Finnish (or suomen kieli) is the language spoken by the majority of the population in Finland (92% as of 2006) and by ethnic Finns outside of Finland. It is one of the official languages of Finland and an official minority language in Sweden. In Sweden, both standard Finnish and Meänkieli, a Finnish dialect, are spoken. The Kven language, which is closely related to Finnish, is an official minority language in Norway.
Finnish is a member of the Finno-Ugric language family and is typologically between fusional and agglutinative languages. It modifies and inflects the forms of nouns, adjectives, pronouns, numerals and verbs, depending on their roles in the sentence.
Finnish demonstrates an affiliation with the Finno-Ugric languages in several respects including:
Several theories exist as to the geographic origin of Finnish and the other Uralic languages, but the most widely held view is that they originated as a Proto-Uralic language somewhere in the boreal forest belt around the Ural Mountains region and/or the bend of the middle Volga. The strong case for Proto-Uralic is supported by common vocabulary with regularities in sound correspondences, as well as by the fact that the Uralic languages have many similarities in structure and grammar.
It has been posited that speakers of a Finno-Ugric language have been living in the region of current Finland since at least 3000 BC. The Finns are more genetically similar to their Indo-European speaking neighbors than to the speakers of the geographically close Finno-Ugric language, Sami. Therefore it has been argued that a native Finnic population absorbed northward migrating Indo-Europeans who adopted the Finnic language, giving rise to the modern Finns.
Finnish is spoken by about six million people that reside mainly in Finland. There are also notable Finnish-speaking minorities in Sweden, Norway, Russia, Estonia, Canada, and the United States. The majority of the population of Finland, 91.51% as of 2006, speak Finnish as their first language. The remainder speak Swedish (5.5%), Sami (Northern, Inari, Skolt) and other languages. It has achieved considerable popularity as a second language in Estonia.
The first known written example of Finnish comes from this era and was found in a German travel journal dating back to c.1450: Mynna tachton gernast spuho somen gelen Emyna dayda (Modern Finnish: "Minä tahdon kernaasti puhua suomen kieltä, [mutta] en minä taida"; English: "I willingly want to speak Finnish, [but] I cannot"). According to the travel journal, a Finnish bishop, whose name is unknown, was behind the above quotation.
The first comprehensive writing system for Finnish was created by Mikael Agricola, a Finnish bishop, in the 16th century. He based his orthography on Swedish, German, and Latin. His ultimate plan was to translate the Bible, but first he had to define rules on which the Finnish standard language still relies, particularly with respect to spelling. He also invented single-handedly many words such as armo meaning both "mercy" and "grace" (as in "from grace alone, not out of good works...") and vanhurskas "righteous". More than fifty percent of these words are still in use.
Agricola's written language was based on western dialects of Finnish, and his intention was that each phoneme should correspond to one letter. Yet, Agricola was confronted with many problems in this endeavour, failing to achieve uniformity. This is why he might use different signs for the same phonemes depending on the situation. For example he used dh or d to represent the voiced dental fricative /[[ð]]/ (English th in this) and tz or z to represent the geminate unvoiced dental fricative /[[θ]]/ (the th in thin). Additionally, Agricola might use gh or g to represent the voiced velar fricative /[[ɣ]]/ and either ch, c or h for /h/. For example he wrote techtin against modern spelling tehtiin.
Later others revised Agricola's work, striving for a more phonetical system. In the process, Finnish ended up losing some of its phonemes. The sounds /ð/ and /θ/ disappeared from the standard language, surviving only in a small rural region in Western Finland. Elsewhere traces of these phonemes persist as their disappearance gave Finnish dialects their distinct qualities. For example, it has been deduced that the /θ/ sound became ht or tt (e.g. meþþä → mehtä, mettä) in the eastern dialects and in some western dialects. In the standard language, however, the effect of the lost phonemes is thus:
Modern Finnish punctuation, along with that of Swedish, uses the colon character (:) to separate the stem of the word and its grammatical ending in some cases (such as after abbreviations), where some other alphabetic writing systems would use an apostrophe. Suffixes are required for correct grammar, so this is often applied, e.g. EU:ssa "in the EU".
In the 19th century Johan Vilhelm Snellman and others began to stress the need to improve the status of Finnish. Ever since the days of Mikael Agricola written Finnish had been used almost exclusively in religious contexts, but now Snellman's Hegelian nationalistic ideas of Finnish as a full-fledged national language gained considerable support. Concerted efforts were made to improve the status of the language and to modernize it, and by the end of the century Finnish had become a language of administration, journalism, literature, and science in Finland, along with Swedish.
