Finnish language

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Finnish is the language spoken by the majority of the population in Finland (92%) and by ethnic Finns outside Finland. It is also an official language in Finland.

Finnish is a member of the Finno-Ugric language family and is classified as an agglutinative language. It 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.

Finnish (suomi)
Spoken in: Finland, Estonia, Sweden (Torne Valley), Norway (Finnmark), Northwestern Russia (Karelia)
Region: Northern Europe
Total speakers: 6 million
Ranking: Not in top 100
Genetic classification: Uralic

   Baltic Finnic

Official status
Official language of: Finland, European Union and the Republic of Karelia
Regulated by: Language Planning Department of the Research Institute for the Languages of Finland [1] (
Language codes
ISO 639-1fi
ISO 639-2fin
See also: LanguageList of languages



It is believed that the Baltic Finnic languages evolved from a proto-Finnic language, from which Sami was separated around 1500-1000 BCE. 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 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 Agricola himself. 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.

Finnish had a larger array of different fricatives, but has lost most of them, leaving /s/, /h/ and medially /ts/. Fricative deletion has removed the voiced velar fricative /ɣ/, e.g. parghutin [parɣuttiin] becoming modern paruttiin. Assibilation together with vocalization has transformed the voiced palatal fricative /ʝ/, e.g. adessive ending [ʝn] becoming -han in maahan but -eseen in huoneeseen. Postalveolar /ʃ/ has become /h/, or /s/.

Agricola's work

The basis for the numerous conventions in the Finnish standard language is found in Agricola's work, particularly with respect to spelling. Agricola's language was based on Western Finnish, thus that phonology found its way into the standard Finnish spelling.

Agricola used dh or d to represent the voiced dental fricative (English th in this) and tz or z to represent the unvoiced dental fricative (the th in thin). Later, when these sounds disappeared or changed in the different dialects, no one knew how to pronounce them. (Today, the sound is only in a few particular accents in Western Finland.) However, the spelling remained unchanged, so the standard language pronunciation of d and z was loaned from German (z = and d = ), producing the "soft D" problem (see Finnish phonology). Later, z came to be written ts. In the standard language, remained [d], e.g. sydän. In the eastern part of Finland, became j, v, or disappeared. In the west, it became r, l or d. The sound became ht or tt (e.g. meþþämehtä, mettä) in the east and some Western dialects, but became ts in the standard language and many Western dialects (meþþämetsä).

Agricola made up some words during translation of the New Testament. Some of these words are still in use, e.g. armo "mercy", vanhurskas "righteous". Agricola used about 8500 words and 60% of them are still in use.

Either ch, c or h were used for the unvoiced velar fricative (the ach-laut, ). In modern Finnish, the difference between and has been lost in phonemic terms; while velar fricativization might appear in 'h', spelling does not reflect it. For example, Agricola's spelling techtin becomes modern tehtiin. Agricola used gh or g to represent the voiced velar fricative. This sound was later lost and also suppressed in spelling.


Finnish is a member of the Finno-Ugric branch of the Uralic language family. Finnish is a synthetic language of the agglutinative type. It modifies noun and verb forms depending on their role in the sentence.

Geographic distribution

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.

Official status

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. [2] ( 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.

Western dialects

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.

Eastern dialects

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

Main article: Spoken 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 menevätne menee "they go"
onko teillä — onks teil(lä) "do you have?"
me emme sano — me ei sanota or mei sanota "we don't say" (note: this is almost never written "mei" except in Internet chats or for effect in "fashionably colloquial" novels. Normally colloquial style is expressed like "me ei kyl sit" in writing, not "meikylsit" as some do e.g. in IRC for effect)
(minun) kirjanimun kirja "my book"
kuusikymmentäviisi — kuus(kyt)viis "sixty-five"
tulen — tuun "I'm coming"
punainen — punane(n) "red"
korjannee — kai korjaa "probably will fix"
mentyämme — (sit) kun me oltiin/kumme oltiim menty "after we had gone" (note: this is written "kun me oltiin menty", pronounced "kumme oltiimmenty"; rarely the other way around)


Main article: Finnish phonology

Finnish has a consonant inventory of a moderate size, and eight vowels. It distinguishes both consonants and vowels by length (short vs. long phonemes).

Characteristic features of Finnish (common to other Finno-Ugric languages) are vowel harmony and an agglutinative morphology; due to the extensive use of the latter, words can be quite long. The main stress is always on the first syllable.

