Finnish language

From Wikipedia

HomePage | Recent changes | View source | Discuss this page | Page history | Log in |

Printable version | Disclaimers | Privacy policy

Finnish is a member of the Finno Ugric language family which is spoken by about 5.5 million people, mainly in Finland; there are small Finnish-speaking minorities in the Sweden, Norway and Russia. Finnish is an agglutinating language that like Hungarian always has stress on the first syllables. Finnish is also an inflected language which modifies both noun and verb forms depending on their role in the sentence. There are quite a few Germanic loanwords in Finnish, for example kuningas from Germanic *kuningaz (cf. English king).


The Finnish alphabet consists of 29 letters, which includes the 26 latin letters used in English, as well as Å (A with a ring above), Ä (A with two dots above) and Ö (O with two dots above) which are treated as distinct letters and follow Z in the alphabetical order. Strictly speaking, Å is only used in Swedish person and place names. The writing system is phonological, with very few exceptions.


Originally, Finnish had no initial consonant clusters, this however is changing due to influence from other European language.
Older borrowings from (e.g.) Swedish have had initial consonant clusters eroded. For example "koulu" <- school, "tuoli" <- stool.
More recent borrowings have retained their clusters, for example "presidentti" <- president. However, it is common to hear these clusters eroded in speech ("residentti") particularly, though not exclusively, by Finns who have little or no Swedish/English.


Like the Turkish language, Finnish has vowel harmony, i.e. only certain designated vowels can appear together in a morpheme. and <e> are neutral vowels, but front vowels <y ö ä> never mix with back vowels . e.g. tyttö is a possible Finnish morpheme (actually it means 'girl') because it has only front vowels, whereas *tytto is impossible because it has both front and back vowels.
Note that in the sections below, wherever 'a' is mentioned, 'ä' should also be understood, depending on vowel harmony.

Vowel phonemes

/a/ /e/ /i/ /o/ /u/

/y/ as in French <but>, Old English and Finnish spelling: <y> /9/ as in French <deux>, Finnish spelling: <ö> /}/ as in English <bat>, Finnish spelling: <ä>


Consonant phonemes

/k/ /p/ /t/ /d/

Finnish has no voiced plosives - with the exception of /d/ that developed from /D/ (as in English <the>). Without /d/, Finnish has (in native words) no distinctive voice at all.

/h/ /l/ /m/ /n/ /N/ /r/ /s/ /v/

[S] (as English <sh>) and [f] only appear in non-native words.

Consonant gradation

The consonant preceding the inflection of a word (either noun or verb) is subject to consonant gradation. Broadly, a consonant will adopt a 'strong' form if the following syllable is 'open' - containing a double vowel or not ending in a consonant - and a 'weak' form otherwise.
The following is a partial list of strong -> weak correspondences:
't' -> 'd'
'k' ->
'p' -> 'v'
Note that in any given grammatical situation, the consonant can grade either way depending on the word involved. Here are some examples:
'mäki' (hill) -> 'mäen' (genitive form)
'ranta' (shore) -> 'rannan' (genitive form)
'ranne' (wrist) -> 'ranteen' (genitive form)
'tavata' (to meet) -> 'tapaan' (I meet)
'tietää' (to know) -> 'tiedän' (I know)
There are rare exceptions to the general rule, some of which are noted in the noun cases section.


All phonemes except /v, d, N/ have distinctive length.

Minimal pairs:

/tuli/ 'fire' - /tu:li/ 'wind'

- /tulli/ 'customs'

/muta/ 'mud' - /mu:ta/ 'other (partitive sg.)'

- /mutta/ 'but'

Verb forms


Finnish verbs have present, imperfect, perfect and pluperfect tenses.

Present: corresponds to English present and future tenses. For the latter, a time qualifier may need to be used to avoid ambiguity.
Imperfect: corresponds to English past continuous and past simple, indicating a past action which is complete but might have been a point event, a temporally extended event, or a repeated event.
Perfect: corresponds to the English present perfect ("I have eaten") in most of its usages, but can carry more sense than in English of a past action with present effects.
Pluperfect: corresponds to the English past perfect ("I had visited") in its usage.


