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Finno-Ugric language group is a relatively small language group and the lingoes are mostly spoken in Europe, at least by the number of (native – it’s very hard for a foreigner to master a Finno-Ugric language) speakers. Those two claims can be seen in the three most spoken Finno-Ugric lingoes – Hungarian, Finnish and Estonian. The most spoken of the three is Hungarian (some 14 million speakers) while the third “most” spoken, Estonian, has some 1.3 million speakers. As a comparison, English has around a billion speakers, out of which some 360 million are native.
Although Finno-Ugric languages differ a lot in grammar and structure from their Indo-European neighbours; being in Europe, their vocabulary has been highly influenced by other European (meaning Indo-European) lingoes. Finnish has mostly been influenced by Swedish [a co-official language of Finland (because Swedish-speaking Finns are a very important part of Finnish culture)].
Let’s concentrate on Finnish from now on.
Nevertheless, I’m going to mention Mandarin (the most spoken Chinese language) now. People often claim that Mandarin is the most difficult language on the planet, yet the language has virtually no grammar. In the sense European-language speakers refer to grammar (no plural, no articles, no tenses etc.), of course. Only Chinese script is truly difficult. So why do people say Mandarin is the most difficult language? It is difficult from the perspective of a European language speaker because Chinese differs so much from what we’re used to.
Just to point out I did talk to Chinese at the Summer School.
And what about Finnish? I can pretty surely say that Finnish is the most difficult language on the planet. By that claim, I, of course, mean the most difficult language which is spoken by relatively many people. I’m sure there’s a more difficult language somewhere in Siberia, in the middle of Amazons and/or Africa, but the number of speakers of such language(s) is hardly 5 million.
Before I explain my claim, there are two things that work in Finnish “favour”: the lingo has no grammatical articles [a(n)/the] and has no genders. Indeed, the lack of gender is a real relief when learning a foreign lingo [as is the lack of articles, especially to us whose native lingo lacks articles to begin with (furthermore, the usage of articles varies in languages that do use articles – e.g. Germans would say Ich bin Ingenieur, I am engineer (without an!))]. Genders are one of the most difficult things for German learners (die/der/das).
By no genders, I don’t mean like English, which has it pretty simple where everything, but that with strictly defined sex, is neutral [i.e. everything is “it”, expect when you’re sure something is male or female (e.g. a dog is “it” unless you know he’s Rex, when “it” becomes “he”, or she’s Lilly, when “it” becomes “she”)]. By no genders, I mean really no genders (the pronoun hän means both he, she and it). That’s why Finns often mix genders when speaking a foreign language (not that often in English ’cause pretty much all Finns are fluent in English) (e.g. Finns are known to say Did you see her?! and when you ask them who, they reply That man!). The lack of gender is characteristic to Finno-Ugric lingoes. That’s why Hungarians often say Frontisek je popizdila! 😀 (Frontisek has been pissed off!) in Croatian, Frontisek being a male name and je popizdila being a female verb form. Croatian has a complex gender system. I mentioned genders in Croatian a bit in the previous post.
Finnish is a synthetic language, meaning suffixes and prefixes are preferred to prepositions and other “additional” words. The language has 15 (some say 14) grammatical cases. As a comparison, English doesn’t really have any cases because various meanings are shaped only through prepositions and there are neither suffixes nor prefixes (i.e. only in, at, on etc. but the word table is always table). “Leftovers” of cases in English are me, him, her, us (dative forms of I, he, she and we). German has four cases (nominative, genitive, dative and accusative) and Croatian has seven (seven is usually considered a lot). Then there are plurals. When you put Finnish grammar together, you get a mess. If you wanna speak Finnish, when learning a new word, you must learn tons of words because the word you have just learned is just nominative singular… or infinitive or such. A single Finnish word can be an entire phrase (e.g. talossanikin means …in my house, too). There is another lovely example: peruspalveluliikelaitoskuntayhtymä which means a public utility of a municipal federation for provision of basic services.
Another tricky thing about Finnish is pronunciation.
Firstly, though, I’d like to point out another thing working in Finnish “favour” 😀 For that, I’m gonna analyse the Finnish alphabet and spelling:
Finnish spelling is pretty much simple because it’s phonetic (i.e. one letter or a combination of letters corresponds with one sound).
