Learn Words, Not Languages 3: Syntax

By now, you’ve seen many examples of words shared across different languages, both related to one another (i.e. German and English) and not. However, despite the title of these blog posts, helpful similarities between languages are in no way limited to words. If anything, syntax — the rules governing the order in which words must occur in a sentence to convey a particular meaning — is much more likely to be shared between any given pair of languages, even if they are only distantly related, or not related at all.

The best examples of shared syntax between languages are the ones that we generally don’t even notice: for instance, most romance languages allow you to mark possession using a preposition (usually de, or something similar), in exactly the same way as in English (this construction is used more widely in the romance languages than in English, but we can ignore that for the moment and focus on the similarities). When languages work this way, English speakers — native or otherwise — can simply follow the rules on the use of prepositions that they already know from English, without having to learn an entirely new set for the new language. The same thing goes for other languages with constructions that aren’t common in English: mastering the use of postpositions (i.e. prepositions that go after the noun) in Finnish will be much easier for a speaker of Hungarian, which uses them regularly, than it will be for someone who has never studied a postpositional language before.

Another good example is the “V2” word order seen in German. For those who aren’t familiar with it, in German, the verb of a finite clause must always occur second in the sentence — that is, after the first word or noun phrase, but before any others. However, what many people don’t realize is that this word order is also used in Icelandic — and although Icelandic follows V2 word order more often than German does, it will be much easier for a person already familiar with V2 word order as used in one of those languages to learn to use it properly in the other, or vice versa.

Even more so than with vocabularly, when you learn a new “exotic” syntactic pattern in a language you are studying, one of your first questions should be whether it is actually similar or identical to one you already know how to use fluently. Don’t assume that the language your teacher is using to communicate with you doesn’t include this construction in some form or other — it’s easy for speakers to not realize that a “new” construction is actually in use in their native or C2 languages, especially if it has a much more limited use in that language than in the target language. Just because a construction would be most accurately translated by a particular other construction doesn’t mean that that’s the comparision you should make to learn it — in many circumstances it also helps to compare it to familiar structures that don’t mean exactly the same thing, as long as you remain vigilent about not confusing the meanings.

In general, languages tend to have more in common than not syntactically. Don’t assume that the language your learning will use the same word order as the ones you already know, but rest assured that most constructions will probably have an analogue in your L1. And as always, practice makes perfect!

Learn Words, Not Languages part 2: Loanwords

Loanwords get their own post, because there are so many of them. Remember how many languages in a particular region are often related, with much of their vocabulary either shared or semi-transparently related? Languages also have a strong tendency to “borrow” vocabulary from other (even completely unrelated) languages that they are in contact with, further reducing the amount of novel vocabulary to be learned from scratch in many new languages. Converting between the form of a word in one language and the borrowed form in another language is often simply a matter of applying a formula, and can sometimes be done on the fly in a pinch.

This is, of course, not a perfect solution, but nothing here is. You will still encounter numerous false friends, and sometimes the formula to get from one form of a word to another will be less obvious than it could be — a good dictionary is still an essential tool when starting a new language, and you shouldn’t rely solely on your instincts to determine a word’s meaning, even if you are a linguist yourself. But in a pinch, reaching for an international word that might have been borrowed into your target language in some form can be a solution if you aren’t sure how to say something.

Note that a lot, although not all, of the international vocabulary discussed in the previous post falls into the loanword category. Many of the traits of loanwords can also be applied to cognates and other types of international vocabulary, and many of the “international” words that you will come to recognize became international by being borrowed from one language into another over a relatively short period of time. This is especially true with scientific terminology, which is often coined in a particular language — often English nowadays — and then exported whole cloth or as a calque to other languages. It can also pay to keep your eyes open for familiar brand names that may have become genericized in your target language, even if the original generic word would have been unfamiliar.

At a broader level, though: regardless of what anyone may tell you, linguistics and language learning are not unrelated, even though they are not simply two branches of the same field. Linguistics, and especially historical linguistics, is an incredibly useful tool when studying a foreign language, and even a little bit helps. One purpose of these posts is to teach a tiny bit of basic linguistics to language learners, in the hope that it will make their lives easier.