Finnish has two possible verb voices: active and passive. The active voice corresponds with that of English, but the passive voice has some important differences.
In fact, the Finnish passive would be better described as an "impersonal" form since there is no way of connecting the action performed with a particular agent and hence there is only one form of the passive. This should become clear through an example:
"talo maalataan" -> "the house is being painted"
The time when the house is being painted could be added: "talo maalataan marraskuussa" -> "the house will be painted in November"
The colour and method could be added: "talo maalataan punaiseksi harjalla" -> the house is being painted red with a brush"
But, nothing more can be said about the person doing the painting ! There is no mechanism for saying "the house is being painted by Jim"
Hence the form "maalataan" is the only one which is needed. Notice also that the subject of the verb (i.e. the object of the action) is in the nominative case. Verbs which govern the partitive case continue to do so in the passive, and where the subject is a personal pronoun, that goes into its special accusative form: "minut unohdettiin" -> "I was forgotten"
Because of its vagueness about who is performing the action, the passive can also translate the English "one does {something}", "{something} is generally done": "sanotaan että..." -> "they say that..."
In modern spoken Finnish, the passive form of the verb is used after "me" to mean "we do {something}" ("me tullaan" -> "we are coming") and on its own at the beginning of a sentence to mean "let's ..." ("mennään!" -> "let's go!"). In the first of these cases, the "me" cannot be ommitted without risk to comprehension, unlike with the 'standard' form "tulemme".
Formation of the passive will be dealt with under the verb types below.



The indicative is the form of the verb used for making statements or asking simple questions. In the verb morphology sections, the mood referred to will be the indicative unless otherwise stated.


The conditional mood expresses the idea that the action or state expressed by the verb may or may not actually happen. As in English, the Finnish conditional is used in conditional sentences (e.g. "I would tell you if I knew") and in polite requests (e.g. "I would like some coffee").
In the former case, and unlike in English, the conditional must be used in both halves of the Finnish sentence:
"ymmärtäisin jos puhuisit hitaammin" -> *"I would understand if you would speak more slowly"
The characteristic morphology of the Finnish conditional is 'isi' inserted between the verb stem and the personal ending. This can result in a 'closed' syllable becoming 'open' and so trigger consonant gradation:
'tiedän' -> 'I know', 'tietäisin' -> 'I would know'
cf. 'haluan' -> 'I want', 'haluaisin' -> 'I would like'
Conditional forms exists for both active and passive voices, and for present, perfect and pluperfect tenses.


The imperative mood is used to express commands.


The potential mood is used to express that the action or state expressed by the verb is likely but not certain, and is rare in modern Finnish, especially in speech. The potential has no counterpart in English.

The characteristic morphology of the Finnish conditional is 'ne' inserted between the verb stem and the personal ending.
Potential forms exists for both active and passive voices, and for present, perfect and pluperfect tenses.



Verb Conjugation

Finnish verbs are usually divided into six groups depending on the stem type. All six types have the same set of endings, but the stems undergo (slightly) different changes when inflected.
There are very few irregular verbs in Finnish. In fact, only 'olla' -> 'to be' has irregular endings (and then only in the present tense for the 3rd-person forms). A handful of verbs, including 'nähdä' -> 'to see' and 'tehdä' -> 'to do/make', have mildly irregular stems.
As a final oddity, Finnish does not have a verb corresponding to 'to have' - posession is indicated in other ways. For animate posessors, the adessive case is used with 'olla', for example 'koiralla on hanta' -> 'the dog has a tail' - literally 'on the dog is a tail'.

Type I verbs

These are verbs whose infinitive forms end in vowel + 'a' (or 'ä' for front-vowel containing stems) , for example 'puhua' -> 'to speak', 'tietää' -> 'to know'. This group contains a very large number of verbs. Here is how 'tietää' conjugates in the present indicative:
minä tiedän -> I know
sinä tiedät -> you (singular) know
hän/se tietää -> (s)he/it knows
me tiedämme -> we know
te tiedätte -> you (plural/formal) know
he tietävät -> they know
The personal endings are thus -n, -t, -(doubled vowel), -mme, -tte, -vat. The stem consonant is strong in the third-person forms and weak otherwise. Note that for third person plural, this is an exception to the general rule for strong consonants.
Note also that since the verbs are inflected for person, personal pronouns are not required for sense and are usually omitted in written Finnish except where used for emphasis. In spoken Finnish, however, the pronouns are generally used.

