Finnish language Basics

Previously, we have seen how different Finnish is from Swedish. Now we are going to dive deeper into the Finnish language, as well as the culture of Finland.

To many people, Finland is a fascinating, distant country where you can meet Santa Claus, admire the Northern Lights, or encounter polar bears. Well, some of those aren’t exactly true, but there are still a lot of interesting facts about Finland which mean that you should get to know this beautiful country.

The Finnish language is constantly ranked among the hardest languages to learn. The Foreign Service Institute estimates that Finnish takes about 1 100 class hours to learn. So if you can master it, there is truly something to be proud of!

Finland is one of the Nordic countries in Northern Europe which are sometimes referred to as Scandinavia. Finland shares borders with Sweden, Norway, and Russia.

In the past, Sweden and Russia have battled for administrative dominance in Finland, which has shaped the borders of the country as we know it today. For this reason, you can find Finnish-speaking people also from Sweden, Norway, East Karelia, and Ingria and they have inhabited areas as far as the United States and Australia.

The basic principles of the Finnish language

The Finnish language belongs to the family of Uralic languages. The Finnish alphabet consists of 29 letters: the letters A through Z and Scandinavian letters Å, Ä, Ö.

Because of the governmental history, Swedish is still the second official language in Finland and that’s why the letter «Å» appears in Swedish vocabulary and it doesn’t really exist in the Finnish language.

To familiarize yourself with the letters Ä and Ö, you can imagine the English words “dad” and “the” :
Ä is pronounced like the phoneme “æ” in dad [dæd].
Ö is pronounced like the phoneme “ǝ” in the [ðǝ].

Finnish language pronunciation is pretty straightforward. Finnish vocabulary words are pronounced the way they are written, so once you figure out the different phonemes it’s quite easy to learn to speak Finnish.

Unlike in the English language, where people learn to spell words letter-by-letter, Finnish words are learned syllable-by-syllable. For example, “c-a-r” would equal to “au-to”.

At school, Finnish children practice the Finnish language by pronouncing words syllable-by-syllable. If you do the same while learning Finnish, it will guide your pronunciation better.

Learn to make Finnish sentences

One of the characteristic features of Finnish is the use of 15 grammatical cases: nominative, genitive, partitive, accusative, inessive, elative, illative, adessive, ablative, allative, essive, translative, abessive, instructive and comitative.

The way this works is that you add a case suffix to the word’s stem to show grammatical relations such as ownership, location, and description as shown below:

vocabulary: koulu (school), tyttö (girl)

Minä menen kouluun.
I go to school.
(illative; where, who)
Tytöllä on koira.
The girl has a dog.
(adessive; with what, who)

So from the examples you can see, that you need to decline not only the subject and the predicate but also the verb is conjugated according to personal pronoun. In Finnish, “I” is “minä” and “you” is “sinä”.

In Finnish, the third person pronoun is gender-neutral, this means that “hän” can refer to either a male or female person in contrast to English pronouns “he” and “she”.

When you describe someone or your feelings, you use the verb “olla” or “be”.

In the first person, the conjugation suffix of the verb is (-n) :

Minä olen suomalainen.
I am a Finn.

In the second person, the conjugation suffix of the verb is (-t) :

Sinä olet kaunis.
You are beautiful.

In the third person, the conjugation suffix depends on the verb.

Hän on väsynyt.
He/she is tired.

The use of derivational affixes and inflectional suffixes can make Finnish words get quite long. Finnish is also equipped with compound words which might increase the feeling of complexity, especially if you are learning to write the Finnish language.

But don’t feel discouraged, natives make a lot of mistakes here too! The longest word that can be found in the Finnish dictionary is pyyhkäisyelektronimikroskooppi (scanning electron microscope) which contains a whopping 30 letters!

If you travel across Finland you may notice that Finland is rich in dialects that are spoken in different parts of the country. This may make it tricky even for natives to grasp certain words, not to mention foreigners who are just trying to learn the language!