Double letters actually serve a purpose in Finnish [can someone, please, explain to me why letters in the following English words are doubled: follow, Finnish (yet, we have Finland and Fins – one bloody N!), Scottish (again Scotland and Scots – one bloody T!) professor, accuse, prodding etc.?!]. Double letters show the sound is long, which is very important in Finnish.
A B C D E F G H I J K M N O P Q R S (Š) T U V ( W ) Y Z (Ž) Å Ä Ö
I placed Š, W and Ž in brackets because they’re usually considered the variations of letters S, V and Z. I find it interesting, though, that Å, Ä, Ö are alphabetized separately. Furthermore, they’re put at the end of the alphabet which looks odd to me [if alphabetized, diacritics are usually put right after the letter they’re based on (e.g. it’s A B C Č… in Croatian), or such is the practice outside Scandinavia 😀 ].
Basically, Finnish alphabet is quite “rich” (not as reach as Slovak, of course 😀 ), but many letters have just an honorary place and are only used in some loanwords and foreign names. Those letters are: B, C, F, G (except in the digraph ng), Q, Š, W, X, Z, Ž and Å. Basically, eleven letters of Finnish alphabet are foreign! Since Finnish spelling is phonetic, this means that many sounds common to other languages are absent from Finnish!
I find the following foreign letters pretty interesting:
F – Although both Finland and Finnish are called Suomi (no /f/!) in Finnish, the letter F (and, thus, the sound /f/) are often associated with Finland. After all, expect of Finland being Finland in English, it’s Finland in Swedish (note that the word is pronounced differently – -land is pronounced like German Land), a co-official language of Finland and the language of Swedish-speaking Finns, who have strong feelings regarding Finland, declaring themselves Finns (never Swedes), and showing patriotic love and loyalty to Finland. Furthermore, .fi is the Internet domain of Finland and FI is the language code of Finnish. Yet, the sound /f/ is foreign to Finnish.
Š and Ž – I must admit that I find these interesting because they’re part of Croatian alphabet. Š should represent the sound /sh/ (like shit) [yeah, /shkoda/ , not /skoda/, is simply clever (I’m, of course, referring to the slogan of Škoda the car brand) 😀 ] and Ž should represent the sound /zh/ (like usually), but those sounds, like all palatals are foreign to Finns, that’s why they often pronounce the letters /s/ and /z/. For example, when we went to a pub called Pošeidon in Helsinki, a girl from the Summer School staff told us we were going to Poseidon. Well, I guess the god Poseidon makes you wanna pronounce Pošeidon /poseidon/ 😀 Another girl from the staff told me she had a Croatian friend called Saša (probably short for Aleksandar) and that she could never say his name correctly. Although pretty much all Finns are fluent in English, some don’t pronounce palatals, usually becoming uzually. Interestingly, the person I said couldn’t say Saša, always pronounces palatals in English perfectly. Unlike many people when speaking English, she even pronounces Budapest correctly (S in Budapest should be pronounced /sh/) 😀 Š and Ž ain’t available on basic Finnish keyboard layout and are, therefore, often replaced with zh and sh (note that Croatians, on the other hand, just type S and Z when Š and Ž ain’t available).
Also, palatals are frequent in Hungarian. In addition to the capital, Budapest, even the words for Hungary (Magyarország) and Hungarian (magyar) include a palatal [gy is pronounced /j/ (like gentle)] in Hungarian.
X – The letter, usually representing two sounds [(/k/ and /s/ (like sex) or /g/ and /z/ (like exodus)], is foreign to many languages and is often replaced with ks or gz (e.g. Croatian seks and egzodus). Likewise, X eventually becomes ks in Finnish and is reserved for relatively few new loanwords. Actually, X can be replaced with ks in most (maybe all, you’ll have to ask a Fin for a definite answer 😀 ) such words. Therefore, the word taxi can be spelled taksi. Now, similarly like I mentioned Š and Ž, I’m talking about X because of something I find interesting in a comparison between Finland and Croatia. So, there are cabs in Helsinki with Taksi instead of Taxi sign. Taxi is also spelled taksi in Croatian. The letter X ain’t part of Croatian alphabet at all, so there’s no alternate spelling of taksi with X in Croatian. Yet, taxi is always spelled Taxi on Taxi signs in Croatia (in Serbia too I think, and Serbs transcribe everything).