Now, a word of warning before you go out and assume that every familiar-looking word is a loanword with a familiar meaning: so-called “false friends” are very real, and words that resemble one another may have different meanings, even if they are ultimately related. For instance, the French verb demander is related to the English verb demand, but the former simply means ‘ask’. However, as the example reveals, you can often find at least some connection between the meanings of related false friends (i.e. demanding is arguably just a more forceful form of asking), so don’t discount etymology!

And one last thought: you should be looking not just at words borrowed into your target language from languages you already know, but also the converse — words in languages you already know that originated in your target language. Think about all of the French vocabulary that has made its way into English (often with a somewhat altered meaning) — if you dig deep enough, learning about those words will make learning French vocabulary much easier.

Learn Words, Not Languages, part 1: International Vocabulary and Structures

First things first: there are many, many words out there that have been borrowed into a wide variety of languages, making them almost universal in some parts of the world. Orange (the color), for instance, is recognizable in many of the languages of Europe, and the name of the fruit is common to a smaller but still significant number. Pineapple is almost always a variation on ananas in the West (with English being a major exception). Tea is some variation on tea or cha(i) almost everywhere, and many (although not all) scientific and medical terms are also in this category. If you get a sense of which words these are, and learn the ones not used in languages you already know, you can start a new language with a surprising amount of “free” vocabulary.

In a similar vein, figures of speech and other expressions are often shared across multiple languages. For instance, French and Spanish speakers (among many others) express their age by saying how many years they have, and language can be grouped based on whether they have a distinct verb to have or use a locative or possessive form with the verb to be instead. You will also run into calques and/or compound words that are formed similary in multiple languages — for instance, Finnish, German and Swedish all call a dictionary a “word book”.

If etymology is your thing, note that words that appear similar and have the same meaning aren’t necessarily related. For instance, the English verb to have and the Latin verb habēre both have the same meaning, and look very similar, but are ultimately unrelated etymologically. However, don’t let that deter you — if the similarity in shape makes one of those words easier to remember, take advantage of it! Learning the etymologies of such words, and the coincidental nature of their similarity, can even help strengthen the words in your memory, although if you aren’t interested in etymology and the technical side of linguistics, this may not be the approach for you.

Now, before you go off and start learning, a word of warning: don’t fall prey to false friends! There are plenty of words out there that sound similar, but have totally different meanings — or, worse, subtly different meanings that will distort your message in certain contexts. When in doubt, always check a dictionary or other reputable source to be sure of what a word actually means. Don’t say you’re pregnant when you’re just embarassed!

Learn Words, Not Languages: Intro

Having spent a lot of time learning various languages, I’ve decided to write up my somewhat unorthodox thoughts on the best language learing strategy for someone who ultimately intends to learn more than one language. While I hope that what I say here will also be useful to people who only care about mastering their second language, and don’t expect to ever study another after that, do bear in mind that my target audience is aspiring polyglots.

At any rate, my advice is this: if you want to learn a large number of languages, you should stop thinking in terms of learning whole languages, and start thinking in terms of learning parts of languages (which first and foremost refers to words, but includes grammar as well). Instead of studying French or German, learn how a French or German person would express the concepts that are important to you, and whether they would use vocabularly and syntax that you already know, or that you still need to acquire.

The reasons for this are manifold: in the modern world, many languages — even those that are in no way genetically related — have a certain amount of similar vocabulary due to borrowing, and many unrelated languages share similar grammatical constructions regardless of their relatedness or level of contact with other languages. Additionally, learning a new language requires you to break down that language and learn its component pieces (to some extent) separately, and if you can apply a piece to a new language that you’ve already mastered when studying another, that’s all the more effort that you won’t have to put in. Languages aren’t monolithic entities that have to (or even can) be learned in isolation, and there’s very little to gain by treating them as if they were.

Obviously, there will always be something new that you have to learn when starting a new language — it wouldn’t be a different language if it were the same as one that you’d already studied — but over time, you will reach a point where you start off on a new language already knowing most of the material that you will have to apply to speak it, having to learn only a subset of the vocabularly and a smattering of novel constructions and grammatical features.

Over the next few posts (no promises about the schedule at this point, unfortunately), I’ll be delving into each aspect of this in detail. Stay tuned!

