The Finnish language is distinctive, beautiful, and spoken by no one other than Finns

Monday, June 3rd, 2019

One of Finland’s strengths, Jared Diamond notes in Upheaval, is that it has a strong sense of unity:

Finland identifies with Scandinavia and is considered part of Scandinavia. Many Finns are blue-eyed blonds, like Swedes and Norwegians. Genetically, Finns are in effect 75% Scandinavian like Swedes and Norwegians, and only 25% invaders from the east. But geography, language, and culture make Finns different from other Scandinavians, and they are proud of those differences.


Out of the nearly 100 native languages of Europe, all are related members of the Indo-European language family except for the isolated Basque language and four others. Those four are Finnish, the closely related Estonian language, and the distantly related Hungarian and Lapp (Saami) languages, all of which belong to the Finno-Ugric language family.


Finland’s national epic poem, the Kalevala, holds an even bigger place in Finland’s national consciousness than do the plays of Shakespeare for English-speakers.


The letter k is very common in Finnish: of the 200 pages of my Finnish-to-English dictionary, 31 pages are for words beginning with k.


I have nothing against k’s—but, alas, Finnish, unlike English, has double consonants (like kk) pronounced differently from single consonants (like k). That was the feature of Finnish pronunciation that made it hardest for my tolerant Finnish hosts to understand me on the few occasions when I gave short speeches in Finnish. The consequences of failing to pronounce single and double consonants distinctly can be serious. For instance, the Finnish verb meaning “to meet” is “tapaa” with a single p, while the verb “to kill” is “tappaa” with a double p. Hence if you ask a Finn to meet you but you mistakenly double the p, you may end up dead.


Finnish also has what are called short vowels and long vowels.


If you find yourself confused by the four cases of the German language or the six cases of the Latin language, you’ll be horrified to know that the Finnish language has 15 cases, many of which replace prepositions in English.


But in Finnish, whenever you use a direct object, you have to decide whether your verb is doing something to the whole object (requiring the accusative case) or to only a part of the object (requiring the partitive case).


One of my Finnish hosts in 1959 was a Swedish Finn whose home language was Swedish but who was fluent in Finnish. Nevertheless, he couldn’t get a job from any government agency in Finland, because all Finnish government jobs require passing exams in both the Finnish and the Swedish languages. My friend told me that if, in the 1950’s, you made only a single mistake in choosing between the accusative case and the partitive case, you flunked the exam and couldn’t get a government job.


All of those features contribute to making the Finnish language distinctive, beautiful, a source of national pride, and spoken by almost no one other than Finns themselves.


Other central pieces of Finland’s national identity are its music composers, its architects and designers, and its long-distance runners.


The Finnish musician Jean Sibelius is considered one of the greatest composers of the 20th century.


Finnish architects and interior designers are renowned worldwide. (American readers will think of the St. Louis Arch, Dulles Airport outside Washington, and the TWA terminal at New York’s Kennedy Airport, all of them designed by the Finnish-born architect Eero Saarinen.)


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    They speak a Uralic language, and they are immigrants from the northern Urals. Many kindred back east.

    They are not Indo-Europeans, nor are the Estonians.

  2. Paul from Canada says:

    I recall reading somewhere that Hungarian is one of the closest languages to Finnish. Given the high suicide rate of both cultures, I wonder if their is a genetic of cultural link if you go back far enough.

  3. Kirk says:

    I met a Finnish guy in Seoul, once. He insisted that the Finns and the Koreans were from the same stock, and that there were a bunch of words in the two languages that proved that…

    The Koreans I was with thought he was crazy, but who the hell knows? There’s a bunch of stuff we don’t know about the ancient times on the Eurasian steppe, and when you find all those weird mummies in the regions that are now western China, well… Who really knows?

    I would bet that once we get the entire human genome sequenced, to include the fossil DNA we can vacuum up from archaeology digs, and be able to understand it, we’re going to have some surprises. Big ones.

  4. Paul from Canada says:

    “I met a Finnish guy in Seoul, once. He insisted that the Finns and the Koreans were from the same stock…’

    Funny, now that you mention it, I think I have heard that theory before as well.

  5. Paul from Canada says:

    In the interests of full disclosure, my father is Hungarian, which likely explains several things about me. ;-)

  6. Isegoria says:

    Apparently there’s some debate about whether Finnish, Hungarian, and Korean are in fact related:

    Altaic is a hypothetical language family that was once proposed to include the Turkic, Mongolian, and Tungusic language families; and possibly also the Japonic and Koreanic families, and the Ainu language. Speakers of those languages are currently scattered over most of Asia north of 35 °N and in some eastern parts of Europe, extending in longitude from Turkey to Japan. The group is named after the Altai mountain range in the center of Asia.

