Famous for its complexity, Finnish has 15 grammatical cases and inspired the novelist J.R.R. Tolkien. Teacher, examiner, and translator Penelope Roux explains.
Why learn Finnish
This year marks the centenary of Finnish independence. There are three official languages in Finland – Finnish, Swedish, and Sami – but Finnish is the mother tongue of almost 90 per cent of the population.
Learning Finnish as a foreign language is notoriously challenging, but it rewards you with the satisfaction of becoming a member of a relatively small group of people who can communicate with Finns in their own language. It also gives you access to a growing library of Nordic noir crime novels and, in my case, a step towards Finnish citizenship.
How I began to learn Finnish
My attempts to learn Finnish when I first arrived in Helsinki in 2001 were thwarted, not just by the relative ease of being able to use English everywhere, but also by boredom and frustration in the classroom. At that time, many Finnish foreign language (FFL) teachers were native speakers with no specific training in foreign language teaching. After all, there had never been a huge demand for Finnish language classes. Our daunting workbook was crammed with gap-filling exercises, and we didn’t talk much in the classroom other than to fill in those gaps.
Homework consisted of learning inflection tables and then putting the right ending on verbs and nouns. Oddly, I was able to complete many of these without understanding any of the vocabulary, as Finnish grammar is elegantly logical with usually regular verb endings.
Today, there are more opportunities to learn Finnish
I had convinced myself that I would learn the language through osmosis. This was unrealistic, considering I was using English at work, at home, and even while shopping or visiting the dentist. It didn’t happen.
Fortunately, nowadays, there are more opportunities for learning Finnish: language cafés, workshops, news programmes and newspapers in simplified Finnish (selkosuomi), and a plethora of online self-access materials. Today’s Finnish language classroom is a very different place to the one I experienced over a decade ago. Now, with a determined mind-set, and a focus on moderate improvement rather than fluency, I am having fun in the classroom and making progress.
There is also a larger community of FFL learners and some inspiring role models: successful immigrants who have learned the language. For example, Roman Schatz came to Finland from Germany in 1986. He hosts a weekly radio programme and regularly appears on TV. Keith ‘Keke’ Armstrong is a former British football player who has had a successful career as a football manager and TV sports commentator in Finland. Wilson Kirwa came to Finland from Kenya – he is currently an entrepreneur, writer of fiction for young children, and an elected local government official in Lahti, having retired from a career in athletics.
The biggest barrier to learning Finnish is not the extensive system of cases and inflections, or even the uniqueness of the vocabulary. Perhaps the most frustrating obstacle to progress is the Finns’ unyielding enthusiasm for using English. Of course their intentions are honourable, but it might be a good idea to pretend you don’t speak English if you really want to practise your Finnish outside the classroom.
Many Finnish words have no English equivalent
‘Sauna’ is one of few Finnish words that have entered the English language. But while relatively few Finnish words have entered the English language, there are many words with no direct translation into English. Löyly is the steam generated by throwing water on hot stones in the sauna. A mökki is a Finnish summer cabin, usually in a forest or by a lake. Sisu is a Finnish mind-set suggesting determination, tenacity and grit. Salmiakki is a salty liquorice sweet: you either love it or you hate it.
Juosta means to run and juoksennella means to run around aimlessly. Other verbs can convey a similar idea of lack of purpose, for example laula (to sing) becomes lauleskella, the action of singing to oneself (possibly in the shower).
As you might expect, Finland also has words that denote cold weather: paukkupakkanen is literally ‘bang frost’ from the splitting noise heard in log cabins in extremely cold temperatures. And tulipalopakkanen is literally ’blaze frost’, possibly referring to the demise of many log cabins which burn down in wintertime.
One more, which might have a tenuous link to cold weather, is kalsarikännit, which is the practice of excessive stay-at-home drinking of alcohol in one’s underwear (probably from a French/Swedish loanword: caleçon/kalsong).