The most important contributions to improving the status of Finnish were made by Elias Lönnrot. His impact on the development of modern vocabulary in Finnish was particularly crucial. In addition to compiling the Kalevala, he acted as an arbitrator in disputes about the development of standard Finnish between the proponents of western and eastern dialects, ensuring that the western dialects Agricola had preferred preserved their preeminent role, while many originally dialectical words from Eastern Finland were introduced to the standard language enriching it considerably. The first novel written in Finnish (and by a Finnish-speaker) was Seven Brothers, published by Aleksis Kivi in 1870.
The dialects of Finnish are divided into two distinct groups, the Western dialects and the Eastern dialects. The dialects are entirely mutually intelligible and distinguished from each other by only minor changes in vowels, diphthongs and rhythm. For the most part, the dialects operate on the same phonology, grammar and vocabulary. There are only marginal examples of sounds or grammatical constructions specific to some dialect and not found in standard Finnish. Two examples are the voiced dental fricative found in Rauma dialect and the Eastern exessive case.
The classification of closely related dialects spoken outside of Finland is a politically sensitive issue that has been controversial since Finland's independence in 1917. This concerns specifically the Karelian language in Russia and Meänkieli in Sweden, the speakers of which are often considered oppressed minorities. Karelian is different enough from standard Finnish to have its own orthography. Meänkieli is a northern dialect entirely intelligible to speakers of any other Finnish dialect, which achieved its status as an official minority language in Sweden for historical and political reasons regardless of the fact that Finnish is an official minority language in Sweden, too.
One of the Far-Northern dialects, Meänkieli, which is spoken on the Swedish side of the border, is taught in some Swedish schools as a distinct standardized language. The speakers of Meänkieli became politically separated from the other Finns when Finland was annexed to Russia in 1809. The categorization of Meänkieli as a separate language is controversial among the Finns, who see no linguistic criteria, only political reasons, for treating Meänkieli differently than other dialects of Finnish.
The Kven language is spoken in Finnmark and Troms, in Norway. Its speakers are descendants of Finnish emigrants to the region in the 18th and 19th centuries. Kven is an official minority language in Norway.
Palatalization, a common feature of Uralic languages, had been lost in Baltic-Finnic languages, but it has been reacquired by most of these languages, including Eastern Finnish, but not Western Finnish. In Finnish orthography, this is denoted with a 'j', e.g. vesj, cf. standard vesi.
The language spoken in the parts of Karelia that have not historically been under Swedish or Finnish rule is usually called the Karelian language, and it is considered to be more distant from standard Finnish than the Eastern dialects. Whether this language of Russian Karelia is a dialect of Finnish or a separate language is a matter of interpretation. However, the term Karelian dialects is often used colloqually to the Finnish South-Eastern dialects.
Written language certainly still exerts a considerable influence upon the spoken word, due to the fact that illiteracy is nonexistent and many Finns are avid readers. In fact, it is still not entirely uncommon to meet people who "talk like a book" (puhuvat kirjakieltä), although this is seen as pedantic. More common is the intrusion of typically book-like constructions into a colloquial discourse, as a kind of quote from written Finnish. It should also be noted that it is quite common to hear book-like and polished speech on radio or TV, and the constant exposure to such language tends to lead to the adoption of such constructions even in everyday language.
A prominent example of the effect of the standard language is the development of the consonant gradation form /ts : ts/ as in metsä : metsän, as this pattern was originally (1940) found natively only in the dialects of southern Karelian isthmus and Ingria. In fact, it has arisen from the spelling 'ts' for the dental fricative [θː], which has disappeared. In spoken language, a fusion of Western /tt : tt/ (mettä : mettän) and Eastern /ht : t/ (mehtä : metän) has been created: /tt : t/ (mettä : metän). It is notable that neither of these are forms are identifiable as or originate from a specific dialect.
The orthography of the informal language follows that of the formal language. However, sometimes sandhi may be transcribed, especially the internal ones, e.g. menenpä → menempä. This never takes place in formal language.
Note that there are noticeable differences between dialects. These examples are mostly from the language as spoken in the capital area (Helsinki dialect or even ''Stadin slangi).
The main stress is always on the first syllable, and it is articulated by adding approximately 100 ms more length to the stressed vowel. Stress does not cause any measurable modifications in vowel quality (very much unlike English). However, stress is not strong and words appear evenly stressed. In some cases, stress is so weak that the highest points of volume, pitch and other indicators of "articulation intensity" are not on the first syllable, although native speakers recognize the first syllable as a stressed syllable.
