Finnish vowel and consonant length

When I first took Finnish lessons ten years ago I knew that I would have a tough time training my ear to differentiate between long and short vowels and consonants. By “long” and “short” I do not mean what English-speakers think of when we hear those terms; for example the long A sound of “cape” versus the short A sound of “cap”. In Finnish, a long vowel or consonant sound is represented by a doubling of that particular letter and a lengthening of that sound in oral speech. A short sound is, thus, subtler and not pronounced as strongly.

There are many words in Finnish the only differing feature of which is vowel or consonant length. One of the most common examples where one finds a minimal pair in vowel length occurs in the illative and genitive cases of nouns: Torontoon (“to Toronto”) versus Toronton (“of Toronto”). The only differentiating feature is the final vowel sound: long O in the illative and short O in the genitive.

I had studied the Finnish language on my own before I even set foot in my first class, yet the phenomenon of vowel and consonant length really hit me when I was exposed to having to hear the difference and distinguish between them. It’s fine when you’re studying on your own from a textbook; it’s quite another thing altogether to have the teacher ask you to translate what she’s saying.

By the end of the summer of 2000 I trained my ear to tell the difference between long and short vowels and consonants, and I have no difficulties asking for my favourite Finnish smoked fish, silli (“herring”) and not siili (“hedgehog”).

However, what has to be the worst-case scenario is the quadruple-earbuster valita, valittaa, vallita and vallittaa.

The first three verbs I use far more often than the last one:

Valita: to choose or elect

Valittaa: to complain about

Vallita: to dominate

Vallittaa: to build ramparts

Each verb has its own conjugation based on its verbal ending, so there is no confusion when hearing the verb when it is conjugated. It’s the infinitive form that throws me. The first and third verbs differ only by the length of the L and the second and fourth verbs differ only by the length of the L as well. Imagine confusing “to elect” and “to dominate” in a political discussion!

While at Toronto’s Pride Day a couple Sundays ago I saw a group of people who were wearing rainbow-flag T-shirts. In the upper hoist of their shirts was the Finnish flag. I thought to myself “Visiting gay Finns! Go talk to them!” and I went over and introduced myself, and we had a long conversation. None of us uttered a word of English. I may write and read Finnish a lot, but I do not have the opportunity to speak it. I was pleased with myself for being able to converse with these people, and most of all, being able to understand them. My weakest level of any language competence is understanding the spoken foreign language.

Mark and I leave for Helsinki one week from today. I will keep you updated with my travel adventures as I alternate from Finnish to German. Last year I language-hopped from Swiss German to Romansch in Switzerland to French and Breton in France. Fortunately, for this trip, I have no language textbooks to lug around. I will, however, go nuts in my favourite Finnish bookstores, which I haven’t visited in three years.

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