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Four things that are good to know about the Finnish language

13.12.2016

Whether you are managing a translation project, taking your first steps in learning the language or trying to pronounce Helsingin kaupunginmuseo, it is good to know a few basic aspects that characterise the Finnish language, especially in contrast with the Romanic and Germanic languages.

  1. Finnish is a synthetic language

Finnish mostly prefers deriving words and adding case endings (there are 15 to choose from) instead of articles and prepositions. This leads to long words, especially in official written communication. It also leads to false QA errors when a CAT tool encounters inflected forms of a word, because they do not correspond to the glossary term often provided in the nominative case. For example – lippu (ticket), lippua (ticket[partitive]).

  1. No genders

This applies both to the third person singular pronoun (hän can be used to refer to a woman or a man) and to nouns in general. Thus, anyone writing in Finnish avoids the stress of choosing the correct article but  needs to convey the familiarity or specificity of nouns to the reader by other means. Sometimes, this is ignored by native writers, and the reader is required to interpret quite a lot from the context, compared to more analytic languages. This can also cause headaches for anybody translating from Finnish.

  1. One sound per letter

There is very little variation in how phonemes are represented in written Finnish, which makes pronunciation fairly easy to learn. With only a few exceptions to memorise, the orthography of most words can also be predicted quite straightforwardly. As an example of such an exception, the letter ‘n’ marks the [ŋ] sound if it is followed by the letter ‘g’ but is usually pronounced as an [n] – for instance in kaupunki and kaupungin (‘a city’ and ‘a city’s’).

  1. Known and new information are signalled by word order

As the subject and object are indicated using appropriate case endings, word order has the function of indicating which part of a sentence is old and which is novel information. In English, for example, the subject and object of the sentence ‘dog ate the ball’ can be switched by changing the word order to ‘ball ate the dog’. However, in a Finnish rendering of the statement,  ‘koira söi pallon’, the same manoeuvre makes the ball the topic, and the intention of the sentence seems to change into clarifying who was it that ate the ball: ‘pallon söi koira’.