Thursday, 1 March 2012

There Are A Lot Of Sheep

It is a fallacy to say most Brits are lazy with regards to foreign languages. The reality is that, when they travel abroad, the Brits always make an effort to learn a few words of the local language. Usually those words are: "2 beers, please!"

Whether it's "deux bières, s'il vous plait" or "dos cervezas, por favor", the Brits are always ready. Even when travelling to Finland, it doesn't take long for Brits to master: "kaksi olutta!"

This blog-post is not actually about beer ("olut") though; it's about the plural in Finnish.

You see, the bizarre thing about "kaksi olutta", is that "olutta" is not actually a plural. It is in fact a singular, but in a form (partitive) that describes an indeterminate amount, i.e. very roughly "two some-amount-of-a-beer". This applies to all numbered nouns: "kolme autoa" (three some-amount-of-a-car), "sata taloa" (a hundred some-amount-of-a-house) or "miljoona euroa" (a million some-amount-of-a-Euro).

Proper plurals do in fact exist in Finnish. For example, if you said "the beers are there", you would use the plural for beer: "oluet ovat siellä". Except, that is just the plural for a noun as the subject of the sentence. There is a different version of the plural for each of the 15 cases in Finnish, i.e. whether you go towards the houses, are coming from the houses, etc. And this can be fiendishly difficult, especially when the "insane Finnish letters" kick in.

One of most useful sentences I was ever taught in Finnish is: "Onpa paljon lampaita" ("there are a lot of sheep"). Admitedly, it's difficult sentence to place in a conversation, but it's an excellent platform to practice a particular form of the Finnish plural. That is because "paljon" ("a lot of") is followed by the partitive plural, i.e. roughly "some-amount-of-many-things".

"Lampaita" (some-amount-of-many-sheep) is quite logically (ahem), the partitive plural of "lammas" (a single sheep). By the same "logic", here are examples of words and their partitive plural:

talo / taloja (house)
tunti / tunteja (hour)
poika / poikia (boy)
nainen / naisia (woman)
sormus / sormuksia (ring)
mies / miehiä (man)
koditon / kodittomia (homeless)
asia / asioita (matter)
maa / maita (country)
työ / töitä (work)
kirja / kirjoja (book)

Did you notice how they all seem to follow the same pattern? No? Me neither (apart from the "a" at the end, which actually has nothing to do with the plural)!

But there is a further twist in this plural story: while "paljon" (a lot of) takes the partitive plural, "monta" (many) takes the partitive singular. So you have "paljon lampaita" ("a lot of some-amount-of-many-sheep"), and "monta lammasta" (many some-amount-of-a-sheep). Confused?

The short of it is that there are a lot of some-amount-of-many-ways to make a plural in Finnish.

Of course none of this troubles the Brits visiting Finland, as they confidently order "kaksi olutta"... As long as they get their beers, they don't care if these were actually two some-amount-of-a-beer.


  1. I was going to post this as a reply JottEff's comment in Elena's blog, but there's something funny going on with the comment box.
    When I press "Publish" it should show the preview/word verification, but it doesn't. I've gotten a couple of lucky comments in, but on rare occasions I get to see the word verification disappear to be replaced by the comment box again and most of the time I don't even get to see the word verification. This happens with all the browsers I've tried it with. (Any ideas?)

    Well, anyway, this is what I meant to say:
    It might be simpler to try to pluralize the singular partitive rather than going at it the other way. Then the endings (mostly) become something like:
    "-oa" -> "-oja" (talo, taloa, taloja)
    "-aa" -> "-ia" (ruoka, ruokaa, ruokia)
    "-aa" -> "-oja" (kana, kanaa, kanoja)
    "-inta" -> "-imia" (kaiutin, kaiutinta, kaiuttimia)
    "-ia" -> "-eja" (pankki, pankkia, pankkeja)
    "-kkaa" -> "-koita" (harakka, harakkaa, harakoita)
    "-kkaa" -> "-koja" (lakka, lakkaa, lakkoja)
    "-kkoa" -> "-koita" (monikko, monikkoa, monikoita)
    "-asta" -> "-aita" (varas, varasta, varkaita)
    "-osta" -> "-oksia" (vedos, vedosta, vedoksia)

    But I see what you mean. I wonder if it was possible to create actual rules for this stuff wrt. the word stems and consonant gradation, maybe how the word was derived. I mean, there has to be some sort of logic behind it - even if it's just a perverse idea of easier pronounciation.

    Then again, I've never had to learn Finnish as a foreign language.

    1. There are in fact some rules that bring a bit of order into this apparent chaos. Still, not quite as simple as adding an "s" to the words as is mostly the case in English!

    2. @Blind Sniper I'm really sorry you weren't able to comment. After doing some investigating, I now think the template I use really screws up the whole word verification thing. I changed the settings so that clicking "post a comment" will open a pop-up window. I hope that'll fix the issue. I also didn't realize my settings weren't allowing unregistered users to comment. That's fixed, too.

      Sorry to disturb this post with a little housekeeping, Olli. The class I'm in hasn't tackled monikon partitiivi yet, but I'm finding it almost impossible to say anything correctly without practicing it on my own. I managed to find one site that outlined the rules, but only for two syllable words. I'm beginning to wonder if it's a big secret.

      And, finally, I'd like to include your blog in a list of my favorites in an upcoming post. If for some reason you'd rather I didn't, feel free to let me know. :)

    3. My attempts at monikon partitiivi are very hit and miss. I use the "onpa paljon" sentence as often as possible to try and use it though!

      All fine with including my blog in one of your posts. If you fancy doing a guest post on here, you are also welcome!

    4. The guest post offer is open to any reader with a good (and relevant) idea - obviously subject to my ruthless approval! ;-)

    5. Sorry to further hijack the thread.
      Umm.. Elena, the fixes removed the context from all the replies (yeah, whatever). More importantly I don't seem to get the word verification to work..

  2. There is an actual difference between paljon and monta. Monta means indeed many (basic form is moni), but paljon also has a single word translation in English: much. (Granted, for this type of use that probably isn't a very good translation.) It may still be helpful to remember that since it makes it a lot clearer that the constructs are not identical and that the words operate on different concepts.

    With many you have the basic form of expression many a window, moni ikkuna, which you then inflect to monta ikkunaa much like you would do with an adjective (or muutama).

    Paljon works differently: paljon kakkua = a lot of a/the cake and paljon kakkuja = a lot of (the) cakes (yes, it sounds awful in English).

  3. What'll really bake your noodle is that saying paljon lammasta would actually be correct, in a certain context, like when looking at a ingredients list for a stew that contains a lot of sheep meat. Paljon lampaita implies several individual sheep, whereas paljon lammasta implies a lot of some sort of mass that contains sheep.

    Contrast this with, say, paljon maaleja (lots of different paints) and paljon maalia (a lot of paint.)

    1. Do you think this is helping? ;-)

    2. It should, you know. It's about partitive and the difference between being a part of many things (a crowd) and being a part of a single thing or a portion of a substance.

  4. As I'm currently studying how to teach English as a second language, I'm often struck by how lucky I am that it's my first language. But whenever I think back to my first attempts at Finnish, I realise that Finnish is a hundred times worse - initially (with the cases that have no equivalent in English) as well as much later on (with all the infinitives) - there's no easy starting ground like you have with English (which just progresses into a massive spiral of difficulty even for native speakers)!