January 1999                     


Who's afraid of Finnish?

By Hannele Branch

Finnish has notorious reputation of being a difficult language. Is this true? What is 'a difficult language'? We all learn a mother tongue as children as a matter of course. Finnish children learn Finnish as easily as their counterparts in other countries learn their mother tongue. In this sense Finnish is no more difficult than any other language. But, of course, when people talk about 'a difficult language', what they really mean is a language that is thought to be particularly difficult for an foreign adult learner.

In this article I discuss some features of Finnish which in my experience as a teacher of Finnish to foreigners for many years are perceived as difficult, but in reality are simply different, for example, from English. To illustrate this difference I shall start with some historical background. Secondly, I shall discuss certain points of grammar: phonology (the sound system and pronunciation), morphology (how Finnish words are put together), and syntax (what is special about Finnish sentences). Finally, I shall suggest why and how Finnish has gained its reputation as 'a difficult language'.

Where does Finnish come from?

People often mistakenly assume that languages spoken in neighbouring countries are closely related. For this reason they ask questions like 'Is Finnish like Swedish?' or 'Does everyone in Finland speak Russian?' A simple answer to both questions is 'No.' Swedish - although one of the two official languages of Finland - and Russian belong to the Indo-European group of languages while Finnish is one of the Finno-Ugrian languages. The latter group also includes Hungarian, Estonian, Lapp and several lesser known languages spoken in Russia. The Finno-Ugrian languages share enough common lexical and grammatical features to prove a common origin. Although these languages have developed separately for thousands of years, it can be seen that common features include for instance: 1) absence of gender (the same Finnish pronoun hän denotes both he and she), 2) absence of articles (a and the in English), 3) long words due to the structure of the language, 4) numerous grammatical cases, 5) personal possession expressed with suffixes, 6) postpositions in addition to prepositions, and 7) no equivalent of the verb to have. There are various speculative theories about the time and place of the origin of the so-called Proto-Finno-Ugrian language. According to the most common theory Hungarian and Finnish are separated by a mere 6000 years of separate development.

How long Finnish-speakers have populated Finland, is a question which has always interested Finnish scholars. Nowadays it is thought that speakers of a Finno-Ugrian language have been living in the area of present-day Finland since at least 3000 BC, i.e. some five thousand years ago. During the following millennia contacts proliferated between the speakers of the Finno-Ugrian language and speakers of neighbouring Indo-European languages (e.g. Baltic, Germanic and Slavic dialects). Numerous loan words borrowed by Finnish, Estonian and the other Baltic- Finnic languages (Karelian, Lude, Vepsian, Vote and Livonian) demonstrate the existence of contacts between the people speaking Finnic languages and people speaking Indo-European languages. Not only vocabulary has been borrowed, but also many grammatical features. Most loans in present-day Finnish have come from the Germanic and Scandinavian languages, especially from Swedish. Why therefore does Finnish seem to be so different if so many loans have been borrowed? The answer to this lies in the way in which Finnish absorbed these loans.

Finnish phonology

Native-speakers usually recognise foreigners from their pronunciation. Every language has its own phonology - a system of phonemes (consonants and vowels) - and it is normally very difficult for an adult to learn to speak a foreign language without an 'accent'. Finnish is often described as 'a phonetic language' and largely this holds true. It means that every grapheme (letter in writing) corresponds to one phoneme; i.e. every letter is always pronounced in the same way - unlike English!

a) Finnish consonants

The Finnish consonant system is relatively simple:

     A     B  



(b-) (-b-) banaani/ Arabia
(c) (-c-) cocktail/ ecu
(d-) -d- direktiivi/ Lahdessa
(f-) (-f-) Finlandia/ filosofia
(g-) (-g-) gini/ antologia
-ng- = h h tango/ England
h- -h- Helsinki/ Lahti
j- -j- Jyväskylä/ raja
k- -k- kilo/ kuka
-nk- = h k
l- -l- -l Lahti/ kala/ sammal
m- -m- markka/ Suomi
n- -n- -n Norja/ mennä/ paimen
p- -p- Pekka/ opettaja
r- -r- -r Ruotsi/ suuri/ manner
s- -s- -s sauna/ vesi/ tulos
(š-) (-š-) šokki (shokki)/ pašša)
t- -t- -t Turku/ lauantai/ tulet
v- -v- Venäjä/ ravintola

