Tag Archives: Finnish

Winter Olympic pronunciation tips: Finnish

I’m getting back onto the Winter Olympics, which are impending. Finnish names come up in a number of winter sports, and people often freak out needlessly and make easily fixed mistakes when trying to say them. Here are four tips to remember if you want to get reasonably close on the pronunciation of Finnish names. Pour yourself six shots and let’s go!



As a rule, I do tastings of English words here, and the occasional loan that is at least partly adopted. Plus a few inventions. But today I saw an entirely non-English word that most Anglophones are unlikely ever to see, and I wanted to toss it in.

I am subscribed to word-of-the-day emails for several languages. It’s my idea of fun. I am variously incipiently able in the languages: Mandarin (been studying it for years off and on, but forget almost as much as I learn), Dutch (I got by in Amsterdam, but they all speak English), Portuguese (helped me on my recent vacation), Swedish (a useful interest, as I actually have relatives on my wife’s side in Sweden), Danish (added because we visited Copenhagen last year, but I don’t enjoy the language as I thought I would), Japanese (I know I will never get too far in it; if I plan a trip there I’ll add some elbow grease), and Finnish (because why not). Guess which one this word is from.

Did you guess Finnish? If so, you got it. Some clues include the length of the word, the number of double letters, and the unrecognizability of practically all of it.

Practically? Well, there is that moottori. Bear in mind that in Finnish a double letter is said like the single letter held for longer, so moottori sounds like motori said by someone trying to be creepy. Take off the i – which is there to make it more like a Finnish word following Finnish rules – and you have motor. Which, in fact, is what it is.

OK, so fine. What is the rest of this train wreck?

Train wreck? I don’t know if that’s actually quite the best word for it. To me it looks more like the skid marks left on a highway by a motorcycle that has slid on its side at highway speeds. Or perhaps like a Muybridge-style filmstrip of someone getting into a great difficulty at high speed. But if you’re Finnish you’ll spot the pieces and know how it’s put together. You’ll see moottori, then pyörä, then onnettomuus – which is in turn formed from onnetton plus uus, and onnetton in its turn is from onni pus ton.

So. Let’s pick up the pieces and reconstruct what’s happened here. Start with onni: it means ‘happiness’ or ‘luck’. Next ton, a suffix that’s like English –less, so onnetton means ‘happiness-less’ or ‘luckless’ or, more to the point, ‘unhappy’ or ‘unlucky’. The uus is a nominalizing suffix, like English –ness. So onnettomuus (note the shift from n to m; Finnish has little alternations like that just to keep agglutination interesting) could be translated as ‘unhappiness’ or ‘unluckiness’. Except it’s not.

Not? No. The direct English equivalent is accident. An accident may once have been just a “thing that happened,” but now it’s a bad thing that came about. An unhappy, unlucky incident.

Oh, and pyörä? It means ‘wheel’ or ‘cycle’. So: moottoripyöräonnettomuus means motorcycleaccident. Doesn’t it look fitting? I think it does.

Does it sound like one? I don’t think so, not so much, but here’s how to say it. Let’s start with the fact that all words in Finnish have stress on the first syllable. It’s separate from vowel and consonant length. This can take a lot of getting used to. Anyway, compound words have intermediate stress at the start of each of their compound parts: moottori pyöonnettomuus.

Finnish spelling is entirely phonetic. The sound of Finnish has been mistaken for Italian (by those who know neither language); the vowels are “pure.” But Finnish, unlike, say, Italian, also has front-back “vowel harmony”: all vowels in a given word (or part of a compound) are either front or back (neutral vowels can be in either). But this is a language-internal perspective: i and e are “neutral”; a, o, and u are the “back” vowels, and each has its “front” pair – a as in father pairs with ä as in hat (the sounds are closer together than the English pair for many dialects of English, though); o as in Italian solo pairs with ö as in German schön; u as in English chute pairs with y, which is like ü in German Führer or u in French lune.

And there are a few diphthongs; in this word, we see just one, probably the hardest one for Anglophones to nail: , which is like saying the English letter names “E-A” with your lips rounded tight. (You’ll need to learn it early; by itself is the Finnish word for ‘night’. ‘Goodnight’ is Hyvää yötä.)

So. From that, and remembering that double letters are like single letters but held longer, you have all the information you need to say moottoripyöräonnettomuus.

Which is like saying that if you’ve read about motorcycles and ridden a bicycle, you have all the information you need to drive a motorcycle: in reality you may lay it down sideways when you try. So you may need to practice a few times. If you feel that a bit of International Phonetic Alphabet would help, here you go: [ˈmoːtːoriˌpyøræˌonːɛtːomuːs].

Oh, sorry. Did that look like an even worse accident? Well, Finnish is one of those languages where the IPA won’t really make your life any easier.

And why did they choose this word, of all the words they could have chosen, for word of the day? Actually, they didn’t. The word of the day was moottoripyörä; there were several phrases using it included as illustration. This word came from the illustrations. But I must say that some of those WOTD emails have some pretty messed-up choices for illustrative sentences.

Scandinavian words we say differently

My latest article for TheWeek.com is up. My editor has given it a funny title – as one commenter points out, it’s more like “The strange English pronunciations of common Nordic words,” but the title on the article is

The strange Scandinavian pronunciations of common English words

I hope you enjoy it!