This article gives an introduction to the Finnish language, its history, lexicon and status. Separate articles deal with Finnish phonetics and Finnish grammar, and with the distinctive features of spoken Finnish.
Please note that these articles are not written with the aim of teaching the Finnish language, but as a reference article only. There are books and web sites which are designed with language learning in mind - please see the Bibliography and External links sections.
Finnish, called Suomi by its speakers, is a member of the Finno-Ugric language family. 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 immigrated Finns live in Sweden, and also in North America remains communities of Finnish speaking immigrants.
The first written form of Finnish language 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.
Agricola used dh or d to represent the voiced dental fricative (th in this) and tz or z to represent the unvoiced dental fricative (th in thanks). Later when these sounds disappeared or changed in the dialects, no-one knew how to pronounce them so they adapted the pronunciation as in German (z = /ts/ and d = /d/). Later the z became written 'ts'.
(In the eastern part of Finland, dh became j,v, or disappeared; and it became r or l, or remained as dh for some time, while tz became ht or tt, in the Western parts.)
Ch, c or h was used for unvoiced velar fricative (ach-laut). Nowadays these sounds are allophones and thus represented only with h.
Agricola used gh or g to represent the voiced velar fricative. Later this sound was lost and it wasn't written anymore.
Since Finnish is agglutinative and inflected, 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 letter [a piece of correspondence]), kirjasto (a library), kirjailija (an author), kirjallisuus (literature), kirjoittaa (to write), kirjoittaja (someone who writes), 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. (Here capital 'A' denotes that the suffix can have either 'a' or 'ä' depending on the word being suffixed; 'O' denotes either 'o' or 'ö'; 'U' either 'u' or 'y'.)
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 at only around 300 words! At extreme time-depth there is evidence of contact with the Dravidian language group.
More recently, but still very old, there are borrowings from Indo-European languages and from Baltic languages.
The usual example quoted is "kuningas" = "king" from Germanic *kuningaz, but another example is "äiti" = "mother" - interesting because borrowing of close-kinship vocabulary is a rare phenomenon. More recently, Swedish has been a prolific source of borrowings due to Finland being part of the kingdom of Sweden from the 12th century A.D. until ceded to Russia in 1809. It is still today the case that about 6% of the ethnic Finns have Swedish mother tongue[?]. 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.
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 "treffeillä" = "to date" (from Swedish) to "deiteillä" from English.
Some modern terms have been synthesised rather than borrowed, for example:
The writing system is phonological, with very few exceptions. The Finnish alphabet consists of 29 letters, which includes the 26 latin letters used in English, as well as Å (A with a ring above), Ä (A with two dots above) and Ö (O with two dots above) which are treated as distinct letters and follow Z in the alphabetical order. Strictly speaking, "Å" is used only in Swedish names of places and persons. "W" is usually considered a variant of "V".
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.
These books are in Finnish. 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 not very nice - typewriter font throughout and poor layout. This book is not of so much use without a teacher.
This book is in Finnish. This is an excellent attempt to cover how Finnish is really spoken! It is not designed to teach Finnish, and pulls no punches about the language, so you need a good grasp to make use of it. There are no exercises. This is one of the several stools between which Colloquial Finnish fell!
This book is in Finnish. 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. Very useful!
This book is in Finnish. A comprehensive treatment of Finnish grammar, concentrating on the written language. Very good, but for reference only.
A Finnish-Helsinki-Finnish dictionary. Well worth a read for residents.
This book is in Finnish. A good coverage of the history of both written and spoken Finnish, including a detailed discussion of the regional variations found in the spoken language.