Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Finnish language: what I have learned so far

The Finnish have no sex and no future

General interesting things

The above quotation from who-knows-where (though this is the internet, so I probably should cite Confucius or Abraham Lincoln) is a joke about the Finnish language ("suomen kieli").  What it means is that 1) there is no grammatical sex, even in pronouns (aka English she and he are just one word in Finnish - hän), and 2) no future tense (you can only discuss your plans in the present tense).  The relationship between language and culture is interesting because Finland is also one of the most gender-equal countries (#2/138 countries on the recent World Economic Forum gender equity rankings), so I wonder if the gender equal society and language are related.  It is really interesting to my American brain to hear Finnish and not have any clue the genders of the people being discussed (sometimes even if I hear names - some names that resemble common American names of a specific gender belong to the opposite gender in Finland; e.g., Kari and Lauri look like American female names but are in fact male in Finland).  It is also interesting because one of the most common English mistakes Finns make is mixing up he/she, even if they are extremely fluent, which I think means that their brains just do not consider whether a person is male or female when talking about them.  People with other native languages also make this mistake, but they seem to correct it faster; sometimes Finns just totally don't realize they mixed the pronouns up and just continue talking.  Wikipedia actually has a great article on this topic, and how gender works in gender-neutral languages (hint: it is different everywhere!).  And for the really curious, Sweden is finally catching up to Finland and officially introduced a gender-neutral pronoun into their language.

Also, no possession

There is no word for "to have" in Finnish.  Instead, you say minulla on ___ = ____ is at me.  This includes hunger; minulla on nälkä = (literally) at me is hunger.

Comparisons to other languages
One of my Finnish instructors gave the analogy that Finnish grammar is like a pyramid - it is wide on the bottom (lots of rules to learn initially), but narrow on top (new words are easy once you learn the rules).  For comparison, he said English is like an inverted pyramid, where it is very easy to start but then gets extremely difficult to become fluent because there are so many crazy exceptions to all the crazy rules.  Pronunciation follows this as well - in Finnish you pronounce words as you see them, while in English you basically have to guess how to pronounce new words.

People love talking about the Foreign Service's language difficulty ranking, which estimates that it takes over 1100 hours (that's like 10 semesters of normal college classes) to get proficient at Finnish!  In addition to Finnish, I have studied a few of the "easy" languages on this list (French, Italian, and Swedish) but only one of the hardest (Japanese), so it has been interesting to think about their differences from Finnish, and compare difficulties.  Both Finnish and Japanese require a totally different sense of grammar then we learn in English, and Finnish might even have a more difficult style of grammar than Japanese.  However, Japanese is much, much harder because of the writing (they have two 70-character alphabets used in conjugation and spelling, AND a set of pictographic characters like Chinese) and the way that culture is entwined with the language (when talking to members of a different social rank like parents or teachers, there is a set of words so different it is almost another language).  To put it simply, I know a few (not many) foreigners in Finland who are pretty fluent, but I never even heard about foreigners while I was in Japan who were close to that.

It is interesting to see what languages share words with Finnish, because it isn't many.  In an earlier post I talked about some words, but I have since learned a lot more about Finnish.  There are very few cognates to English, and so I was very surprised when I saw that some of the days of the week are similar (maanantai, tiistai, torstai, sunnuntai) but then I realized they are the same in Swedish.  Then I realized that all the English cognates I could think of (except for obviously-modern things like taksi) were actually the same in Swedish, so I figure that words made their way between English and Finnish through Swedish, which makes sense based on Finnish history.  

Huomio! Things to be careful of in Finnish...

The difference between "a" and "ä" might not look like much but changing the pronunciation can totally change the meaning of a word (examples follow at the bottom).  This is the probably the hardest sound to distinguish for me as an American because both sounds are made by our letter "a".  Finnish also has "o" and "ö", and "u" and "y"; the difference between these three pairs is where your tongue is when you make the sound (here is a pronunciation guide).

