Saturday, 21 January 2012

Insane Finnish Letters (Part 1)

It’s been a while since I had a good moan about the trickiness of the Finnish language, but it’s now time to tackle one of my pet grievances: the instability of Finnish letters.

This is such a wide subject, that I will have to cover it over more than one post. I know you all love a bit of grammar really…

I first encountered the problem of Finnish letter instability a few years ago, at a time when my knowledge of Finnish was even more primitive than it is now.

In a little piece of text I was attempting to decipher, I came across the word “illalla”. I didn’t know what it meant, so I set about looking it up in the dictionary. I checked “illalla” and found nothing. Then I had a brainwave: maybe the ending “-lla” was the adessiivi case, meaning “onto or at” something. So I looked up the remaining “illa” in the dictionary. Again, nothing.

I eventually found out through a Finn, that “illalla” means “in the evening”. The reason I could not find this in the dictionary is that the word “evening” is actually “ilta”, but the “t” morphs into an “l” more or less at will as it goes through the various Finnish cases. So for example, while “two evenings” is “kaksi iltaa” (partitiivi), “from evening to morning” is “illasta aamuun” (elatiivi).

But “t” doesn’t always turn into an “l”… Oh no, that would be too simple (this is Finnish after all).

The best way to observe the schizophrenic behaviour of Finnish letters in nouns, which linguists call “gradation” (astevaihtelu in Finnish), is to consider their nominatiivi (noun as the sentence’s subject – the evening) and genitiivi (“the evening’s” or “of the evening”).

Still with me?

So I have just described the “ilta / illan” pair. However, the “t” can also become a “d” (katu / kadun – street), “n” (ranta / rannan – shore) or an “r” (“parta” / “parran” – beard). The “t” can also stay put (“kosto” / “koston” – revenge) or it can disappear altogether (“katto” / “katon” – roof). Indeed, it can even duplicate itself (“vaate” / “vaatteen” – item of clothing) or appear out of nowhere (“liikenne” / “liikenteen” – traffic).

Crazy, huh?

Were it only the “t” that behaved in an erratic way... But no, “p”, “v”, and “k” also have their own idiosyncrasies, not to mention the vowels! But that, ladies and gentlemen, is for a later post.


  1. Well, I'd argue that astevaihtelu really isn't as random as all that, though I'm sure you're attempting not to bore your readers with too much detail. I would like to add, though, that specific letters and pairs of letters undergo gradation. This is the very basic list (strong on the left, weak on the right):

    kk to k
    pp to p
    tt to t
    k to __
    p to v
    t to d
    nk to ng
    mp to mm
    nt to nn
    lt to ll
    rt to rr
    And consonant combinations like sk, st, and tk undergo no gradation.

    Now, as for when to USE astevaihtelu, and whether or not something goes from weak to strong or strong to weak is a bit more complex (which cases, which verb types, etc.), and I'm pretty sure there's a lot I don't know yet.

    Having added that tidbit, I agree that it can be incredibly frustrating to look stuff up in the dictionary, having to always keep these things in mind. It really makes you wonder how a language could have developed such a weird morphology without the intervention of some maniacal linguist. :P

  2. Elena, you think that explanation makes it any simpler, huh? ;-)

    Seriously, I know (or should know) the rules, and I was being a little facetious by presenting the case the way I have, but degration is a tricky part of Finnish regardless. For example, from above: tt becomes t (katto / katon) but t can also become tt (vaate / vaatteen) - how contrary (and yes, I do know why).

  3. Oh, I didn't mean to imply that you didn't know the hows or whys (I was certain that you did), and I picked up on your facetiousness. :) It just seemed like that basic list of letters and their various degrees was kind of important information. And you know, I've got nothing better to do than type it out on this Saturday nearly-afternoon. No, seriously, I don't. ;)

  4. I understood you Elena, and no offense taken!

    PS: I am a regular and avid reader of your own blog, btw. It is most excellent!

  5. Hey, thanks! Yours too! I particularly love the stuff about language. :)

  6. I also had the same frustration the first year I lived in Finland...tried learning the language on my own before any course arrived and I remember in my optimism, I borrowed a few thin children's books from the library, thinking I could tackle them all in a month. Boy was I wrong!!! It took at least an hour just to be able to understand every single word in one PAGE (mind you, each page only consist of 5-8 sentences) 'coz like what you described here, when I looked them up in my dictionary, nothing came up.

  7. Think of it as the equivalent of the insane spelling rules in English (except a bit more logical).

  8. There is a German booklet called (translated) "The partitive - or how to successfully frustrate a linguist" - So true!

    1. Mmmmm.... Remind me to order it. Or maybe not! ;-)

  9. These kinds of crazy rules and the complexity is the reason I hardly learn any language in any other way than listening to it and trying to mimick. :D That's the reason I'm pretty good at English but sucky suck at German and Swedish... It doesn't surround us the same way in every turn. :D Would have to go live in Sweden/Germany... So my empathies to you trying to figure this all out!

  10. All this is actually pretty easy to learn when you get high amounts of exposure to a language. You JUST KNOW which letter appears where and which letter turns into what, even though you never sat down to learn it all.

    1. Shhhh... Under no circumstances should anyone (other than a Finn) claim that Finnish is easy. Simply not allowed.

  11. I feel your pain, Olli!
    I can really relate to what Amel said. This really is a language that you have to study with the help of textbooks and teachers; learning by osmosis is just too hit and miss. Having said that, yes, there are also quite a few tricky exceptions to the (many hundreds of) basic grammatical rules, so as well as putting in countless hours of careful study, you do also have to listen and read and try to let the language get into your blood. I have to admit that I'm finding it an uphill battle thus far - two steps forward, one step back... The one thing that has made it all much easier is that Finns are incredibly tolerant of foreigners' mistakes, and will try hard to understand what you're trying to say, regardless of abysmal use of astevaihtelu, incorrect verb conjugations, missing word-endings left, right and centre, and the mis-pronunciation of "hyvää" as "hjuvaa"...