Finnish phonology: Wikis


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This article is about the phonology of the Finnish language. The grammar of Finnish and the ways in which Finnish is spoken are dealt with in separate articles. Unless otherwise noted, statements refer to Standard Finnish based on the dialect spoken in Häme in Central South Finland.[1] This Standard Finnish is used by professional speakers, such as the reporters and the news presenters on television.



Finnish monophthongs[2]
Front Back
unrounded rounded unrounded rounded
Close i iː y yː u uː
Mid e eː ø øː o oː
Open æ æː ɑ ɑː

Finnish makes phonemic contrasts between long and short vowels, even in unstressed syllables, though /eː/, /øː/, and /oː/ are more common in unstressed syllables.[3] Each short monophthong has a long counterpart with no real difference in acoustic quality.[4] Long vowels are phonemically perceived as two identical vowels in succession and vowel length is not understood as a phonemic quality in Finnish such as vowel height.



In the table below there are represented the possible phonemic diphthongs in Finnish. As phonemic units, they contrast with long vowels, short vowels and with each other. They are usually, phonologically speaking, analyzed not as phonemes of their own but as sequences of two monophthong phonemes, this in contrast to languages like English, where the diphthongs are best analyzed as independent phonemes (see International Phonetic Alphabet for English). However, in speech (i.e. phonetically speaking) they do not sound like sequences of two different vowels; instead, the sound of the first vowel gradually glides into the sound of the second one with full vocalization lasting through the whole sound. That is to say, they are not broken by a pause or stress pattern.

Vowel harmony acts as a restricting principle disallowing combinations with both /ɑ, o, u/ and /æ, ø, y/. However, in compounds and certain other contexts, two adjacent vowels that properly belong to different syllables can be pronounced as diphthtongs that are not in the following table and that can even break the vowel harmony. For example, yläosa ('upper part', from ylä-, 'upper' + osa, 'part') can be pronounced [ˈylæ͡osɑ] (with an /äo/ diphthong) in rapid speech. The proper pronunciation is [ˈylæ.ˌosɑ] (with those vowels belonging to separate syllables).

Diphthongs Ending with /i/ Ending with /u/ Ending with /y/ Opening diphthongs
Starting with /ɑ/ /ɑi̯/ /ɑu̯/
Starting with /æ/ /æi̯/ /æy̯/
Starting with /o/ /oi̯/ /ou̯/
Starting with /e/ /ei̯/ /eu̯/ /ey̯/
Starting with /ø/ /øi̯/ /øy̯/
Starting with /u/ /ui̯/ /uo̯/
Starting with /i/ /iu̯/ /iy̯/ /ie̯/
Starting with /y/ /yi̯/ /yø̯/

Diphthongs such as /ey̯/ and /iy̯/ are quite rare and mostly found in derivative words, where a derivational affix starting with /y/ (or properly the archiphoneme /U/ because of the vowel harmony) fuses with the preceding vowel, e.g. pimeys 'darkness' from pimeä 'dark' + -/(U)US/ '-ness' and siistiytyä 'to tidy up oneself' from siisti 'tidy' + -/UTU/ (a kind of middle voice) + -/(d)A/ (infinitive suffix).

Opening diphthongs are only found in syllables with primary or secondary stress like in words tietää 'to know', takapyörä 'rear wheel' (from taka- 'back, rear' + pyörä 'wheel'; the latter part is secondarily stressed) or 'night'. This might make them easier to pronounce as true opening diphthongs [u͡o i͡e y͡ø] (in some accents even [uɒ̯ ia̯ yɶ̯]) and not as centering diphthongs [uə̯ iə̯ yə̯], which are more common in the World's languages. The opening diphthongs come from earlier long mid vowels: [oː] > [uo̯], [eː] > [ie̯], [øː] > [yø̯]. Since that time new long mid vowels have come to the language from various sources.

Finnish dialects have diphthongization and diphthong reduction processes. For example, Savo Finnish contrasts /ɑ/ vs. /uɑ̯/ instead of standard /ɑ/ vs. /ɑː/.

