Finnish: Hei Hei!

Wow. What a weekend.

Before I even get into my review of Finnish, I’d first like to thank everyone who was able to listen to my interview on The World. It’s a bit unreal that I have received so much notoriety about a project I originally wasn’t going to blog about. But nonetheless, I am very appreciative of the comments, questions and interest about my blog. You can download the full episode of the broadcast here or visit The World‘s site and listen.

A number of people have been asking me to consider languages not included in the project. Unfortunately, I think it would be best to stick with the 37 I chose originally. I picked those based on a gut feeling, along with the reasons mentioned in my very first post. I will, however, feature languages not selected in special upcoming posts (think “German: Why it would have never worked”).

Now, on to Finnish.

SUMMARY: Finnish didn’t really appear as an official language until the late 1800s, when a wave of nationalism hit the country. Before that, it was only used as a common or liturgical language, dominated by the mother tongue of ruling Sweden. Finnish stands out because it is only one of three languages in the Uralic family and it’s highly agglutinative (prefix/suffix galore).

This language, at least to me, sounds so much more like the language of Vikings than Norwegian and Swedish! There are a ton of deep “ouhs” and “aehs” and the retroflex is really strong in some words. Also, long vowels are very common.

Here’s another thing. Did you know Finnish has an interesting system of vowel harmony? Words can only only have three vowel types in a word: a, ö, y; a, o, u; and e, i. I’m not really a fan of this, though.

As for grammar, Finnish has a SVO system, but this is eclipsed by the endings of words, which makes it used rather loosely. For example, when conjugating verbs, you simply attach an -n for first person singular, -t for second person singular, -v/ø for third person singular and so on.

UPDATE: A reader, who just happens to be bilingual in Finnish and English gave me more details about verb conjugation. Declensions for forming verbs also depend on preceding consonants. If we use the verb Lukea (to read), it would change in the following manner:

luen = I read
let = you read
lukee = he/she reads
luemme = we read
luette = you (pl.) read
lukevat = they read

Finnish also uses a negative verb form in which the last letter of the verb is dropped an an auxiliary verb is added. If I were to say, “Minä puhun englantia” (I speak English) I would negate it by saying “Minä en puhu englantia” (I don’t speak English). The auxiliary differs according to the speaker (et for you, ei for he/she, etc.).

As for noun declension, there are a few words that undergo some complex changes. This site gives you a list of them in further detail.

Some interesting words:

minä – me
yhdeksänkymmentäyhdeksän (long!) – 99
kuka – who

So, Finnish isn’t as difficult as it seems. There’s still something about it that I can’t click with. The words seem to undulate a lot and it makes it difficult for me to differentiate between them. And almost none of these words seem familiar at all. I think the only cognate I saw was English (englantia). Maybe I’ll pass one this one.


Intelligibility: 2
Complexity: 2
Resonance: 3
Continuation: 2

Did you ever want to know how the opening theme to Ducktales sounds in Finnish! Well, even if you didn’t, check it out below!


11 thoughts on “Finnish: Hei Hei!

  1. Ahhah just accidentally came across this post and the video is hilarious 😀 I’m Finnish so I understand both the sound line and the subtitles, and that makes the video even a bit more “WTF” than it might seem for English-only-people.

    And indeed Finnish is often considered to be impossible to learn, and I can see how it seems to hard to learn… Also it can be hard for Finns to learn other languages because of the whole different structure of things.

  2. I’m glad you accidentally found it! And yes, I never took into account how hard it could be for a Finn to learn English, for example. English would be nearly impossible by all its weird rules!

  3. If it wasn’t for the mandatory teaching from 4th grade up, I don’t think many would bother 🙂 But thanks to the good elementary schools, most young Finns speak atleast some English. The problem for tourists is that most Finns are too shy to use the language…

  4. hei,

    so as a bilingual english/finnish speaker, and as a linguist, i wanted to clarify a few things in your assessment of finnish.

    on the vowel harmony, many linguists see only 2 vowel classes with an overlap on e and i. the motivation behind the system is front/back vowels, where e and i as middle vowels can go either way.

    on the svo, finnish word order is relatively free. ov is also common, with s omitted as understood by the verb conjugation (see cf. spanish)

    verb conjugation is not nearly so simple as just adding -n for first-person singular. there is also an issue of declensions based on preceding consonants. for instance:

    lukea = to read
    luen = i read
    let = you read
    lukee = he/she reads
    luemme = we read
    luette = you (pl.) read
    lukevat = they read

    finnish is only difficult if you can’t get past the agglutinative nature of it. other than that, the phonology is 100% consistent with the written language and the language is very logical with very few exceptions.

    – jere

    1. Hei Jeremy,

      Thank you so much for the comments about my Finnish post! I did get a sense that Finnish was logical, in terms of the vowel harmony and conjugation. It’s much more regular than English and a number of languages by far.

      Also, thank you for your clarification of verb conjugation and declensions. I will specify that in the post.

      Thanks for reading!


  5. Hi there! I’m one of (I’m sure many) that have come upon your website after having heard your interview on The World. As a fellow language lover, I think your website (and project) is fantastic and I wish you the best of luck in finding your new language. 🙂 I’ll keep checking on…

  6. I just discovered this blog through the The World in Words podcast – I find your project fascinating, both on its own account and because your linguistic attitudes and experiences seem so much like mine in a lot of cases…

    I thought you might be interested to know, as a side note, that in addition to its intrisic coolness, Finnish was also the inspiration for the Elvish language Quenya in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books.

  7. Oh, another thing: my husband is Danish, and he was taught English when he was about 4-5, or something… so he was bilingual already when he moved to Sweden at the age of 6… and learned a third language before he was 10. So now he’s trying to learn some Finnish… I say “we don’t have articles and prepositions in Finnish – or not that much” and he says “sure you do. You just add them to the word. “in-a-box” = “laatik(k)o-ssa”

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