Monday, 20 June 2011

Say “Ääääää”!

In the previous post, I explained how I thought my colleague was going to become a snail. The confusion arose as a result of my inability to distinguish the sound “a” from the sound “ä” in Finnish.

Well, it seems I am not alone in suffering from irritable vowels syndrome, if the messages I received from other ulkomaalaiset (foreigners) are anything to go by.

It's probably worth going back to basics for this...

Finnish is written phonetically, so it should be easy (in theory) to pronounce and decipher the sounds. In practice though, anyone trying to learn the Finnish needs to be able to tell the difference between the sounds (I like to offer quality linguistic insight, you know!).

Many native English speakers for example struggle with “y” and “u”. Those are easy for me however (said with the appropriate modicum of false modesty of course – wipes brow), as I also speak both German (“y” and “u” are pronounced the same) and French (“y” and “u” are equivalent to “u” and “ou” respectively). English speakers also find the “ö” a little tricky, but it's similar to the same letter in German and “eu” in French. So from my perspective, no problem there either.

The “a” and “ä”, however, are much closer sounding – to my ears and mouth at any rate. The “a” is roughly the same sound as in German or French, and so a long “a” sounds approximately like the “ea” in “heart” (using British pronunciation); the short “a” is a bit like “u” in “hut” (British) or “o” in “hot” (American). The “ä” is approximately like “a” in “hat” (i.e. different from the German's “ä”).

So, repeat after me now: “heart”, “hut”, “hat”, “heart”, "hut", “hat”, ...

Sounds easy, huh?

Now, my fellow foreigners, try these (Finns, sit back and marvel at the lengths we have to go to in order to master your language):

Takki / Täkki
Jacket / Quilt
Tai / Täi
Or / Louse
Kasi / Käsi
Slang for number 8 / Hand
Sade / Säde
Rain / Beam, radius, ray
Vaara / Väärä
Danger, Peril / Wrong, incorrect
Haka / Häkä
Hook / Carbon monoxide
Saari / Sääri
Island / Leg, paw
Saa / Sää
(He) may / Weather
Ratti / Rätti
Funnel, steering wheel / Rag
Mika / Mikä
(Boy’s name) / What

Plenty of scope for confusion there, you'll agree: “I've just bought a new Elvis-style leather quilt”; “Pass me the carbon monoxide!”; “Would you like to spend time on my exotic leg?”...

The above list was actually provided to me by my Finnish tutor, Maarit, after she read about my predicament in my previous blog-post. We spent a few minutes repeating those words, over and over again. It felt like being at the doctor's: “Say 'sää'... Again... Now 'saa'...”!

Soon, we were laughing too much to continue. But hopefully, my vowel problem is now solved or at least on the mend.


  1. and I STILL can't do it. Argh! I think the problem (for me) is that both of these sounds are used in English for the same words depending on where you live: bath and ba(r)th for example. And having moved all over the UK my ears have become deadened to the differences. Ö I can manage fine and Y and U took a little time but I get them now.

    I shall keep on trying however. :)

  2. Heather, practice with hubby. The word list, I mean.

  3. I'm an Indo girl and my problem is mostly about the double consonants (when I read something Finnish to hubby, he ALWAYS catches my mistakes if I don't say the double consonants right - or if I say the single consonants as double). His ears are really sensitive when catching mistakes like that ha ha...

    Another slight problem is y - I can hear it fine and I can say it fine, BUT sometimes in certain phrases/word combos, the y becomes deadly (esp. if the word has double y and it comes after a word that has plenty of a). Can't think of an example of the deadly combo just now, but I'll try to remember next time it happens. :-D