Taksi sign on a cab in Helsinki
Speaking of Finnish alphabet, I should clarify a few other letters:
J is never ever pronounced as J in English (Finnish lacks palatals, after all), but as /y/ (like yell). This pronunciation of J is common in many other European languages. After all, the letter J evolved from the letter I where I represented the sound /y/ (e.g. Iesus or the more commonly used de iure).
Y is pronounced like German letter Ü. Similarly, Y is often pronounced that way in German (e.g. Gymnasium), but Finns, like other Scandinavians, decided to just abandon Ü and replace all the Üs with Ys… unlike Hungarians and Estonians, who chose to stick with Ü 😀
Å is in the alphabet mostly to honour Swedish. It is called “Swedish O”, being pronounced /o/ (like small). You can never see it in Finnish texts, except maybe in a few Swedish loanwords. Because the letter is used often in Swedish, a co-official language, Å is available on basic Finnish keyboard layout, which is the same as Swedish.
So, you can see that many sounds are absent from Finnish. Why is Finnish pronunciation so difficult then? Well, there are the sounds not so common to other lingoes – /ä/, /ö/ and /ü/ (Y). Those do occur in some other lingoes, so a German or a Swedish speaker should have no trouble with those. The problem is combination. When the sounds are combined, they’re virtually impossible to say, especially in a conversation when you’re supposed to say words pretty quickly. For example, umlauts in German (Ä, Ö, Ü) are replaced with an E following the letter that can’t be umlauted (i.e. ae, oe, ue) [this is especially common in Switzerland when capitalizing the first letter (all nouns are capitalized in German like that) because Ä, Ö and Ü can’t be accessed with Shift on Swiss keyboards]. That practice is impossible in Finnish, because vowel combinations such as ae, äe… already exist. Pronouncing Ä and Ö just like /e/ won’t do in Finnish because the meaning of a word can be changed and similar vowels often follow each other (e.g. äe). Sound length is also problematic; the length often changes the meaning (there are relatively few cases where the length changes the meaning in English – shit/sheet, bitch/beach, still/steel are some examples). Good example are the following names: Mari, Maari and Maarii. These women are not namesakes. They have different names. Especially difficult are the vowels /ä/, /ö/ and /ü/. There is a difference between ä and ää (isn’t /ä/ long /e/ anyway? …and there’s ee), there is a difference between ö and öö, and there is a difference between y and yy.
Just want to add here that long /ö/ and /ü/ appear in Hungarian too, but instead of doubling the letter, the length is shown in umlauts becoming double acutes – ő and ű.
In addition to long vowels, Finnish has long consonants. So taka and takka are not pronounced the same. One (taka) means back and the other (takka) means fireplace, so you gotta take care how you pronounce the /k/.
So, yeah, Finnish spelling system is easy, but putting all the letters (sounds) together and pronouncing words is a little bit tough 😉
There, I think I’ve explained why Finnish is very difficult.
I’d like to conclude the post with a quote of a girl from the Summer School staff: I admire people [foreigners] who speak Finnish. I seriously don’t understand how people can speak the language. If it weren’t my mother tongue, there’s no way in hell I’d be able to speak it. Yes, I don’t remember her words exactly, so Maria, if you’re reading this, please tell me what you said exactly.
One last thing: In addition to the mentioned Maria, if any Fin reads this post and finds anything wrong, I beg him to tell me so I can make the necessary amends.
Oh, and why I referred to Hungarian so much: Hungarian is a Finno-Ugric lingo and is somewhat related to Finnish. In addition, Hungary is a neighbouring country (I’m some 115 km away from Hungarian border 😀 ) and since Croatia was under Hungarian rule for centuries, Croatian vocabulary has been influenced by Hungarian. Basically, Hungarian is the closest Finno-Ugric language to me.
Hungarian Culture Centre (or something like that) in Helsinki (click on the image to enlarge it).
Remember how I said Hungarian and Finnish are similar? They are ’cause they’re both Finno-Ugric lingoes, but can someone, please, tell me where the fuck is the similarity between Unkarin kulttuuri- ja tiedekeskus (Finnish) and Magyar Kulturális és Tudamányos Kőzpant (Hungarian)?! 😀
You can find more information about Finnish here.