The Finnish language has a reputation for being, shall we say, challenging for foreigners to learn (some would claim impossible). Yet those who defy this reputation and decide to study Finnish soon discover its beautiful and harmonic qualities – and the logic in its sometimes complicated grammar.
Many people assume that Finnish is closely related to either Swedish or Russian, as Sweden and Russia are both important neighbouring countries. However, that is not the case. Swedish and Russian are both Indo-European languages, whereas Finnish belongs to the Finno-Ugric branch of the Uralic family of languages.
The Finno-Ugric language family also includes Estonian, Sámi and Hungarian – not to mention a number of languages spoken in the Russian Federation, like Karelian and Mari.
There are approximately five million people who speak Finnish. Most Finnish speakers live in Finland, though some live in Sweden, Estonia, Norway, Russia and North America.
Finnish is one of the two official languages in Finland (the other being Swedish) and one of the official languages of the European Union. It also has minority language status in Sweden.
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1. Finnish is gender neutral
Finnish does not have grammatical gender, like some European languages, so there’s no need to remember whether table is masculine or feminine, for example.
In addition to this, there’s no need to create a separate gender-neutral pronoun in Finnish – since it already exists. What’s more, it’s the only option: in Finnish the third person singular pronoun (usually he or she in English) is hän and can be used to refer to a person of any gender. None of the other pronouns are gender-specific either – at least in this respect, Finnish learners have it easy!
2. There is no future tense in Finnish
The future tense does not exist in Finnish; you just use the present tense. This is a lot more practical than it might sound: if there’s any chance of confusion, you simply add words like varmaan (“probably”) or kohta (“soon”), huomenna (“tomorrow”) or kun lehmät lentävät (“when cows fly” – Finnish goes for cows over pigs in this case) to specify that the action is (or is not) happening in the future. Or you can use a verb like aikoa (“to intend”) if you want to be crystal clear.
3. East versus West
Finnish has several mutually intelligible dialects that are broadly divided into two groups: Western and Eastern. The dialects differ in vocabulary and intonation, but there are some differences in the grammar and morphology, too.
One thing that a Finnish learner will notice quickly is the fact that different dialects have different pronouns: “I” can be mä (Helsinki), mää (Tampere), mnää (Rauma), mie (Kuopio) or miä (Kotka) – and in standard Finnish, it’s minä.
4. Finnish is pronounced like it’s written
Finnish has very regular pronunciation; usually, there is almost 100% correspondence between letters and sounds. However, some sounds are difficult for Finnish learners to pronounce. When learning the Finnish language, these are a few things you need to know about letters and sounds:
- Finnish has eight vowels: a, o, u, e, i, ä, ö and y.
- Vowels are pronounced as written, as are most consonants.
- Words are always stressed on the first syllable. However, the stress does not make the syllable long.
- Vowels and consonants can be short (written with one letter) or long (written with two letters). The length of a consonant or a vowel may be change the meaning of the word. For example, lakki (“cap”) has a long k and laki (“law”) has a short one.
- Like other Finno-Ugric languages, Finnish has vowel harmony (you cannot have back and front vowels in the same word).
5. Finnish has 18 diphthongs
Finnish has a great many diphthongs or gliding vowels (two adjacent vowels in the same syllable). Some of these are fairly common in other languages, like ai in aika (“time”) or oi in poika (“boy”), others may initially feel like a punishment for deciding to learn such a peculiar language, like äy [æɥ] in täysi (“full”) or yö [yø̯] in syödä (“to eat”).
One example of a Finnish diphthong is in the name of the language itself: suomi (“Finnish”). Another one is in the one word of Finnish you already definitely know: sauna. You just need to pronounce it with a Finnish accent: /’sɑunɑ/.