Column A shows consonants which can appear in a Finnish word at the beginning of a syllable, B in the medial position, and C at the end of a syllable. The phonemes in brackets only appear in loan words. The only phoneme which does not have its own grapheme in Finnish is h .

English has an opposition between voiced and unvoiced stops (g/ k, d/ t, b/ p), i.e. there are word pairs in which voicing or non-voicing makes a difference in meaning such as gate/ Kate, bag/ back, bed/ pet, dent/ tent. Finnish lacks this opposition. As there is no need to distinguish between voiced and unvoiced stops, Finnish k, t, and p are pronounced in a rather slack manner without aspiration. Finnish also has only one sibilant s and one semivowel v compared with three in English (cf. English sin/ share, size; vice/ wise/ fare). Pronouncing Finnish consonants does not normally cause difficulties for a foreigner.

b) Finnish vowels

Finnish has eight vowels: a, e, i, o, u, y, ä, ö. These can be grouped as follows:


back                        front

a                               ä

o                               ö

u                               y




A reason for this grouping is a phenomenon called vowel harmony which in the case of Finnish means that in one word you can have either back vowels which are articulated in the rear part of the mouth (a, o, u: koira 'dog'/ musta 'black'/ vaara 'danger') or front vowels which are articulated in the front of the mouth (ä, ö, y: köyhä 'poor'/ syödä 'to eat'/ väärä 'wrong'). e and i are neutral vowels and can appear in the words with either back or front vowels (saari 'island'/ sääri 'leg'/ huone 'room'/ pääte 'ending'). Because of vowel harmony some grammatical items such as certain case endings have two variants: back vowel variant and front vowel variant.

To compensate for the lack of opposition such as voiced/unvoiced consonants Finnish uses length as a distinctive feature. This means that all eight vowels and most of the consonants can appear long: i.e. marked in writing with two letters or short marked with one letter ( tuuli 'wind' / tuli 'fire'; kukka 'flower' / kuka 'who'). For a learner of Finnish differences of this kind can cause problems both in pronunciation and memorising. Hän tulee means 'He is coming' but Hän tullee is 'He might be coming'. Minä tapaan sinut huomenna means 'I'll see you tomorrow' whereas Minä tapan sinut huomenna 'I'll kill you tomorrow'.

By now you may have noticed the absence of two or more consonants at the beginning of a word. This is indeed one of the characteristics of Finnish and one reason why loan words are not easily recognisable. Once you are aware of this feature, however, Finnish ranta 'shore, beach' can be recognised as a loan from strand 'shore, beach' of the Germanic languages (cf. English strand). Likewise Finnish Raamattu 'Bible' has been borrowed through Slavic languages from the Greek grámmata which has come into English as grammar. In Estonian raamat means simply 'book'.

Although Finnish systematically rejected at an early stage in its history consonant clusters at the beginning of a word, they are tolerated in more recent loans, e.g. presidentti 'President'; Kristus 'Christ' and a very recent loan pleiseri 'blazer'. However, when talking to an unpretentious Finn you can notice that consonant clusters still cause problems at least for those of the older generation who have not studied foreign languages. The word stressi 'stress' can become ressi and the president may be called the resitentti. These loan words also show that Finnish nouns in the basic form tend to end in a vowel. If a foreign word ends in a consonant, Finnish adds a vowel: Fi muki 'mug' < English mug.

As I mentioned earlier, through its history Finnish has been a major importer of vocabulary from other languages. In some cases Finnish seems to have acted like a deep-freeze preserving old loans in the original form while the same words in the source languages underwent changes. An example of this is Finnish kuningas 'king'. It is a very old loan surviving in its original form in Finnish whereas modern English has a king, Swedish kung/konung and German König.

