The Finnish alphabet / Ä and Ö

This will be my last post on the Finnish language before Mark and I leave on holiday. On Thursday we will be in Finland and I will get to see my friends, and favourite shops, for the first time in three years.

The Finnish alphabet contains all 26 letters in the English alphabet however the letters Q, W, X and Z occur only in foreign terms. These four letters do not even occur in Finnish Scrabble tile distribution. The letters B, C and F are also foreign letters yet they do appear in Finnish Scrabble. These are the highest-scoring letters in the Finnish version of our favourite word game. D and G are authentic Finnish letters yet they cannot occur at the beginning of a word; they only can appear in the middle of a word through linguistic consonant degradation.

It might surprise someone who is not familiar with the Finnish language to thumb through a Finnish dictionary. The dictionary jumps from A to E to H, with the only entries for the letters B, C, D, F and G being a smattering of foreign terms.

The Finns love the letter K. Whereas in English Scrabble we have only one K, the Finns have five. The K section in the dictionary goes on as long as an English dictionary’s C, S or T. The Finnish K is wildly mutative, and when words undergo inflection a single K can degrade to G or V or disappear altogether. Double KK degrades to a single K. 

There are three additional letters in the Finnish alphabet which follow Z. The first is actually a Swedish character, Å. I remember being alarmed when I first saw this entry in a Finnish dictionary. Since Swedish is an official language of Finland, I can see why this letter is there, however the number of Å entries for Swedish words that have not been fennicized is minuscule.

The last two letters of the Finnish alphabet are Ä and Ö. These letters have umlauts, or pisteet in Finnish. They are not merely variants of A and O, analogous to E and È É Ê in French or U and Ü in German. The Finnish Ä and Ö are their own separate and distinct letters, and foreigners must always remember to look at the very end of the dictionary to find words such as ääni (“voice”) and öljy (“oil”). Likewise, hymyillä (“to smile”) precedes häntä (“tail”) in the dictionary.

Even after being exposed to the Finnish language for so long, I still find it lexically sexy whenever I encounter a word loaded with pisteet. Many people’s first encounter of such a loaded word will occur on their first flight to Finland. The in-flight monitors will display Lentoaika määränpäähän, which translates to “Flight time to destination”. Määränpää is simply the regular everyday word for “destination”, and when inflected in the illative case it tacks on the -hän.

Finnish adds possessive suffixes to its nouns, thus tyttöni (tyttö + ni) = “daughter + my” = “my daughter”. There is no third-person singular possessive by sex (and, thus, no “he” or “she” either), so no “his” or “hers” in Finnish. The third-person singular possessive suffix is -nsa or -nsä, and you select one over the other based on the vowel make-up of the word you’re modifying. To say “his daughter” or “her daughter” in Finnish, you write tyttönsä. However, a very popular way of saying the third-person possessive suffix is -aan or -ään. Thus in oral speech when one says “his daughter” or “her daughter”, one hears tyttöään. This is not slang and not low Finnish and I have run across this possessive suffix many times in my Finnish reading.

Since A and Ä, and O and Ö are each separate letters, there is no rule for separating them should they run together in compounds. The most common of all such compounds is the word pääasiassa, which means “mainly” or “principally”. Pääasia means “the main point”. 

The word for “revolving [glass] door” is pyöröovi, placing Ö and O side-by-side. This word features in the Ultra Bra song “Jäätelöauto”, where I first came across it. The song is entitled “Ice Cream Truck”, and since I have brought up the word for “ice cream”, jäätelö, I should point out the pisteet-heavy word for “ice cream cone”, jäätelötötterö. Make that “his ice cream cone” or “her ice cream cone” and you get jäätelötötteröään. Not a wacky or a contrived word, just a common word that has seven pisteet. I will be buying some cloudberry (or bakeapple) ice cream while in Finland. I love that stuff!

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