There are eight vowels, whose lexical and grammatical role is highly important, and which are unusually strictly controlled, so that there is almost no allophony. Vowels shown in the table below, followed by the IPA symbol when not identical. These are always different phonemes in the initial syllable; for noninitial syllable, see morphophonology below.
|Open||ä [æ]||a [ɑ]|
The usual analysis is that Finnish has long and short vowels and consonants as distinct phonemes. However, long vowels may be analyzed as a vowel followed by a chroneme, or also, that sequences of identical vowels are pronounced as "diphthongs". The quality of long vowels mostly overlaps with the quality of short vowels, with the exception of u, which is centralized with respect to uu; long vowels do not morph into diphthongs. There are eighteen phonemic diphthongs; like vowels, diphthongs do not have significant allophony.
Finnish has a consonant inventory of small to moderate size, where voicing is mostly not distinctive, and fricatives are scarce. Finnish has relatively few non-coronal consonants. Consonants are as follows, where consonants in parenthesis are found only in a few recent loans.
|plosive||p, (b)||t, d 1||k, (g)||ʔ 2|
Almost all consonant have phonemic geminated forms. These are independent, but occur only medially when phonemic.
Independent consonant clusters are not allowed in native words, except for a small set of two-consonant syllable codas, e.g. 'rs' in karsta. However, due to a number of recently adopted loanwords using them, e.g. strutsi "ostrich", Finnish speakers can pronounce them, even if it is somewhat awkward.
As a Finno-Ugric language, it is somewhat special in two respects: loss of fricatives and loss of palatalization.
An interesting feature of Fennic phonology is the development of labial vowels in non-initial syllables. Proto-Uralic had only 'a' and 'i' and their vowel harmonic allophones in non-initial syllables; modern Finnish allows other vowels in non-initial syllables (they are uncommon, however, compared to 'a', 'ä' and 'i').
Palatalization is characteristic of Finno-Ugric languages, but Finnish has lost it. However, the Eastern dialects and the Karelian language have redeveloped a system of palatalization. For example, the Karelian word d'uuri [dʲu:ri], with a palatalized /dʲ/, is reflected by juuri in Finnish and Savo dialect vesj [vesʲ] is vesi in standard Finnish.
Finnish has only two fricatives, namely /s/ and /h/. All other fricatives are recognized as foreign, of which Finnish speakers can usually reliably distinguish /f/ and /ʃ/.
Finnish has several morphophonological processes between grammar ("logic") and phonology ("sounds") that require modification of the forms of words for daily speech. The most important processes are vowel harmony and consonant gradation.
Vowel harmony is a redundancy feature, which means that the feature [±back] is uniform within a word, and so it is necessary to interpret it only once for a given word. It is meaning-distinguishing in the initial syllable, and suffixes follow; so, if the listener hears [±back] in any part of the word, they can derive [±back] for the initial syllable. For example, tuote ("product") agglutinates to tuotteeseensa ("into his product"), where the final vowel becomes the back vowel 'a' (rather than the front vowel 'ä') because the initial syllable contains the back vowels 'uo'. This is especially notable because vowels 'a' and 'ä' are different, meaning-distinguishing phonemes, not interchangeable or allophonic. Finnish front vowels are not umlauts.
Consonant gradation is a lenition process for P, T and K, with the oblique stem "weakened" from the nominative stem, or vice versa. For example, tarkka "precise" has the oblique root tarka-, as in tarkan "of the precise". There is also another gradation pattern, which is older, and causes simple elision of T and K. However, it is very common since it is found in the partitive case marker: if V is a single vowel, V+ta → Va, e.g. *vanha+ta → vanhaa. Another instance is the imperative, which changes into a glottal stop in the singular but is shown as an overt 'ka' in plural, e.g. mene vs. menkää.
Verbs gain personal suffixes for each person; these suffixes are grammatically more important than pronouns, which are often not used at all in standard Finnish. The infinitive is not the uninflected form but has a suffix -ta or -da; the closest one to an uninflected form is the third person singular indicative. There are four persons, first ("I, we"), second ("you (singular), you (plural)"), third ("s/he, they") and indefinite (often called impersonal or "passive", similar to e.g. English "people say/do/…"). There are four tenses, namely present, past, perfect and pluperfect; the system mirrors the Germanic system. The future tense is not needed due to context and the telic contrast. For example, luen kirjan "I read a book (completely)" indicates a future, when luen kirjaa "I read a book (not yet complete)" indicates present.
