Finnish phonology

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This article deals with the sound patterns of the Finnish language. The grammar of Finnish and the way(s) in which Finnish is spoken are dealt with in separate articles.

Contents

Consonant clusters

Originally, Finnish had no initial consonant clusters. This is changing due to influence from other European languages. In older borrowings, initial consonant clusters have been simplified. For example kouluschool, tuolistool.

More recent borrowings have retained their clusters. For example, presidentti (from English president). However, it is common to hear these clusters simplified in speech (resitentti), particularly, though not exclusively, by Finns who know little or no Swedish or English.

Vowels

Finnish, like other Finno-Ugric languages as well as Turkish, has a pattern called vowel harmony that restricts the distribution of vowels in a word. Due to vowel harmony, only certain vowels can appear in a given word, according to the vowel in the root of the word. The vowels i and e are considered neutral (they can appear anywhere), but the front vowels y, ö and ä never mix with the back vowels u, o, and a in a single word (except across compound limits). For example, tyttö "girl" is permissible it only has front vowels, but *tytto is impossible, because it has both front and back vowels.

Vowel harmony affects case suffixes and derivational suffixes, which often have two forms, one for use with front vowels, and the other with back vowels. For example: poikamainen ("boyish", from poika "boy") but tyttömäinen ("girlish"). Vowel harmony does not transcend intra-word boundaries in compound words, for example: seinäkello "wall clock" (from seinä "wall" and kello "clock"). The suffixes of compound words are determined by the last part of the word.

There are also some exceptions that violate vowel harmony, most notably tällainen ("(something) like this"), which contains both a front and a back vowel. This form is used in written and formal Finnish, but in everyday use, the word would usually be pronounced tälläinen.

Note that in the sections below, wherever a is mentioned, ä should also be understood, depending on vowel harmony.

Vowel phonemes

open back unrounded vowel
close-mid front unrounded vowel
close front unrounded vowel
open-mid back rounded vowel
close back rounded vowel
close front rounded vowel. As in French vu, German München.
open front unrounded vowel. As in English bat. Finnish spelling: ä
close-mid front rounded vowel. As in French deux. Finnish spelling: ö

Consonants

Plosives

voiceless velar plosive
voiceless bilabial plosive
voiceless dental plosive
voiced alveolar plosive (though very little voicing if any — see below)

Fricatives

voiceless alveolar fricative
voiceless glottal fricative
(English sh) and  only appear in non-native words.

Nasals

bilabial nasal
alveolar nasal
velar nasal

Trills

alveolar trill — /r/ and /rr/ as in Italian.

Approximants

lateral alveolar approximant
labiodental approximant
palatal approximant. As in English yes or German ja.

Orthography

While Finnish orthography generally follows its phonology in a regular way, there are a number of noteworthy exceptions.

Velar nasal

The velar nasal (äng-äänne) does not have its own letter. A single velar nasal is written nk, as in ken , while the doubled velar nasal is written ng, as in kengän . The treatment of the velar nasal in loanwords is highly inconsistent, following the original spelling of the word more than the proper Finnish spelling. is written englanti, is written magneetti (cf gnu), is written kongestio, etc.

Voiced plosives

Finnish has no voiced plosives in native words, with the exception of , which developed from , the voiced dental fricative (as in English then).

Without , Finnish plosives have (in native words) no distinctive voicing at all. The letters b and g do occur in Finnish in loanwords, but more often than not they are pronounced voiceless, and respectively. Furthermore, the voiceless plosives in Finnish are never aspirated.

The letter is never pronounced as soft as in English or Swedish. The father of written Finnish, Mikael Agricola, wrote d or dh for the voiced dental fricative, but this sound was later changed into different sounds in different dialects: it was deleted, or became a hiatus, a flap consonant, or any of t, r, j, jj, th. For example, of your water could be:

  • teiän veen
  • tei'än ve'en
  • teiä vede
  • teirän veren
  • teijjän vejen
  • teidän veden
  • teitän veten
  • teišän vešen
  • teidhän vethen

So, the pronunciation /d/ for the literary "d" was loaned from German. Now, especially dialectal Finnish does not use voiced stops, so this wound up being foreign for almost everyone. Nevertheless, it was decided that "proper Finnish" uses a soft d, which should be pronounced as soft as the Swedish d. Today, this case of "proper Finnish" orthodoxy is no longer practiced, but as a result there is a large population of people who pronounce the d, even though it is less voiced than the "proper d".

Väinö Linna uses the "soft d" as a hallmark of unpleasant command language in the novel The Unknown Soldier.

Stadin slangi, the dialect of Helsinki proper, uses voiced stops even in native words, e. g. dallas "s/he walked".

Consonant gradation

The consonant preceding the inflection of a word (either noun or verb) is subject to consonant gradation. Broadly, a consonant will adopt a "strong" form if the following syllable is "open" (containing a double vowel or not ending in a consonant), and a "weak" form otherwise.

The following is a partial list of strong → weak correspondences:

ttt
kkk
ppp
td
kø
kv (only in some four letter words which end in -uvu/-yvy)
pv
mpmm
nkng
rtrr
ntnn
rtirsi, ltilsi, tisi

The last pattern, ti/si, is not yet established, e.g. kieltääkielsi but säätääsääti, although both alternate forms (kielti and sääsi) are found.

Note that in any given grammatical situation, the consonant can grade either way depending on the word involved. Here are some examples:

mäki "hill" → mäen (genitive form)
ranta "shore" → rannan (genitive form)
ranne "wrist" → ranteen (genitive form)
tavata "to meet" → tapaan "I meet"
tietää "to know" → tiedän "I know"

There are rare exceptions to the general rule, some of which are noted in the noun cases section.

Length

All phonemes have distinctive length, except for /v, d, j/.

Some example sets of words:

tuli = fire, tuuli = wind, tulli = customs
muta = mud, muuta = other (partitive sg.), mutta = but

A double 'hh' is rare, but possible, e.g. hihhuli "bigot". Whereas /v/ and /j/ may appear as geminates when spoken (e.g. vauva [vauvva], raijata [raijjata]), this distinction is not phonemic, and is not indicated in spelling.

In dialects or in the "everyday language" /v, d, j/ can have distinctive length, especially due to final consonant mutation, e.g. sevverran (sen verran), kuvvoo (kuvaa), teijjän (teidän).

Stress

Like Hungarian, Finnish always places the primary stress on the first syllable of a word. This can be used to distinguish the pronunciation of homonyms, for example puunaama, meaning "wooden face", is pronounced but puunaama, meaning "which was cleaned", is pronounced .

See also

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