Vowel harmony

Finnish, like many other Finno-Ugric languages, has a pattern called vowel harmony that restricts the distribution of vowels in a word. Generally, vowels within a word harmonize to be either all front or all back depending on the stem vowel (e.g. tyhmä-stä 'stupid' [el.], tuhma-sta 'naughty' [el.]).[5] The exception to this is across compound limits.[6] Because /i/ and /e/ have no back counterparts, they are neutral to harmonic processes and neither block nor trigger them.[7]

Vowel harmony affects case suffixes and derivational suffixes, which often have two forms, one for use with front vowels, and the other with back vowels. For example: poikamainen ('boyish') has back vowels but tyttömäinen ('girlish') has front. Vowel harmony does not transcend intra-word boundaries in compound words, for example: seinäkello ('wall clock', from seinä 'wall' and kello 'clock'). The suffixes of compound words are determined by the last part of the word.

New loan words may exhibit vowel disharmony; for example, olympialaiset ('Olympic games') has both front and back vowels. In standard Finnish, these words are pronounced as they are spelled, but many speakers apply vowel harmony — olumpialaiset or even olumppialaiset is not uncommon.


Labial Dental Alveolar Postalveolar/
Velar Glottal
Nasal m n ŋ 3
Plosive p, (b) t, d 1 k, (ɡ) ʔ 2
Fricative (f) s (ʃ) h
Approximant ʋ l j
Trill r
  1. /d/ is the equivalent of /t/ under weakening consonant gradation, and thus occurs only medially, in the infinitives of the verbs nähdä (to see) and tehdä (to do), or in non-native words; it is actually more of an alveolar tap rather than a true voiced stop, and the dialectal realization varies widely; see main article.
  2. The glottal stop can only appear at word boundaries as a result of certain sandhi phenomena, and it is not indicated in spelling: e.g. /annaʔʔolla/ 'let it be', orthographically anna olla. Moreover, this sound is not used in all dialects.
  3. The short velar nasal [ŋ] is an allophone of /n/ in /nk/, and the long velar nasal /ŋŋ/, written ng, is the equivalent of /nk/ under weakening consonant gradation (type of lenition) and thus occurs only medially.

[f] appears in native words only in the Southwestern dialects, but is reliably distinguished by Finnish speakers. The rest of the foreign fricatives are not. 'š' or 'sh' [ʃ] appears only in non-native words, often pronounced 's', although some educated speakers make a distinction between e.g. šakki 'chess' and sakki 'a gang (of people)'. The orthography also includes the letters 'z' [z] and 'ž' or 'zh' [ʒ], although their use is marginal, and they have no true phonemic status. For example, azeri and džonkki may be pronounced aseri and tsonkki without fear of confusion. In most words with 'z' in their orthography (mostly foreign words and names such as Zimbabwe) Finns tend to pronounce it as [t͡s], following German orthography, where the most familiar examples of the letter have traditionally been found.

With the phoneme /h/, speakers add weak frication consistent with the vowel, producing a voiceless fricative. Friction tends to be strongest when the phoneme occurs between a vowel and a consonant. The friction is pharyngeal [ħ̞] next to /ɑ/, labiovelar [ʍ] or [xʷ] next to /u/, palatal [j̊] or [ç] next to /i/ and with intermediate quality next to other vowels.[citation needed] Additionally, between vowels a breathy or murmured [ɦ] can occur. For example, mahti can be pronounced [mɑħ̞ti] while as maha is [mɑɦɑ].

Voiced plosives

Traditionally, /b/ and /ɡ/ were not counted as Finnish phonemes, since they appear only in loanwords. However, these borrowings being relatively common, they are nowadays considered part of the educated norm. The failure to use them correctly is often ridiculed in the media, e.g. if a news reporter or a high official consistently and publicly realises Belgia ('Belgium') as Pelkia. Even many educated speakers, however, still make no distinction between voiced and voiceless plosives in regular speech if there is no fear of confusion. Minimal pairs do exist: /bussi/ 'a bus' vs. /pussi/ 'a bag', /ɡorillɑ/ 'a gorilla' vs. /kori+llɑ/ 'with a basket'.

The status of /d/ is somewhat different from /b/ and /ɡ/, since it also appears in native Finnish words, as a regular 'weak' correspondence of the voiceless /t/ (see Consonant gradation, above).

Initially, few native speakers of Finnish acquired the foreign plosive realisation of the native phoneme. Still some decades ago it was not entirely exceptional to hear borrowings like deodorantti ('a deodorant') pronounced as teotorantti, while native Finnish words with a /d/ were pronounced in the usual dialectal way. Due to diffusion of the standard language through mass media and basic education, and due to the dialectal prestige of the capital area, the plosive [d] can now be heard in all parts of the country, at least in loanwords and in formal speech.

