian language, and it is considered to be more distant from standard Finnish than the Eastern dialects. Whether this language of Russian Karelia is a dialect of Finnish or a separate language is a matter of interpretation.
Dialect chart of Finnish
- Western dialects
- Southwest Finnish dialects
- Proper Finnish dialects
- Northern dialect group
- Southern dialect group
- Southwest Finnish middle dialects
- Pori region dialects
- Ala-Satakunta dialects
- dialects of Turku highlands
- Somero region dialects
- Western Uusimaa dialects
- Proper Finnish dialects
- Tavastian dialects
- Ylä-Satakunta dialects
- Heart Tavastian dialects
- Southern Tavastian dialects
- Southern-Eastern Tavastian dialects
- Hollola dialect group
- Porvoo dialect group
- Iitti dialect group
- South Ostrobothnian dialects
- Central and North Ostrobothnian dialects
- Central Ostrobothnian dialects
- North Ostrobothnian dialects
- Lappish dialects
- Southwest Finnish dialects
- Eastern dialects
- Savonian dialects
- North Savonian dialects
- South Savonian dialects
- Middle dialects of Savonlinna region
- East Savonian dialects or North Karelian dialects
- Kainuu dialects
- Central Finland dialects
- Päijänne Tavastia dialects
- Keuruu-Evijärvi dialects
- Savonian dialects of Värmland (Sweden)
- South Karelian dialects
- Proper South Karelian dialects
- Middle dialects of Lemi region
- Dialects of Ingria (in Russia)
- Savonian dialects
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There are two main registers of Finnish used throughout the country. One is the "standard language" (yleiskieli), and the other is the "spoken language" (puhekieli). The standard language is used in formal situations like political speeches and newscasts. Its written form, the "book language" (kirjakieli), is used in nearly all written texts, not always excluding even the dialogue of common people in popular prose. The spoken language, on the other hand, is the main variety of Finnish used in popular TV and radio shows and at workplaces, and may be preferred to a dialect in personal communication.
Standard Finnish is prescribed by the Language Office of the Research Institute for the Languages of Finland and is the language used in official communication. The Dictionary of Contemporary Finnish (Nykysuomen sanakirja 1951–61), with 201,000 entries, was a prescriptive dictionary that defined official language. An additional volume for words of foreign origin (Nykysuomen sivistyssanakirja, 30,000 entries) was published in 1991. An updated dictionary, The New Dictionary of Modern Finnish (Kielitoimiston sanakirja) was published in an electronic form in 2004 and in print in 2006. A descriptive grammar (Iso suomen kielioppi, 1,600 pages) was published in 2004. There is also an etymological dictionary, Suomen sanojen alkuperä, published in 1992–2000, and a handbook of contemporary language (Nykysuomen käsikirja), and a periodic publication, Kielikello. Standard Finnish is used in official texts and is the form of language taught in schools. Its spoken form is used in political speech, newscasts, in courts, and in other formal situations. Nearly all publishing and printed works are in standard Finnish.
The colloquial language has mostly developed naturally from earlier forms of Finnish, and spread from the main cultural and political centres. The standard language, however, has always been a consciously constructed medium for literature. It preserves grammatical patterns that have mostly vanished from the colloquial varieties and, as its main application is writing, it features complex syntactic patterns that are not easy to handle when used in speech. The colloquial language develops significantly faster, and the grammatical and phonological changes also include the most common pronouns and suffixes, which amount to frequent but modest differences. Some sound changes have been left out of the formal language. For example, irregular verbs have developed in the spoken language as a result of the elision of sonorants in some verbs of the Type III class (with subsequent vowel assimilation), but only when the second syllable of the word is short. The end result is that some forms in the spoken language are shortened, e.g. tule-n → tuu-n ("I come"), while others remain identical to the standard language hän tulee 'he comes', never *hän tuu). However, the longer forms such as tule can be used in spoken language in other forms as well.
