Finnish is spoken by the majority (92%) in Finland and by ethnic Finns outside Finland. It is an official language in Finland. Finnish is a member of the Finno-Ugric language family and is an agglutinative language which modifies the forms of both noun and adjective depending on their roles in the sentence. It has a reputation for being difficult to understand and learn. This is mostly because there are few languages closely related to it, making the vocabulary unfamiliar.
It is believed that the Baltic Finnic languages evolved from a proto-Finnic language, from which Sami was separated around 1500–1000 BC. It has been suggested that this proto-Finnic had three dialects: northern, southern and eastern. The Baltic Finnic languages separated around the 1st century.
The first written form of Finnish language was created by Mikael Agricola, a Finnish bishop in the 16th century. He based his writing system on Swedish (which was the official language of Finland at the time), German, and Latin. Later the written form was revised by many people.
The Reformation marked the real beginning of writing in Finnish. In the 16th century major literary achievements were composed in Finnish by people like Paavali Juusten, Erik Sorolainen, and Jaakko Finno, as well as Mikael Agricola. In the 17th century books were written in Finland in Finnish, Danish, Norwegian, Estonian, Latvian, German, and Swedish. However, the most important books were still written in Latin. Finnish and Swedish (which in the late 17th century was decreed the sole language of government) were small languages of lesser importance.
Agricola used 'dh' or 'd' to represent the voiced dental fricative [š] (th in this) and 'tz' or 'z' to represent the unvoiced dental fricative [θ] (th in thin). Later when these sounds disappeared or changed in the dialects, no one knew how to pronounce them, so they adapted the pronunciation as in German (z = /ts/ and d = /d/), producing the "soft D" problem (cf. Finnish phonetics). Later the 'z' became written 'ts'. (In the eastern part of Finland, 'dh' became 'j', 'v', or disappeared; and it became 'r' or 'l', or remained as 'dh' for some time, while 'tz' became 'ht' or 'tt' in the Western regions.)
Agricola made up some words during translation of the New Testament. Some of these words are still in use ('armo' mercy, 'vanhurskas' righteous). One word which is still widely known, but not in use, is 'jalopeura' which means "lion" - the word 'leijona' is more common nowadays. 'Jalopeura' can be translated as 'noble deer'. Agricola used about 8500 words and 60% of them are still in use.
'Ch', 'c' or 'h' was used for unvoiced velar fricative (ach-laut). Nowadays these sounds are allophones and thus represented only with 'h'. Agricola used 'gh' or 'g' to represent the voiced velar fricative. Later this sound was lost and it wasn't written anymore.
Finnish is a member of the Finno-Ugric branch of the Uralic language family. Finnish is an agglutinative language and a synthetic language which modifies both noun and verb forms depending on their role in the sentence.
Finnish is spoken by about 6 million people, mainly in Finland; there are small Finnish-speaking minorities in Sweden, Norway, Russia and Estonia; in addition, a few hundred thousand emigrated Finns live in Sweden, and also in North America there remain communities of Finnish-speaking emigrants, notably in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
Finnish is one of two official languages of Finland (the other being Swedish spoken by a 5% minority) and thus of the European Union. It enjoys the status of an official minority language in Sweden.
The Finnish dialects are divided into two distinct groups, the Western dialects and the Eastern dialects.  The dialects are entirely mutually intelligible and characterized only by minor changes in vowels, diphthongs and rhythm, and as such, they are better classified as accents. The dialects share the same grammar, phonology, vocabulary and syntax.
The classification of closely related dialects spoken outside of Finland is a politically sensitive issue, that has been more or less controversial since Finland's independence in 1917. The speakers of Karelian language in Russia and of Meänkieli language in Sweden are typically considered oppressed minorities, and the classification of their dialects as separate languages is by many Finns perceived as instrumental to the oppression.
The South-West dialects (lounaismurteet) are spoken in Finland Proper and Satakunta. The Tavastian dialects (hämäläismurteet) are spoken in Tavastia. The Southern Ostrobothnian dialects (eteläpohjalaiset murteet) are spoken in Southern Ostrobothnia. The Middle and North Ostrobothnia dialects (keski- ja pohjoispohjalaiset murteet) which are spoken in Central and Northern Ostrobothnia. The Far-Northern dialects (peräpohjalaiset murteet) are spoken in Lapland.