Nouns may be suffixed with the markers for the aforementioned accusative case and partitive case, the genitive case, eight different locatives, and a few other cases. The case marker must be added not only to the main noun, but also to its modifiers; e.g. suure+ssa talo+ssa, literally "big-in house-in". Possession is marked with a possessive suffix; separate possessive pronouns are unknown. Pronouns gain suffixes just as nouns do.
Finnish extensively employs regular agglutination. It has a smaller core vocabulary than, for example, English, and uses derivative suffixes to a greater extent. As an example, take the word kirja "a book", from which one can form derivatives kirjain "a letter" (of the alphabet), kirje "a piece of correspondence, a letter", kirjasto "a library", kirjailija "an author", kirjallisuus "literature", kirjoittaa "to write", kirjoittaja "a writer", kirjuri "a scribe, a clerk", kirjallinen "something in written form", kirjata "to write down, register, record", kirjasin "a font", and others.
Here are some of the more common such suffixes. Which of each pair is used depends on the word being suffixed in accordance with the rules of vowel harmony.
Verbal suffixes are extremely diverse; several frequentatives and momentanes differentiating causative, volitional-unpredictable and anticausative are found, often combined with each other, often denoting indirection. For example, hypätä "to jump", hyppiä "to be jumping", hypeksiä "to be jumping wantonly", hypäyttää "to make someone jump once", hyppyyttää "to make someone jump repeatedly" (or "to boss someone around"), hyppyytyttää "to make someone to cause a third person to jump repeatedly", hyppyytellä "to, without aim, make someone jump repeatedly", hypähtää "to jump suddenly" (in anticausative meaning), hypellä "to jump around repeatedly", hypiskellä "to be jumping repeatedly and wantonly", hyppimättä "without jumping", hyppelemättä "without jumping around". Often the diversity and compactness of this agglutination is illustrated with juoksentelisinkohan "I wonder if I should run around aimlessly".
In general, the first loan words into Finno-Ugric languages seem to come from very early Indo-European languages, and later mainly from Iranian, Turkic, Baltic, Germanic, and Slavic languages. Furthermore, a certain group of very basic and neutral words exists in Finnish and other Finnic languages that are absent from other Finno-Ugric languages, but without a recognizable etymology from any known language. These words are usually regarded as the last remnant of the Nordic language spoken in Fennoscandia before the arrival of the proto-Finnic language. Words included in this group are e.g. jänis (hare), musta (black), mäki (hill), saari (island), suo (swamp) and niemi (cape). Also some place names, like Päijänne and Imatra, are probably before the proto-Finnic era.
Often quoted loan examples are kuningas "king" and ruhtinas "prince, high ranking nobleman" from Germanic *kuningaz and *druhtinaz, but another example is äiti "mother", from Gothic eiþai, which is interesting because borrowing of close-kinship vocabulary is a rare phenomenon. The original Finnish emo has become a cranberry morpheme. There are other close-kinship words that are loaned from Baltic and Germanic languages (morsian "bride", armas "dear"). Examples of the ancient Iranian loans are vasara "hammer" from Avestan vadžra, vajra and orja "slave" from arya, airya "man" (the latter probably via similar circumstances as slave from Slav in many European languages).
More recently, Swedish has been a prolific source of borrowings, and also, the Swedish language acted as a proxy for European words, especially those relating to government. Present-day Finland belonged to the kingdom of Sweden from the 12th century and was ceded to Russia in 1809, becoming an autonomous Grand Duchy. Swedish was retained as the official language and language of the upper class even after this. When Finnish was accepted as an official language, it gained only legal "equal status" with Swedish, which persists even today. It is still the case today, though only about 5.5% of Finnish nationals, the Swedish-speaking Finns, have Swedish as their mother tongue. During the period of autonomy, Russian did not gain much ground as a language of the people or the government. Nevertheless, quite a few words were subsequently acquired from Russian (especially in older Helsinki slang) but not to the same extent as with Swedish. In all these cases, borrowing has been partly a result of geographical proximity.
Especially words dealing with administrative or modern culture came to Finnish from Swedish, sometimes reflecting the oldest Swedish form of the word (lag - laki, 'law'; län - lääni, 'county'; bisp - piispa, 'bishop'; jordpäron - peruna, 'potato'), and many more survive as informal synonyms in spoken or dialectal Finnish (e.g. likka, from Swedish flicka, 'girl', usually tyttö in Finnish).
