Saturday, 28 January 2012

Insane Finnish Letters (Part 2)

My last post about the crazy transformations the letter “t” undergoes in Finnish seems to have resonated with many people. Clearly, dear readers, you want more Finnish grammar!

I aim to please, so here is more on the exciting subject of consonant gradation.

Let’s start with the letter “p”. Its main alter-ego is the letter “v”. So usually, “p” becomes “v”, for example “leipä” (bread) becomes “leivän” (of the bread) and “varpu” (twig) becomes “varvun” (of the twig).

But that isn’t always the case: “piispa” (bishop) becomes “piispan” (of the bishop). The clever Finnish grammarians amongst you will of course point out that “p” after “s” is an exception to the “p-to-v” rule. But what about “hopea / hopean” (silver) then? Huh?

That's not all though, beacuse the letter “p” also disappears at times. e.g. “oppi / opin” (knowledge), becomes an “m”, e.g. “kampa / kamman” (comb), or suddenly appears “hammas / hampaan” (tooth). Easy!

However, “t” and “p” are positively sane when compared to the letter “k”. Just look at these nominative /genitive pairs:
  • matka / matkan (travel) – “k” stays the same
  • jalka / jalan (foot, leg) – “k” vanishes
  • Helsinki / Helsingin – ”k” becomes a ”g”
  • puku / puvun (suit / dress) – “k” becomes a “v”
  • poika / pojan (boy) – “k” becomes a “j”
  • tukka / tukan (hair) – two “k”s become one “k”
  • liike / liikkeen (business, movement) – one “k” becomes two “k”s
  • nahka / nahan (leather) – “k” disappears so “hk” becomes just “h”
  • ruuhka / ruuhkan (congestion) – “k” stays so “hk” remains “hk”
As some readers commented in the previous post on the subject, the rules governing transformation of letters typically involve not just the individual letters, but letter pairs (e.g. “nk” becomes “ng”). That said, last two examples in the list above illustrate the futility of rules at times (“hk” can become “h” or “hk”).

More fundamentally though, the consonant gradation can make it difficult for a foreigner to find the root of a word, which is what is required to find its meaning in the dictionary. So for example, if you come across the word “sovun” and cleverly ascertain it’s a genitive form (well done!), what is the root? Is it “soku” (as in “puku/puvun”), “sopu” (as in “varpu/varvun”) or indeed “sovu” (as in “sivu/sivun” – page)? And “lampun” must come from “lammu” or “lammus” (as in “hammas / hampaan”), right? Well no, it comes from “lamppu” (lamp / light-bulb).

But that’s not the end of it... Can you take more though?

PS: “sovun” comes from “sopu” (harmony)


  1. Another thing that drives me slightly batty about consonant gradation is that it requires that much more thought when trying to spit out a coherent Finnish sentence. I end up sounding like a cave woman, choosing her words and her consonants with extreme reticence. It's hard to imagine a day when it'll ever be automatic!

  2. I use Wiktionary to look things up, so Finnish never gave me any dictionary-trouble.

  3. Consonant gradation only comes to force when the consonant in question is in the last syllable of the word. Hopea's syllables are ho-pe-a, so it has no effect on the p. Likewise no-pe-a --> nopean, and kotimaa becomes kotimaan, not kodimaan.

    I have been following immigrants' Finnish studies for years, and astonishes me how often teachers don't mention that consonant gradation only affects last syllables.

    1. Not quite that simple. For example tukea (support), becomes tuen. Or kampaa (comb) becomes kamman...

  4. And I know it's merely a misspelling, but surely you ment puku/puvun :)

    1. Well spotted. Now corrected. Thanks!