One of the Far-Northern dialects, Meänkieli, which is spoken on the Swedish side of the border that was created in 1809, is taught in some Swedish schools as a distinct standardized language. 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 Ruija dialect (Ruijan murre) is spoken in Finnmark (Finnish Ruija), in Norway. It is remnant from Finnish emigrants in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The Eastern dialects consist of the widespread Savonian dialects (savolaismurteet) spoken in Savo and near-by areas. The South-Eastern dialects (kaakkoismurteet) are spoken in South Karelia, on the Karelian Isthmus and in Ingria.
Usually, a distinction is made between a more distantly related Karelian language that is spoken in those parts of Karelia that never have been ruled from the West. However, the terms Karelian and Karelian dialects are often used without distinctions, primarily denoting dialects spoken on the Karelian Isthmus and in Ingria, i.e. in the Saint Petersburg area, but in a way that diplomatically may leave open for interpretation the question of whether the speaker considers the Karelian language a dialect of Finnish or not. Hence, the many refugees from Finnish Karelia, that were evacuated during World War II and resettled all over Finland, speak Savonian dialects, although their dialects in everyday speech often is referred to as Karelian.
Formal and informal Finnish
The Finnish linguistic situation is to some extent comparable to that of much of the Arabic speaking world, where Classical Arabic is used in official and religious speech and in the literature, whereas colloquial forms of Arabic are used in everyday conversation and in personal letters.
There are two main varieties of Finnish used throughout the country. One is the "standard language" (yleiskieli), and the other is the "spoken language" puhekieli. The standard language is used in formal situations like church sermons, political speeches and newscasts. Its written form, the "book language" (kirjakieli), is used nearly in all of the written texts, not always excluding even the dialogue of common people in popular prose. The spoken language, on the other hand, is the main variety of Finnish to be used in popular TV and radio shows, at workplaces and it is sometimes preferred to speaking a dialect in personal communication. Also, the standard language is quite rare in personal letters and in conversations on the Internet, where strict "correctness" is not in force.
The spoken language has mostly developed naturally from earlier forms of Finnish, and spread from main cultural and political centers. The book language, however, has always been a consciously constructed medium for literature. It preserves grammatical patterns that have mostly vanished from the colloquial varieties and, as its main application is writing, it features complex syntactic patterns that are not easy to handle when used in speech. The spoken language develops significantly faster, and the grammatical simplifications includes also the most common pronouns and suffixes, which sums up to frequent but modest differences.
Finnish children usually acquire the knowledge of the standard language when educated in school, but many children who read much learn it as their written "first language".
- formal language — colloquial language
- he menevät — ne menee (they go)
- onko teillä — onks teillä (do you have?)
- emme sano — me ei sanota (we don't say)
- (minun) kirjani — mun kirja (my book)
- kuusikymmentäviisi — kuus(kyt)viis (sixty-five)
- tulen — tuun (I'm coming)
- punainen — punanen (red)
- korjannee — kai korjaa (probably will fix)
- mentyämme — (sit) kum me oltiin menty (after we had gone)
- See the lists of Finnish words and words of Finnish origin at Wiktionary, the free dictionary and Wikipedia's sibling project.
Since Finnish is agglutinative and inflected, 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), kirjasto (a library), kirjailija (an author), kirjallisuus (literature), kirjoittaa (to write), kirjoittaja (someone who writes), 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 used depends on the word being suffixed using the rules of vowel harmony.
- -ja/jä : someone who does something (eg. lukea = to read -> lukija = reader)
- -lainen/läinen : inhabitant of (either noun or adjective) Englanti = England -> englantilainen = English person or thing; Helsinki -> helsinkiläinen = person from Helsinki
- -sto/stö : forms a noun indicating a collection (kirja = a book -> kirjasto = a library; laiva = a ship -> laivasto = navy, fleet)
- -in : a tool or instrument (kirjata = to book, to file -> kirjain = a letter (of the alphabet); vatkata = to whisk -> vatkain = a whisk, mixer)
- -uri/yri : someone or something that does something (kaivaa = to dig -> kaivuri = a machine that digs; laiva = a ship -> laivuri = shipper, shipmaster)
- -os/ös : forming nouns describing the result of some action (tulla = to come -> tulos = result, outcome; tehdä to do -> teos = a piece of work)
- -ton/tön : describing lack of something (onni = happiness -> onneton = unhappy; koti = home -> koditon = homeless)
- -llinen : having (the quality of) something (lapsi = a child -> lapsellinen = childish; kauppa = a shop, commerce -> kaupallinen = commercial)
- -kas/käs : another suffix similar to the above one (itse = self -> itsekäs = selfish; neuvo = advice -> neuvokas = resourceful)
- -va/vä : doing or having something (taitaa = to be able (old-fashioned), might (modern modal auxiliary) -> taitava = skillful; johtaa = to lead -> johtava = leading)
- -la/lä : a place related to the main word (kana = a hen -> kanala = a henhouse; pappi = a priest -> pappila = a parsonage)
- Plenty more to add ...