Finnish morphology

A feature which often amazes a foreigner in Finnish is the length of words. This is because Finnish is typologically an agglutinative language in which grammatical markers and endings are joined to a word stem. An example of this is the one-word question: Taloissanikinko? '[Do you mean] in my houses, too?' The word can be analysed as follows:

talo / i / ssa / ni / kin / ko

The root word is talo ' house'. The i is a plural marker, ssa is an inessive case ending which in this instance corresponds to the English preposition in. ni is a first person singular possessive suffix the meaning 'my'. kin is an enclitic particle which means 'also, too' and ko is a particle indicating that a question is being asked.

English has very little of what we call inflectional morphology. English pronouns have preserved relicts of case forms. One of these pronouns is the interrogative who which has the accusative form whom and the genitive form whose. Finnish, on the other hand, has fifteen grammatical cases. The number of these is often the only thing that foreigners know about Finnish. Because people find Latin with its six cases difficult, they infer that Finnish with its fifteen must be even more difficult. In fact most of the cases are very straightforward in form and function and correspond to the prepositions of the Indo-European languages. Finnish cases have their own endings which are added to the word stem. They can express place, time, ownership, object, manner and other such things for which English normally uses a preposition. I shall take as an example the pronoun kuka 'who'.

English: who, whom, whose

Finnish: kuka: (stem form) kene-

                                                      Singular               Plural

Nominative                                        kuka                 ketkä

Genitive                                            kenen         keiden/ keitten

Accusative                                         kenet               ketkä

Partitive                                            ketä                 keitä

Adessive                                         kenellä               keillä

Ablative                                         keneltä              keiltä

Allative                                          kenelle               keille

Inessive                                        kenessä                keissä

Elative                                          kenestä               keistä

Illative                                    keneen/ kehen          keihin

Essive                                          kenenä                keinä

Translative                                  keneksi               keiksi

Abessive                                     (kenettä)             (keittä)

Comitative - -

Instructive - -


The comitative and the instructive case are not used with this pronoun; even an abessive form is questionable. The nominative singular is kuka. All the other forms of this paradigm begin with the syllable ke-. Why is the nominative singular different? The original nominative ken still survives but only in old poetry and songs. For some unknown reason kuka has taken its place. I shall give some examples of how the different forms of the kuka are used.


Kuka hän on? 'Who is he?'               Ketkä he ovat? 'Who are they?'

Kenen tämä on? 'Whose (sg) is this?'  Keiden nämä ovat? 'Whose (pl) are                                                                                                these?'


Ketä sinä odotat?                     'Whom (sg) are you waiting for?'


Keitä sinä odotat?                  'Who(m) (pl) are you waiting for?'


Keneen sinä luotat?                     'Whom (sg) do you trust?'


Keihin sinä luotat?                      'Who(m) (pl) do you trust?'


Keneksi sinä häntä luulit?      'Who (sg) did you think he was?'


Keiksi sinä heitä luulit?          'Who (pl) did you think they were?'


English manages to talk about different aspects of 'who' by using three case forms. Finnish needs twenty-four forms for the same purpose. In English 'who' is both a singular and a plural form. Finnish has to indicate the plurality with plural markers. Thus in all the sentences above the pronoun in Finnish has to be in a specific case and number.

The verb is a very powerful actor in a Finnish sentence. The forms of other items in the sentence depend on it. Just as in English to wait requires the preposition for, in Finnish the verb odottaa 'to wait' requires the partitive case; the accusative cannot be used.

