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Number of Speakers: 6,000,000

Key Dialects: Southwestern, Häme, South Pohjanmaa, Central and Northern Pohjanmaa, Peräpohja, Savo, Southeastern (Finnish Karelian)

Geographical Center: Finland

Finnish is spoken in the Republic of Finland, as well as in the Norrbotten region in Northern Sweden, Finnmark (Northern Norway), and Karelia (Russia). Around 4,600,000 speakers live in Finland and from 500,000 (Karlsson 1992) to 1,300,000 (Ethnologue, Hakulinen 1994) live outside the country.

Traditionally, Finnish is classified as a Northern Balto-Finnic language, belonging to Finnic branch of the Finno-Ugric (Finno-Ugrian) language family. However, there are also theories that Finno-Ugric languages are combined with Samoyed languages to form an Uralic language macro-family, or with Altaic, to form an Uralo-Altaic macro-family. Other Finnic languages, closely related to Finnish, are Estonian, Ingrian, Karelian (some scholars consider Karelian a dialect of Finnish), Livonian (Liivi), Ludian, Vepsian and Vodian.

Different scholars assume from two to eight dialects of Finnish. According to Campbell, Finnish dialects can be divided into Western (Turku and Häme), and Eastern. Mitchell (2001) proposes the following classification: Southwestern, Northeastern, Southeastern (Karelian). Karlsson (1992 and 1999) and Sulkala/Karjalainen (1992) distinguish eight dialects: Southwestern, Häme, Transitional Southwestern, South Ostrobothnian, Mid- and North Ostrobothnian, Northern, Savo, Southeastern. In the Ethnologue database seven dialects are distinguished: Southwestern, Häme, South Pohjanmaa, Central and Northern Pohjanmaa, Peräpohja, Savo, Southeastern (Finnish Karelian).

Finnish uses the Latin script. The letters b, c, f, g, q, x, w, z only occur in foreign words or words of foreign origin.

Modern Finnish has 8 monophthongs, 18 diphthongs, and 13 consonants. Monophthongs and consonants can be short or long. Long sounds are represented in script by means of gemination. Finnish has vowel harmony and consonant gradation. Vowel harmony is a sort of progressive distance assimilation, whereby the manner of articulation of vowels in post-radical syllables is affected by the manner of articulation of the vowels in radical syllables. For example, a front vowel in the root syllable will induce fronting of the vowel in the following syllable, cf. kah-deksan ‘8’ vs. yh-deksän ‘9’. Consonant gradation rule is formulated in the following way: if the last sound of the last syllable of a word is a consonant, then the consonant at the beginning of that syllable is ‘weak’. However, if the last sound is a vowel, the consonant at the beginning of that syllable is strong, e.g. seppä ‘smith’ > sepän ‘id.’ (genitive); kulta ‘gold’ > kullan ‘id.’; luku ‘number’ > luvun ‘id.’. The stress in Finnish falls on the initial syllable. Longer words (compounds) also have a secondary stress on the third (sometimes the fourth) syllable.

Finnish is an agglutinative language. It has a number of suffixes used for inflexion and derivation. The Finnish noun has the categories of case and number. There are 15 cases in Finnish, including 6 locative cases (each has an individual meaning). Finnish negation requires that the object be in the partitive case. Word formation and composition are very productive in Finnish.

The verb has the categories of tense, person, aspect, voice and mood. Finnish makes a distinction between past and non-past (present and future combined) tenses. Finnish also has present and past perfect tenses, expressed analytically. The verb has four moods: indicative, imperative, conditional and potential.

Finnish is an SVO language.

The Finnish vocabulary has many borrowings mostly from Indo-European languages. The Finnish and Indo-European tribes have been neighbors for several thousand years, which results in abundant loanwords, borrowed at different times. Among the earlier loanwords one could adduce Finnish heinä ‘hay’ (< Baltic *śeinas), sisar ‘sister’ (Baltic *sesor- or pre-Indo-Iranian *swesor-), leipä ‘bread’ (< Germanic *hlaib-az). More recent borrowings include pankki ‘bank’, toveri ‘fellow’ (< Russian tovarišč), lääkäri ‘doctor’ (< Swedish läkare), and katu (< Swedish gata). Finnish has lent several words to other languages, the most famous word being sauna ‘steambath, sauna’

Both Finnish and Swedish are the official languages of Finland. Swedish is most commonly spoken in the extreme West and some areas in southern Finland, whereas Finnish dominates in the rest the country. There are a number of Finnish and Swedish radio stations and TV channels in Finland. Finland has 20 universities, the largest is Helsinki University. In 7 of these universities the language of instruction is Swedish, 6 universities are bilingual (Finnish-Swedish), and in the remaining 7 the language of instruction is Finnish.