Consonant gradation

If the onset of the last syllable is a plosive, it is subject to consonant gradation, which appears as simplification in case of the geminates and as a change to an archiphonemic fricative for simple consonants. The phonetic environment controls which actual phoneme corresponds to the "fricative". Generally speaking, the uninflected form is the strong form, but there are exceptions. (Sometimes this is described as a result of syllable coda, but verbal imperatives typically have weak-grade open syllables, e.g. pukea "to dress" → pue "dress!").

The following is a partial list of strong → weak correspondences:

  • Simplification of geminates
  • ttt (katto - katot)
  • kkk (pukki - pukit)
  • ppp (pappi - papit)
  • The most common
  • td (lato - ladot)
  • k → hiatus (pako - paot)
  • pv (läpi - lävet)
  • mpmm (kampi - kammet)
  • nkng (notice the odd spelling, phonetically [ŋk] → [ŋŋ]) (kenkä - kengät)
  • ltll (kielto - kiellot)
  • rtrr (merta - merrat)
  • ntnn (lento - lennot)
  • Examples of some exceptions
  • ukuuvu and ykyyvy, e.g. in puku, kyky
  • sC → no change, e.g. piispapiispan, kaskikasken, lastalastan

Note that in any given grammatical situation, the consonant can grade either way depending on the word involved. Here are some examples:

ranta "shore" → rannan: strong in nominative, weak in oblique cases
ranne "wrist" → ranteen: weak in nominative, strong in oblique cases
tavata "to meet" → tapaan "I meet": weak in infinitive, strong in oblique cases
tietää "to know" → tiedän "I know": strong in infinitive, weak in oblique cases

There are rare exceptions to the general rule, attributable to historical forms and consonant syncope, some of which are noted in the noun cases section. For example, the verb juosta/juokse- (where the infinitive juos+ta comes from earlier juoks+ta).

Personal first names do not gradate in quality in most cases (e.g. Hilta - Hiltan, Hilla - Hillan); though do sometimes in quantity (e.g. Pekka - Pekan). Surnames, however, do. Acronyms do not gradate if they include the vowel (NaPa - NaPan, cf. common word napa - navan), but gradate if end in a consonant (PIK [pikki] - PIK:n [pikin]).

Other consonant alterations

Many of the "irregular" patterns of Finnish noun and verb inflection are explained by a change of a historical */ti/ to /si/. The change from */ti/ to /si/ itself does not result from consonant gradation but a phenomenon known as assibilation. However, words having this particular alternation are still subject to consonant gradation because these words do not incorporate this change in all inflectional stems. (Finnish words may have two, and sometimes three stems.) Thus, a word such as vesi 'water (sg. nom.)' may produce veden (sg. gen.):vetenä (sg. ess.):vesissä (pl. iness.); because the change from t to s has only occurred in front of i. When i has changed to another vowel, words like vesi inflect just like other nouns with a single t alternating with the consonant gradated d.

This pattern is, however, not fully established, e.g. kieltääkielsi ('deny') but säätääsääti ('devise (a rule)'), although both alternate forms (kielti and sääsi) are found. Apparently the end of its productivity was caused by word pairs such as noutaanouti ('bring') and noustanousi ('rise'), which were felt important enough to keep them contrastive.

Because one of the basic motivations for consonant gradation is syllable structure, other changes in behavior of consonant gradation can be traced to later sound changes which alter the syllable structure of words. One such example would be kuk.ka 'flower' → kuk.kaan 'flower+Illative'. If following the basic rule that a closed syllable causes the deletion of a syllable initial p , t, or k, then the conclusion would be ungrammatical: *kukaan. However, due to a historical development in which -h- was deleted in some unstressed medial positions, this particular instance does not result in consonant gradation (kuk.ka+hankuk.kaan). The form kukkahan, without the deletion of the 'h', is still found in the southern Pohjanmaa dialect and occasionally in poetry.


All phonemes except /ʋ/ and /j/ can occur doubled phonemically with the result being a phonetic increase in length. Consonant doubling always occurs at the boundary of a syllable as by the rules of a Finnish syllable.