The literary language certainly still exerts a considerable influence upon the spoken word, because illiteracy is nonexistent and many Finns are avid readers. In fact, it is still not entirely uncommon to meet people who "talk book-ish" (puhuvat kirjakieltä); it may have connotations of pedantry, exaggeration, moderation, weaseling or sarcasm (somewhat like heavy use of Latinate words in English: compare the difference between saying "There's no children I'll leave it to" and "There are no children to whom I shall leave it"). More common is the intrusion of typically literary constructions into a colloquial discourse, as a kind of quote from written Finnish. It is quite common to hear book-like and polished speech on radio or TV, and the constant exposure to such language tends to lead to the adoption of such constructions even in everyday language.
A prominent example of the effect of the standard language is the development of the consonant gradation form /ts : ts/ as in metsä : metsän, as this pattern was originally (1940) found natively only in the dialects of the southern Karelian isthmus and Ingria. It has been reinforced by the spelling "ts" for the dental fricative [θː], used earlier in some western dialects. The spelling and the pronunciation this encourages however approximate the original pronunciation, still reflected in e.g. Karelian /čč : č/ (meččä : mečän). In the spoken language, a fusion of Western /tt : tt/ (mettä : mettän) and Eastern /ht : t/ (mehtä : metän) has resulted: /tt : t/ (mettä : metän). It is notable that neither of these forms are identifiable as, or originate from, a specific dialect.
The orthography of informal language follows that of the formal. However, in signalling the former in writing, syncope and sandhi – especially internal – may occasionally amongst other characteristics be transcribed, e.g. menenpä → me(n)empä. This never occurs in the standard variety.
formal language colloquial language meaning notes hän menee
loss of an animacy contrast in pronouns (ne and se are inanimate in the formal language), and
loss of a number contrast on verbs in the 3rd person (menee is 3rd person singular in the formal language)
minä, minun, ... mä(ä)/mie, mun/miun, ... "I, my, ..." various alternative, usually shorter, forms of 1st and 2nd person pronouns (minä) tulen
"I'm coming" or "I will come"
"I am" or "I will be"
elision of sonorants before short vowels in certain Type III verbs along with vowel assimilation,
and no pro-drop (i.e., personal pronouns are usually mandatory in the colloquial language)
eikö teillä ole
e(i)ks teil(lä) oo
"do you (pl.) have?"
"don't you (pl.) have (it)?"
vowel apocope and common use of the clitic -s in interrogatives
(compare eiks to standard Estonian confirmatory interrogative "eks")
(me) emme sano me ei sanota "we don't say" or "we won't say" the passive voice is used in place of the first person plural (minun) kirjani mun kirja "my book" lack of possessive clitics on nouns (minä) en tiedä
mä en ti(i)ä
"I don't know"
elision of [d] between vowels, and subsequent vowel assimilation
(compare mä en ti(i)ä to standard Estonian "ma ei tea" or dialectic forms "ma ei tia" or "ma ei tie")
kuusikymmentäviisi kuuskyt(ä)viis "sixty-five" abbreviated forms of numerals punainen
unstressed diphthongs ending in /i/ become short vowels, and apocope of phrase-final -n korjannee kai korjaa "probably will fix" absence of the potential mood, use of kai "probably" instead
Note that there are noticeable differences between dialects. Also note that here the formal language does not mean a language spoken in formal occasions but the standard language which exists practically only in written form.
The phoneme inventory of Finnish is moderately small, with a great number of vocalic segments and a restricted set of consonant types, both of which can be long or short.
Finnish monophthongs show eight vowels qualities that contrast in duration, thus 16 vowel phonemes in total. Vowel allophony is quite restricted. Vowel phonemes are always contrastive in word-initial syllables; for non-initial syllable, see morphophonology below. Long and short vowels are shown below.
|Close||i iː||y yː||u uː|
|Mid||e eː||ø øː||o oː|
|Open||æ æː||ɑ ɑː|
The usual analysis is that Finnish has long and short vowels and consonants as distinct phonemes. However, long vowels may be analyzed as a vowel followed by a chroneme, or also, that sequences of identical vowels are pronounced as "diphthongs". The quality of long vowels mostly overlaps with the quality of short vowels, with the exception of u, which is centralized with respect to uu; long vowels do not morph into diphthongs. There are eighteen phonemic diphthongs; like vowels, diphthongs do not have significant allophony.
