Characteristics of Finnish Language

Finnish language is an exotic one, with many relatives

Finnish is one of the Finno-Ugric languages, the largest group of the Uralic languages. The closest relatives of Finnish are the other Baltic-Finnish languages: Karelian, Estonian, Votic, Vepsian and Livonian; more distant relatives include Hungarian, for example.

Finnish has a reputation for being a difficult language to learn. However, many of the aspects that are considered difficult are simply just different from how they are in the Indo-European languages. Learning Finnish is easier than you think, since the grammar is very logical and many parts which at first seem strange can be explained by something in the history of the language.

Easy to pronounce

The Finnish language has some features that make it easy to learn: Finnish words do not have gender. Both males and females are referred to with the same third person singular pronoun hän ('he/she'). Words do not have separate definite and indefinite forms, and Finnish does not use articles.

There is a clear relationship between the way a word is written and the way it is pronounced, as a certain sound corresponds to the same letter irrespective of context. All Finnish words have their main stress on the first syllable. Sentence intonation always falls off; it does not rise even in questions.

Nouns and verbs inflected

Finnish is a richly inflected language, containing many cases. Most of these cases are quite regular both as to form and function. Case endings are suffixed to the word stem and are used to express the very same things that prepositions express in the Indo-European languages - time, place, ways of doing things, owner or object.

The richness of inflectional forms in Finnish - as in some other languages - is further increased since verbs are also inflected in all personal forms. The personal suffix is added to the word stem, as are the tense and the mood of a verb.

Lots of vowels…

It is said that Finnish is a melodious language. The main reason for this is that Finnish words contain lots of vowels. Indeed, Finnish is the only European language in which normal text contains more vowels than consonants. Vowels can be either short or long; in addition, Finnish has lots of diphthongs (ai, ei, iu, ou etc.). Finnish has vowel harmony, which means that a non-compound word can only contain either front vowels (ä, ö, y) or back vowels (a, o, u). The vowels e and i are neutral and can mix with all other vowels.

… and few consonants

Finnish has relatively few consonants, but nearly all of them can be used in either short or long forms. The length of a sound changes the meaning of the word. Words do not normally begin or end with combinations of consonants. Since many loan words begin with such combinations, Finnish tends only to take the last of these consonants; for example, the Finnish form of the Germanic loan 'strand' is ranta. Exceptions to this rule are more recent loans such as presidentti ('president'). Only selected consonants can end a word, so loans originally ending in consonants usually have a vowel affixed to them (filmi - 'film').

Contacts with Indo-European languages

Naturally, no language can exist in complete isolation and not be influenced by other languages. For example, Finnish has many loan words from Baltic, Germanic and Slavonic languages originating in different periods, attesting to the long-standing contact between Finns and speakers of Indo-European languages in the neighbouring countries (e.g. from Baltic silta – ‘bridge’, hammas – ‘tooth’; from Germanic leipä – ‘bread’, saippua – ‘soap’; from Slavonic lusikka – ‘spoon’, pappi – ‘clergyman’).

Over the last few years, the language, in turn, has especially been influenced by English, a consequence of modern media culture. For a linguist, Finnish is interesting specifically because it is so conservative: many Germanic and other loans have survived in Finnish even though they have already disappeared from their language of origin (e.g. kuningas – ‘king’).