Consonants are as follows, where consonants in parenthesis are found only in a few recent loans.

bilabial labiodental dental alveolar postalveolar palatal velar glottal
plosive , ( b ) , , ( g ) '
fricative ( f ) ( ) h
approximant j

The glottal stop is not a phoneme, but is found as a result of lenition of /k/ between a long vocalic sound and a short vowel in words such as ruo'onruoko. The short velar nasal is an allophone of /n/ before /k/, and the long velar nasal /ŋŋ/, written ng, occurs only medially.

Independent consonant clusters are not allowed in native words, except for a small set of two-consonant syllable coda, e.g. 'rs' in torstai. However, due to a number of loanwords using them, e.g. strutsi "ostrich", Finnish speakers can pronounce them.

As a Finno-Ugric language, it is somewhat special in two respects: loss of fricatives and palatalization.

Palatalization is characteristic to Finno-Ugric languages, but standard Finnish has lost it. The sound /j/ has become independent, in spelling as in pronunciation; it becomes /i/ in a word-final position. The Eastern dialects and the Karelian language retain 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/.


Main article: Finnish grammar


See the lists of Finnish words and words of Finnish origin at Wiktionary, the free dictionary and Wikipedia's sibling project.

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", kirjasto "a library", kirjailija "an author", kirjallisuus "literature", kirjoittaa "to write", kirjoittaja "a writer", 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 : agent (one who does) (e. g. lukea "to read" → lukija "reader")
  • -lainen/läinen: inhabitant of (either noun or adjective). Englanti "England" → englantilainen "English person or thing"; Helsinkihelsinkiläinen "person from Helsinki".
  • -sto/stö: collection of. For example: kirja "a book" → kirjasto "a library"; laiva "a ship" → laivasto "navy, fleet".
  • -in: instrument or tool. For example: kirjata "to book, to file" → kirjain "a letter" (of the alphabet); vatkata "to whisk" → vatkain "a whisk, mixer".
  • -uri/yri: an agent or instrument (kaivaa "to dig" → kaivuri "a digging machine"; laiva "a ship" → laivuri "shipper, shipmaster".
  • -os/ös: result of some action (tulla "to come" → tulos "result, outcome"; tehdä "to do" → teos "a piece of work").
  • -ton/tön: lack of something, "un-", "-less" (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: similar to -llinen (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").


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", from Gothic eiþai, which is 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. sä et voi "you cannot", 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, Finnish 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.

Finnish loans to other languages

Main article: List of English 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, the labiodental approximant , 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.
  • The grapheme h occurring before a consonant sounds slightly harder than when occurring before a vowel.

The letters ä [æ] and ö [ø], although drawn as a and o with two dots above, nevertheless are considered to be independent graphemes. An appropriate parallel from the English alphabet are the characters C and G (uppercase), which historically have a closer kinship than many other characters (G is a derivation of C) but are considered distinct letters.

How the Finnish letters ä and ö differ from the Germanic (German, English) letters with diacritics:

  • The Finnish sounds ä and ö, and their long counterparts ää and öö, are grammatically independent, often distinguishing unrelated words, e.g. talli "stables" vs. tälli "punch". German umlauts often correlate with distinctions of tense, mood, or plurality such as Rad/Räder for "wheel/wheels".
  • The letter ä is very common, both by its own merits and by phonotactical reasons. Vowel harmony requires it for several grammatical endings such as the partitive case -ta/-tä, and it is also found in its long form, sometimes multiple times in a single word while contrasting with other forms, e.g. pää-äänenkannattaja "chief organ", tällä päivämäärällä "on this date"
  • In German, umlauts are replaceable: ä may be written ae and ö is replaceable by oe. 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 instances. A spelling such as Jaeaetteenmaeki cannot be anything but unreadable. Also, ae and oe (and äe, äö, etc.) are vowel combinations of their own right, and minimal pairs exist, e.g. hän "s/he" and haen "I seek".
  • The Finnish letters ä and ö are alphabetized as independent characters, the alphabet terminating "X Y Z Å Ä Ö". In German, the umlauted vowels are alphabetized together with their mother-characters, which is convenient given their grammatical role in German.
  • Finnish does not use the diaeresis notation for adjacent monophthongs as in coördinate.

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. 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.

See also


English books

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.

Finnish books

  • 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.

External links

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