Friday, 10 August 2012

How Many Infinitives Do You Need?

Regular readers of this blog will know that I use it occasionally as a platform to moan about the complexity of the Finnish language. Well, when I say moan, it’s more of an affectionate groan, because I love learning the language. And actually, it’s not really a groan about the Finnish language itself (which is not so much complex as very different), but more about my own struggle with learning it.

As it happens, it has been quite a while since I had a good moan or even groan. Time to change that. So, be warned, if you have little interest in Finnish grammar, read beyond this point at your own peril.

Anyone left?

This post is about the infinitive of verbs in Finnish. I should really say infinitives, with an “s” because, as I recently learnt, Finnish doesn’t have just one infinitive (that would be too simple). Oh no, Finnish has, brace yourself, five infinitives, no less! Five as in 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

I was rather surprised by that, as for me the infinitive was a fairly defined form for a verb. It was basically the verb “at rest”, i.e. before it was put to active use through conjugation. In English you have “to be”, “to jump” and “to moan” – easy. Admittedly there are some quirks like the “defective” verbs can, may, shall, will and must that do not have an infinitive, but I will brush over that.

Back to Finnish though: so how can you have 5 infinitives?

I began investigating the concept of the infinitive a little more (I know, maybe I should get a life). To my surprise, I found that there was not a single, unique definition of the infinitive. Instead it seems infinitives tend to have certain common properties such as not changing (inflecting) with the subjects of a sentence, and acting as something else than a verb in a sentence, for example a noun.

Fascinating, huh?

Given the vagueness of the definition, I suppose it’s no wonder Finnish has 5 infinitives then.

Now, it’s not really my intention to provide a proper guide to Finnish infinitives, but I need to say a few words about them, just to show how confusing they can be for simple foreigners like me.

The infinitives, named 1st to 5th (there is real logic to Finnish), behave like nouns, so they happily accept lots of endings to change their meaning. These include most notably case endings (of which there are 15, though not all apply here) and possessives (my, your, his/her, etc.).

So that’s how Finnish infinitives can end up like this:

  • lukea – to read (1st infinitive, the dictionary form)
  • lukeakseni – in order that I shall read (1st infinitive + translative case + 1st person possessive suffix)
  • lukiessasi – when you read (2nd infinitive + inessive case + 2nd person possessive suffix)
  • lukien – reading, e.g. he came into the room reading (2nd infinitive + instructive case)
  • lukemassa – reading, e.g. he is in the library reading (3rd infinitive + inessive case)
  • lukemasta – reading, e.g. he came from the library where he had been reading (3rd infinitive + elative case)
  • lukemaan – to [start to] read, e.g. he is going to the bedroom to read (3rd infinitive + illative case)
  • lukemalla – by reading, e.g. he became a top student by reading (3rd infinitive + adessive case)
  • lukematta – without reading (3rd infinitive + abessive case)
  • lukeminen – reading, as an obligation or indicating a noun, e.g. reading is compulsory at school (4th infinitive + nominative case)
  • lukemista – reading, similar to above (4th infinitive + partitive case)
  • lukemaisillani – just about to read (5th infinitive)
Pheeeeew! How easy was that? Notice how 5 infinitives turn into loads more meanings, by the way?

I have to confess I am far from mastering the Finnish infinitives, so no doubt the above is a gross over-simplification and possibly contains some mistakes. However, the point I am trying to make is that there is plenty of scope there to confuse little foreign brains like mine.

Is that a wave of sympathy I feel, or is that just wishful thinking on my part?


  1. More like a wave of empathy from those of us in the same boat. ;)

  2. Finnish is my mother tongue and I struggle with it having lived in the UK for most of my life. Not sure if that makes you feel any better, though...

  3. Don't forget lukiessani! Lukiessasi to first person!

    1. Well yes. I was glossing over all the possible endings that could be added, including kin, han, ko, etc...

  4. "lukeakseni – in order that I shall read"
    For some reason this sounds really strange to me. Personally I'd put it more like "In order for me to read"

    As in "Menin kirjastoon lukeakseni tulevaan kokeeseen." translates to "I went to the library in order to read for an upcoming exam."

    Maybe it's just my sense of English being weird.

  5. "lukemista – reading, similar to above (4th infinitive + partitive case)"

    A good example of use could be: "I want something to read for the trip". In Finnish: "Haluan matkalle jotakin lukemista."

    NOTE! It could also be the plural elative case of the noun "lukema": "What do you think of those readings?" (as in some meter readings) "Mitä mieltä olet noista lukemista?"

  6. I don't know it this makes you feel any better but, I have lived Finland all my life and it's my mother language, but I still cannot write perfect finnish. I can write it just as I speak it, but I never have quite gotten my own language grammar.

    Anyways this is nicely written blog and fun to read.

    Apologies for my somewhat bad english.