The etnonym “Finnish” first appears in Tacitus’ historical book Germania (1st c. BC) in which Tacitus described not only the Germanic tribes, but also many other tribes that lived in Northern Europe. Tacitus called those people “Fenni”, and this term is still in use today, in a slightly modified form, Finnish or Finnic.

The Finnic tribes arrived in modern Finland at an early date. There are reasons to believe that the area was inhabited as early as as 7000 BC (cf. Edgren 1991). It is commonly believed that Finnic tribes migrated to Northern Europe from areas adjacent to Ural mountains, that separate Europe from Asia (therefore Finnic is sometimes called “Uralic”). On their way to the Baltic sea, Finns were in constant contact with non-Finnic tribes, e.g. Indo-Europeans, from which they borrowed abundant vocabulary (see some examples above). In the middle of the 11th century AD Finland was incorporated into the kingdom of Sweden, and remained part of until the beginning of the 19th century. During that period the official language in Finland was Swedish. However, with the rise of Finnish nationalism, use of Finnish increased.

In 1835, Elias Lönnrot compiled the Finnish epos Kalevala, based on Finnish folk myths and ballads. The language of Kalevala had some impact on the formation of standard Finnish. In 1863 Finnish was introduced into the system of education. From the beginning of the 19th century until the beginning of the 20th century Finland was ruled by Russia and the language was consequently somewhat influenced by Russian. In 1917 Finland gained its independence from Russia.

Campbell, G. L. 2000. “Compendium of the World's Languages”. Vol. 1. Abaza to Kurdish. Second edition. First published 1991. Routledge, London and New York.

Bogdanov, N. I., et al. 1958. “Grammatika finskogo jazyka.” Izdatel’stvo Akademii Nauk SSSR, Moskva – Leningrad.

Edgren, Torsten. 1991. “Finlands förhistoria”. In: Marklund, Kari (Editor-in-Chief). “Nationalencyklopedin”. Ett uppslagsverk på vetenskaplig grund utarbetat på initiativ av statens kulturråd. Sjätte bandet. Bokförlaget Bra Böcker, Höganäs. Pp. 283 – 4.

Hakulinen, A. 1994. “Finnish.” In: Asher, R. E. (Editor-in-Chief). “The Encyclopedia of Languages and Linguistics”. Vol. 3. Pergamon Press, Oxford – New York – Seoul – Tokyo. Pp. 1248 – 50.

Jeliseev, Ju. S. 1998. “Finskij jazyk”. In: Jarceva, V. N. (Editor-in-Chief). “Jazyko-znanije. Bol’šoj enciklopedičeskij slovar’”. Naučnoje izdatel’stvo “Bol’šaja russkaja enciklopedija”. 1-oje izdanije 1990. Moskva. P. 551.

Karlsson, Fred. 1978. “Finsk grammatik”. Suomalaisen Kirjallisuudan Seura, Helsinki.

______1992. “Finnish”. In: Bright, William (Editor-in-Chief). “International Encyclopaedia of Linguistics”. Vol. 2. Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York. Pp. 14 – 7.

______1999. “Finnish Grammar”. Translated by Andrew Chesterman. Routledge, London and New York.

Marcantonio, Angela. 2002. “The Uralic Language Family. Facts, Myths and Statistics.” Publications of the Philological Society, 35. Oxford and Boston.

Mitchell, Erika J. 2001. “Finnish”. In: “Facts about the World’s Languages: An Encyclopaedia of the World’s Major Languages, Past and Present”. Edited by Jane Garry and Carl Rubino. The H. N. Wilson Company, New York and Dublin.

Olli, John B. 1958. “Fundamentals of Finnish Grammar”. Northland Press, New York.

Sulkala, Helena and Merja Karjalainen. 1992. “Finnish”. Routledge, London and New York.

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