Imperfect indicative

In the simple case (which applies to most type I verbs), the imperfect indicative is formed by inserting the charateristic 'i' between the stem and the personal endings (which are the same as in the present tense):
'puhun' -> 'I speak', 'puhuin' -> 'I spoke'
'puhut' -> 'you speak', 'puhuit' -> 'you spoke' etc.
However, the insertion of the 'i' often has an effect on the stem. Of type I verbs, one notable exception is 'tietää':
'tiedän' -> 'I know', 'tiesin' -> 'I knew'
'ymmärtää' -> 'to understand' also follows this pattern. Changes of stem for other verb types will be discussed in the relevant sections below.

Type II verbs

These are verbs whose infinitive forms end in two consonants + 'a', for example 'menna' -> 'to go'. This is another large group of verbs.

Present indicative

The stem is formed by removing the 'a' and its preceding consonant. Then add 'e' followed by the personal endings: menen, menet, menee, menemme, menette, menevät.

Imperfect indicative

The 'i' of the imperfect is added directly to the stem formed as for the present tense, then the personal endings are added:
'pesta' -> 'to clean', 'pesen' -> 'I clean', 'pesin' -> 'I cleaned' etc.

'Olla' -> 'to be'

Strictly, 'olla' belongs to this group. 'To be' is irregular in most languages, and Finnish is no exception, but the irregularities are confined to the 3rd-person forms of the present tense - everything else is regular:

'olen' -> 'I am'
'olet' -> 'you are'
'on' -> 'he/she/it is' (irregular)
'olemme' -> 'we are'
'olette' -> 'you are'
'ovat' -> 'they are' (irregular)

Type III verbs

Verbs whose infinitives end in vowel + 'da', for example 'juoda' -> 'to drink', 'syödä' -> 'to eat'. This is a fairly large group of verbs, partly because one way in which foreign borrowings are incorporated into the Finnish verb paradigms is to add 'oida', for example, 'organisoida' -> 'to organise'.
The stem is formed by removing 'da' with no vowel doubling in the third person singular: juon, juot, juo, juomme, juotte, juovat.

Imperfect indicative

For these verbs whose stems end in two vowels, the first of the vowels is lost when the 'i' is added in the imperfect:
'juon -> 'I drink', 'join' -> 'I drank' etc.

Type IV verbs

This, and the following two groups, have infinitives ending in vowel + 'ta'. Most commonly, type IV verbs end with 'ata', 'ota', 'uta', but the other two vowels are possible. Examples are 'tavata' -> 'to meet', 'haluta' -> 'to want', 'tarjota' -> 'to offer'.
To form the stem, drop the 'ta' and add 'a' and change the consonant into its strong form: haluan, haluat, haluaa, haluamme, haluatte, haluavat; tapaan, tapaat, tapaa etc.; tarjoan, tarjoat, tarjoaa etc.

Imperfect indicative

Type V verbs

All the verbs in this groups have infinitives ending in 'ita'. There are not that many of them, the most 'important' being 'tarvita' -> 'to need'
The stem is formed by dropping the final 'a' and adding 'se': tarvitsen, tarvitset, tarvitsee, tarvitsemme, tarvitsette, tarvitsevat.

Imperfect indicative

Type VI verbs

Almost all the verbs in this group have infinitives ending in 'eta'. There are not many verbs which fall into this category of their 'own right', and these don't tend to be be commonly used. However, it is a reasonably common route for turning adjectives into verbs (for example 'kylmä' -> 'cold', 'kylmetä' -> 'to get cold'
The stem for this group is formed by removing the 'ta' then adding 'ne' with the additional change that the final consonant of the stem is in its strong form:
'rohjeta' -> 'to dare'

'rohkenen' -> 'I dare'
'rohkenet' -> 'you dare'
'rohkenee' -> 'he/she/it dares' etc.