Finnish has a consonant inventory of small to moderate size, where voicing is mostly not distinctive, and fricatives are scarce. Finnish has relatively few non-coronal consonants. Consonants are as follows, where consonants in parentheses are found either only in a few recent loans or are allophones of other phonemes.
|Nasal||m||n||ŋ [note 1]|
|Plosive||p (b)||t d [note 2]||k (ɡ)||ʔ [note 3]|
|Fricative||(f)||s||(ʃ)||(ç) [note 4]||(x) [note 5]||h (ɦ) [note 6]|
- The short velar nasal is an allophone of /n/ in /nk/, and the long velar nasal /ŋŋ/, written ng, is the equivalent of /nk/ under weakening consonant gradation (type of lenition) and thus occurs only medially, e.g. Helsinki – Helsingin kaupunki (city of Helsinki) /hɛlsiŋki – hɛlsiŋŋin/.
- /d/ is the equivalent of /t/ under weakening consonant gradation, and thus in inherited vocabulary occurs only medially; it can actually, especially when spoken by older people, be more of an alveolar tap rather than a true voiced stop, and the dialectal realization varies widely; see the main article on Finnish phonology.
- The glottal stop can only appear at word boundaries as a result of certain sandhi phenomena, and it is not indicated in spelling: e.g. /annaʔolla/ 'let it be', orthographically anna olla. Moreover, this sound is not used in all dialects.
- An allophone of /h/. Vihko (notebook) [ˈʋiçko̞]
- An allophone of /h/. Kahvi (coffee) [ˈkɑxʋi]
- An allophone of /h/. Raha (money) [ˈrɑɦɑ]
Almost all consonants have phonemic short and long (geminated) forms, although length is only contrastive in consonants word-medially.
Consonant clusters are mostly absent in native Finnish words, except for a small set of two-consonant sequences in syllable codas, e.g. "rs" in karsta. However, because of a number of recently adopted loanwords that have them, e.g. strutsi from Swedish struts, meaning "ostrich", clusters have been integrated to the modern language to different degrees.
Finnish is somewhat divergent from other Uralic languages in two respects: it has lost most fricatives, as well as losing the distinction between palatalized and non-palatalized consonants. Finnish has only two fricatives in native words, namely /s/ and /h/. All other fricatives are recognized as foreign, of which Finnish speakers can usually reliably distinguish /f/ and /ʃ/. (The official alphabet includes "z" [z] and 'ž' [ʒ], but these are rarely used correctly, including by the Swedish-speakers, who also struggle with those sounds.) While standard Finnish has lost palatalization, which is characteristic of Uralic languages, the Eastern dialects and the Karelian language have redeveloped or retained it. For example, the Karelian word d'uuri [dʲuːri], with a palatalized /dʲ/, is reflected by juuri in Finnish and Savo dialect vesj [vesʲ] is vesi in standard Finnish.
A feature of Finnic phonology is the development of labial and rounded vowels in non-initial syllables, as in the word tyttö. Proto-Uralic had only "a" and "i" and their vowel harmonic allophones in non-initial syllables; modern Finnish allows other vowels in non-initial syllables, although they are uncommon compared to "a", "ä" and "i".
The main stress is always on the first syllable, and is in average speech articulated by adding approximately 100 ms more length to the stressed vowel. Stress does not cause any measurable modifications in vowel quality (very much unlike English). However, stress is not strong and words appear evenly stressed. In some cases, stress is so weak that the highest points of volume, pitch and other indicators of "articulation intensity" are not on the first syllable, although native speakers recognize the first syllable as being stressed.
Vowel harmony is a redundancy feature, which means that the feature [±back] is uniform within a word, and so it is necessary to interpret it only once for a given word. It is meaning-distinguishing in the initial syllable, and suffixes follow; so, if the listener hears [±back] in any part of the word, they can derive [±back] for the initial syllable. For example, from the stem tuote ("product") one derives tuotteeseensa ("into his product"), where the final vowel becomes the back vowel "a" (rather than the front vowel "ä") because the initial syllable contains the back vowels "uo". This is especially notable because vowels "a" and "ä" are different, meaning-distinguishing phonemes, not interchangeable or allophonic. Finnish front vowels are not umlauts, though the graphemes ⟨ä⟩ and ⟨ö⟩ feature dieresis.
