Finnish is Easy Part 2: Consonant Gradation

Okay, I lied a little bit in the last post: there is a bit more to the use of inflectional endings in Finnish than you would assume if you thought of them all as separate words that came after the noun. However, as with the cases, consonant gradation (and vowel harmony, which we’ll cover in the next post) is often presented in a manner that makes it look far more complicated than it actually is. In fact, consonant gradation can be explained in 7 easy rules (plus two caveats). Without further ado, the rules are as follows:

  1. Only p, t, k, and consonant clusters ending in those consonants change.
  2. If the strong grade of a consonant cluster ends in a double p, t, or k, the weak grade can be obtained by deleting one of those two consonants.
  3. Strong mp, nt, lt, rt, and nk become mm, nn, ll, rr, and ng. In all of these cases, the weak form is equivalent to a geminated (doubled) version of the first consonant in the cluster in pronunciation (remember that is pronounced /ŋŋ/).
  4. A p on its own or after l or r becomes v; t on its own or after h becomes d.
  5. A k on its own becomes v between two u‘s or y‘s; k after l or r becomes j before e or i. Otherwise k on its own or after l or r disappears entirely (it can disappear or not in the cluster hk; this depends to some extent on the speaker and the word).
  6. In all other cases, there is no gradation.
  7. The weak grade is typically used when the syllable whose initial consonant belongs to the consonant cluster under gradation contains a short vowel or a diphthong ending in i, u, or y and ends in a consonant (remember that the first consonant of a cluster always goes with the preceding syllable). Otherwise, we typically get the strong grade, although there are exceptions, most notably the present passive forms of verbs (but there’s a nice explanation for those too, which we’ll get to in a later post!).

These rules cover 99% of the cases of consonant gradation that you’ll run into in Finnish. When learning new words, keep in mind that the gradation is ultimately a function of the phonological environment that the cluster finds itself in, not the grammatical form of the word — the same grammatical form that gets weak gradation in one verb might get strong in another, for instance, if the two are in different conjugation classes.

Now, one of the caveats I mentioned earlier is that there are some words that don’t participate in consonant gradation at all. Once you’re a little bit more used to Finnish vocabulary, you shouldn’t have too much trouble identifying the majority of these — many (though not all) are very recent foreign loanwords or names. But it wouldn’t be language learning if there was nothing to memorize, and getting the consonant gradation wrong every once in a while isn’t a huge problem.

The other caveat is that, while consonant gradation usually only affects the consonant cluster before the last vowel in a word, there are words (such as the verb työskennellä ‘to work’) in which cluster before the second to last vowel is affected (following the principle given in rule 7). Also, in words with multiple suffixes, you can occasionally see the result of consonant gradation in multiple consonant clusters throughout the word, although those clusters are fixed and don’t change when the word is conjugated or declined.

If any of this is unclear, or if I have made a mistake somewhere, feel free to let me know!

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