Monday, August 18, 2014

Deconstructing Finnish

Now and then, as I continue trying to improve my Finnish language kyky (ability), I decide it’s high time that I actually understand the words of some of my favorite Finnish songs. For years, I’ve enjoyed some popular Finnish bands without necessarily having much of a clue what they’re singing about.  It's not a strange as it might sound.

Once when I was taking regular Finnish lessons I suggested to the teacher that we study the lyrics of Eppu Normaali sometime. Maybe she wasn’t a fan (hard to imagine), but in any case it never happened.

Another Finnish band I really like is Scandinavian Music Group, whose song “Joisin viskin ja nousisin” I can actually even sing, well, maybe at least the first few lines.

“Jos voisin joskus olla niin kuin hän, jota rakastan
 Jos voisin ajaa Norjan läpi ilman korttia.”

”If I could sometimes be like the one I love 

If I could drive through Norway without a driver’s license.”

Anyway, since I listen to this particular tune frequently, I figured it would help my Finnish comprehension to learn the rest of the song.


I recently downloaded the lyrics, and I’ve got to say, the wording the construction of the language though perfectly normal Finnish, provides some good examples of what makes Finnish such a complicated language for English speakers to learn.

o illustrate this (and show my pedantic side in all its glory), I’ve decided to “deconstruct” a couple of lines from the song, namely

”Joisin viskin ja nousisin portaissa käsilleni.
 Teille ylpeilisin mustelmillani.”

Nine words. In English, this very roughly translates to

“I would drink the whisky and raise in the stairs to my hands. 
 I would brag to you about my bruises.”

It’s not so hard to understand these lines, more or less. The passive comprehension of these nine words isn’t necessary beyond me. But, if I had to actively express the same thing, to put these words into their final form off the top of my head, from scratch so to speak, boy, that would require some mental jujitsu. Or mental sisu. Or mental something.

Here’s the breakdown of how you would form these words from their original (dictionary) forms, if you were forced to think about it and do it "by the book". (And I’m sure to get called out by sharp-eyed folks who know the subject much better than I do.)

To get joisin (I would drink), the steps are:

Infinitive (to drink), verb type 2

Infinitive stem – Formed by dropping -da (because it is verb type 2)
3rd person plural present-tense – Formed by adding the 3rd person plural suffix -vat
3rd person plural stem – Formed by removing
–vat and then, because what’s left ends in a diphthong (-uo-), removing the first vowel “u”

Conditional stem – Formed by adding the conditional marker -isi-
1st personal conditional singular – Formed by adding the personal ending -n

Voila, you get joisin, “I would drink”, and after much more of this, you certainly would. In English, we would just add “I would” in front of “drink”, and be done with it.

Getting to viskin is a bit easier because viski (whiskey), since it is a foreign loan word (thank you Scotland!) it doesn’t normally get twisted all out of recognition the way many Finnish words do. Also, it helps that all of the whiskey is being drunk, apparently. 

Nominative (whiskey)
Because not just some whiskey is being consumed, but every single bit of it, the accusative case is in order here. In Finnish, this is usually identical to the genitive case, which means you simply add the genitive ending -n to the nominative stem viski-.

If it were only some of the whiskey being drunk, then you would instead add an –ä to form the dreaded partitive case
in which case, why not just go ahead and drink it all? 

This word means “and” and there’s nothing more to say about that. It never changes, thank god.

Forming nousisin (I would raise) is a lot like joisin.

Infinitive (to raise), verb type 3
Infinitive stem – Formed by dropping -ta, as one does with verb type 3
3rd person plural present tense – Formed by adding an -e- (again, typical of verb type 3) before you tack on the -vat.

3rd person plural stem – Formed by removing the -vat (and this just after you added it).
Conditional stem – Formed by removing the “e” from the 3rd person plural stem before adding the conditional marker -isi-.

Of course, going to the trouble of forming the 3rd person plural stem might seem totally, and perversely, useless since it’s identical to the infinitive stem we started with.

But, this isn’t the case for all type 3 verbs, thanks to consonant gradation (or degradation, as I sometimes think of it). For example, in the case of ajatella (to think), the two stems in question are ajatel- and ajattel-. Spot the difference? One letter only, but in Finnish that can make a big difference.

portaissa (in the stairs) Now it gets interesting. Really.

Nominative (a step)

Nominative plural (stairs) – Formed by replacing the “s” with -at (because that’s how you form nominative plural with words ending in “-as”). We’ll regret this in the next step.

Also, consonant gradation comes into play, which forces the “weak” -rr- to change into the strong -rt-. Insidious, isn’t it?

Plural stem – This is weirdly formed by removing the –at that indicates plural in the nominative and instead adding the plural marker -i- used in every other case.