Consonant gradation is a partly nonproductive lenition process for P, T and K in inherited vocabulary, with the oblique stem "weakened" from the nominative stem, or vice versa. For example, tarkka "precise" has the oblique stem tarka-, as in tarkan "of the precise". There is also another gradation pattern, which is older, and causes simple elision of T and K in suffixes. However, it is very common since it is found in the partitive case marker: if V is a single vowel, V+ta → Va, e.g. *tarkka+ta → tarkkaa.
Finnish is a synthetic language that employs extensive agglutination of affixes to verbs, nouns, adjectives and numerals. Finnish is not generally considered polysynthetic, however, its morpheme-to-word ratio being somewhat lower than a prototypical polysynthetic language (e.g., Yup'ik).
The morphosyntactic alignment of Finnish is nominative–accusative, but there are two object cases: accusative and partitive. The contrast between accusative and partitive object cases is one of telicity, where the accusative case denotes actions completed as intended (Ammuin hirven "I shot the elk (dead)"), and the partitive case denotes incomplete actions (Ammuin hirveä "I shot (at) the elk"). Often telicity is confused with perfectivity, but these are distinct notions. Finnish in fact has a periphrastic perfective aspect, which in addition to the two inflectional tenses (past and present), yield a Germanic-like system consisting of four tense-aspect combinations: simple present, simple past, perfect (present + perfective aspect) and pluperfect (past + perfective aspect). No morphological future tense is needed; context and the telicity contrast in object grammatical case serve to disambiguate present events from future events. For example, syön kalan "I eat a fish (completely)" must denote a future event, since there is no way to completely eat a fish at the current moment (the moment the eating is complete, the simple past tense or the perfect must be used). By contrast, syön kalaa "I eat a fish (not yet complete)" denotes a present event by indicating ongoing action.
Finnish has three grammatical persons; finite verbs agree with subject nouns in person and number by way of suffixes. Non-finite verb forms bear the infinitive suffix -ta/-tä (often lenited to -(d)a/-(d)ä due to consonant gradation). There is a so-called "passive voice" (sometimes called impersonal or indefinite) which differs from a true passive in various respects. Transitivity is distinguished in the derivational morphology of verbs, e.g. ratkaista "to solve something" vs. ratketa "to solve by itself". There are also several frequentative and momentane affixes which form new verbs derivationally.
Nouns may be suffixed with the markers for the aforementioned accusative case and partitive case, the genitive case, eight different locatives, and a few other oblique cases. The case affix must be added not only to the head noun, but also to its modifiers; e.g. suure+ssa talo+ssa, literally "big-in house-in". Possession is marked with possessive suffixes; these suffixes appear on nouns and pronouns alike (Finnish possessive pronouns are thus not suppletive like English her).
Finnish has a smaller core vocabulary than, for example, English, and uses derivational suffixes to a greater extent. As an example, take the word kirja "a book", from which one can form derivatives kirjain "a letter" (of the alphabet), kirje "a piece of correspondence, a letter", kirjasto "a library", kirjailija "an author", kirjallisuus "literature", kirjoittaa "to write", kirjoittaja "a writer", kirjuri "a scribe, a clerk", kirjallinen "in written form", kirjata "to write down, register, record", kirjasin "a font", and many others.