Typical Russian loanwords are old or very old, thus hard to recognize as such, and concern everyday concepts, e.g. papu "bean", sini "(n.) blue" and pappi "priest". Notably, a few religious words such as Raamattu ("Bible") are loaned from Russian, which indicates language contact preceding the Swedish era. This is mainly believed to be result of trade with Novgorod 9th century and so on and the Orthodox converting in 13th century.
Most recently, and with increasing impact, English has been the source of new loanwords in Finnish. Unlike previous "geographical" borrowing, the influence of English is largely "cultural" and reaches Finland by many routes including: international business; music; film and TV (except for the very young, foreign films and programmes are shown subtitled); literature; and, of course, the Web — this is now probably the most important source of all non-face-to-face exposure to English.
The importance of English as the language of global commerce has led many non-English companies, including Finland's Nokia, to adopt English as their official operating language. Recently, it has been observed that English borrowings are also ousting previous borrowings, for example the switch from treffailla "to date" (from Swedish, träffa) to deittailla from English "to go for a date". Calques from English are also found, e.g. kovalevy (hard disk). Grammatical calques are also found, for example, the replacement of the impersonal (passiivi) with the English-style generic you, e. g. sä et voi "you cannot", instead of ei voi "one cannot".
However, this does not mean that Finnish is threatened by English. Borrowing is normal language evolution, and neologisms are coined actively not only by the government, but also by the media. Moreover, Finnish and English have a considerably different grammar, phonology and phonotactics, discouraging direct borrowing. English loan words in Finnish slang include for example pleikkari "PlayStation", hodari "hot dog", and hedari "headache". Often these loanwords are distinctly identified as slang or jargon, rarely being used in a negative mood or in formal language. Since English and Finnish grammar, pronunciation and phonetics differ considerably, most loan words are inevitably sooner or later calqued — translated into native Finnish — retaining the semantic meaning.
Finnish is written with the Swedish variant of the Latin alphabet that includes the distinct characters Ä and Ö, and also several characters not used in Finnish (including for example C, Q, Å). The Finnish orthography built upon the phonetic principle: each phoneme (distinct sound) of the language is represented by exactly one grapheme (independent letter), and each grapheme represents almost exactly one phoneme. This makes the language easy for its speakers to spell, and facilitates learning to read and write. The rule of thumb for Finnish orthography is: write as you read, read as you write. However, morphemes retain their spelling despite sandhi.
Some orthographical notes:
Although Finnish is almost completely written like it is spoken, there are few differences:
If the graphemes ä and ö are not accessible due to technical limitations, they must be replaced with a and o, respectively. As they are not umlauts, it is wrong to write them as umlaut digraphs ae, oe, as in German. Sequences ae and oe are distinct phonemes from ä and ö, e.g. haen "I seek" vs. hän "he"/"she".
The sounds š and ž are not a part of Finnish language itself and have been introduced somewhat artificially by a government regulation. Although they occur in some rare loanwords, their principal use is in the transcription of foreign names. For technical reasons or convenience, the graphemes sh and zh are often used in quickly or less carefully written texts instead of š and ž. This is a deviation from the phonetic principle, and as such is liable to cause confusion, but the damage is minimal as the transcribed words are foreign in any case. Finnish does not use the sounds z, š or ž, but for the sake of exactitude, they can be included in spelling. (The recommendation cites the Russian play Hovanshtshina as an example.) Many speakers pronounce all of them s, or distinguish only between s and š, because Finnish has no voiced sibilants.
The language may be identified by its distinctive lack of the letters b, c, f, q, w, x, z and å.
Hyväntahtoinen aurinko katseli heitä. Se ei missään tapauksessa ollut heille vihainen. Kenties tunsi jonkinlaista myötätuntoakin heitä kohtaan. Aika velikultia.
(Translation: "The benevolent sun watched them. By no means was it angry at them. Perhaps it even felt a kind of compassion towards them. Jolly good brothers.")
¹ -te is added to make the sentence formal. Otherwise, without the added "-te", it is informal. It is also added when talking to more than one person. The transition from second-person singular to second-person plural (teitittely) is a politeness pattern, advised by many "good manners guides". Elderly people, especially, expect it from strangers, whereas the younger might feel it to be too formal to the point of coldness. However, a learner of the language should not be excessively concerned about it. Omitting it is never offensive, but one should keep in mind that on formal occasions this custom may make a good impression.