Inessiivi case (in the stairs) – Add the inessiivi ending -ssa to clarify that we’re not talking about from the stairs (portailta) or on the stairs (portailla) or to the stairs (portaille). Simple.

käsilleni  (to my hands)

Nominative (hand)

Allatiivi case (to the hands) – Because käsi is an “uusi-type” word, you form the allatiivi case in plural by simply adding the -lle suffix to the basic nominative form.

Normally, it’s much more complicated. For example, in the case of “foot”, the singular form, jalka is changed first to jalalle (to the foot), before finally being transformed to the plural jaloille (to the feet). To me, this is mind-boggling.

Possessive (to my hands) – All that’s needed is the simple act of adding the first-person singular possessive ending -ni (my).
teille (to you)

Personal pronoun (you)
2nd person plural pronoun stem
Allatiivi case Again, add the allatiivi ending, -lle.

ylpeilisin (I would brag)

Infinitive (to brag), verb type 3

3rd person plural (they brag) Formed by removing the -lä, then (as with nousta above) adding an -e- and the 3rd person plural ending -vat.

Conditional stem  Again, formed by removing the 3rd person plural ending -vat.
1st person singular conditional (I would brag) Formed by replacing -e- with –isi, and adding the 1st person singular ending -n.

mustelmillani (with my bruises)

Nominative (bruise)
Adessiivi case (by the bruise, or with the bruise) Formed by adding the adessiivi ending –lla.

Possessive (by my bruise) – Formed by adding the 1st person singular possessive ending -ni.

Plural (by my bruises) – “Bruise” is changed to “bruises” by replacing the -a- in the stem with the plural marker -i-. The meaning in this context is more like “using my bruises to brag”. In English we would say “to brag about my bruises”.

Of course, probably no one in their right mind would go through such torturous steps when boasting about their inclination to drink whiskey and get bruised.

Luckily, native Finnish-speakers don’t have to think about it this much. If you ask most Finns why you remove the “u” from juoda when talking conditionally, they surely would have no clue. They just learn the final forms by heart. Maybe some foreigners do the same. 

I only wish I could do it that way, too (“Vain toivon, että voisin tehdä samalla tavalla”) – like the one I love.  


  1. Well done! I teach this language in Ireland, and most of the time my students have a shocked expression on their face when we go through some grammar exercises, and all I can feel is pity... when my husband complains about Finnish being difficult, I just say to him: 'you should have married a Swedish woman' - Swedish is such an easy language...

    1. Thanks, that's nice to hear! I have to confess, it has also sometimes crossed my mind that life would have been easier in Sweden :-)

    2. You don't have to go to Sweden to speak Swedish though! Find the right municipalities in Finland and that problem is solved!

  2. I've been teaching Finnish to foreigners in Finland and can relate to your troubles. The best way to learn any language is usually to first familiarize yourself with the grammar and then start talking. (And keep talking however difficult or embarrassing it might be). It's pretty difficult to learn Finnish well without first having a grasp of the grammar. (Impossible, in my opinion.)

    Sorry for being a 'pilkunviilaaja' (a person who corrects other people's grammatical errors) but you must say 'taito' instead of 'kyky' when referring to your language ability. Also, in the last sentence, switch the places of 'vain' and 'toivon' :)

    Otherwise, good job!

    (Ps. You are more than welcome to correct my English.)

    1. Generally people say P.S. at the end. Not Ps.!

    2. Thanks for the tips! And you're right, making yourself actual use the language is so essential, but often the hardest part. For me, at least..

    3. You can certainly use "Vain toivon" and it's more poetic that way. It'd fit in a song. You wouldn't use that in normal speak, though.

    4. pilkunviilaaja ~= nitpicker.

      I disagree about the part about grammar and talking though. You should *listen* to as much native speech as you can, at a level that is at least slightly higher than what you understand (but try to progress to listening fully eloquent native speech as soon as possible). You can *check* some grammar points if you think you need clarification, but grammar should never be the starting point for your studies. And talking is worth it only if you're trying to coax natives to speak more (ie. give you more input). Otherwise you're just making mistakes and shy Finns aren't probably even correcting them for you.

    5. Agreed!
      First comes *listen*. Then talk. Grammar comes last, if at all.
      I doubt Finnish babies learn grammar before listening to lullabies...

  3. Are these rules from a grammar book? As a Finn I never thought about these before but I think something like this is would be a more logical way:

    Juo-da -> Juo- -> J(u)oisi -> Joisin
    Nous-ta -> Nous- -> Nousisi -> Nousisin
    Porras -> Portai-ta (pl.) -> Portai- -> Portaissa
    Käsi -> Käsi-ä (pl.) -> Käsi- -> Käsille -> Käsilleni (Jalka -> Jalko-ja -> Jal(k)oille)
    Ylpeil-lä -> Ylpeil- -> Ylpeilisi -> Ylpeilisin
    Mustelma -> Mustelmi-a (pl.) -> Mustelmi- -> Mustelmilla -> Mustelmillani

  4. Nice article. When it comes to language skills in Finnish language, one would normally use the word "osaaminen" instead of "kyky". ..or "taito", which is mentioned in the comments.

