Finnish 101

You can never understand one language until you understand at least two. ~Geoffrey Willans

Verbal suffixes are extremely diverse; several frequentatives and momentanes differentiating causative, volitional-unpredictable and anticausative are found, often combined with each other. For example, hypätä "to jump", hypäyttää "to make someone jump once", hyppyytellä "to make someone jump repeatedly", hypähtää "to jump suddenly" (in anticausative meaning), hypellä "to jump around repeatedly". Often the diversity and compactness of this agglutination is illustrated with juoksentelisinkohan "I wonder if I should run around aimlessly".


Over the course of many centuries, the Finnish language has borrowed a great many words from a wide variety of languages. Indeed, some estimates put the core Finno-Ugric vocabulary surviving in Finnish at only around 300 word roots. (However, due to neologisms, the plain figure is misleading.)

The first loan words into Finno-Ugric languages seem to come from very early Indo-European languages, and later mainly from Indo-Iranian, Turkic, Baltic, Germanic, and Slavic languages.

The usual example quoted is kuningas "king" from Germanic kuningaz, but another example is äiti "mother", from Gothic eiþai, which is interesting because borrowing of close-kinship vocabulary is a rare phenomenon. The original Finnish word for mother is emo, which still exists, though its use is now confined to animal species, as is the variant emä. This latter is also used in compounds in a figurative sense, such as emäalus "mothership", emolevy motherboard" and emävale "huge lie" ("a mother of all lies"). There are other close-kinship words that are loaned from Baltic and Germanic languages (morsian "bride", armas "dear").

More recently, Swedish has been a prolific source of borrowings. Present-day Finland belonged to the kingdom of Sweden from the 12th century and was ceded to Russia in 1809, becoming autonomous. The upper class held Swedish as their primary language even after this, because Russia did not have a written law nor legal bureaucracies and left the Swedish-originated system mostly intact. When Finnish was accepted as an official language, it gained only legal "equal status" with Swedish, which persists even today. It is still the case today that about 6% of Finnish nationals, the Finland-Swedes, have Swedish as their mother tongue. During the period of autonomy, Russian did not gain much ground as a language of the people or the government. Nevertheless, a range of words were subsequently acquired from Russian (especially in older Helsinki slang) but not to the same extent as with Swedish. In all these cases, borrowing has been partly a result of geographical proximity.

Typical Russian loanwords are old or very old, thus hard to recognize as such, and concern everyday concepts, e.g. papu "bean", sini "(n.) blue" and pappi "priest". For example, Raamattu ("Bible") is a loanword from Russian, also other religious words are loaned from Russian. This is mainly believed to be result of trade with Novogorod 9th century and so on and the Orthodox converting in 13th century.

Most recently, and with increasing impact, English has been the source of new loanwords in Finnish. Unlike previous "geographical" borrowing, the influence of English is largely "cultural" and reaches Finland by many routes including: international business; music; film (except for the very young, foreign films are shown subtitled); literature; and, of course, the Internet — this is now probably the most important source of all non-face-to-face exposure to English.

The importance of English as the language of global commerce has led many non-English companies, including Finland's Nokia, to adopt English as their official operating language. Recently, it has been observed that English borrowings are not only ousting existing Finnish words, but also previous borrowings, for example the switch from treffailla "to date" (from Swedish, träffa) to deittailla from English "to go for a date". Calques from English are also found, e.g kovalevy (hard disk). The replacement the impersonal (passiivi) with the English-style "you-impersonal", e. g. sä et voi "you cannot", instead of ei voi is said to be English influence, but it may be actually an older phenomenon, since it appears to have appeared in Karelian dialects already in the beginning of the 20th century.

However, this does not mean that Finnish is threatened by English. Borrowing is normal language evolution, and neologisms are coined actively not only by the government, but also by the media. Moreover, Finnish and English have a considerably different grammar, phonology and phonotactics, discouraging direct borrowing. English loan words in Finnish slang include pleikkari "PlayStation", hodari "hot dog", hedari "headache" (native word being päänsärky, and native slang words including jysäri).


Some modern terms have been synthesised rather than borrowed, for example:

puhelin "telephone" (literally: "thing for speaking")
tietokone "computer" (literally: "knowledge machine")
levyke "diskette" (from levy "disc" + a diminutive -ke)
sähköposti "email" (literally: "electrical mail")

The generic term for a diskette is levyke, but colloquially diskettes are referred to as lerppu (the now obsolete 5¼-inch floppy, derived from the word floppy) and korppu (the 3½-inch floppy, Finnish word for "rusk" or "biscuit" that obviously fits the description of the more rigid diskette and nicely resembles lerppu). The colloquial word romppu for the CD-ROM was invented in a contest by the magazine Suomen Kuvalehti when CD-ROM drives were becoming common in PCs in the early 1990s. This word led quickly into another neologism, romputin (CD-ROM drive).

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