The early inhabitants of Finland were thought to come from the Ural mountains in Russia and they brought with them a language which belongs to the Finno-Ugarian group of languages, part of the Uralian family of languages. Other related languages in this family are Estonian, Hungarian, Lapp and several lesser Russian languages spoken by minority groups. These languages have been around for thousands of years. Finnish was established in the geographical region of Finland around 3,000 BC. While Hungarian and Finnish are thought to be related, they have developed separately over the last 6,000 years, and are now quite dissimilar.
Rugs and Worms
A foreigner in Finland, Mato: «When pronouncing Finnish, I have trouble differentiating between a single letter and a double, such as matto (rug) and mato (worm). The worst moment was at a party with some friends and somebody asked me what I enjoyed about Finland, to which I replied, in Finnish, «I love to watch people beat their worm!” The whole room fell about with laughter and mato has now become my nickname.»
I was amazed when I first heard Finnish spoken all around me. The image I conjured up was of Italian. The language sounded so melodic, so soft and so pretty. Others have said it sounds like Welsh or Polynesian. It seemed as though every word ended in «i» or a vowel, which gave the impression of people singing. In fact, within the grammatical structure of the language, there is a rule concerning vowel harmony, thus distortion does not appear. Some say its sounds like a symphony. The most common sound in Finnish is the vowel «a» and the least common is the «o».
Today Finnish has numerous word loans borrowed from its many neighbours which demonstrate millennia of contact and interaction between its peoples. An Indo-European influence has been gained through Baltic, Germanic and Slavic languages. The more Finno-Ugarian influence was borrowed through Estonian and the other Baltic-Finnic languages of Karelian, Lude, Vepsian, Vote and Livonian. However, modern day influence has come especially from Swedish, with Germanic and Scandinavian languages making a contribution. Although Finnish may have many word loans borrowed from other languages, its ability to absorb these into the language in a unique Finnish way makes them almost unrecognizable as «foreign» words. Coffee, for example, has become kahvi and bacon is pekoni. The language is still being consciously developed and due to a flexibility within the language that allows you to «glue» words together (Finnish is an agglutinative language), international words are kept to a minimum. Whilst television is televisio in Finnish, the computer is tietokone (knowledge machine) and telephone is puhelin (to do with speech).
Spelling tests are unknown for Finnish schoolchildren. As every letter in a word is pronounced, they know exactly how a word is spelt from how it is said.
The language is phonetic, where every letter in a word is pronounced. Any adopted words from a different language will be adapted to fit into the Finnish phonetic system. Vowel harmony can also affect some grammatical structures. So that pronunciation is clear, Finnish uses double letters as a distinctive feature. Thus, all eight Finnish vowels a, e, i, o, u, ä, ö, y and many consonants may appear in writing with two letters to denote a long sound and one letter for a short sound. An example of this is kukka, meaning flower, and kuka, meaning who.
Finnish has a fearsome reputation for being impossible to learn as an adult foreigner. However, I am informed that Finnish is very logical. It is not difficult, just different. Personally, I don’t agree with this statement! I struggled with German and its four cases, others find Latin difficult with its six cases, so Finnish with 15 cases has to be as near impossible as you can get! To demonstrate, Finnish has a rich system of word flexion which adds suffixes, prepositions, and post-positions to the root of the word. Thus, just learning and recognizing basic vocabulary becomes exceedingly difficult as so many additions are made to the original form. These additions are used to show grammatical relationships and can express time, place, ownership, object, manner, etc. Finnish is, therefore, thought of as a synthetic language because it can use suffixes to express grammatical relationships and derive new words.
One word in Finnish, talossanikin, is translated into English by «in my house, too».
The length of Finnish words can be unbelievably long and usually needs a good few English words to translate: kirjoitettuasi when translated means after you had written. Because each noun or verb has so many additions showing its grammatical relationship, word order in Finnish is far less important than in English: Peter hates John means something different from John hates Peter. However, in Finnish, Pekka vihaa Jussia (Pekka hates Jussi) can also be written Jussia Pekka vihaa because the direct object is apparent and it is quite clear that Jussi is the object of the hatred.
He or She?
Mark Reedman: I first moved to Finland back in 1998 and knew nothing about Finnish names. Finns don’t have the concept of «he or she» and often they mix these up when speaking English. I attended my first ever meeting and I was told «Jukka would meet me after the meeting. She will help me with orientation”. I waited for a girl called Jukka to come and join me when this guy walks in and starts talking to me for over an hour! It also took me a while to know which were “girls” and which were “boys” names.
There are many features in the language that still show its Uralian origin, for example, the absence of gender. The same Finnish pronoun han means both he and she. Often you will find that Finns get muddled, using those pronouns interchangeably when speaking English, so you have to listen carefully for a name to work out whether they are speaking about a man or a woman! Also, Finnish does not have the definite and indefinite articles, ‘the» and «a» in English. There is no equivalent of the verb ‘to have» and no direct counterpart of the passive verb forms of Indo-European languages. The passive form exists and is used commonly, but it is formed using endings on words. Additionally, in order to express negation, the Finns use a word which corresponds to the English word «not,» but this has to behave as a verb and changes according to the person. Questions can be posed by adding the suffix -ko after a verb.
From a Finnish reader, Hannu Sivonen: ‘the passive form in Finnish is made using word endings as any other grammatical forms, but it definitely has the same meaning as in any IndoEuropean language. The passive form is even used more than in other languages, because Finns don’t want to stand out from a group. So they prefer to say or write: ‘so and so was done… instead of «I did so and so… I find this funny sometimes.»
Finnish is said to be a very conservative language because it is slow to change and many borrowed words still have their original root. For example, the Finnish word kuningas meaning «king» still has the same word as its root. It was borrowed from the Germanic languages and in other languages has changed its form quite radically through the years; king in English, kung in Swedish, könig in German.
Another one of the fascinating contradictions you encounter in Finland concerns its language. As previously mentioned, Finland has two official languages: Swedish, which is spoken by about 6 per cent of the population and whose presence came about through Swedish supremacy over 700 years, and Finnish. Yet, Finnish is both old and new. As a spoken language, Finnish has existed for years and was thought of as the language of the common people. It was only in the Middle Ages that Finnish was written down when Mikael Agricola (1510–1557) created the first Finnish written alphabet.
Hundreds of years passed before Finnish was elevated to the status of a true, written, cultural and official language. This was in 1863. Until then, Finnish folklore was an oral tradition and early literature was written in Swedish, with more scholarly work written in Latin. In modern times, the Finns have found knowing foreign languages essential to their economic well-being. Thus, the vast majority of Finns use and understand English in their business transactions (the author’s experience claims 98 percent of her contacts) and many speak German and Russian.