  5. I would render "nousisin portaissa käsilleni" as "i would make a handstand on the stairs". Pretty close to your translation. "Nousta" is "to rise". "To raise" would be "nostaa". Anyway, excellent analysis. Couldn't do that even though I'm a native Finn.

  6. Hrmh. When negative, the word "ja" ("and") changes to "eikä" ("and not", from "ei" (not) + "-kä" (nor)).

  7. Here's my all time favourite on this topic:

    1. "And now the plural forms..." Great, isn't it? And a bit insane.

  8. Good luck with the Finnish language! I still remember how mindboggling the course "suomen kielen rakenne ja kehitys" was at the university. Before it, I had no idea how complex my mother tongue is, because this kind of mental gymnastics is done subconsciously and you just 'know' the right forms.

  9. It is more poetic to say 'samoin' instead of 'samalla tavalla'. Or to finnicize your closing sentence completely, you could also use a non-finite clause 'Vain toivon voivani tehdä samoin' (voivani = että voi(si)n)

    1. I would say "Toivoisin voivani tehdä samoin". It's more compact, and there is an alliterative voi-voi sequence in the middle...

    2. Because when speaking Finnish, it's not enough that you know the grammar, but the sentences should ideally also sound good...

    3. A shorter version migt be: "Voisinpa tehdä samoin"

    4. Or with two words: "Pystyisimpä samaan"
      Please do not expect me to expain that.

    5. "Pystyisimpä samaan" is quite excellent, yes, except it might be more properly spelled with an n as in 'Pystyisinpä' (24k google hits for the 'n' version, 5k for m)

      The grammar is explained here:

      Firstly -pa is much like the question particle -ko in its positioning, except it always takes the earliest position possible while -ko, especially in spoken speech, tends to wander a little.

      I will only look at the case of a verb in conditional mood + -pa. The short of it here is that the -pa suffix expresses a wish. "[Ja] olisipa joulu." = [And] I wish it was Christmas

      Of course, the second, generic function of -pa is to express contrast or emphasis: "Et uskaltaisi" "Uskaltaisinpa" = "You wouldn't dare" "Yes I would"

      Or, conceivably, in joined clauses, it could be used when the act is irrelevant e.g. "Yrittäisitpä kuinka monta kertaa tahansa, aina epäonnistuisit" = "No matter how many times you should try, you would always fail", though I'm not sure if the use of the conditional mood is fully kosher in these constructs. It doesn't sound too bad to me.

      -pa also has a number of other functions in other contexts

  10. "It's not a strange as it might sound."

    It's probably the default for any foreign language music for most people. Rather than trying to understand what the singer is saying, it's just easier (and more fun) to simply listen to the music.

    Eppu Normaali can be a bit difficult subject for language study as I imagine it may include fairly many cultural references (and rhymes may make things a bit unconventional or simply linguistically wrong). Murheellisten laulujen maa, for example, references some stereotypes of Finns, penchant for melancholic music, old fictional characters and cultural memes and turns of phrases (Turmiolan Tommi, katajainen kansa, herran elkeet) and makes cultural/musical references (Toivo Kärki, Sillanpään marssilaulu, Elämän valttikortit) basically as a parody to all the melancholic, self-pitying songs, essentially a deluxe version of Karrelle palanut enkeli in Pasila. It would be a bit much to handle in a reasonable amount of time.

  11. “I would drink the whisky and raise in the stairs to my hands."

    * Probably "a whisky", since referring to a definite amount of whisky, it's quite likely a single drink ("a") unless referring to some previously expressed measure ("the").
    * "nousta käsille(nsä)" rise to one's hands i.e. do a handstand.
    * Probably "on the stairs", as English pronouns often don't match the "corresponding" Finnish suffixes. It's the same with all languages.
    So more like:
    “I would drink a whisky and do a handstand on the stairs."

  12. This makes my brain hurt.

    I found the tune on YouTube and listened. Nice vocals.

  13. I have never quite understood why the infinitive has been chosen as the dictionary form, as it is usually derived from the actual stem. The most convenient verb form to start from is the imperative, which is usually the stem from which the present tense is formed by adding a person suffix. This is actually quite natural, as the imperative is the primary form of early language interaction with babies. "Anna" (give!) is probably the first verb used by most babies.

    1. I could relate to that "Anna", remembering that once when my son, just over 1 year old, was sitting in his father's lap in the local train, with a lady with a generously open summer blouse, not so much hiding an amply formed breast on the opposite seat. Recalling his quite recent milk bar days with me he stretched his hands towards her and said "Anna, anna!" :-)