As I prepare for my holiday in Europe, especially Finland, I have listened only to Finnish music (Värttinä, Ultra Bra and Sari Kaasinen) and finished my last package of Presidentti kahvi.

Kahvi is the Finnish word for “coffee”, and like all Finnish words, every letter is pronounced, even the H when it precedes a consonant. The result is a sudden burst of aspiration, and I do mean burst, quite unlike the mid-word H in English words such as “annihilate”. Since Finnish stress is always on the first syllable, the H-burst is even more pronounced, and I find it one of the many lovely sounds of Finnish phonetics, especially when sung.

Finnish borrows words from foreign languages like any other language, yet due to Finland’s geographic location and former ruling governments has many Swedish and Russian borrowings. More and more English words are creeping into the Finnish language, especially slang terms.

When a word is adopted into the Finnish language, or “fennicized” it is altered so that it resembles a native Finnish word as much as possible. Since Finnish is non-Indo-European, it is impossible for a student of, say, Romance languages to read a Finnish passage and get the overall gist of what the passage says. It is impossible, in my opinion, for someone who has no prior knowledge of Finnish to read a Finnish passage even with a dictionary, as Finnish words when they are inflected change their central structures so dramatically that without a prior knowledge of what is happening and why, no dictionary will help you. Thus when a word is fennicized, there is a good chance that it will not resemble anything like the language it was borrowed from.

Kahvi is an example. Since there is no F sound in Finnish (which sometimes leads my friends to ask me “How come the name of the country starts with an F?”) the Finns try to approximate the sound by placing an H before a V. Voicelessness occurs after the H. Other examples are kirahvi for “giraffe” and vohveli for “waffle” (the food).

Try to guess what the word kynttilä means. I will post its translation at the end [1]. Here are some hints:

There are only five consonants that can end Finnish words. I call them the “Wheel of Fortune” consonants since the five regular giveaway consonants in the game show’s bonus round are LNRST. L-terminating and R-terminating words are fully Finnish, but rare. If a word in its original language ends in an L, then Finnish will add a vowel to the end in its fennicized form.

The letter D does not occur in any original Finnish word except as a result of consonant degradation. Thus if a foreign word has a D in its original form, it will not have a D in its fennicized form. This rule is degrading as much as inflected Finnish word forms, as more and more words with D’s are creeping into the language, like dyyni (“sand dune”). And Finnish slang loves non-Finnish sounds. My slang dictionary, for example, is bursting with words beginning with F.

These two hints may help you figure out what word is the origin of kynttilä.

Finnish only has one sibilant, that of the soft S. All other sibilants, represented by the sounds z, sh and zh (as in “azure”), and affricates such as ch and j are not Finnish sounds. They all tend to get lumped together with an S assignation during fennicization. Thus the word for (potato) “chips” becomes sipsit and “Zambia” becomes Sambia.

Finnish borrows from English for the words “architect”, arkkitehti, and “secretary”, sihteeri. In both examples, the C-sound precedes a consonant. The H-sound substitutes for the /k/ and still approximates the sound in the original language. The Finnish language does not like consonant clusters, even going so far as to lop them off altogether at the start of borrowed words (Ranska for “France” and Tukholma for “Stockholm”).

Other borrowed words that have had the frontal lobotomy include ranta (from the Swedish for beach, strand) and koulu (“school”, also Swedish skola). The loss of the consonants in the original languages renders the fennicized forms unrecognizable.

[1] candle

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