So, last Thursday I completed my Suomi 1 course (level one Finnish). I learnt a lot, and feel it was definitely worth the time and effort. However, it was a pretty intensive course, and I am now very glad to now have a good few extra hours each day for other things. If you’ve not seen or heard Finnish, a good website to visit is YLE’s Selkouutiset website (YLE = the Finnish national broadcaster; selko = clarity & uutiset = news) – they report daily news in simple and clear Finnish for those starting to learn the language. It is a great site – anybody from the SABC reading this?

With Suomi 1 done, I thought I’d try to quantify how different Finnish is from English – and since I’m not a linguist, I thought I’d apply a vaguely “ecological” technique, and just compare letter frequencies (imagine each letter is a species…). OK, if we compare the usage of letters in English, Finnish and some other languages…

Most frequently used letters

It turns out that the six languages I looked at all tended to use similar letters most frequently (the six most frequently used letters accounted for  51 – 56 % of all letter usage in the six languages). Therefore, there was little difference in the main letters used, although ä and k are the 9th and 10th most frequently used letters in Finnish – and these don’t appear on the top 10 for any of the other languages. Looking beyond the six most frequently used letters there is still a strong correlation between the frequency at which letters are used in English and Finnish (for the scientists: correlation coefficient r = 0.81). In other words, commonly used letters in English are also generally commonly used in Finnish.

Kallionkirkko - kallio (rocky) and kirkko (church) are two of the many Finnish words starting with the letter "k"

But maybe English and Finnish differ in *where* the letters are used? So looking at the frequency with which different letters either start or end words…

Most frequenct first letters

Now there’s a difference! English and Finnish only share two letters among their seven most frequent first letters  – only “s” and “t” feature strongly for both languages (very strongly, actually). Therefore, there is a big difference in how words start – in Finnish there are a lot more words begining with “k”, “p” or “v” than in English. Another difference which is easily noticed from flicking through a Finnish dictionary is the scarcity of words starting with “b”, “c”, “d”, “f” and “g” – these only make up 2 % of Finnish words, compared to 17 % in English.

And what about how words end?

Most frequent last letters

And that’s another big difference! Only “s” and “n” are common as last letter in both languages. In Finnish words “a”, “n” and “i” comprise nearly 60 % of all last letters – that’s a big difference from English. The high frequency of Finnish words ending on “a” is probably related to the “-lla”, “-lta”, “-ssa”, and “-sta” suffixes (denoting “where” and “where from”), the use of “-a” and “-ta” suffixes to indicate indefinite amounts and ongoing actions (the partitive form).

A lehtikuja (= wooded alley) - one of the many, many Finnish words ending with an "a". This "kuva" (picture) could also represent "lehtikujasta" (from the wooden alley), lehtikujalla (on the wooden alley), etc...). The photo is from a recent walk near Kivihaka.


So, it seems that one way in which the Finnish and English languages differ is the order in which letters are used.

And just so you know where I found all this data (it didn’t involve me paging through our Finnish-English dictionaries)… I collected letter frequencies for English, French, German, Spanish, Swedish and Dutch from Wikipedia, Afrikaans from here, and Finnish from Stefan Trost’s Software Solutions website (many thanks to Stefan for letting me use his data). I got the frequency of last letters of English words from here (extracted from “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), and used a list of the 1000 most common Finnish words from here – I used that to estimate the frequency of first and last letters in Finnish. I didn’t weight these 1000 words by their frequency, so that might introduce some bias. If anybody has the energy and the time feel free to repeat this on weighted data – I’ll happily update the numbers!

And just to wrap up with two interesting sites about Finnish:

  • You can find some basic information about the different cases in Finnish (past, present, future,  and a lot more!) here.
  • And you can see how many different words can be created from 1 root word here – the site lists 2253 different word-forms that can be created from “kauppa” (= a shop): the shop, a shop, at the shop, in the shop, close to the shop, from the shop, to the shop, etc. This is why someone said that Finnish is like a pyramid – it is tough to learn the basic vocabulary and rules (i.e. a big base is required), but after that it gets easier. That person also suggested that English is like an inverted pyramid – very easy to get started, but it is really tough to master because there are just so many very different words.
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