Finnish became the official language of Finland in 1892. There are nearly six million speakers of Finnish worldwide and it is the official minority language in Sweden. Finnish is also spoken in parts of Norway, Estonia, Russia, Canada, and the United States.
Before the Middle Ages, Finnish largely existed as part of a rich oral tradition. Business, religious and administrative affairs were conducted in other languages until the sixteenth century. At this time, Bishop Mikael Agricola codified the Finnish language with the intention of translating the Bible into Finnish.
Three centuries later, Elias Lönnrot compiled folk stories into Finland’s national epic, the Kalevala. This mythological tale is often considered the most important piece of fiction for Finland because of it’s integral role in unifying and shaping a national identity. Finland secured its independence from Russia in 1917, less than a century after the publication of the first edition of the Kalevala (1835).
Finnish is a notoriously challenging language to learn, but thankfully, almost everyone that I have met in Helsinki speaks English. Students here start taking English or Swedish in grade school and by the time they have finished high school have taken at least one or two other languages as well. My classes have not started yet so I’ve been attempting (with minimal success) to study Finnish. A few polite expressions are helpful to know to be respectful.
Some Common Expressions
hyvää huomenta good morning
hyvää päivää good day
hyvää iltaa good evening
hyvää yötä good night
hei! / moi! hi!
näkemiin good bye
kiitos thank you
Puhutteko englantia? Do you speak English?
To practice pronunciation, I use Google translate. Remember that the first syllable is stressed, without exception.
Other Oddities about the Finnish Language
Finnish is a part of the Uralian languages which includes Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian.
There are several things that make these languages distinct:
- There are no articles
- There is no gender
- There is no equivalent of the verb “to have” in English
Finno-Ugric languages are agglutinative, meaning that affixes are added to the base of words within this language. As a result, extremely long words exist (and are quite common) in Finnish such as the following:
This word means “doubting: not even with his/her ability to not make a thing unsystematic.” This word has forty-eight letters by my count!
This word (meaning a soapstone seller) is the longest known palindrome.
This word has the largest number of consecutive vowels (9!). It means courting right intention.
Minä tapaan sinut huomenna. / Minä tapan sinut huomenna.
These nearly identical sentences mean drastically different things.
Minä tapaan sinut huomenna.
I’ll see you tomorrow.
Minä tapan sinut huomenna.
I’ll kill you tomorrow.
(For more information, see: http://www.cs.tut.fi/~jkorpela/Finnish.html)