  7. Graham says:

    It’s an interesting speculation, in and beyond linguistics.

    Looking at that entire belt of populations from Korean through Manchuria and Mongolia, across the taiga even more than the southerly steppe, there are a lot of populations that almost seem to form a very ancient continuum- ethnically, visually, culturally, linguistically. Apart from the language families, it is interesting to see how members of all those language groups have adapted to the same sets of environments.

    Settled, long-neolithic farmers, fishers, hunters, on one hand, and nomad horse people on another.

    The Koreans and to some extent Manchu [Jurchen, the older name for them] went early for settled, urban culture and fell into the Han cultural orbit most closely. The Tanguts and others too. Mongols and Turks split between that and being horse nomads, so much so that the distinction between the two seems somewhat arbitrary at both early and mid points of their histories, and they are forever entangled. Nobody seems satisfied which of them was the dominant strain in the Huns, for example.

    Finno-Ugric speakers seem mostly to have stayed settled at varying levels of development, across the vast belt of what is now northern Russia and Finland. I gather a couple, maybe the Mordvins, actually got to the level of town-based urban civilization in wood, comparable to Slavs at the same stage, and got as far as a state that could briefly stand in Russia’s way. And then there was that one Finno-Ugric group that followed the Turco-Mongol way of life at some point, the Magyars, and ended up in Pannonia.

    All of which is just stuff that interests me.

    As someone brought up the Tarim mummies- there seems to be more consensus now than in the 90s that these indeed represented Euro-phenotype Indo-European speakers, maybe Sogdians/Bactrians or similar peoples. The Iranic speakers dominated central Asia before it ever saw a Turk or Mongol much west of the Altai, as themselves everything from horse nomads to city state builders. The cities of ‘Transoxania/Transoxiana’ [Marwannahr to the Arabs] in what we now know as the valleys of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya were originally theirs, and probably most of the cities of the Tarim Basin and around the Tian Shan mountains.

    Those people never quite disappeared- I gather the latest on the Uighurs is that they are a Turco-Iranic hybrid people with some Mongol. Everybody in inner Asia probably has Mongol…

    Another tangent is visual appearance. When you meet Afghans of all kinds, roughly knowing Tajiks and Pashtuns are theoretically Persian offshoots ethnically, culturally, and linguistically, Uzbeks Turks, and so on, you can really see the degree to which folks have merged but also some of the markers of their roots. General Dostum looks like he has the Turk ancestry. Hazaras, famously, show their Turkic and Mongol heritage strongly.

    When you meet Anatolian Turks, from all over their country but traditionally skewing west to east, you can see a people who are descended variably from Turks off the steppe and look like Central Asians, and who are descended from Greeks and all the other Anatolian peoples and indistinguishable from souther Europeans.

    Then you get the handful of Turks, possibly retired Huns, who conquered Thracia, named it Bulgaria after themselves, and disappeared entirely into the native populace and Slavic people who came under them.

    All of which may amount to a kurgan of beans, but there’s been millennia of continuity, ethnic, linguistic and cultural practices alike, as well as clearer distinctions, between the Amur and the Amu Darya and the Danube.

    I know only fragments, but it’s as fascinating stuff as any large region and more than some.

    One last- I actually had assumed the Finnic speakers were more or less indigenous everywhere found, including Finland. Their kindred Sami are certainly treated as full-on aboriginal people even if the Finns proper are not. I had thought the Germanic speakers, if descended from the Indo-European speaking ur-cultures, would have been the invaders, wandering west and cutting north as others moved south or farther west.

    It will have happened quite long ago, and with the pop numbers we’d be talking about a place as relatively winter-nasty as Scandinavia might not have been heavily populated at that.

    I’ve always wondered where some of the Norse legends of dwarves and so on came from. I assumed, in that pop-anthropology way many of us have when handling such things, that they represented earlier peoples conquered or otherwise known.

  8. TRX says:

    “fossil DNA…surprises”

    When the first Neanderthal DNA was sequenced some very interesting things came out.

    One, was that demographic populations of H.Sapiens had varying levels of identifiable Neanderthal DNA. The exact percentage has been subject to debate and redefinition over the years, but the high end is 3 or 4 percent.

    Two, was that “sub-Saharan African” was basically 100% pure H. Sapiens, with no identifiable Neanderthal DNA.

    Three, was that if you overlay maps of “civilization” and “Neanderthal DNA”, they’re mostly congruent.

    Four, was the areas with the highest percentage of Neanderthal DNA were the home of the Industrial Revolution.

    Yes, there could be a lot of coincidence there, but it’s interesting to ponder…

  9. Kirk says:

    There certainly is…

    And, you wonder, just exactly why did the Neanderthaler go extinct, if they had this vast genetic armory for civilized behavior…?

