Thursday. 30.11.2023

Fatal (and funny) mistakes when learning Finnish

Jenni Turunen says every letter counts when learning Finnish. Image by Gerd Altmann.

There are many hilarious internet memes about Finnish language, but this one is my favorite: a picture of a cat with a funny face trying to pronounce the Finnish vowel 'y'. First it made me laugh, but then I started to think about Finnish pronunciation. How good does your pronunciation have to be to get your message understood?

Students often have some difficulties with the vowels 'y' and 'ö'. I tell them not to worry too much. People will understand you even if your pronunciation isn’t perfect. You don’t have to sound native. However, in some cases you should be careful.

When you start learning Finnish, you will pretty soon hear your teacher say: “Remember, here you have a long vowel”. Or: “Don’t forget to write double 'k' in this word”.

So if you see a double vowel or a double consonant, you have to pronounce it as a long sound. A single 'a' is pronounced differently than a double 'aa'. If you don’t do that, you will probably be misunderstood.

There are some classic examples of words that can turn into a fatal mistake if pronounced or written wrong. Let’s start with food: if you don’t want to eat pork but fail to pronounce 'siika' (whitefish) with a long 'ii', you will get some pork ('sika') on your plate.

Another often used example is the Finnish word for fire: 'tuli'. If you add another 'u', you will get wind: 'tuuli'. Tuuli is also a female name. If you know anyone named Tuuli, try to pronounce the vowels right. She probably doesn’t want to be called Tuli. And if you add an extra -l to tuli, you will get tulli, which means customs.

The most serious damage may happen if you get these words mixed up: 'tapaan' (I meet) and 'tapan' (I kill). People working in customer service check usually twice their messages about meetings: they don’t want to write 'tapan asiakkaan' (I will kill a client) instead of 'tapaan asiakkaan' (I will meet a client). As you can see, every letter counts.

It is often said that Finnish is an easy language to read or write, because it is a phonetic language. It means that there is almost one-to-one correspondence between letters and sounds. Every written letter is always pronounced with the same sound and each sound is written with the same letter.

Despite this phonetic rule, writing Finnish is not after all a piece of cake. Long vowels and double consonants give many students a headache. But next time your teacher reminds you of a missing vowel, remember that they only want you to get your message right.

Fatal (and funny) mistakes when learning Finnish