A couple of months ago, I decided I would embark on a language learning adventure. What language did I choose? Why Finnish, of course!
Since February 2020, I’ve been working for a company that is truly international. We literally have people all over the world. I believe we at least one person living in every continent, except Antarctica, of course. As fate would have it, my Tech Lead is a Finnish guy.
One day, we were talking and the subject of different languages came up and he made a statement that got me curious as to the validity of the statement. What did he say?
Finnish is a very hard language to learn. There are so many words you have to learn. Just don’t do it!
For whatever reason, that statement really stuck with me.
I have a little bit of experience learning new languages. I’ve never learned a second language to fluency, largely because I got bored of the repetition of it all, but I hadn’t found the actual process of learning languages to be too difficult, other than keeping interest and motivation to continue.
So, I started where all language learners start and learned how to introduce myself in standard Finnish:
Minä olen Kelly. I am Kelly.
Simple enough, right?
Right out of the gate, there were questions:
- How do you pronounce the funny looking A with the dots over it?
- Wait? How do I pronounce the vowels and consonants in Finnish?
So, I shifted gears and looked for a pronunciation guide.
Below is a list of the vowels and how they are to be pronounced.
- A a – Like the a in harm, or barn.
- Ä ä – Like the a in cat, or van.
- E e – Like the e in egg, or leg.
- I i – Like the ee in teeth, or feet.
- O o – Like the oa in oar, or board.
- Ö ö – Similar to the ea sound in learn, or the o in word.
- U u – Like the oo in too.
- Y y – Similar to the ö, but a little closer to the u
The most difficult vowels to hear and pronounce are definitely the Y and the Ö because these sounds are not common in English. The Y is kind of half way between U and Ö, if that helps at all.
The consonants are all pronounced similar to the way they would be in English, for the most part. The most notable differences, off the top of my head, are the letters J, K, P, T and R.
The Finnish J is exactly the same as the English Y. The so-called soft J. The Finnish word for cheese, juusto, would be pronounced you-sto, with the last vowel being short.
K is closer to a G sound in English. It’s not exactly a G, because that consonant exists in the Finnish alphabet. It’s just a softer sounding K.
P is closer to a B. Again, it’s not exactly the same as B, but it’s closer to the English B that the English P. B is technically not in the Finnish alphabet and only shows up in borrowed words like banaani, which is the Finnish for banana, as if that wasn’t obvious.
T is more like a D, like the K and P examples, it’s not exactly the same, but it’s close. It’s softer than a T, but still distinguishable from D.
R is a strong, trilled R much like you would find in Spanish. The R is Finnish is very strong! This feature alone made it difficult for me to understand my Tech Lead for a little while.
So the full Finnish alphabet is as follows:
A D E F G H I J K L M N O P R S T U V Y
These letters are not native to Finnish, but are used in borrowed words:
B C Q W X Z Å
It turns out Finnish, rather unlike English, is very consistent! If you see a letter, you can be sure about how to pronounce it. Great!
What’s more, if the letter is written down, you say it. This was very confusing for me when I first saw an H in the middle of a word, like the word vihreä, the Finnish word for green. How am I supposed to say that? Turns you just make the sound an H would make (like the H in help) right where you see it. Pronunciation couldn’t be simpler!
One last feature of the language is the distinction between long and short sounds.
Many languages make a distinction in long and short vowels with the use of a macron above, or below the letter in question. In Finnish, you simply write the letter twice. This doesn’t change the pronunciation of the vowel, only the length of it, so oo does not sound like the o’s in loose, but more like the o in Lord, while the singular o is more like got.
Finnish takes this concept a step farther by distinguishing between long and short consonants as well. So ll is different to l. In this case, there can be very different ways of saying the long consonants. In most cases, like the vowels, you simply elongate the sound of the consonant.
However, letters that have a natural stop, like K, P and T, you pause between the first and second consonant, so words like kuppi, the Finnish word for cup, is said like kup-pi, with the first p barely being pronounced, putting more emphasis on the second p.
Finally, you must be careful about pronouncing the long letters because they often change the meaning of the word. The words kuka, kuuka and kukka, vary only in the length on one letter, but mean who, month and flower, respectively. We see this kind of thing occur fairly often in Finnish.
That’s it for now! This is not intended to be a comprehensive pronunciation guide. More just a stake in the ground for my own learning. However, if anybody else finds it useful, great!