Here are some of the more common such suffixes. Which of each pair is used depends on the word being suffixed in accordance with the rules of vowel harmony.
|Suffix||Used to create...||Example(s)||Notes|
|-ja / -jä||agents from verbs||lukea "to read" → lukija "reader"|
|-sto / -stö||collective nouns||kirja "a book" → kirjasto "a library"
laiva "a ship" → laivasto "navy, fleet"
|-in||instruments or tools||kirjata "to book, to file" → kirjain "a letter" (of the alphabet)
vatkata "to whisk" → vatkain "a whisk, mixer"
|-uri / -yri||agents or instruments||kaivaa "to dig" → kaivuri "an excavator"
laiva "a ship" → laivuri "shipper, shipmaster"
|-os / -ös||result nouns from verbs||tulla "to come" → tulos "result, outcome"
tehdä "to do" → teos "a piece of work"
|-ton / -tön||adjectives indicating the lack of something||onni "happiness" → onneton "unhappy"
koti "home" → koditon "homeless"
|-kas / -käs||adjectives from nouns||itse "self" → itsekäs "selfish"
neuvo "advice" → neuvokas "resourceful"
|-va / -vä||adjectives from verbs||taitaa "to be able" → taitava "skillful"
johtaa "to lead" → johtava "leading"
|-llinen||adjectives from nouns||lapsi "child" → lapsellinen "childish"
kauppa "a shop, commerce" → kaupallinen "commercial"
|-la / -lä||locations (places related to the stem)||kana "a hen" → kanala "a henhouse"
pappi "a priest" → pappila "a parsonage"
|inhabitants (of places), among others||Englanti "England" → englantilainen "English person/thing"
Venäjä "Russia" → venäläinen "Russian person or thing".
|formed from -la / -lä plus -inen|
Verbal derivational suffixes are extremely diverse; several frequentatives and momentanes differentiating causative, volitional-unpredictable and anticausative are found, often combined with each other, often denoting indirection. For example, hypätä "to jump", hyppiä "to be jumping", hypeksiä "to be jumping wantonly", hypäyttää "to make someone jump once", hyppyyttää "to make someone jump repeatedly" (or "to boss someone around"), hyppyytyttää "to make someone to cause a third person to jump repeatedly", hyppyytellä "to, without aim, make someone jump repeatedly", hypähtää "to jump suddenly" (in anticausative meaning), hypellä "to jump around repeatedly", hypiskellä "to be jumping repeatedly and wantonly". Caritives are also used in such examples as hyppimättä "without jumping" and hyppelemättä "without jumping around". The diversity and compactness of both derivation and inflectional agglutination can be illustrated with istahtaisinkohankaan "I wonder if I should sit down for a while after all" (from istua, "to sit, to be seated"):
- istua "to sit down" (istun "I sit down")
- istahtaa "to sit down for a while"
- istahdan "I'll sit down for a while"
- istahtaisin "I would sit down for a while"
- istahtaisinko "should I sit down for a while?"
- istahtaisinkohan "I wonder if I should sit down for a while"
- istahtaisinkohankaan "I wonder if I should sit down for a while after all"
Over the course of many centuries, the Finnish language has borrowed many words from a wide variety of languages, most from neighbouring Indo-European languages. Owing to the different grammatical, phonological and phonotactic structure of the Finnish language, loanwords from Indo-European have been assimilated.
In general, the first loan words into Uralic languages seem to come from very early Indo-European languages. Later important sources have been, depending on the language, Indo-Iranian, Turkic, Baltic, Germanic, and Slavic languages. Finnic languages, including Finnish, have borrowed in particular from Baltic and Germanic languages, and to a lesser extent from Slavic and Indo-Iranian languages. Furthermore, a certain group of very basic and neutral words exists in Finnish and other Finnic languages that are absent from other Uralic languages, but without a recognizable etymology from any known language. These words are usually regarded[who?] as the last remnant of the Paleo-European language spoken in Fennoscandia before the arrival of the proto-Finnic language. Words included in this group are e.g. jänis (hare), musta (black), mäki (hill), saari (island), suo (swamp) and niemi (cape (geography)).
Often quoted loan examples are kuningas "king" and ruhtinas "sovereign prince, high ranking nobleman" from Germanic *kuningaz and *druhtinaz—they display a remarkable tendency towards phonological conservation within the language. Another example is äiti "mother", from Gothic aiþei, which is interesting because borrowing of close-kinship vocabulary is a rare phenomenon. The original Finnish emo occurs only in restricted contexts. There are other close-kinship words that are loaned from Baltic and Germanic languages (morsian "bride", armas "dear", huora "whore"). Examples of the ancient Iranian loans are vasara "hammer" from Avestan vadžra, vajra and orja "slave" from arya, airya "man" (the latter probably via similar circumstances as slave from Slav in many European languages).
