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Classification. Uralic, Finno-Ugric, Fennic, Baltic-Finnic. The closest relatives of Finnish are Estonian, Karelian and several minor languages of the Baltic-Finnic group (Veps, Ludian, Ingrian, Votic).

Overview. The Finns are part of the Finnic peoples that, probably, came from central Russia. Two millennia ago, or perhaps earlier, they migrated westwards and northwards entering in contact with Baltic and Germanic populations which influenced their language. From the 11th-12th centuries they were conquered by the Swedes and converted to Christianity. They remained under Swedish domination for six centuries until they were incorporated into Russia at the beginning of the 19th. Only in 1917 Finland became independent.

    Finnish has comparatively few consonants but a complex vowel system subject to vowel harmony. Its morphology is agglutinative using suffixes to convey grammatical information as exemplified by its remarkable rich case system. It has borrowed many words from neighboring Indo-European languages, particularly from Baltic, German, and Russian.

Distribution. Finnish is spoken in Finland and also in Sweden, Norway, northwest Russia (Karelia) as well as by expatriates in North America.

Speakers. Finnish is the mother tongue of more than 5 million people living in the following countries:





Russian Federation









Status. Finnish is one of the two official languages of Finland along with Swedish. More than 90 % of Finnish citizens speak it as their first language. Finnish obtained its position as national tongue in 1863 equaling the status of Swedish in government, trade, commerce, education and culture. Still, Swedish remained the only official language until 1902 when Finnish also became official.

Varieties. Finnish has five main dialects that have minor differences in phonology and are mutually intelligible. They are distributed in a western and an eastern area. The Western dialects are Southwestern (near Turku), Southcentral (Häme province), and  Northern. The Eastern dialects are Savo and Southeastern (similar to Karelian).

Oldest Documents. The earliest is an alphabet book, called Abckiria (ABC book), published in 1542 by Bishop Mikael Agricola. Five years later, Agricola translated the New Testament into Finnish.


Finnish has a rich vocalism and relatively few consonant phonemes.

Syllable structure. Most words are disyllabic. Syllables can end in a vowel (open syllable) or in a consonant (closed syllable). Closed syllables are vowel + consonant or consonant + vowel + consonant.

The addition of inflectional and derivational suffixes frequently causes a phonological change at the word stem like consonant gradation, total or partial consonant assimilation, vowel mutation, and vowel loss.


a) Monophthongs (16): they consist of eight basic vowels that can be all short or long. Vowel length is phonemic.



b) Diphthongs (16): ei, æi, yi, øi, ai, ui, oi, ie

  1. æy, øy, yø

  2. iu, eu, au, ou, uo

Vowel Harmony. All vowels of a word (stem and suffixes) must be front or back depending on the category of the vowel in the first syllable of the word. The vowels i and e are neutral in respect of harmony. Suffixes have one front and one back variant occurring after front and back stems, respectively. In compound words vowel harmony affects each lexical component separately.

Consonants (13-14). Finnish consonants may be short or long (written twice in orthography). There is lack of voiced-unvoiced opposition among the stops (except at the dental articulation) and fricatives. In the spoken language the glottal stop is pronounced if followed by a vowel; if it is followed by a consonant it assimilates with it to form a long sound. Other sounds, like [b], [g], [f],  are found only in loanwords.


Stress. The main stress falls on the first syllable of a word.

Script and Orthography

The Finnish alphabet has the same letters as the English alphabet except for the addition of 3 vowels at the end. Of its 29 letters, 9 (highlighted in color) are used only in foreign words.

  1. long vowels and consonants have no special signs; they  are noted by writing the letter twice.

  2. long [ŋ] is represented by the digraph ng.

  3. [ʔ] is not represented in the alphabet.

Morphology. Finnish morphology is agglutinative using inflectional suffixes to indicate grammatical functions. Derivational suffixes are a very important source of word creation.

  1. Nominal. Nouns and adjectives are inflected for number, case and possession (in that order). There are two numbers, fifteen cases and five possessive morphemes. Gender is not marked. A zero number suffix indicates singular. A zero case suffix indicates nominative singular (all other cases are marked). A zero possessive suffix indicates absence of possession.

  1. number: singular, plural. The singular is unmarked. Plurality is marked by the suffixes -t or -i. If a personal possessor suffix is added to the nominative or accusative plural, the -t suffix is not used.

  1. cases are divided into four groups:

  1. a)syntactical cases: nominative, accusative, genitive.

  2. b)general locative cases: essive, partitive, translative.

  3. c)specific locative cases subdivided in:

  4. internal: inessive (in), illative (into), elative (from inside).

  5. external: adessive (at, near), allative (to, towards), ablative (from outside).

  6. d) marginal cases: instrumental or instructive (with), comitative (accompanied by), abessive (without).

  1. The nominative is the subject of a sentence but the nominative singular stands in certain specific environments as object. The essive marks a temporary location or state of being equivalent to English 'as'. The partitive may be used to express indefinite quantity and to mark the direct object with a negative verb. The translative denotes change of form or time and may also express intention. The specific locative cases denote various spatial and kinetic oppositions like stationary vs moving, motion toward vs motion away, and interior vs exterior as shown in the following table:


  1. The three marginal cases are used only in some limited contexts and tend to be replaced by prepositions.

  1. possession: is marked by a personal suffix placed after the case suffix. There are five personal suffixes: 1st singular, 1st plural, 2nd singular, 2nd plural, 3rd (no number distinction). If the item is possessed by the 3rd person a preceding pronoun in the genitive is required, if it is possessed by the 1st and 2nd persons the genitive pronoun is optional (may be used for emphasis).