Some example sets of words:

tuli = fire, tuuli = wind, tulli = customs
muta = mud, muuta = other (partitive sg.), mutta = but, muuttaa = to change or to move

A double /h/ is rare in standard Finnish, but possible, e.g. hihhuli, a derogatory term for a religious fanatic. In some dialects, e.g. Savo, it is common: rahhoo, or standard Finnish rahaa "money" (in the partitive case). The distinction between /d/ and /dː/ is found only in foreign words; natively 'd' occurs only in the short form. Whereas /ʋ/ and /j/ may appear as geminates when spoken (e.g. vauva [ʋɑuʋːɑ], raijata [rɑijːɑtɑ]), this distinction is not phonemic, and is not indicated in spelling.

In dialects or in the "everyday language" /ʋ/, /d/, and /j/ can have distinctive length, especially due to final consonant mutation, e.g. sevverran (sen verran), kuvvoo (kuvaa), teijjän (teidän).


The phonemic template of a syllable in Finnish is (O)(S)V(V)(S)(O) with O being an obstruent and S a liquid consonant. A syllable containing two identical vowels is realized as a long vowel, a syllable containing two different vowels as a diphthong. A final consonant of a Finnish word, though not a syllable, must be a coronal one.

Originally Finnish syllables could not start with two consonants but many loans containing these have added this to the inventory. This is observable in older loans such as ranska ← Swedish franska ("French") contrasting newer loans presidentti ← Swedish president ("president"). In the past decades it used to be common to hear these clusters simplified in speech (resitentti), particularly, though not exclusively, by either rural Finns or Finns who knew little or no Swedish or English. Even then Southwestern dialects formed an exception: consonant clusters, especially those with plosives, trills or nasals, are common: examples contain place names Friitala and Preiviiki near the town Pori, or town Kristiinankaupunki. Nowadays the overwhelming majority of Finns have adopted initial consonant clusters in their speech.


Like Hungarian and Icelandic, Finnish always places the primary stress on the first syllable of a word.[8] Secondary stress normally falls on odd syllables. Contrary to primary stress, Finnish secondary stress is quantity sensitive. Thus, if secondary stress would fall on a light (CV.) syllable, with a heavy (CVV. or CVC.) syllable following, then the secondary stress is moved one syllable to the right, and the preceding foot (syllable group) will contain three syllables. Thus, omenanani "as my apple" contains light syllables only, and has primary stress on the first syllable and secondary on the third, as expected. In omenanamme "as our apple", on the other hand, the third syllable (na) is light and the fourth heavy (nam), thus secondary stress falls on the fourth syllable. Certain Finnish dialects also have quantitiave-sensitive main stress pattern, but instead of moving the initial stress, they geminate the consonant, so that e.g. light-heavy CV.CVV becomes heavy-heavy CVCCVV. E.g. the partitive form of "fish" is pronounced kalaa in the quantity-insensitive dialects but kallaa in the quantity-sensitive ones.

Secondary stress falls on the first syllable on non-initial parts of compounds, for example the compound puunaama, meaning "wooden face" (from puu "tree" and naama "face"), is pronounced [ˈpuː-ˌnɑː-mɑ] but puunaama, meaning "which was cleaned" (...preceded by an agent in genitive, "by someone"), is pronounced [ˈpuː-nɑː-mɑ].


Finnish is not really isochronic at any level. For example, huutelu "shouting" and huuhtelu "flushing" are distinct words, where the initial syllables huu- and huuh- are of different length. Additionally, it has been measured that the first syllable of a word is (physically) longer than other syllables, in addition to its phonemic length (long or short). Thus, there are four different physical lengths.


Finnish sandhi is extremely frequent, appearing between many words and morphemes, in formal standard language and in everyday spoken language. In most registers, it is never written down; only dialectal transcriptions preserve it, the rest settling for a morphemic notation. There are two processes. The first is simple assimilation with respect to place of articulation (e.g. npmp). The second is predictive gemination of initial consonants on morpheme boundaries.

Simple phonetic incomplete assimilations include, using Finnish notation:

  • n + k → ŋk, velarization due to 'k', e.g. sen kanssa /seŋ kɑnssɑ/
  • n + p → mp, labialization due to 'p' e.g. menenpä /menempæ/
  • V + V → VʔV, dissimilation of a sequence of individual vowels (compared to diphthongs) by adding a glottal stop, e.g. kuorma-auto /kuormɑʔɑuto/ (not obligatory)

Gemination of a morpheme-initial consonant occurs when the morpheme preceding it ends in a vowel and belongs to one of certain morphological classes:

  • nouns in -e (apart from some new loanwords)
e.g. hakelava [hakellava] "open-box bed for wood chips"
  • imperatives and connegative imperatives of the second-person singular, as well as the negative form of the present indicative (these three are always similar to each other)
  • connegative imperatives of the third-person singular, first-person plural, second-person plural and third-person plural.
älkää tehkökään sitä 'actually, don't do it' [tehkøkːæːn]
  • first infinitives (the dictionary form)
e.g. täytyy mennä käymään /täytyy mennäkkäymään/
  • noun cases in -e: allative -lle as well as the more marginal sublative -nne (as in tänne) and prolative -tse (as in postitse); not the instructive, though
  • some other words such as kai 'probably', luo 'to, towards (a person, a place)', tai 'or'

The gemination can occur between morphemes of a single word as in /minulle/ + /kin//minullekkin/ 'to me, too' (orthographically minullekin), between parts of a compound word as in /perhe/ + /pɑlɑʋeri/[perheppɑlɑʋeri] 'family meeting' (orthographically perhepalaveri), or between separate words as in /tule/ + /tænne/[tulettænne] 'Come here!'. In elaborate standard language, the gemination affects even morphemes with a vowel beginning: /otɑ/ + /omenɑ/[otɑʔʔomenɑ] or [otɑʔomenɑ] 'Take an apple!'. In casual speech, this is however often rendered as [otɑomenɑ] without a glottal stop.

These rules are generally valid for the standard language, although many Southwestern dialects, for instance, do not recognise the phenomenon at all. Still in the standard language there is disagreement between different speakers, whether for instance kolme 'three' should cause a gemination of the following initial consonant or not: [kolmeʋɑristɑ] or [kolmeʋʋɑristɑ] 'three crows'. Both forms occur and neither one of them is standardised, since in any case it does not affect writing. In some dictionaries compiled for foreigners or linguists, however, the tendency of geminating the following consonant is marked by a superscript x as in perhex.

The historical origins of the morpheme-boundary gemination are in complete assimilation of a consonant sound to another. For instance, the modern Finnish word for 'boat' vene used to be veneš, which was changed by a regular sound change to veneh. Now consider this being combined with other words of the language, as in veneh kulkevi 'the boat is moving'. At some point of history, the sequence /h+k/ on morpheme boundaries was reduced to /kk/, thus manifesting a complete assimilation of the /h/ to the /k/ sound. Here we get the modern Finnish form [ʋenekkulkee] (orthographically vene kulkee), even though the independent form [ʋene] has no sign of the old final consonant /h/.

In many Finnish dialects, including that of Helsinki, the gemination on morpheme boundaries has become more widespread due to the loss of additional final consonants, which appear only as gemination of following consonant, cf. French liaison. For example, the standard word for 'now' nyt has lost its t and become ny in Helsinki speech. However, in a sequence like /ny/ + /se/ 'now it [does something]' you can still sense the original final consonant, since the combination is pronounced [nysse] and not *[nyse] (although the latter would be permissible in the dialect of Turku).

Similar remnants of a lost word final /n/ can be seen in dialects, where e.g. the genitive form of the first singular pronoun is regularly /mu/ (standard language minun): /se/ + /on/ + /mu/[seommu] 'It is mine'. Preceding an approximant, the /n/ assimilates completely: [muʋʋɑimo] 'my wife'. Preceding a vowel, however, the /n/ however pops up in a different form: /mu/ + /omɑ/[munomɑ] or even [munnomɑ] 'my own'.

See also



  • Hellstrom, Robert W. (1976), "Finglish", American Speech 51 (1/2): 85–93, doi:10.2307/455358 
  • Iivonen, Antti; Harnud, Huhe (2005), "Acoustical comparison of the monophthong systems in Finnish, Mongolian and Udmurt", Journal of the International Phonetic Association 35 (1): 59–71, doi:10.1017/S002510030500191X 
  • van der Hulst, Harry; van de Weijer, Jeroen (1995), "Vowel Harmony", in Goldsmith, John A., The Handbook of Phonological Theory, Blackwell Handbooks in Linguistics, Blackwell Publishers, pp. 495–534 

Further reading

Suomi, Kari, Toivanen, Juhani, Ylitalo, Riikka (2008). Finnish Sound Structure: Phonetics, Phonology, Phonotactics and Prosody. Studia Humaniora Ouluensia. 9. Oulu, Finland: University of Oulu. ISBN 978-951-42-8984-2. 


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