'paeta' -> 'to escape', 'pakenen' -> 'I escape
'kylmetä' -> 'to get cold', 'kylmenen' -> 'I get cold'

Imperfect indicative

Noun forms

The Finnish language does not distinguish gender in nouns or even in personal pronouns: "hän" -> "he" or "she" depending on the referent. This leads Finnish speakers to muddle "he" and "she" when speaking English, which is very confusing for English speakers !


Finnish has fourteen (arguably fifteen or even sixteen) noun cases.

The basic form of the noun
Characteristic ending: none
Example "talo" -> "a/the house", "kirja" -> "book", "mäki" -> "hill"
characteristic ending: -a or -ta
The basic meaning of this case is "partialness". It's used in the following circumstances:
After numbers: "kolme taloa" -> "three houses"
For incomplete actions and ongoing processes: "luen kirjaa" -> "I'm reading a book"
After certain verbs, particularly those indicating emotions: "rakastan tätä taloa" -> "I love this house"
For tentative enquiries: "saanko lainata kirjaa?" -> "can I borrow the book?"
In places where English would use "some" or "any": "onko teillä kirjoja?" -> "do you have any books ?"
For negative statements: "talossa ei ole kirjaa" -> "there not a book in the house"
Characteristic ending: -n added to stem possibly modified by consonant gradation: mäki -> mäen, talo -> talon
Basically indicating possession, but also the case of the direct object of a completed action. It is used preceding postpositions.
"kirjan kuvat" -> "the book's pictures"
"talon edessä" -> "in front of the house"
Characteristic ending -ssa added to genitive stem
The first of the six so-called "local" cases which as their basic meaning correspond to locational prepositions in English. The inessive carries the basic meaning "in": "talossa" -> "in the house"
Characteristic ending -sta added to genitive stem
The second of the local cases with the basic meaning "out of": "tuli talosta" -> "(he) came out of the house"
The third of the local cases with the basic meaning "into": "meni taloon" -> "(he) went into the house"
Characteristic ending -lla added to genitive stem
The fourth of the local cases with the basic meaning "on": Example "mäellä" -> "on the hill"
Characteristic ending -lle added to genitive stem
The fifth of the local cases with the basic meaning "onto". Example: "mäelle" -> "onto the hill"
Characteristic ending -lta added to genitive stem
The sixth of the local cases with the basic meaning "from off of" - a poor English equivalent, but necessary to distinguish it from "from out of" which would be elative.
Example: "mäeltä" -> "from (off) the hill"
Characteristic ending -na added to genitive stem but with strong consonant gradation
This case carries the meaning of a temporary state of being, often equivalent to the English "as a ..."
Example: "läpsi" -> "child", "läpsenä" -> "as a child", "when (I) was a child"
Characteristic ending -ksi added to genitive stem
This is the counterpart of the essive, with the basic meaning of a change of state. It is also used for expressing "in (a language)". For example "mäki englanniksi on 'hill'"
Characteristic ending -n
This has the basic meaning of "by means of". It is a comparatively rarely used case, though it is found in some commonly used expressions.
For example "omin silmin" -> "with my own eyes"
It is also used with verbal infinitives to mean "by", for example "lentaen" -> "by flying", "by air"
Characteristic ending -tta
This has the basic meaning of "without". This is a rarely used case, especially in the spoken language, but it is found in some commonly used expressions.
For example "... lukuun ottamatta" -> "without taking into account..."
Characteristic ending -ne (plus a posessive suffix for the noun but not any adjectives). This ending is added to the plural stem, even if the noun is singular.
This is a rarely used case, especially in the spoken language. The meaning is "in company with" or "together with"
Example: "talo kirjoineen" -> "the house with its books"
This is the case of the direct object and is sometimes used as a label when the genitive form is used in this role. The accusative role only has a separate form for personal pronouns
minä -> minut
sinä -> sinut
hän -> hänet
me -> meidät
te -> teidät
he -> heidät
This is only found in a few "fosilised" forms in modern Finnish (though it is alive and well in Estonian). Its meaning is "by way of" and the most used examples are "postitse" -> "by post", "puhelimitse" -> "by phone", and "meritse" -> "by sea".