  1. pronouns: personal, demonstrative, interrogative, relative, reflexive, indefinite.

  2. The personal pronouns in the nominative are minä (1sg), sinä (2sg), hän (3sg), me (1pl), te (2pl), he (3pl). They are declined, like all pronouns, in almost all cases.

  1. Demonstrative pronouns make a two-degree distinction: tämä (‘this’), nämä (‘these’); tuo (‘that’), nuo (‘those’). There is a third demonstrative pronoun that refers to something mentioned previously: singular se, plural ne. They do not take possessive suffixes.

  1. The interrogative pronouns are: kuka (‘who?’ sg.), ketkä (‘who?’ pl.), mikä (‘what?/which?’ sg.), mitkä (‘what?/which?’ pl.).

  1. The relative pronoun is joka (sg.), jotka (pl.).

  1. The reflexive pronouns are formed with the word itse followed by a possessive suffix.

  1. The most frequent indefinite pronouns are: joku (‘someone’), jokin (‘something’), kukin (‘each one, everyone’), kukaan (‘no one’), mikään ‘(nothing’).

  1. Verbal. The conjugated verb has three components: stem, tense or mood suffix, number/person suffix. There is only one conjugation for all Finnish verbs. The positive conjugation is paralleled by a negative one. The negative marker is conjugated for person and number. The use of a separate personal pronoun, before or after the verb, is optional for the first and second persons but compulsory for the third (except in the imperative).

  1. person and number: first, second and third persons, singular and plural, plus a fourth-person for indefinite subjects.

  1. tense: primary tenses are the present and the imperfect . Compound tenses are the perfect and pluperfect formed with the auxiliary olla ('to be'), conjugated for person and number, plus a past participle inflected for number. There is no specific future tense though the present may function as such.

  2.     The present indicative has no tense suffix. The imperfect uses the tense suffix -i and the marker of the 3rd person singular is zero. As an example we show below the conjugation of the verb puhua ('to speak, to talk'):


  1. mood: indicative, potential, conditional, imperative. The potential and the conditional each have one primary form and one compound form made by combining an auxiliary verb and a past participle. The conditional perfect uses the auxiliary olla ('to be') and the potential perfect the cognate liene ('might be'). The potential is little used nowadays in the spoken language and is loosing ground in written usage as well. The imperative has also compound forms but they are rarely used. The potential mood suffix is -ne and in the conditional -isi.


  1. voice: active and passive-impersonal. All verbs, either transitive or intransitive, can occur in the passive-impersonal voice. In the colloquial language one of its main functions is to express the 1st person plural imperative. In the literary language it is used to express impersonal general statements (as on in French  and man in German).

  1. non-finite forms: infinitives, present participle (active and passive), past participle (active and passive). Some of them are inflected for number, case, and possession. There are several infinitives:

  1. Infinitive I has two forms. The invariable short infinitive is the citation form in the dictionary and is similar to the English infinitive. The long infinitive is in the translative case and marked for person and number; it expresses purpose.

  1. Infinitive II may also take personal markers and has inessive and instructive forms which express simultaneity and manner of action, respectively.

  1. Infinitive III may be used after a coverb adopting the illative, inessive, elative, adessive or abessive cases. In the inessive case, jointly with the coverb olla, it expresses continuity of action. In the illative, denotes that an action is about to take place. In the elative, usually conveys separation. In the adessive, indicates the means by which an action is performed. In the abessive, it shows that an action does not take place.


Due to extensive case marking, considerable flexibility is possible within a general Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) framework, and variation in word order is used for emphasis and focus shift. SVO is maintained in questions posed with a question word. In the noun phrase word order is: demonstrative-numeral-adjective-noun. Demonstratives and adjectives agree with the head in number and case. The finite verb agrees with the person and number of the grammatical subject.


Finnish has a core of indigenous words referring to parts of the body, kinship, the environment, and basic activities. Some Indo-European words may have been borrowed even before the settlement of the Finns in Finland but most were borrowed afterwards, particularly from Baltic and Germanic languages spoken by their neighbors. Later, Finnish incorporated a good number of Slavonic and Russian words but  from the middle ages until the 20th century Swedish has been the main source of loans. After the Second World War, English has rivaled Swedish as a source of new loans.

Basic Vocabulary

one: yksi

two: kaksi

three: kolme

four: neljä

five: viisi

six: kuusi

seven: seitsemän

eight: kahdeksan

nine: yhdeksän

ten: kymmenen

hundred: sata (of Indo-European origin)

father: isä

mother: emo, äiti

brother: veli

sister: sisko, sisar

son: poika

daughter: tytär

head: pää

face: kasvot

eye: silmä

arm/hand: käsi

foot: jalka

heart: sydän

tongue: kieli

Key Literary Works (Forthcoming)

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati                                                                               

Further Reading

-Finnish: An Essential Grammar. F. Karlsson. Routledge (2003).

-Finnish Grammar. F. Karlsson. Werner Söderström, Juva (1983).

-'Finnish'. M. Branch. In The World’s Major Languages, 497-517. B. Comrie (ed). Routledge (2009)

-Handbook of Finnish Verbs. E. Holman. Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura, Vaasa (1984).

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