Monday, 7 February 2011

Language Oddity #2: Polar Questions

It can be difficult to work out whether a Finn is asking a question, because they do not inflect their tone upwards at the end of interrogative sentences. Instead, the Finns have developed an ingenious trick to give a subtle clue to those-in-the-know that they are asking a question.

Finns form questions that can be answered by “yes” or “no” (known in a bizarre Nordic twist as polar questions) by adding “-ko” or “-kö” at the end of the verb.

So, consider:

Jukka menee autolla Helsinkiin huomenna
Jukka will go by car to Helsinki tomorrow

If a Finn wants to query this, he/she will ask:

Meneeko Jukka autolla Helsinkiin huomenna?
Will Jukka go by car to Helsinki tomorrow?

Strangely Japanese uses a remarkabky similar construction:“ka” is added at the end of a statement to turn it into a question (“Nihon-jin desu ka” - are you Japanese?).

But it doesn't stop there in Finnish: the -ko or -kö can be added at the end of more or less anything:

Jukkako menee autolla Helsinkiin huomenna?
Is it Jukka who will go by car to Helsinki tomorrow?

Helsinkiinko Jukka menee autolla huomenna?
Is it Helsinki that Jukka will go to by car tomorrow?

Autollako Jukka menee Helsinkiin huomenna?
Is it by car that Jukka will go to Helsinki tomorrow?

Huomennako Jukka menee autolla Helsinkiin?
Is it tomorrow that Jukka will go by car to Helsinki?

Or even, combined with that other language oddity, the negative:

Eiko Jukka mene autolla Helsinkiin huomenna?
Won't Jukka go by car to Helsinki tomorrow?

It's cunningly simple, versatile and efficient.  And of course, it also has the added benefit of making those famously anorexic Finnish words a little bit longer!

But still, it's odd, very odd.


  1. Dear Olli,
    I have no idea, how anybody could ever learn to speak Finnish?
    Sounds so complicated, that I am a bit depressed, if I only think about it.
    Who cares, if the Finnish girls are good looking, they can speak English and that has to be enough..

  2. Olli, I have three year-old whose first language is Finnish and our challenge at the moment is word order. While she's totally fluent in Finnish, her English lags behind (no worries though). So she asks, "What this is?" - in a translation directly from Finnish. I wonder if that is really how she is working it out in spite of my efforts to correct her. I'd love to read about language learning and kids if you have any thoughts on it!

  3. Carmen, I have no experience of bilingual Finnish-English children, but speaking as a bilingual (French-English) person myself, I can tell you that it's totally normal for kids to get a little mixed up. Eventually, they get it right though. But this would indeed make a good topic - I have some ideas and would need to do some research also... Stay tuned. ;-)

  4. Thanks Olli! Have you heard the expression "Finnish is so easy that even children can learn it"? I wish I was a kid again! :D

  5. Oh so do I Carmen! I speak English, French and German fluently, and have some left-overs of Spanish from school. In the 90s, I lived for a couple of years in Holland and begain to learn Dutch. It's an easy language for German speakers, yet I was surprised at how slow my progress was. My language brain was just not what it had been. So imagine my struggle with Finnish now! Oh to be a language sponge like kids.

  6. What I have heard about raising kids in bilingual families is that one parent should speak strictly one language. So the Finn parent would only speak Finnish and the English one only English, for example. This way it's very consistent to the kid, I'm told. I guess this is how the Swedish speaking Finns do it when they form families where the other one speaks Swedish and the other one Finnish.

  7. You screwed up the vowel harmony - the ko is a kö when added to words with front vowels. So meneekö, Helsinkiinkö, eikö.

    Granted, those seem to contain only neutral vowels (e and i), but are front vowel based. (I'm not an expert, just a native speaker, but it seems that words containing only neutral vowels are treated as front vowel based.)