The beginning of Louisa M. Alcott's
The beginning of Louisa M. Alcott’s “Little Women” in Finnish

I am accustomed to being questioned about the Finnish language. Is it similar to Swedish? Is it as difficult to learn as they say? Say something in Finnish! So, here I explain why Finnish is so weird (even to its neighbours), so difficult, and reveal a possible solution to our excellent levels of literacy.

Origins and relations

Finnish is nothing like Swedish. While the Scandinavian languages Swedish, Norwegian and Danish are practically dialects of one language, Finnish is completely unrelated to them. Not only that, Finnish is unrelated to most of the European languages. Its only relations in Europe are Estonian, Saami, and Hungarian. This is because Finnish does not belong to the Indo-European language group, but to the Uralic language group. This means that Swedish is closer related to languages such as Bengali and Pashto than to Finnish.

It is believed that the Uralic languages originate east of the Ural mountains, and as you can see on this map speakers of related languages still live in parts of Siberia.

Linguistic map of the Uralic languages (en)

Grammar

Finnish grammar scares off everybody but the most ardent language enthusiasts. Wikipedia says that Finnish “is typologically between fusional and agglutinative languages. It modifies and inflects nouns, adjectives, pronouns, numerals and verbs, depending on their roles in the sentence.” That does not explain much to non-linguists, so I will explain with some examples.

talo = house
taloni = my house
talossa = in the house
talolla = on the house
talossani = in my house
talossanikin = also in my house
kaunis talo = beautiful house
kauniista talosta = from the beautiful house
kauniista talostammekin = from our beautiful house
viisi taloa = five houses
viiden kauniin talon ikkunat = the windows of five beautiful houses
viiden kauniin talomme ikkunoista = from the windows of our five beautiful houses

See what I mean?

Written vs Spoken language

To make matters worse the standard language, which is also the written language, is very different from the spoken language.

Minä olen (standard) / Mä oon (spoken) = I am

He menevät (standard) / Ne menee (spoken) = they go

Minun lautaseni (standard) / Mun lautanen = my plate

Pronounciation

Luckily pronouncing Finnish should be quite easy once you learn how to pronounce the alphabet. There is almost one-to-one correspondence between letters and sounds. So you don’t get strange situations like in English when one sound can be written in several ways such as in blue, you, shoe, through, do, zoo and brew. In Finnish you would simply pronounce each letter in turn. There is even a theory that it is our easy spelling (rather than the famously good education system) that makes us score so well on PISA tests.

Miscellaneous

  • Finnish has no words for ‘he’ and ‘she’ only the gender neutral hän. This creates confusion when a main character called Jessie slips on a sexy black dress halfway through a book and you realise that the story is not about a man but a woman.
  • Tolkien was inspired by Finnish when creating Elvish languages and Quenya uses a lot of elements from Finnish grammar.
  • Some letters common in other languages are not native to Finnish, which means people traditionally found it difficult to pronounce them, including ‘b’, (known as ‘soft p’), ‘d’ and ‘g’. This has led to Finnish names such as Aleksanteri (Alexander), Marketta (Margaret), Piritta (Birgitta).
  • The Finnish alphabet has 29 letters. Ä and ö are not a and o with accents, but letters in their own right. If you make säde into sade you turn ray (of light) into rain. 
  • According to the Guiness Book of Records the longest Finnish word is epäjärjestelmällistyttämättömyydelläänsäkäänköhän. This word is not a compound word. It basically works like my examples above, but taken to the extreme and it is barely understandable and probably impossible to use. Here is one explanation for its meaning. By combining words we can make even longer ones like the following: lentokonesuihkuturbiinimoottoriapumekaanikkoaliupseerioppilas (airplane jet turbine engine auxiliary mechanic non-commissioned officer student). This word has actually been used in the past by the military.

So, now you know the truth about Finnish. Devilishly difficult to learn, easy to pronounce and gender equal. 

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