Single vs. double letters

Again, this might look silly to English-speakers, but a lot of the meaning is carried in the length of each sound, just as in Chinese meaning is changed by the tone with which you say the sound.  We do this to some extent in English to communicate emotional meaning.  For instance we ask questions by raising the tone of our voice at the end of a sentence, while in other languages (like Finnish) a question word (or word ending: -ko in Finnish) does the trick.  Same with sound length; we use that to stress different parts of words or sentences.  Examples of how sound length makes a difference:
tapaan = I meet   VS   tapan = I kill
kuusi = spruce   VS   kusi = piss   (though maybe this explains why that Christmas tree smelled the way it did...)
Kokko, kokoo koko kokko kokoon = Kokko (name), gather together the whole bonfire.
Tuli tuli, tuli tuuli, tuuli tuuli, tuli sammui = Fire came, wind came, the wind blew, and the fire went out (which actually makes sense!).


Prepositions are important in English ("I eat you" vs "I eat with you").  However, Finnish does not have prepositions and instead uses word endings in the same way.  So instead of saying "I go to the store" you can say Menen kauppaan.  Sometimes there is only one correct ending based on the context and if you get the wrong one people will figure it out, but other times getting it wrong will change the meaning, sometimes in a huge way:

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ And now my favorite example (thanks to Reddit):

Näin norsun = I saw an elephant.
Näin norsua = I dated an elephant (not sure if this one is correct).
Nain norsun = I married an elephant.
Nain nursua = I had sex with an elephant (and who said the Finns didn't have sex...).
The difference is whether it is näin (past tense of nähdä) or nain (past tense of naida), and whether norsu is in accusitive (norsun) or partitive (norsua) case.  Careful what you say!

Agglutinative language

In Finnish, endings can be added together to build meanings.  This almost seems like Latin to me (not knowing how Latin actually works), where you can combine things like unus ("one") and versus ("turned into one") to get the word that became English university.  In Finnish, university is yliopisto which breaks into something like yli/opi/sto = upper/learn/place.

My favorite example of taking endings to the extreme (I found these online, so I am not positive of their truth) is: lento/kone/suihku/turbiini/apu/mekaanikko/ali/upseeri/oppilas = flying/machine/jet/turbine/assistant/mechanic/under/officer/student = Air Force non-commissioned officer student being trained as an assistant technician to repair jet turbines used in airplanes.  Another fun example of adding words together gives 7 vowels in a row; hääyöaie, which breaks down into hää/yö/aie = wedding night intention.

Of course, there are also homonyms (words that are written and pronounced the same but with different meanings) in Finnish just like in English.
For instance: Etsivät etsivät etsivät etsivät etsivätThe detectives who look for detectives are looking for themselves (reminiscent of the famous grammatically-correct sentence in English "Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.") [source: yet Reddit again]

Finnish has homonyms, just like English.
From Reddit; no idea where they got it.


  1. Interesting post! That elephant example is like whoa.

  2. Thanks! Yeah, I was really excited when I found out about that - careful what you are doing on vacation!

  3. Well, there is a kind of word like English "to have", in Finnish, namely "omata". Use of it is considered extremely poor use of the language, though. Expression "omata jotain" means literally something like "to be in possession of something". So "Hän omaa suuren ruokahalun." means "He/She possesses a mighty graving for food." As you rightly wrote, Finnish has no verb for possession, so this is extremely poor language, but as a curiosity it is there.

    Another difference to English is the passive voice + agent. So you would say something like "The party was hosted at the place.", in Finnish "Juhla järjestettiin siinä paikassa." Now, In English you can add "The party was hosted at the place by John." This is technically impossible to express in Finnish using the passive, you have to use active, ie "John järjesti juhlan siinä paikassa." ("John organized the party at that place.") However, there is a way to express John as an agent with the passive, but this is again considered really terrible practice, although often found in "official-like" journalist texts. You might say "Juhla järjestettiin siinä paikassa Johnin toimesta." This "toimesta" is elative of the word "toimi"(an action, a position, a job, a chore, etc.) and thus means something like "by the action or initiative of". It is hideously clunky expression, don't use it, but again here as a curiosity.

  4. Cool, thanks for the additional information! Interesting to know that there are some things which can be done similar to English, but that they are not standard practice.