Thursday, 13 January 2011

The Great Letter Shortage

Much to my delight, I have found another good excuse to explain my struggle with learning Finnish words: there simply aren’t enough letters in Finnish! This makes all the words look very similar, and thus more difficult to remember.

At first, it might appear to be a very flimsy and desperate argument. But let’s consider the facts.

There are just 21 letters in the basic original Finnish alphabet, compared to 26 in English. The reason for the shortage of letters is because Finnish only has 13 “native” consonants (b, c, f, g, q, x, w and z only occur in foreign words or words of foreign origin). In contrast, in English there are 20 consonant letters (a whole 50% more than Finnish!) and 24 consonant sounds.

If one analyzes the 10,000 most frequently used Finnish words, one finds that just 10 alphabetic characters (a, t, i, e, n, s, l, k, u, and o) account for 80% of all the letters used. And there are only so many ways you can combine 10 letters with some originality!(1)

The penury of letters in Finnish is illustrated perfectly by the following oft-quoted dialogue:
- Kokko, kokoo koko kokko.
- Koko kokkoko?
- Koko kokko, Kokko!
- Ok! Kokoon koko kokon kokoon.
- Kokko, gather up the bonfire.
- The whole bonfire?
- The whole bonfire, Kokko!
- OK! I will gather up the whole bonfire.
This is surely no better proof of the “homo-morphology” of Finnish words!

Or could it be that I am trying a little too hard to justify my own ineptitude?

(1) I know, mathematically there are infinite combinations, but I will not let that spoil my argument.

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