23 fun facts about the Finnish language
Planning a trip to Finland and want to impress the locals with your Suomi skills? Or maybe you're just a language enthusiast looking for a new challenge. Either way, the Finnish language is definitely a unique one. It's got some tricky grammar rules, some tricky pronunciations, and a whole bunch of compound words that'll make your head spin. But don't worry, we're here to give you the rundown on some fun facts about the Finnish language that'll make learning it a little bit more manageable and a lot more interesting.
Finnish has some of the world’s longest words
The biggest compound word with a whopping 61 letters is "lentokonesuihkuturbiinimoottoriapumekaanikkoaliupseerioppilas" which translates to "airplane jet turbine engine auxiliary mechanic non-commissioned officer student". Not a word you'll use every day, but good to know for impressing your friends.
Finnish is part of a unique club
It's part of the Uralic language family and closest to Karelian, a minority language spoken by about 100,000 people, mainly in the Republic of Karelian in Russia and about 30 000 in Finland. Finnish is also related to the less widely spoken languages of Livonian, Votic and Veps, and is in the same family as Estonian and a distant cousin to Hungarian. In comparison, most of the other languages spoken around Europe belong to the Indo-European language family.
Finns don't waste words
One Finnish word can express a whole sentence in English. If you're feeling peckish in Helsinki, say "söisinköhän" which means "I'm wondering if I should eat something."
Finnish is gender-neutral
This means there's no grammatical gender and all pronouns are gender-neutral. In fact, the word "hän" can mean both "he" and "she", talk about gender equality.
Finnish inspired Elvish
J.R.R. Tolkien, the famed English writer, philologist and Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford was fascinated by Finland and the Finnish language. Consequently, he used it to form the basis of the Elvish language of Quenya in Lord of the Rings.
Finnish is a world record holder
The Finnish word "saippuakivikauppias" is the world's longest palindrome and is listed in the Guinness World Records book, it means "a seller of soapstone"
One Finnish word is very hot
One of the few Finnish words to make it into everyday English language is "sauna". The Finns are mad about saunas, they're in the usual places like people's houses, offices, factories, and sports centres. But you'll also find saunas in some rather surprising places such as a Burger King in Helsinki, a gondola at the Ylläs ski resort, and even the Finnish parliament.
It has a ton of cases
Finnish is also known for its use of cases, which can be a bit tricky to navigate. There are 15 different cases in Finnish, each with their own specific grammatical function. But once you get the hang of it, it can be quite a fun and creative way to express yourself.
Finnish has dozens of words for snow
Another interesting fact about Finnish is that it has a very rich vocabulary of words to describe different types of snow. From "lumi" (snow) to "loska" (slushy snow) to "puuterilumi" (powder snow), Finns have a word for every type of snowfall.
It’s very harmonic
Finnish is also known for its use of vowel harmony, which is a way to ensure that words are pronounced correctly. There are two different sets of vowels in Finnish, front vowels and back vowels, and they must agree with each other in a word.
It’s also musical
Lastly, Finnish is a very melodic language and is often compared to music. The intonation and rhythm of Finnish words are essential to understanding the meaning of the sentence. Finnish speakers tend to stress the first syllable of a word.
Finnish takes thing literally
Finns take things literally. A lot of Finnish words have a very literal translation in English. A fridge is an "ice cupboard" (jääkaappi), a computer is a "knowledge machine" (tietokone) and dice are "lottery cubes" (arpakuutiot). Talk about saying what you see!
Next, every dot counts in Finnish. It's pronounced how it's written, so every diacritic is important. If you get your pronunciation wrong, you're in danger of changing the meaning of the sentence. For example, the letter ä is not the same as the letter a. They're listed as separate letters in the Finnish alphabet, they're pronounced differently, and they mean different things. Take the words säde (ray of light) and sade (rain). The umlaut changes the pronunciation and meaning.
There's no future in Finnish
In Finnish, there is no special tense for the future. Finns just use the present tense and add a few words to make it clear that they're talking about something that hasn't happened yet. For example, you can add words like "probably" or "soon" to indicate that something will happen in the future. You can also use a verb like "to intend" to make it extra clear. And if you want to add a little humour, you can always say "when cows fly" to indicate that something will never happen in the future.
It’s oldest written words are magic
The oldest piece of written Finnish is a spell. Some Finnish words still in use today date back 4,000 years. It's unclear where and when the written version of the language came from, but the oldest known piece of written Finnish dates from around the mid-1200s and was found in Novgorod, which is now Russia. It was written on a birch bark letter and is difficult to interpret into modern Finnish, but is believed to be some kind of spell.
The Finnish alphabet is bigger
Finland's alphabet consists of 29 letters. As well as the standard Roman alphabet (the same one used by English), it adds Å and Ö from the Swedish alphabet and Ä (pronounced 'ahh' as in 'apple'). Despite their inclusion, some letters in the alphabet, such as W, are barely used in Finnish and appear only in foreign words or names.
Finnish lit was popularised by one man
The first novel written and published in Finnish is believed to be Aleksis Kivi's Seven Brothers (or Seitsemän Veljestä in the original Finnish) in 1870. The book is not only considered one of the best pieces of Finnish literature ever written, but is credited with popularizing the written language, paving the way for modern Finnish and instilling the national pride that resulted in the country's independence in 1917.
There’s fewer Finnish speakers than people in Finland
Finnish is one of the 24 official languages of the European Union, yet it is also one of the least widespread with only around 5 million native speakers, about one percent of the EU population. Most of these speakers live in Finland, where around 90 percent of the population speaks Finnish as a first language. It is also an official minority language in Karelian-Russia, parts of Sweden, and the far north of Norway. There are also a few small Finnish speaking communities in the USA and Canada, consisting mostly of Finnish immigrants.
Finnish is the official language of metalheads
Finnish language teachers find that many people studying it for pleasure are doing so because of their interest in the Finnish heavy metal music scene. Finland has more heavy metal bands per capita than any other nation and songs are usually written in Finnish or English, or a combination of the two. So, if you're a metalhead looking to understand the lyrics of your favorite Finnish bands, learning Finnish is a must!
Manners aren't a priority
Finnish has very few formal equivalents in its speech, as a straightforward cultural attitude doesn't put a high emphasis on manners or formal speaking. One thing which can really throw off etiquette-lovers is that Finnish has no word for 'please', using the word for 'thank you' (kiitos) whenever it is needed. When asking for something in Finland, you only need to name the thing you need and not worry about coming across as impolite.
Finns have a love-hate relationship with English
English is widely spoken and understood in Finland. Indeed nearly 70% of Finns are fluent in it, which is why Finland ranked 8th in the world in 2022 English Proficiency Index of non- English-speaking countries. However, Finns are understandably protective of their own language, and very keen on teaching Finnish words to foreigners
Finns celebrate both birthdays and name days
This is a tradition that dates back to the Medieval period. Every day on the calendar has some Finnish names attached to it, and people with that name receive cards and cakes from loved ones. But here's the catch, it only extends to common Finnish and Swedish names, so those with more unusual names are left out. But hey, at least it's a unique tradition, right?
Finnish has different dialects
There are seven main dialects in Finland, each one with their own sub-dialects and individual slang terms. Most of these can be divided between the eastern and western halves of the country. If you've ever heard someone speak with an "hick" accent in Finland, that's likely the Savo dialect. While southern or Helsinki dialects are considered more sophisticated. And if you're ever in the north of Finland, be prepared for some thick and difficult to understand accent, even for other Finns.
So there you have it, fun facts about the Finnish language that'll make studying it a little less intimidating and a lot more fun. Happy learning!