Fortunately, Finnish people are enthusiastic to teach you a phrase or two, so you can continue your journey with more confidence!

Useful Finnish phrases for getting to know the Finns

Finnish people can be quite reserved and particularly the older generation doesn’t really speak English. This makes it beneficial to have an ice breaker and familiarize yourself with a couple of basic Finnish phrases, so you know how to greet people and introduce yourself in case you meet Finns.

Greet and introduce yourself in Finnish to make new friends

You can start a casual conversation by saying “Hello”:

When greeting in Finnish, you use grammatical case partitive (suffix -a). For example, “good” is “hyvä” in Finnish and it declines as “hyvää”. Note also the expression of time.

Hyvää huomenta.
Good morning.
Hyvää päivää.
Good day.
Hyvää iltaa.
Good evening.

vocabulary: päivä (day), ilta (evening)

When you tell how are you doing, the personal pronoun declines in allative (-lle) as the sentence would say “it goes well to who”.

Mitä sinulle kuuluu?
How are you?
Mitä kuuluu?
How are you?
(shorter version)
Minulle kuuluu hyvää.
I am doing well.

When you introduce yourself in Finnish, the personal pronoun declines in genitive (-n) which indicates ownership.

vocabulary: nimi (name)

Minun nimeni on... My name is...

Mikä sinun nimesi on? What is your name?

Before you go to separate ways with your new friends and you want to say goodbye, here are some common phrases in Finnish.

Heippa! Bye!

Nähdään! See you later!

Näkemiin. Goodbye.

Hyvää päivänjatkoa. Have a nice day.

How to be polite in Finnish

When you interact with people, situations may come up where you need to apologize or ask for advice. Here are some basic expressions that may come in handy.

Anteeksi! I’m sorry!

Anteeksi, missä on …? Excuse me, where is …?

vocabulary: hotelli (hotel), kahvila (coffee shop), ravintola (restautant)

Anteeksi, en puhu suomea. Sorry, I don’t speak Finnish.

Kiitos. Thank you.

You should also take into consideration that in Finland there is a specific pronoun («te») to address people formally.

A few decades ago, the younger generation was expected to use this pronoun when addressing older people, but nowadays speaking to another person is quite informal and relaxed. If you want to treat the person you are talking to politely, you can still use the pronoun «te».

Haluatteko te istuutua? Would you like to have a seat?

Finnish vocabulary to describe your family

The Finnish idea of a family - perhe includes parents - vanhemmat, children - lapset and pets - lemmikit meaning the definition might be narrower than in many other countries where grandparents, uncles, and aunts, for instance, are also considered as a family. In Finland, they are referred to as “suku” (extended family).

Finnish families are usually small. Couples have 1 – 2 children and they become parents at an older age than in the past, around their 30’s. It is common for both parents to go to work and have a career as the educational system is good in Finland, and both men and women have equal rights to study.

If you want to tell about your family, you need the grammatical case adessive (-lla) which is an additional way of expressing ownership.

Minulla on veli.
I have a brother.
Minun siskolla on kissa.
My sister has a cat.

vocabulary: isä (father), äiti (mother), veli (brother), sisko (sister)

To tell your profession, you can use the case essive (-na). When you describe what you want to become, you use the case translative (-ksi).

Isäni työskentelee lääkäri.
My father works as a doctor.
Äitini opiskelee opettajaksi.
My mother studies to become a teacher.

vocabulary: lääkäri (doctor), opettaja (teacher)

Finnish vocabulary for nature

The majority of the population is gathered in big cities but nature - luonto remains an important factor in the Finnish lifestyle. Outside cities, Finland is sparsely populated with rural landscapes. The characteristics of Finnish nature are 168 000 lakes - järvi, different types of forest - metsä, and small mountains - tunturi in Northern Finland.