No niin can be used to respond in any situation: ‘Really?’, ‘Cool!’, ‘How nice!’, ‘That’s so true’. This interjection proves that Finns are more than capable of intonating when they speak. I have heard it used with rising, falling, fall-rising and double-rising intonation, and some more. The Finnish stand-up comedian, Ismo Leikola, calls it the most important Finnish word.
Many Finns only learn standard Finnish when they start school
Modern standard Finnish (kirjakieli: ‘book’ language) is derived from 19th-century standard written Finnish, a prescriptive form of the language, not wholly tied to a specific dialect. Today, kirjakieli is the language used in education, literature and most printed or digital publications, including instruction manuals, advertisements and business communication.
However, many Finns only learn standard Finnish when they start school. Their mother tongue is usually a local spoken dialect (puhekieli: spoken language). There are many versions of puhekieli; for example, Helsinki has its own. But most of these dialects share certain characteristics, such as abbreviated nouns and shortened forms of common verbs and pronouns.
Here are examples of the same sentence in standard and spoken Finnish, which show the difference.
English: 'We’re in Helsinki, are you at home?'
Standard Finnish: Olemme Helsingissä, oletko sinä kotona?
Spoken Finnish: Me ollaan Hesassa, ooksä himassa?
Foreigners are only introduced to kirjakieli in the classroom, which causes much frustration for learners. Hours of classroom tuition in standard Finnish are of limited use in understanding the language spoken by Finns in everyday conversation. Sitting on a bus, eavesdropping on conversations, I sometimes feel I am occupying a parallel universe. Nowadays, courses in puhekieli are available, but, generally speaking, there is some reluctance to teach colloquial Finnish in the classroom.
Finnish grammar has 15 different cases
There is no grammatical gender in Finnish; nor are there any articles. However, the language has an elaborate system of 15 cases, whereby nouns, modifiers and adjectives are all inflected. There aren't many exceptions to these inflection rules, but the sheer volume of case endings can be daunting for many learners.
Let's break down one sentence as an example.
Minä pidän sinun uudesta talostasi? means 'I like your new house.'
Four out of the five words are inflected. Minä (I) is the subject of the sentence and stays in the nominative form. The verb pitää (to like) is inflected in the first person singular of the present tense. Sinun (your) is the genitive form of sinä (you), denoting possession. Uudesta is the elative case form of uusi (new) because this case is required after the verb pitää. Similarly, talostasi is made up of the elative case form of talo (house) with a possessive suffix.
A single Finnish word can express what would be a whole sentence in English
Finnish is a highly synthetic language. This means that a word can be made by juxtaposing inflected verbs, nouns, and adjectives, depending on each word's role in the sentence. Prepositions often appear as suffixes attached to nouns, and other particles can be added to express nuance. This means that ideas requiring an entire sentence to express in English can be conveyed in Finnish with a single word.
Take the word söisinköhän. This single word could be translated as the English sentence, ‘I’m wondering if I should eat something.’
How does this work? Suoda is the verb to eat. Here it is conjugated in the first person – söin – and the conditional particle –isi is added. The suffix –kö denotes a question, and –hän introduces the idea of doubt.
Each Finnish verb has 200 possible endings
There are six groups of verbs. Each verb can be conjugated according to person, number, tense and mood. There are also passive structures, five infinitive forms and other particles. This equates to well over 200 possible verb endings for each verb.
Here's an example: Pidättekö tanssimisesta? ('Do you like dancing?')
The verb, pitää (to like) is in the second-person plural form with a –kö question suffix. The verb tanssia (to dance) is nominalised (tanssiminen), and then inflected in the elative case, which is needed after pitää.
Consonants within the original word may change
This elaborate inflection system presents a problem for the learner. Before looking up a new word in the dictionary, you must work out what the basic form is. As well as back-tracking to check what the inflections and suffixes mean, this may also involve applying another set of rules: consonant gradation. The letters k, p, and t can change or even disappear when the word stem is inflected and has a suffix added to it.