    Or is it that the hybrid Neanderthaler/Sapiens crosses are uniquely suited for the environment that they created form themselves?

  10. Graham says:

    At this point it looks like several early homo sapiens lineages managed to interbreed with anatomically modern humans.

    [I appreciate that there remains controversy whether the earlier lineages are separate species, and such there would be homo neanderthalensis and homo sapiens involved here, or branches of one, in which case it's homo sapiens neanderthalensis and homo sapiens sapiens. Same problem in classifying Denisovans.]

    So far, we appear on firm ground with neanderthals breeding with AMHs in Europe and the near east, possibly inner Asia, and Denisovans with AMHs in inner Asia and south and/or southeast Asia. No idea how many times this occurred, but everybody in the Out of Africa AMH population or the Back to the Wet Sahara return migration has some of one, the other, or maybe both.

    interestingly, one sometimes sees references to at least a third pre-AMH human lineage in sub-Saharan Africa providing a contribution to AMH peoples there.

    Plus the Khoi and San peoples appear to currently be assessed as the oldest surviving branch-off of AMH, though obviously not exactly separate from other Africans since they have lived in close proximity to others and yielded lands to them for millennia.

    I am ill-equipped to follow it too closely, but the deep history of humanity is getting more interesting.

  11. Graham says:


    At one point the theory was advanced that AMH females were just too hot for neanderthal males to resist, hence they hybridized early and often.

    I don’t think this was either offered as tongue in cheek or as a specifically Afrocentrist take, but rather as a moderately serious argument in the ongoing effort to deny any violence ever occurred in the stone ages.

    Mileage varies. I refuse to consider the possibility that any stone age human was attractive, even to each other…

  12. Kirk says:

    One finds oneself rather hoping that someone really does invent a time machine, to get the definitive answers.

    It’d be an interesting question to ask: Would you be able to find enough common ground between yourself and one of our deep ancestors to get up the interest in boinking one of them?

    Inquiring minds want to know.

    I’ve done a bit of world-building for a work of fiction that I’m working on, and one of the components of it has to do with just this question: What happens when you intermingle humans from vastly disparate points along the timeline of human existence? Say that the nature of the universe is such that if we step out of it to get around the lightspeed limitation, we also exit the continuum of time, as well… Re-entry being random. What does that do to human continuity? What if you wound up interacting with a human from thirty thousand generations “ahead” of your own, in terms of their “distance” from you? What if the nature of things means that for that entire stretch of separation, there was recursive contact and breeding going on between all the separate groups of humans?

    What does the final result look like? How do they interact with their “forebears”? What are the sorts of cultures that they would develop, with that sort of factor involved? If you stood a chance of definitively meeting someone who’d had to deal with the consequences of your decisions, how does that play into things? Would you be more cautious, as a leader? Would you still commit misconduct, knowing that it would eventually come out, and there was a chance that you might, in your lifetime, randomly encounter someone who knew?

    How would it play out if your descendants randomly ran into you, and they want to put your ass on trial for things you haven’t done yet? Or, they credit you with honor for heroism and deeds yet unperformed?

  13. Graham says:

    On your first question, if she looked like Mariette Hartley in the Star Trek episode “All Our Yesterdays”, then yes.

    Or, for that matter, putative Pictish ancestor Guinevere as played by Keira Knightley in the problematic 2004 King Arthur movie. Even with the warpaint.

    But in likely reality, probably not. Visual and olfactory cues alone would probably be problems.

    Plus, yes, even if the language barrier were handwaved away, the conceptual gulf is going to be variably large in so many ways, small in other ways, and not always in the ways we might think. That alone might be a notion to play with in fiction.

    Actually, that aforementioned Star Trek episode used a concept I occasionally wonder about. Alien planet about to be destroyed in supernova. Not an interstellar civilization but mastered time travel. Whole people fled into their preferred periods in the planet’s past. I always found that a poignant and horrible fate for a civilization.

    The remaining archivist sends Kirk, Spock and McCoy back unwillingly. Kirk to a sort of 17th c Salem analogue, The other two to an ice age.

    The point is, all the natives who used the machine were “prepared” by a machine called the “atavachron” [heh] to “make life natural” in their chosen period.

    The exact nature of this idea was left vague- physiological changes? neurological? biochemical for disease and digestive purposes? psychological reprogramming? The main characters didn’t get it and so could not ultimately survive in the past of this admittedly alien world.

    I always thought that a silly notion but in recent years the idea such preparation might be needed has grown on me. Maybe actually a clever notion. The original story was written by a librarian whose only TV sales were two ST episodes. I can’t say if this idea was part of her script or got added by the writing team. Clever, though.

    At any rate, you raise interesting issues, well capable of forming worthwhile stories. Good luck writing them.

Leave a Reply