Over the course of many centuries, the Finnish language has borrowed a great many words from a wide variety of languages. Indeed, some estimates put the core Finno-Ugric vocabulary surviving in Finnish at only around 300 word roots! (However, due to neologisms, the plain figure is misleading.)
The first loan words into Finno-Ugric languages seem to come from very early Indo-European languages, and later mainly from Indo-Iranian, Turkic, Baltic, Germanic, and Slavic languages.
The usual example quoted is kuningas "king" from Germanic *kuningaz, but another example is äiti "mother" (cf. Gothic eižai) - interesting because borrowing of close-kinship vocabulary is a rare phenomenon. The original Finnish word for mother is emo, which still exists, though its use is now confined to animal species, as is the variant emä. This latter is also used in compounds in a figurative sense, such as emälaiva "mothership" and emävale "huge lie" ("a mother of lies"). There are other close-kinship words that are loaned from Baltic and Germanic languages (morsian "bride", armas "dear").
More recently, Swedish has been a prolific source of borrowings. Present-day Finland belonged to the kingdom of Sweden from the 12th century and was ceded to Russia in 1809, becoming an autonomy. The upper class held Swedish as their primary language even after this, because Russia did not have a written law nor legal bureaucracies and left the Swedish-originated system mostly intact. When Finnish was accepted as an official language, it gained only an legal "equal status" with Swedish, which persists even today. It is still today the case that about 6% of Finnish nationals, the Finland-Swedes, 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, a range of 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.
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". For example, Raamattu ("Bible") is a loanword from Russian, also other religious words are loaned from Russian. This is mainly believed to be result of trade with Novogorod 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 (except for the very young, foreign films are shown subtitled); literature; and, of course, the Internet — 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 not only ousting existing Finnish words, but also 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. the replacement the impersonal (passiivi) with the English-style "you", e.g. "you can not" = sä et voi, instead of ei voi.
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.
Some modern terms have been synthesised rather than borrowed, for example:
- puhelin = "telephone" (literally: "thing for speaking")
- tietokone = "computer" (literally: "knowledge machine")
- levyke = "diskette" (from levy = "disc" + a diminutive -ke)
- sähköposti = email (literally: "electrical mail")
The generic term for a diskette is "levyke", but colloquially diskettes are referred to as "lerppu" (the now obsolete 5¼-inch floppy, derived from the word floppy) and "korppu" (the 3½-inch floppy, Finnish word for rusk or biscuit that obviously fits the description of the more rigid diskette and nicely resembles "lerppu"). The colloquial word "romppu" for the CD-ROM was invented in a contest by the magazine Suomen Kuvalehti when CD-ROM drives were becoming common in PCs in the early 1990s.
Words loaned to other languages
- Main article: words of Finnish origin
The Finnish orthography is built upon the phonetic principle: with just a few subtle exceptions, each phoneme (distinct sound) of the language is represented by exactly one grapheme (independent letter), and each grapheme represents exactly one phoneme. This makes the language easy for its speakers to spell, and facilitates learning to read and write.
Some orthographical notes:
- Pre-1900's texts and personal names use "W" for "V" - both correspond to the same phoneme /ʋ/, a V without the fricative ("hissing") quality of the English V.
- Long vowels and consonants are represented by double occurrences of the relevant graphemes. This causes no confusion, and permits these sounds to be written without having to nearly double the size of the alphabet to accommodate separate graphemes for long sounds.
- The N in "NK" is a velar nasal, like in English. As an exception to the phonetic principle, there is no G in "NG", which is a long velar nasal as in English "singalong". "N", you will notice, does not sound like "N" when followed by either "K" or "G" in English!
- "H" occurring before a consonant sounds slightly harder than when occurring before a vowel.
The characters "Ä" and "Ö", although drawn as an "A" or "O" with two dots above, nevertheless are considered to be independent graphemes, even though "Ä" and "Ö" represent sounds similar to the corresponding sounds in German. An appropriate parallel from the English alphabet are the characters "C" and "G". They have a closer kinship than many other characters, but are indeed considered as graphemes in their own merits, since they distinguish meanings.
How the Finnish letters Ä and Ö differ from the Germanic (German, English) letters with diacritics:
- In German, the umlauted vowels are alphabetized together with their mother-characters, which is convenient as they often correlate with distinctions of tense, mood, or plurality such as Rad—Räder for "wheel"—"wheels". No such grammatical correlations occur in Finnish, e.g. päätös and paatos are different words. In collation, the letters Ä and Ö are placed at the end (see top of article for alphabetical order).