Nouns and adjectives

The only inflectional forms in English nouns are the genitive and the plural. We shall look at an example of a Finnish noun preceded by an adjective:

English: a young girl (nom. sg): a young girl's (gen. sg) : young girls (nom. pl): young girls' (gen. pl)

Finnish: nuori tyttö: nuore- tyttö- (stem)

                                       Singular                               Plural

Nominative                    nuori tyttö                     nuoret tytöt

Genitive                        nuoren tytön               nuorien tyttöjen

Accusative          nuori tyttö/ nuoren tytön        nuoret tytöt

Partitive                      nuorta tyttöä                  nuoria tyttöjä

Adessive                   nuorella tytöllä                nuorilla tytöillä

Ablative                    nuorelta tytöltä                 nuorilta tytöiltä

Allative                       nuorelle tytölle                  nuorille tytöille

Elative                      nuoresta tytöstä                nuorista tytöistä

Illative                       nuoreen tyttöön               nuoriin tyttöihin

Essive                      nuorena tyttönä                nuorina tyttöinä

Translative                nuoreksi tytöksi               nuoriksi tytöiksi

Abessive                    nuoretta tytöttä               nuoritta tytöittä

Comitative             nuorine tyttöineen            nuorine tyttöineen

Instructive                           -                                nuorin tytöin

The following sentences illustrate the functions of the cases:

1. Nuorena tyttönä hän oli kaunis. 'As a young girl she was beautiful.'

2. Pekka pitää tuosta nuoresta tytöstä. ' Pekka likes that young girl.'

3. Nuorilla tytöillä on kaunis auto. 'The young girls have a beautiful car.'

4. He tulivat nuorine tyttöineen. 'They came with their young girls.'

In the sentences above we see that the adjective always precedes the noun and agrees with it: i.e. it is in the same case and number. This is one grammatical feature which the Baltic-Finnic languages have borrowed from the Germanic languages. For example in Hungarian an adjective does not agree with the noun.



Verbs in Finnish are also inflected. Here are two examples of the Finnish verb.

1. sanoa: sano- 'to say'

           Present                                       Imperfect

(minä) sano/n 'I say'                    (minä) sano/i/n 'I said'

(sinä) sano/t 'you say' [sg]        (sinä) sano/i/t 'you said' [sg]

hän sano/o 's/he says'                     hän sano/i 's/he said'

(me) sano/mme 'we say'             (me) sano/i/mme 'we said'

(te) sano/tte 'you say' [pl]           (te) sano/i/tte 'you said' [pl]

he sano/vat 'they say'                    he sano/i/vat 'they said'


2. hakea: hake- 'to fetch; seek; apply'

        Present                                        Imperfect

(minä) haen 'I fetch'                  (minä) hain 'I fetched'

(sinä) haet 'you fetch' [sg]      (sinä) hait 'you fetched' [sg]

hän hakee 's/he fetches'               hän haki 's/he fetched'

(me) haemme 'we fetch'             (me) haimme 'we fetched'

(te) haette 'you fetch' [pl]          (te) haitte 'you fetched' [pl]

he hakevat 'they fetch'                he hakivat 'they fetched'

Both verbs show that the personal endings are added in the present tense to the verb stem. In the imperfect, the marker i is placed between the stem and the personal ending.

Apart from the imperfect tense Finnish has also two more past tenses: the perfect and the pluperfect - due to the influence of the Germanic languages. Hungarian, for example, has only one past tense. As Finnish has no verb 'to have', forms of olla 'to be' are used with the past participle of the main verb:

            Perfect                                              Pluperfect

(minä) olen hakenut 'I have fetched'     (minä) olin hakenut 'I had fetched'


Morphological complications

In the examples above it was easy to follow how the verb sanoa was conjugated since the personal endings were added straight to the stem. The adjective nuori has the stem nuore- from which all the forms in the singular are formed. In the plural, except in the nominative plural, the stem vowel is replaced by the plural i marker. In the declension of the noun tyttö a tt alternates with t, and in the conjugation of the verb hakea strange things seem to happen. What is the reason for these variations?