You can see this in the example above: Pidättekö tanssimisesta? ('Do you like dancing?'). The verb pitää (to like) underwent consonant gradation in its stem, with the strong ‘t’ becoming a weak ‘d’.
Here's another example: Tarkenenkohan? – 'I wonder if I’ll be warm enough?'
The dictionary form of this verb is actually tarjeta (to stand the cold). But in this instance, the conjugated verb has undergone consonant gradation from 'j' to 'k', and two particles have been added: –ko, which denotes the question form, and –han, which suggests doubt.
The order of words in a sentence adds emphasis or subtle differences in meaning
Word order is very free in Finnish, but moving words around within a sentence subtly alters its meaning.
For example, the phrases Pöydällä on kirja and Kirja on pöydällä both translate as ‘There is a book on the table’.
However, there is a slight difference in meaning, due to word order. The former answers the question: ‘What is on the table?’. The latter counters an incorrect statement: ‘There is a magazine on the table.’
If you were describing one person seeing their friend, you might say either Kimi näki Valtterin (Kimi saw Valtteri) or Valtterin näki Kimi. Both have the same meaning, grammatically. But the second sentence emphasises that it was Kimi who saw Valtteri, not someone else.
If we wanted to say that Valtteri saw Kimi, it would be: Valtteri näki Kimin or Kimin näki Valtteri. The inflections dictate who saw whom, whereas the word order gives a more nuanced meaning.
Almost all permutations would generate a meaningful sentence with a slight shift in emphasis, but without requiring a change in intonation or stress. In English, we use emphatic stress (part of our tone of voice) to show the difference between 'Tim drank tea' (not Tom) and 'Tim drank tea' (not coffee). But the Finns use word order or suffixes to show these nuances in meaning.
Words are spelled the same way they sound
On the whole, Finnish is pronounced as it is written. Each letter represents a sound, and there are no silent letters and very few consonant clusters. Finns struggle to pronounce English words that contain consonant blends, like 'executive' /ɪgˈzɛkjʊtɪv/ and 'educational' /ɛdjuˈkeɪʃᵊnl/. Words are stressed on the first syllable, so Finns say HEL.sin.ki, rather than hel.SIN.ki. Vowel harmony, where only certain combinations of vowels are possible in a word, affects the pronunciation (and spelling) of suffixes such as in Söisinköhän and Tarkenenkohan, above.
One challenge for language learners is identifying syllable boundaries in the pronunciation of very long words. But for many foreigners, it is the pronunciation of double vowels and double consonants that causes most difficulty. To a learner, Tapaan sinut huomenna – 'I’ll meet you tomorrow', sounds very similar to Tapan sinut huomenna – 'I’ll kill you tomorrow'. You see the problem.
Finns have an amazing ability to utter extremely long sentences without pausing. This sometimes results in 'ingressive' breathiness, where the speaker appears to be breathing in while speaking – a skill I have yet to master.
How new and borrowed words become Finnish words
Finnish neologisms (new words entering the Finnish language) are usually synthesised compound nouns. For example, computer, or tietokone, literally means 'knowledge-machine', while email, or sähköposti, literally means 'electric-post'.
The spelling of loanwords is sometimes modified to suit Finnish pronunciation and grammar. The word ‘bank’ becomes pankki; ‘opera’ becomes ooppera and ‘giraffe’ becomes kirahvi. Imported verbs are given either an –ata or an –oida ending in the basic infinitive – for example, grillata (to barbecue); pedata (to make a bed); klikata (to click with a mouse); tankata (to fill up a car with petrol); videoida (to make a video).
Other loans words are more mysterious in their origins. Palaveri is a meeting, borrowed from the English word 'palaver', a prolonged fuss or discussion. Finnish has limitless potential for word play.
Find out more about Finland and other Nordic countries by visiting the Nordic Matters festival at the Southbank Centre until the end of 2017.