Tuesday, 1 February 2011


No home should be without a “kolmivaihevaihtovirtakilowattituntimittari”. Obviously.

More to the point though, what an impressive word! At 42 letters, that word makes “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” look positively puny!

Finnish is full of long words – just check out the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper on any given day. One reason is that, in common with many other languages, Finnish uses compound words, i.e. words are simply stuck together to form a new word. Compounds words do also exist in English, e.g. fireman, dishwasher or supermarket, but they tend to be comparatively short. In contrast, Finnish words can be combined almost endlessly to create giant formations. So for example, a technical warrant officer trainee specialised in aircraft engines is a:

[Allegedly the longest word in the Finnish language]

Large words can look a little daunting, however in general compound words are fairly easy to handle. There are just 3 little challenges:
  1. To concatenate or not to concatenate: In Finnish, a big-something is not concatenated (e.g. big tube = iso putki), but a giant-something is (e.g. giant tube = jättiputki) – go figure why. Even the Finns seem confused with concatenation: the word for great fun (“sikakiva”) is often written “sika kiva”, meaning “pig nice”.
  2. How to break up words: Sometimes breaking up a compound word into its constituent parts is not that easy. For example, the word “aamupalaverihuone” means “room for morning meetings” (huone + aamu + palveri). But it could equally be broken down into “breakfast blood room” (aamupala + veri + huone)! Or the word “karuselli” (merry-go-around), which is not a compound word, could erroneously be broken down to mean “a barren [prison] cell” (karu + selli).
  3. Making sense of the word combination: Even when you’ve figured out the component of a compound word, that still doesn’t always help. Take for example, “Joulupukki”. Literally, it means “Christmas billy-goat” (joulu + pukki), but actually that is the unfortunate name given to Santa Claus in Finland. Or how about “poikamiestyttö” or “boy man girl” (poika + mies + tyttö)? This is an old word for an unmarried woman. One of my own personal favourites is “mustasukkainen”. Word for word, it means “black sock-ness” (musta + sukkainen), and curiously it means “jealous”...
As for the kolmivaihevaihtovirtakilowattituntimittari that no home should be without, it’s simply an electricity meter, or as the Finns would have it a three-phase alternating current kilowatt-hour meter.

Why go short and simple, when you can go long and complicated, huh?


  1. Great post Olli! Been living in Finland for over 12 years and I will always face challenges with the Finnish language - including these gigantic words you've posted! :D

  2. the gigantic words in Finnish are ace, aren't they? You've got to love a language like this. Admittedly I don't understand it most of the time but I adore it for its complete and utter insaneness.

    Incidental I'm so pleased you wrote about mustasukainen because that word has been confusing me for years. It really does translate literally as i thought it did. I thought I must be missing something. lol

  3. I laughed so hard with this post, you nailed it! :D It's fun to read about my native tongue in this perspective as it gives a whole new look on things I find in my everyday life and pay no attention to them.... :D

  4. There's a smaller, older word for bachelorette, in case you're interested. It's neiti - miss. No such word is found for males, AFAICT.

  5. I know I'm bit of a party-blooper, but I have answers or at least good intentions to answer your questions:

    1. To concatenate or not to concatenate

    - If it's pronounced as a compound word, then yes. What this means in practice is that if there is a primary stress on both words (iso putki), you write them separately, because they are two independent words. If, however, the second word begins with a secondary stress, you write it together, because it is only one word. Also another way to find out whether you can write the words separately is to add an adjective in between, a classical example being "punainen". 'Iso punainen putki' is okay, because it means "A big red tube", but "jätti punainen putki" is not, because "jättiputki" is a plant species of the parsley family, namely hogweed. Likewise, you couldn't say in English "hog red weed". I hope that clarified something.

    2. How to break up words:

    - Like before; where the primary stress is, a word starts. Where the secondary stress kicks in, a new word begins. That only requires you first to hear the word and then be able to pick up the subtle differences in the stresses. :D (There are some even more subtle cues, but only linguistics know that so don't worry about it). But you are right, the word aamupalaverihuone is funny. Even most Finns would read it first "aamupala" + "veri", then soon realise that it doesn't make any sense, and reconstruct the word "aamu" + "palaveri" + "huone".

    3. Making sense of the word combination:

    - Good luck with that :D Poikamiestyttö is a humorous word, joulupukki is a piece of Nordic tradition (before the early 20th or 19th century, a goat-headed man came to pay a visit. Even today many families hang straw billy goats in their Christmas trees Read more here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yule_Goat )

    And no one is really certain as to why we put on a pair of black socks when we are jealous, but Kotus has put forth some possible explanations for that: http://www.kotus.fi/?s=939

    1. Regarding iso and jätti, not sure the example you give works as jätti is usually concatenated, regardless of whether the combined word is actually a word on its own. You could have a "jättipizza", whereas is would be an "iso pizza". But I personally have no idea why that is.

    2. In this particular case it's actually easy to tell why "iso putki" is written separately and "jättiputki" not. "Iso" (big) is an adjective and those are not concatenated with the words they modify. "Jätti" is a noun (a giant) that can become a prefix.