Word structure

This chapter is about internal structure of Finnish words, in particular the syllable structure. In Finnish, many of the different word changes are connected to this structure, and understanding the structure makes doing word derivations much easier.


Words are constructed of syllables. A syllable has a single vowel or diphthong in the center, and possibly a consonant sound before and after. In Finnish, this is (practically) always a single consonant, never several that combine into new sounds. In this work, we let k stand for consonants and v for vowels. Thus, in Finnish, all syllables can fit this pattern: v, kv, vk, or kvk.

In Finnish, the most common patterns are kv and kvk. The others exist, but less frequently. (As a particular extreme case, it’s possible to have a multi-syllable word with no consonants at all!)

In Finnish, there are almost never three consonants in a row. It does happen sometimes in special places, but these are fixed circumstances and not something that you see in new formations.

Breaking words into syllables

In Finnish, a syllable (practically) always begins on a consonant that proceeds a vowel. Thus, to find syllables, look for all vowels. See which of these have consonants right before them. Place syllable separators before those consonants. Thus, we get this: kvk·kv·kv. However, there are some pattern which are not allowed for syllables.

  • A syllable can only have one vowel (a, ä, etc) in it, or a long vowel consisting of two of same vowel (aa, ää, etc), or a diphthong (au, öi, etc). If you have two vowels that don’t form a diphthong (ia, oe, etc. - see previous section), then you need a syllable break between those vowels.
  • A syllable can’t have a single consonant. Ending consonants get joined to the syllable before (but this is included in the rule above actually)…

Some examples of words segmented into syllables:

  • suo·mi
  • pu·hut·te·ko
  • e·lä·mä
  • työ (one syllable)
  • kes·kus·tel·la
  • ter·ve·tu·lo·a

As you can see, many Finnish words are are kv with occasional kvk thrown in.

Open and closed syllables

There is a very important difference between kv and kvk

  • kv is an open syllable - open, meaning that the end is not closed by a consonant.
  • kvk is a closed syllable.

Words flow more naturally when it is all open syllables, and a lot of the word changes we will learn about later are best understood by this.

Words sound best when there is a constant flow of kv·kv·kv·..., and too many closed syllables (kvk·kv·kvk·kv) make speaking flow worse.

To think about

If you add a -kv suffix on to the end of a word, it will never affect the last syllable of the previous word (it will stay open or closed, whatever it was before). But if you add -vk to the end, it might. If you add a -kkv to the end of a word, the last syllable of the word has to end in a vowel (and it will become closed.)

Most of the primary word endings in Finnish are -k or -kkv (closing previous syllables), and some other important ones are -kv (no effect).

If you add a -kv suffix on to the end of a word, it will never affect the last syllable of the previous word (it will stay open or closed, whatever it was before). But if you add vk or kkv to the end of a word, it will:

  • kv·kvk + -kv = kv·kvk·kv (no change)
  • kv·kvk + -vk = kv·kv·kvk (opens second syllable)
  • kv·kv + -k·kv = kv·kvk·vk (closes second syllable)
  • kv·kvk + -k·kv = kv·kvkk·kv which is NOT allowed (two consonants) - this is why we have word changes.

Don’t worry about this for now, this lesson is beyond what you need to know right now - but expect it to come back in a few chapters.