More recently, Swedish has been a prolific source of borrowings, and also, the Swedish language acted as a proxy for European words, especially those relating to government. Present-day Finland was a part of Sweden from the 12th century and was ceded to Russia in 1809, becoming an autonomous Grand Duchy. Swedish was retained as the official language and language of the upper class even after this. When Finnish was accepted as an official language, it gained legal equal status with Swedish. During the period of autonomy, Russian did not gain much ground as a language of the people or the government. Nevertheless, quite a few words were subsequently acquired from Russian (especially in older Helsinki slang) but not to the same extent as with Swedish. In all these cases, borrowing has been partly a result of geographical proximity.
Especially words dealing with administrative or modern culture came to Finnish from Swedish, sometimes reflecting the oldest Swedish form of the word (lag – laki, "law"; län – lääni, "province"; bisp – piispa, "bishop"; jordpäron – peruna, "potato"), and many more survive as informal synonyms in spoken or dialectal Finnish (e.g. likka, from Swedish flicka, "girl", usually tyttö in Finnish).
Typical Russian loanwords are old or very old, thus hard to recognize as such, and concern everyday concepts, e.g. papu "bean", sini "(n.) blue" and pappi "priest". Notably, a few religious words such as Raamattu ("Bible") are borrowed from Russian, which indicates language contact preceding the Swedish era. This is mainly believed to be result of trade with Novgorod from the 9th century on and Russian Orthodox missions in the east in the 13th century.
Most recently, and with increasing impact, English has been the source of new loanwords in Finnish. Unlike previous geographical borrowing, the influence of English is largely cultural and reaches Finland by many routes, including international business, music, film and TV (foreign films and programmes, excluding ones intended for a very young audience, are shown subtitled), literature, and the Web – the latter is now probably the most important source of all non-face-to-face exposure to English.
The importance of English as the language of global commerce has led many non-English companies, including Finland's Nokia, to adopt English as their official operating language. Recently, it has been observed that English borrowings are also ousting previous borrowings, for example the switch from treffailla "to date" (from Swedish, träffa) to deittailla from English "to go for a date". Calques from English are also found, e.g. kovalevy (hard disk). Grammatical calques are also found, for example, the replacement of the impersonal (passiivi) with the English-style generic you, e. g. sä et voi "you cannot", instead of ei voi "one cannot". This construct, however, is limited to colloquial language, as it is against the standard grammar.
However, this does not mean that Finnish is threatened by English. Borrowing is normal language evolution, and neologisms are coined actively not only by the government, but also by the media. Moreover, Finnish and English have a considerably different grammar, phonology and phonotactics, discouraging direct borrowing. English loan words in Finnish slang include for example pleikkari "PlayStation", hodari "hot dog", and hedari "headache", "headshot" or "headbutt". Often these loanwords are distinctly identified as slang or jargon, rarely being used in a negative mood or in formal language. Since English and Finnish grammar, pronunciation and phonetics differ considerably, most loan words are inevitably sooner or later calqued – translated into native Finnish – retaining the semantic meaning.
Some modern terms have been synthesised rather than borrowed, for example:
- puhelin "telephone" (from the stem "puhel-" "talk"+ instrument suffix "-in" to make "an instrument for talking")
- tietokone "computer" (literally: "knowledge machine" or "data machine")
- levyke "diskette" (from levy "disc" + a diminutive -ke)
- sähköposti "email" (literally: "electricity mail")
- linja-auto "bus, coach" (literally: line-car)
- muovi "plastic" (from muovata "to form or model, e.g. from clay", from the stem muov+ suffix "-i" to make "a substance, material or element for modeling or forming". The suffix "-i" would correspond to the instrument suffix "-in", but instead of instrument in this case rather a substance, material or element that can be used.