Many Finns have a cabin where they like to spend a holiday and relax. Having a sauna building by the lake adds great value. Also, the Northern part of the country called Lapland - Lappi is a great place to go hiking and admire the Northern Lights – revontulet.

You use grammatical cases inessive (-ssa), elative (-sta), illative (-on, -han, -seen), adessive (-lla), ablative (-lta), and allative (-lle) to express location and time.

vocabulary: mökki (cabin), sauna (sauna), uida (swim), marja (berry)

Minä menen mökille.
I go to the cabin.
Illalla minä käyn saunassa.
In the evening I go to the sauna.
Minä menen uimaan järveen.
I go swimming in the lake.
Minä poimin marjoja metsästä.
I pick berries from the forest.

Finnish vocabulary for celebrating like a Finn

Christmas - joulu and New Year - uusi vuosi, Easter - pääsiäinen, Midsummer - juhannus and May Day - vappu are the greatest annual holidays Finns are celebrating. It is always interesting to take part in local traditions, so take note of these holiday greetings.

At Christmas time families gather together to spend time, make food, and exchange gifts. Finns bake ham and eat it with “rosolli” which is a salad made of beetroot, potato, and carrot. In Finland, people can buy and set off fireworks - ilotulite on New Year’s Eve and some like to cast tin - valaa tinaa and interpret the shape of the tin to make predictions for the next year.

Hyvää joulua! Merry Christmas!

Hyvää uutta vuotta! Happy New Year!

Willows have large buds in spring around Easter time and children like to collect and decorate the willow branches. Then they go from door to door chanting a rhyme and asking for treats in return for the decorated willow branch. This tradition is called “virpominen” in Finnish. One of the most iconic dishes is “mämmi” which is made of rye flour and powdered malted rye and eaten with cream.

Hyvää pääsiäistä! Happy Easter!

In the past, it was very common to carry out different kinds of magical rituals based on superstition in Midsummer to see your future husband, for example. These days, Finns usually head to their summer cabins to have a barbeque - grillata and sauna with family and friends.

Hyvää juhannusta! Happy Midsummer!

May Day is like a carnival with balloons - ilmapallo, streamer - serpentiini, and bottles of champagne - shampanja. It’s an important festival especially for student unions when they perform their own traditions.

Hyvää vappua! Happy May Day!

Some Finnish vocabulary for sports and music

Finland enjoys the full spectrum of seasons: spring - « kevät »,   summer - « kesä »,   autumn - « syksy »  and winter - « talvi » which provide a great opportunity to do different sports.

Finns are sporty people and in the summertime, they do cycling - « pyöräily »,  swimming - « uinti »,  running - « juoksu »  and playing football - « jalkapallo ».

In winter, many people like to do downhill skiing - « laskettelu », skating - « luistelu » and some find it refreshing going even ice swimming - « avantouinti »!

Several world champion athletes come from Finland, especially in winter sports such as skiing - « hiihto »,  ice hockey - « jääkiekko »  and ski jumping - « mäkihyppy ».

Motorsports are also close to many Finn’s hearts and they enjoy watching rallies - « ralli » and Formula 1 where there are also Finnish drivers.

Here are some example phrases for talking about hobbies in Finnish. The sports declines in partitive.

vocabulary: pelata (play)

harrastaa liikuntaa do sports

Minä pelaan jääkiekkoa. I play ice hockey.

Minä harrastan uintia. I do swimming.

Finns enjoy music and you can find several music festivals - musiikkifestivaali and concerts - konsertti around the country, especially in the summer. Singing karaoke - laulaa karaokea is also a popular activity in Finnish nightlife. Finns like to relax over a beer after a long week at work and many like to head to a local bar on Friday night.

Here’s how you can order a drink for yourself.

Yksi olut, kiitos. One beer, please.

Finnish may appear challenging language at first sight but it’s actually quite easy to make some new friends when having a drink, so learning new phrases might become more fun.

Kippis! Cheers!