- In German, umlauts are replaceable; "Ä" may be written as "AE" and "Ö" is replaceable by "OE". This is for instance used when the Ø diacritic is not available, e.g. on a computer with a British or American keyboard. The German poet Goethe's name is written this way as a matter of historical loyalty, although it may be written as the equivalent 'Göthe'. This is not possible in Finnish. Replacing 'lähtö' with 'laehtoe' produces a word that is nonsense to a Finnish reader, and makes reading so hard that the reader usually stops after a few of those. Also AE and OE (and ÄE, ÄÖ, etc.) are vowel combinations of their own right; jae "division" is distinct from jää "ice".
- The "Ä" occurs more frequently than its Germanic equivalent; for example it occurs five times in päivämäärä (calendar date).
- The two dots on "Ä" and "Ö" are used in English and several other languages to mark dieresis; i.e. two consecutive vowels forming separate syllables (adjacent monophtongs), as in coördinate. This is again not the case in Finnish.
Thus it is a misnomer to call "Ä" and "Ö" umlauts when used in Finnish. However, no better name is known in English.
For technical reasons or convenience, the letter combinations "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. In practice however, these letters are used nowhere else than in transcriptions ( e.g. šakki, Tšekki, Saakašvili), so the damage is minimal. 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 (z, ž).
- This is the first of 2 volumes, each of which has an associated exercises book. There is also a reader.
- Volume 1 is grammar based, but takes things in nice small steps, so it isn't intimidating. It generally teaches the written language, but does point out the main differences in the spoken language. By the end of volume 1 you would have quite a good grasp of the language for everyday purposes.
- Quite good: the pace is quite fast as it covers all of FFF1 and some of FFF2, and includes exercises.
- There are a couple of irritations: the chapters are long and rambling without any clear focus, and the vocabularies don't always contain all the words used in the dialogs.
- This book tries to cover most of what you need to know in 300 pages: from complete beginner to familiarity with both the written and spoken languages. It uses an original approach to the grammar which is challenging, but well worth tackling.
- The book is intended for beginners willing to invest some time and energy into learning Finnish, as well as for those who have a fair grasp of the language already, but would like to improve their understanding of more colloquial aspects of Finnish — aspects largely neglected in other grammars. The spoken language dialogues are especially useful, as they let you know what you can expect to hear, rather than what you will read in the newspaper. The grammatical explanations are built around the dialogues, not cloned from previous grammars.
- This book is much like Colloquial Finnish but deals mainly with the written form of the language (although pronunciation is dealt with). It is not laid out in a lesson-based format, so is suitable for those who are familiar with the language but need to consolidate their grammar, although 'no prior knowledge is assumed on the part of the reader'. If you are a beginner, use this as a reference to back up your course book.
Aletaan (Eila Hämäläinen & Salli-Marja Bessonoff: ISBN 951-45-4895-7) [tr. Let's begin]
Jatketaan (Eila Hämäläinen & Salli-Marja Bessonoff: ISBN 951-45-4872-8) [tr. Let's continue]
- Together, these books and their associated exercise books form a fairly complete course in Finnish, roughly equivalent to the Finnish for Foreigners books. However, the production quality is rather spare: typewriter font throughout and poor layout. This book is not of so much use without a teacher.
- It is an attempt to cover how Finnish is actually spoken. However, it is not designed to teach Finnish, and pulls no punches about the language, so the reader needs a good grasp to make use of it. There are no exercises. This is one of the several stools between which Colloquial Finnish fell!
Tarkista tästä! (Hannele Jönsson-Korhola & Leila White: ISBN 951-792-007-5) [tr. Look for it here!]
- Finnish relies heavily on changing the endings of words to indicate their role in a sentence. For example, there is one verb which means both "lend" or "borrow", but the direction is indicated by the ending of the person you are lending to or borrowing from. This book contains the rules for this and hundreds of similar situations.
Suomen kielioppia ulkomaalaisille (Leila White: ISBN 951-8905-65-7) [tr. Finnish Grammar for Foreigners]
- A comprehensive treatment of Finnish grammar, concentrating on the written language. Useful for reference only.
Stadin snadi slangi (sanakirja) (Juhani Mäkelä: ISBN 951-0-22477-4) [tr. A little dictionary of city slang]
A Finnish-Helsinki-Finnish dictionary. Useful to residents.
- A comprehensive coverage of the history of both written and spoken Finnish, including a detailed discussion of the regional variations found in the spoken language.