Neologisms are actively generated by the Language Planning Office and the media. They are widely adopted. One would actually give an old-fashioned or rustic impression using forms such as kompuutteri (computer) or kalkulaattori (calculator) when the neologism is widely adopted.
Loans to other languages
Finnish is written with the Latin alphabet including the distinct characters ä and ö, and also several characters (b, c, f, q, w, x, z, å, š and ž) reserved for words of non-Finnish origin. The Finnish orthography follows the phoneme principle: each phoneme (meaningful sound) of the language corresponds to exactly one grapheme (independent letter), and each grapheme represents almost exactly one phoneme. This enables an easy spelling and facilitates reading and writing acquisition. The rule of thumb for Finnish orthography is write as you read, read as you write. However, morphemes retain their spelling despite sandhi.
Some orthographical notes:
- Long vowels and consonants are represented by double occurrences of the relevant graphemes. This causes no confusion, and permits these sounds to be written without having to nearly double the size of the alphabet to accommodate separate graphemes for long sounds.
- The grapheme h is sounded slightly harder when placed before a consonant (initially breathy voiced, then voiceless) than before a vowel.
- Sandhi is not transcribed; the spelling of morphemes is immutable, such as tulen+pa /tulempa/.
- Some consonants (v, j, d) and all consonant clusters do not have distinctive length, and consequently their allophonic variation is typically not specified in spelling; e.g. rajaan /rajaan/ (I limit) vs. raijaan /raijjaan/ (I haul).
- Pre-1900s texts and personal names use w for v. Both correspond to the same phoneme, the labiodental approximant /ʋ/, a v without the fricative ("hissing") quality of the English v.
- The letters ä [æ] and ö [ø], although written with diaereses, do not represent phonological umlauts (as in German, for example), and they are considered independent graphemes; the letter shapes have been copied from Swedish. An appropriate parallel from the Latin alphabet are the characters C and G (uppercase), which historically have a closer kinship than many other characters (G is a derivation of C) but are considered distinct letters, and changing one for the other will change meanings.
Although Finnish is almost completely written as it is spoken, there are a few differences:
- The n in the sequence nk is pronounced as a velar nasal /ŋ/, as in English. When not followed by k, /ŋː/ is written ng. The fact that two spellings correspond to this one sound (putting aside the difference in length) can be seen as an exception to the general one-to-one correspondence between sounds and letters.
- Sandhi phenomena at word or clitic boundaries involving gemination (e.g., tule tanne is pronounced [tu.let.tæn.ne], not [tu.le.tæn.ne]) or the place assimilation of nasals (sen pupu would usually be pronounced as [sem.pu.pu], and onpa as [om.pɑ])
- The /j/ after the letter i is very weak or there is no /j/ at all, but in writing it is used; for example: urheilija. Indeed, the j is not used in writing words with consonant gradation such as aion and läksiäiset.
- In speech there is no difference between the use of /i/ in words (like ajoittaa, but ehdottaa), but in writing there are quite simple rules: The i is written in forms derived from words that consist of two syllables and end in a or ä (sanoittaa, "to write song-lyrics", from sana, "word"), and in words that are old-stylish (innoittaa). The i is not written in forms derived from words that consist of two syllables and end in o or ö (erottaa "to discern, to differentiate" from ero difference), words which do not clearly derive from a single word (hajottaa can be derived either from the stem haja- seen in such adverbs as hajalle, or from the related verb hajota), and in words that are descriptive (häämöttää) or workaday by their style (rehottaa).
When the appropriate characters are not available, the graphemes ä and ö are usually converted to a and o, respectively. This is common in e-mail addresses and other electronic media where there may be no support for characters outside the basic ASCII character set. Writing them as ae and oe, following German usage, is rarer and usually considered incorrect, but formally used in passports and equivalent situations. Both conversion rules have minimal pairs which would no longer be distinguished from each other.