Every language is in a constant process of change. Finnish, too, has undergone many changes during its history. For each form which looks exceptional, there is a historic reason; very often the reason has been a tendency towards an 'easier' pronunciation. In the case of the verb hakea two changes affect the forms. First, in the imperfect stem vowel, e has been replaced by the imperfect marker i. Secondly the stem is affected by a phenomenon called consonant gradation. This is a phenomenon which appears with the consonants (stops) k, t and p. There are sixteen alternation patterns in Finnish:

strong    weak        strong                            weak

1.    pp : p             kaappi 'cupboard'       :   kaapin gen. sg.

2.      tt : t              tyttö      'girl'                 :     tytön gen. sg.

3.    kk : k             kukka  'flower'            :    kukan gen. sg.

4.      p : v             tapa      'habit'               :      tavan gen. sg.

5.      t : d              katu      'street'              :      kadun gen. sg.

6.    ht : hd            lehti       'leaf'                 :      lehden gen. sg.

7.    k : 0 (zero)   hakea   'to fetch'           :        haen 'I fetch'

8. mp : mm          kampa  'comb'             :       kamman gen. sg.

9.   nt : nn             ranta      'shore'             :       rannan gen. sg.

10. lt : ll                kulta      'gold'               :        kullan gen. sg.

11. rt : rr              parta      'beard'             :        parran gen. sg.

12. nk : ng          Helsinki                        :       Helsingin gen. sg.

13. lke : lje         sulkea     'to close'         :       suljen 'I close'

14. rke : rje        särkeä    'to break'       :       särjen 'I break'

15. hke : hje       rohkenen 'I dare'           :        rohjeta 'to dare'

16. k    : v          luku          'chapter'         :       luvun gen. sg.

                         kyky         'ability'            :        kyvyn gen. sg.

These sixteen alternation patterns have an enormous impact on the vocabulary of Finnish. The original reason for the alternation, which started a very long time ago, was that before an open syllable (ending in a vowel) the consonant had to be in the strong grade and before a closed syllable (ending in a consonant) in the weak grade. As the language has undergone many changes, numerous exceptions to this rule have crept in, most of which, however, can be explained historically. The first twelve types are common; the last four less so.

We have seen above that the i marker of the imperfect and plural can cause changes in the stem of the word. Dictionaries normally give for nouns the nominative and for the verbs an infinitive as the basic form. However, if a word is in its inflected form effected by two changes at the same time, it is hard for an inexperienced learner to guess, for example, the infinitive of a form such as haimme in the sentence: Haimme illalla metsästä puuta. 'We fetched some wood from the forest in the evening.' The solution to the problem lies in knowing about the changes which take place in Finnish words. The learner knows that -mme is the personal ending of the first person plural (something to do with us!), and thus haimme is bound to be the verb of the sentence. In a verb form i must be the marker of the imperfect which can replace (according to the rules a learner has acquired) an ä or e vowel. As the first vowel of the word is a, taking into account vowel harmony, the missing vowel cannot be ä and thus must be e. The reader now has the stem hae-, which cannot be found in a dictionary. The next question is: Could the stem be effected by consonant gradation? Indeed: alternation pattern number seven above; k is the only consonant which can disappear in the weak grade. By inserting it between the two vowels the learner gets the stem hake- and then the dictionary offers an infinitive hakea ' to fetch', and the problem is solved.

Finnish can sometimes be like mathematics and many students enjoy it as a similar challenge. However, most of the vocabulary does not offer complications of this kind. Nevertheless, it is normally recognised that the vocabulary is in fact one of the hardest things for a learner of Finnish. It is partly due to the changes discussed above and partly to the fact that a learner can only very rarely resort to forms in other languages as a means of memorising.

Finnish syntax

First, as I mentioned earlier, the verb is the most powerful item in a Finnish sentence. There is not always an obvious reason why a certain verb requires a noun to be in a particular case. For example, in the sentence Minä rakastan sinua 'I love you', the pronoun sinä 'you' has to be in the partitive form sinua, but in the sentence Pidän sinusta 'I like you', the verb requires the pronoun to be in the elative case sinusta.

