Vocabulary and word structure¶
The Finnish vocabulary is very unique (unless you know Estonian or a few other languages). It is also in the same family as Hungarian, though a Hungarian once told me “English and Russian are about as close as Hungarian and Finnish”. So, you should be able to see the magnitude of the problem here.
However, there are some patterns when assimilating foreign words. The
following can help you to match some of these up. Modern loanwords
are usually constructed with an
i on the end. One example is
pankki = “bank”.
b converted to
p, the k doubled and an
i was added.
|c||k or s|
|g||(one place in Finnish in
As you can see, there are a lot of sounds from the English alphabet
that don’t exist in Finnish. This takes out a lot of the richness of
pronunciation, and means that you have to train your ear to pay
attention to other things. On the other hand, you get the new letters
ö (å is Swedish only and has no native Finnish words),
but these are different from
o so you must train
your ear and mind to think of them as a distinct entity. If you can
not, you can’t understand or be understood.
Coming from English, where letters can have many different sounds, this has taken a little bit of time to get used to. Just always keep this in mind and break words into syllables (next chapter), and you will be able to read anything. When learning words, always learn the component syllables, not the letters. This will also help in processing and remembering all of the double letters!
In Finnish, one letter has one sound. The exception is
produces a new sound (and I’m sure a few more that I don’t know about,
but that’s very rare). Pronunciation is reported to be somewhat as in
Spanish, but you will quickly learn it.
However, we must note that not all pronunciation is as is written in standard Finnish! Since dialects are used in all parts of Finland, what is said in practice does not match what is written. However, these dialects always(?) follow the language standards, and there is some way that they can be written that could match how it is pronounced.
Now, let’s discuss more about specific letters. The next chapter will discuss syllables, for now we will just discuss consonants and vowels.
Consonants are just constants, and usually occur only in groups of one (that is, if there are two consonants in a row, they are usually in different syllables and each stands alone). It can take some thought to pronounce them in the Finnish way.
If there are two consonants in a row, it must be said differently than a single one. This is because one goes to the previous syllable, and one to the following. This sounds like a longer consonant, but also changes the flow of the word. Don’t forget!
Certain consonants have specific ways to be pronounced. For example,
k are all non-aspirated: they don’t sound like a
letter, just a way of starting or ending the vowel sound strongly.
(?) (TODO: more here)
Finnish is known for having lots of vowels. Lots of them. And pronouncing them well is quite important. There are some important concepts related to vowels.
First is vowel harmony. There are front vowels (
vocalized from the front of the mouth), back vowels (
u vocalized from the back, deeper sounds), and neutral (
i). A single word never combines both front and back, but neutral
can be with any. (note: compound words, though not separated by a
space, count as different words for this rule). The front and back
vowels match up:
When learning Finnish, every morphological ending comes in pairs, for
-stä. When you see and are learning these,
don’t worry: you can always read backwards from the end of the word
find the first front or back vowel, and just use that. So, you only
really need to learn one thing, not two. When there is only neutral
vowels, use front.
This analogy is also important when doing vowel conjugation and
similar things. In general, however
ö acts the same.
ä is similar but has some
exceptions. So, when doing grammar, it can be useful to consider
front and back to be variations of the same letter, but not when
If there are two vowels in a row, then they become a long vowel. These must be pronounced longer than a single one, and are a distinctly different component of assembling words!
Finnish vowels combine into diphthongs. Diphthongs are vowels that combine into one continuous sound that glides between them. Finnish diphthongs are not unlimited, they are only the following:
(The ones marked with an * are reported as sometimes diphthongs, but
very rarely. Also,
yö are opening diphthongs
that occur in initial syllables only - they have special changes when
becoming plural, but these feel quite natural once you learn them.)
Diphthongs must respect vowel harmony: note that you can never have one that combines a front vowel with a back vowel.
Diphthongs are important when breaking words into syllables. If two vowels are together but not a diphthong, then it’s there is a syllable break between them (and this happens often). This becomes important for the next chapter.
The diphthongs ending with
_i are important. The letter
used as a plural marker. Note that every other vowel can be made
into a diphthong with
i. This forshadows the importance of this
letter in the future.
The diphthongs aren’t that hard: the most common ones are clear, and you will pick it up naturally quickly.
When Finnish is spoken, everything flows together so that it can be difficult to detect the word boundaries in spoken text. However, when speaking, the emphasis is is always on the first syllable. The biggest emphasis is generally on the first syllable of each sentence, with other major emphasis on the first syllable of each word. Thus, you can listen for each emphasis to try to segment the words and sentences. It takes time and practice (in addition to knowing the words).