The sounds š and ž are not a part of the Finnish language itself and have been introduced by the Finnish national languages body for more phonologically accurate transcription of loanwords (such as Tšekki, "Czech Republic") and foreign names. For technical reasons or convenience, the graphemes sh and zh are often used in quickly or less carefully written texts instead of š and ž. This is a deviation from the phonetic principle, and as such is liable to cause confusion, but the damage is minimal as the transcribed words are foreign in any case. Finnish does not use the sounds z, š or ž, but for the sake of exactitude, they can be included in spelling. (The recommendation cites the Russian opera Hovanštšina as an example.) Many speakers pronounce all of them s, or distinguish only between s and š, because Finnish has no voiced sibilants.
The language may be identified by its distinctive lack of the letters b, c, f, q, w, x, z and å.
Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
- Kaikki ihmiset syntyvät vapaina ja tasavertaisina arvoltaan ja oikeuksiltaan. Heille on annettu järki ja omatunto, ja heidän on toimittava toisiaan kohtaan veljeyden hengessä.
- "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood."
- Hyväntahtoinen aurinko katseli heitä. Se ei missään tapauksessa ollut heille vihainen. Kenties tunsi jonkinlaista myötätuntoakin heitä kohtaan. Aika velikultia.
- "The sun smiled down on them. It wasn't angry - no, not by any means. Maybe it even felt some sort of sympathy for them. Rather dear, those boys."
(translation from Liesl Yamaguchi's 2015 "Unknown Soldiers")
Basic greetings and phrases
|(Hyvää) huomenta!||(Good) morning!|
|(Hyvää) päivää!||(Good) day!||used on greeting and also when taking farewell|
|(Hyvää) iltaa!||(Good) evening!||used on greeting and also when taking farewell|
|Terve||lit. "Health!"||Used on greeting, modified as Terve vaan! ("health continue!")|
|Hi! / Bye!||Used on greeting and also when taking farewell|
|Bye!||Used when taking farewell|
|Nähdään||See you later!||Lit. the passive form of nähdä "to see"|
|Näkemiin||Goodbye!||Lit. "Until seeing", illative of the third infinitive|
|Hyvästi||Goodbye / Farewell|
|Nice to meet you!||Hauska tutustua is literally "nice to get acquainted", and
hauska tavata is literally "nice to meet"
|How are you?
How's it going?
|Mitä (sinulle/teille) kuuluu is literally "what (to you) is heard?" or "what concerns you?"|
|Fine, thank you.
Well, thank you.
|Kiitos hyvää is an appropriate response to Mitä kuuluu?, whereas
Kiitos hyvin is an appropriate response to Miten menee?
|Tervetuloa!||Welcome!||Tervetuloa is used in a broader range of contexts in Finnish than in English;
for example to mean "looking forward to seeing you" after arranging a visit
|Important words and phrases|
|Thanks / Please||Kiitos / kiitoksia are literally "thanks", but are also used when requesting something,
like "please" in English
|Kiitos, samoin||Thank you, likewise||Lit. "thank you, the same way" (used as a response to well-wishing)|
|Ole hyvä||You're welcome||Lit. "be good", also used when giving someone something to mean "here you are"|
|Kyllä||Certainly / yes|
|Joo||Yeah||More informal than kyllä|
|Ei||No / it is not|
|Voitko auttaa?||Can you help?|
|(Paljon) onnea||Good luck /
|Olen pahoillani||I'm sorry|
|Otan osaa||My condolences|
|(Minä) ymmärrän||I understand|
|En ymmärrä||I don't understand|
|suomalainen||(noun) Finn; (adjective) Finnish|
Phonaesthetics and influences
- "like discovering a complete wine-cellar filled with bottles of an amazing wine of a kind and flavour never tasted before. It quite intoxicated me..."
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Recent research (Sammallahti 1977, Terho Itkonen 1983, Viitso 1985, 2000 etc., Koponen 1991, Salminen 1998 etc.) operates with three or more hypothetical Proto-Finnic proto-dialects and considers the evolution of present-day Finnic languages (partly) as a result of interference and amalgamation of (proto-)dialects.
- Wulff, Christine. "Zwei Finnische Sätze aus dem 15. Jahrhundert". Ural-Altaische Jahrbücher NF Bd. 2 (in German): 90–98.
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"θ on sama äänne kuin th englannin sanassa thing. ð sama äänne kuin th englannin sanassa this.
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