The dynamic or static nature of a verb can also require different forms for the expression of time. In the sentence Olen Suomessa viikon 'I'm staying in Finland for a week', the static verb olla 'to be' requires the time expression in the accusative case, whereas in the sentence Menen Suomeen viikoksi 'I 'm going to Finland for a week', the dynamic verb mennä 'to go' requires time expression in the translative case.

Finding the correct form of the subject, direct object and complement in Finnish causes many headaches for learners. The reason is a duality which exists in their marking. The subject can be either in the nominative or partitive case: Kadulla on miehiä (partitive plural) 'There are some men in the street' and Miehet ovat kadulla (nominative plural) 'The men are in the street'. As you will notice, the difference is between indefinite 'some men' expressed with a partitive and definite 'the men' expressed with a nominative form.

In direct object marking, the opposition is between the accusative and the partitive. The action can effect the whole object or lead to a result , i.e. be resultative (Liisa luki kirjan 'Liisa read the book [right through]') in which case the direct object has to be in the accusative form. On the other hand, the action can effect only a part of the object or/and be irresultative, i.e. not lead to a result (Liisa luki kirjaa 'Liisa was reading a book') in which case the direct object is in the partitive case.

In the case of the complement, the opposition is between a nominative and a partitive form. Maito on pahaa 'The milk is bad'. The complement pahaa is in the partitive because the subject maito 'milk' is a devisable word. In the sentence Tyttö on kaunis 'The girl is beautiful' the complement kaunis 'beautiful' is in the nominative because the subject tyttö 'girl' is indivisable.

The rules given above cover some of the main points of the dual behaviour of the subject, the direct object and the complement of a sentence. As can be seen, the rules and reasons can be quite complicated. In fact, the opposition in the subject and direct object marking is one thing which is hard for a foreigner to master (and sometimes even Finns will argue among themselves about the 'correct form'). As native speakers normally understand foreigners in spite of mistakes of this kind do not despair. The difficulty can be compared with that which foreigners face in trying to master the correct use of the English articles a and the.

Word order in Finnish

It is often said that the word order in Finnish is very free. Is this true? Let's examine some sentences:

1. Ostin tämän kirjan Lontoosta viime kesänä.

2. Ostin tämän kirjan viime kesänä Lontoosta.

Both sentences can be translated as 'I bought this book in London last summer'. In Finnish, new information is often given at the end of the sentence and thus in the first sentence the time expression viime kesänä 'last summer' seems to be important. In the second sentence the new information is the place, Lontoosta 'in London'. Nevertheless, both Finnish sentences are fairly neutral. In spoken language the speaker can give more emphasis to any of the phrases in the sentence. If the speaker or writer wishes to bring an item to be a topic that item is placed at the beginning of the sentence:

3. Tämän kirjan ostin Lontoosta viime kesänä.

4. Tämän kirjan ostin viime kesänä Lontoosta.

In these two sentences the emphasised topic is tämän kirjan 'this book' and the sentences would require the English translation also to begin with the same phrase: 'This book I bought last summer in London.' In spoken language the phrase tämän kirjan would very likely be emphasised by intonation.

The sentences above show that word order in Finnish is not random. But it is true that because Finnish has much inflectional grammar, a certain freedom of word order exists which is lacking in English. In English, word order is strict in a sentence like Peter hates John. If you change the word order, the message changes: John hates Peter. In Finnish the first sentence would be Pekka vihaa Jussia 'Pekka hates Jussi' but if you change the place of the subject and the direct object in this Finnish sentence, the meaning does not change: Jussia Pekka vihaa. Because the direct object is marked (it is in the partitive case) it is quite clear that Jussi is the object of hate. However, there is also a difference in Finnish between the two sentences. While the first (Pekka vihaa Jussia) is a neutral statement, the meaning of the second sentence (Jussia Pekka vihaa) seems to be a protest: 'It is Jussi whom Pekka hates (and not Matti, for instance).

Is Finnish a difficult language?

So far I have discussed some of the features typical of Finnish. There is, of course, much more besides. There are many other grammatical items to be mastered if you want to learn the language properly.

