Finnish (suomen kieli, suomi) is spoken in Finland and by Finns elsewhere, predominantly in the Nordic countries. Whether travelers to Finland need to learn Finnish is doubtful, since most Finns — including virtually all under 40 — speak at least some English. However, since so few people make the effort, you're guaranteed to get delighted reactions if you try.
Finnish is a Finno-Ugric or more accurately 'Uralic language and hence completely unrelated to almost every language between Iceland and India. In particular, Finnish has grammatically nothing at all in common with other Scandinavian languages or Russian, although there are many loan words from both.
The origin of these languages traces back over 5000 years to nomadic peoples of the Ural mountains in Russia that migrated westward into Europe. Just across the Gulf of Finland a close modern relative to the Finnish language, Estonian, is spoken. Other related languages are the Sámi languages of Northern Scandinavia and the Kola Peninsula, several minor languages in Central Russia, and very distantly, Hungarian.
Typical Uralic features in Finnish include lack of grammatical gender, stress on the first syllable, vowel harmony, distinction between short and long phonemes, and a complex system of case endings.
The Finnish language is fairly easy to pronounce: it has one of the most phonetic writing systems in the world, with only a small number of simple consonants and relatively few vowel sounds.
Native English speakers tend to have the most problems with vowel length and the distinction between the front vowels (ä, ö, y) and back vowels (a, o, u). English does make the same distiction — consider the "a" sounds of father (back) and cat (front), or the difference in the "i" sound for bit (short) and beat (long) — but you will need to pay extra attention to it in Finnish.
In Finnish, all vowels are single sounds (or "pure" vowels). Doubled letters are simply pronounced longer, but it's important to differentiate between short and long sounds. Example:
The basic Finnish alphabet consists of the following letters:
Additionally the letters š and ž appear in a small number of loanwords and are pronounced like English sh and as s in treasure, respectively. The letter w also occurs infrequently in some proper names and is treated identically to v. Lastly, the letter å occurs in some Swedish proper names and is pronounced "o", but the beginning learner need not worry about these minutiae.
Diphthongs (vowel sequences) like the uo of Suomi (Finland) are common. They retain the individual sounds of their vowels, but are slightly blended together to be pronounced in one "beat".
If a Finnish consonant is doubled, it should be pronounced lengthened. For plosives like p, t, k, this means getting your mouth ready to say it, but pausing for a moment. Hence mato (worm) is "MA-to", but matto (carpet) is "MAT-to".
Stress and tone
Word stress is always on the first syllable; compounds words have more than one stressed syllable. There is no tone whatsoever in Finnish speech, just long strings of fairly monotone sounds, with all syllables given equal value except the first one. Foreigners tend to think this makes the language sound rather depressing; Finns, on the other hand, wonder why everybody else's languages—including Russian—sound so sing-songy.
Note: Due to the ease, specificity and regularity of Finnish pronunciation, the difficulty of transcribing long vowels, and the general inaccuracy of English-based phoneticizations, it is highly recommended you take a few minutes to learn the alphabet instead of relying on the phoneticizations. That being said, however, Finns are often quite excited to hear a foreigner attempt to speak the language and tend to be very forgiving of pronunciation blunders.
The 24-hour clock is commonly used in Finland.
Writing time and date
Dates are written in the day-month-year order, eg. 2.5.1990 for May 2nd, 1990. If the month is written out, both the forms 2. toukokuuta (2nd of May) and toukokuun 2. päivä (May's 2nd) are used.
Due to the difficulty of conjugating various place names, the phrases below are not grammatically correct. They will, however, definitely be understood.
In general, the name of the language is the same as the country, but uncapitalized.
Bus and Train
While in Finland
The University of Helsinki offers a highly popular Finnish for Foreigners program in six different skill levels, ranging from absolute beginner to advanced courses ending with language certification. Spring and Fall classes are offered in standard 1 unit (3 hrs/wk, 135 €) and intensive 2 unit (8 hrs/wk, 310 €) versions.
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