Puff Piece / How NOT to Ask for a Straw in Finnish


Exam results for my first course, Suomi 1, are in. I scored 96.3%. Oikein hyvää! Suomi 2 begins on Monday and I will have the same professori, Marjukka Kentällä. I am looking forward to another month of classes with her.

Finnish is a language which employs short and long vowels and consonants. By that I do not mean “short” in the context of “short A” as in the word CAP and “long A” as in the word CAPE. Rather, the short and long actually refer to the length of time one must enunciate each sound. This differentiation, when I first began my programme of self-study, was indistinguishable to my English ear. I could not differentiate a short-K sound from a long-K sound. I knew that I had better train my ear to contrast the two, since in Finnish there are dozens, if not hundreds, of minimal pairs where the only differing feature is a long or short vowel or consonant sound.

I am improving at hearing the differences, and have developed some phrases I repeat aloud to practise. The word for “cloudberry jam” is LAKKAHILLO, which employs two K’s and two L’s. A pronunciation of this from an English speaker with no knowledge of Finnish would produce very weak K and L sounds. The K and L are lengthened as much as three times the normal sound length as occurs in English. Try to pronounce the phrases BLACK ROSE and BLACK CROWS and see if you can hear the difference. That is only an approximation of how the double K sound differs from the single K.

Obligatory Scrabble content: Finnish for “in the evening on the bridge” is ILLALLA SILLALLA. Aside from being an excellent L-dump, the first word is also front-hookable! The four double-L sounds are pronounced entirely differently from the double-L we employ in such words as SILLY and DOLL.

Yesterday I bought a drink and asked the clerk, in Finnish, for a straw. I kept on asking for a PILLI but the clerk looked at me with a totally blank look. I managed to talk to her in Finnish up till then just fine–what was the problem? I even spelled it out for her, P – I – L – L – I. Then she exclaimed “PILLLLLLI” and I realize my communications gaffe: I was pronouncing the L as a short sound, not as a long sound. Exact pronunciation in Finnish is vital. Otherwise you may end up asking for worms instead of floor mats [1] or talking about bogeyman spirits instead of elevators [2]. I thought of that PILLI/PILI episode the entire ride home.

[1] MATO versus MATTO

[2] HIISI versus HISSI

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