How easily can a foreigner learn language like this? In fact, Finnish is a very logical language, as many students who have studied it methodologically admit. Finnish often expresses ideas very differently from the ways of the more commonly studied European languages. In other words Finnish is different. But this does not make it more difficult than other languages. Linguists recognise a phenomenon called Sprachbund. This means that in a certain geographical area, languages which differ from each other typologically share other similarities which result from living in a similar environment. This kind of phenomenon exists, for example, in the Baltic region. Because of the same environment, a common history, culture and contacts, Scandinavian languages, German and Finnish share some features (perhaps mostly in vocabulary) which bind them together and accordingly make it easier for people who know these languages to understand some features of Finnish.

To start with, Finnish is a very demanding language, not least for a teacher and an author of a Finnish text book. Why? Because Finnish is a very synthetic language. Those changes (consonant gradation and vowel changes ) I described above obviously make the task of learning vocabulary more difficult. In addition, both nouns and verbs have a large number of inflectional types, some of which are more frequent than others. Furthermore, as I have already mentioned, languages are never static. They change, and, therefore, it is often impossible to give a strict rule for a particular grammatical point. One example of this is the change ti > si which started hundreds of years ago and is still continuing. Many native speakers might hesitate, for example, between the imperfect forms kielsi and kielti 'he forbade'.

For these reasons, the problem facing the teacher of Finnish is to decide in which order grammar and vocabulary should be taught and how thoroughly they should be learnt. The answer to this depends on the aim of the language course. Is it just to learn a little conversational Finnish and to keep the students amused for two hours per week? Or is the learner going to be a translator or interpreter who has to understand all the nuances of the language?

To understand the kind of complexities that Finnish presents to the beginner, let us examine the Finnish equivalent of the simple English sentence: I like you. The English sentence is very easy for a foreigner to handle because you simply place one word after the other. This simple sentence translates into Finnish as Minä pidän sinusta.

Before you can produce this Finnish sentence, you have to know the following: 1) how a Finnish verb is conjugated (the personal endings); 2) pitää is a verb affected by consonant gradation; you must know about the t-d alternation; 3) pitää requires the noun in the elative case; thus you must know about the case system and how the pronouns are declined. It is quite a lot of grammar to handle such a simple sentence. Of course, you can say Minä pitää sinä leaving all the words in their basic form, and surprisingly the Finns will understand you (provided your body language is appropriate). But if you are a perfectionist or otherwise take your studies seriously, you will want to know how a Finn says it.

However, that is only the start of the problem. In reality it is not very likely that a Finn today would say: Minä pidän sinusta. If a young Finnish man were bold enough to express such feelings in words, he would be more likely to say something like: Mä tykkään susta. This brings us to the reality that every language has a range of dialects and registers. Finnish has regional dialects and different social variants (jargons, slangs). Colloquial Finnish often differs markedly from the standard language. For a foreigner, however, it is always best to start with the standard form of the language.

This all brings me back to the question: Is Finnish a difficult language? As the reader might already have guessed, my usual reply to the question is: it is not difficult but different. The biggest problem is where to start. You want to learn but there seems to be no end to what you have to remember before you can form even the most simple statement. There are so many words which all seem to look the same but which have different meanings and functions.

But is Finnish more difficult than French or Spanish or Latin or German which you might have studied at school? Remember how you learnt (or failed to learn) French at school. How many years did you spend on it? How many classes did you have with teacher every week? How much home work did you have? What was your French like when you left the school? What is your French like now?

When people study Finnish abroad it is most often once a week for perhaps two hours at a time in an evening class. Most teachers give students some home work but many students do not do it. Students often believe, or expect, that a language can be learnt by osmosis - just like that, in the classroom. Unfortunately, the study of any foreign language requires work - and often very hard work. The grammar of Finnish can be learnt logically. The greatest obstacle is the vocabulary which requires memory; and the teacher cannot memorise for you.

ã Hannele Branch 1998

Hannele Branch is lecturer in Finnish at the School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies

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