Finnish is Easy Part 5: Nouns Ending in -e

Finnish nouns ending in –e in the Nominative are a slightly odd group. Normally, when a Finnish word ends in a vowel, you simply add the endings directly after the vowel, possibly changing the stem slightly in the process. However, this group is different.

If we take a second to delve into Finnish historical linguistics, we learn that all of the native Finnish words ending in –e in the Nominative in the modern language (which is quite a few words) used to end in a consonant, which got worn down to a glottal stop over time (which is not written but is still pronounced in the Nominative!). In cases other than the Nominative, consonant gradation has eliminated this consonant entirely, but not before speakers had already inserted another epenthetic –e– before the endings. Hence, these words now have a stem ending in –ee in all forms other than the Nominative Singular.

The other interesting feature of these nouns is that their consonant gradation pattern is reversed compared to what you might already be used to on other nouns: the Nominative Singular gets the weak grade, and all other forms get the strong. However, this is unsurprising if we think about it for a moment or two — the Nominative Singular used to end in a consonant, and thus a closed syllable, triggering the weak grade, whereas in the other forms this consonant had slid over into the following syllable (to go with the epenthetic vowel), leaving the original last syllable of the stem open. Thus, we get words like sade, sateen ‘rain’.

It is worth bearing in mind that some words, especially names and very recent foreign loans, don’t actually belong to this group, and are declined as if they ended in a different vowel. However, these words are usually easy to identify, and you probably won’t confuse anyone too much if you get one or two declensions wrong.

This has been a short post, but it’s something worth knowing!

Finnish is Easy Part 4: The e/i Change in Noun Stems

One group of Finnish nouns that can cause problems for beginners is the nouns that end in –i in the nominative singular, but have a stem ending in –e– in all other forms, such as nimi, nimen ‘name’ and talvi, talven ‘winter’.

One solution, of course, is simply to memorize all of these words separately. This is actually a much less arduous task than one might imagine, since the nouns that fall into this class tend to be words for basic concepts that have been in the language for a long time without being replaced by borrowings, and hence there are only so many of them (and you will eventually get a feel for which sorts of words are likely to undergo this change). However, we can do better.

What I would suggest when confronted with these nouns is to learn the stem, not the nominative singular form as your dictionary may assume you will. Thus, you would memorize nime– and talve– rather than nimi and talvi, and then remember that the –e– becomes –i in the nominative singular (which is in fact what happened historically, although it is unclear what the quality of the original vowel at the end of these stems actually was). You will need to be careful not to confuse nouns with a stem ending in –e– and a nominative singular in –i with nouns that have a stem in –ee– and a nominative singular in –e, but if you always write nouns of the first group with a hyphen after the stem, that should help you keep them separate.

Another rule worth remembering is that a noun whose inflected forms show a stem in –e– (notee-!), and that isn’t a personal name, a very obvious loanword, or one of a small set of irregular words, usually falls into this group and will have a nominative singular ending in –i. Do remember to account for consonant gradation though, and also bear in mind that –te– at the end of a stem becomes –si in the nominative singular, when there are no endings after it (hence vesi, veden ‘water’, with the stem vete-). This rule can create homonyms in the nominative singular only: kuusi can mean either ‘six’ or ‘spruce’, but the two words have different stems (kuute– and kuuse– respectively).

This is a short post because there isn’t all that much to say here. If you still find it confusing, leave a note in the comments or feel free to ask directly!

Finnish is Easy Part 3: Vowel Harmony

This is going to be a relatively short post, because vowel harmony isn’t all that complicated — it just takes some practice to get right. The basic principle is that there are certain pairs of vowels that can’t co-occur in a word, although simply stating it that way misses a couple of important nuances. For now, let’s take a different tack.

Finnish has eight vowels: i e a o u ä ö y. Vowel harmony would be slightly easier to explain if the vowel represented by y were written as ü (as it is in Estonian), but it’s a bit late for that. Now, the first rule of vowel harmony in Finnish is this: if a word contains a vowel with an umlaut on it (ä, ö) or y, all other instances of a and o in that word must have an umlaut on them (and be pronounced accordingly), and u is not allowed (it gets replaced by y if it showed up in a suffix).

The corollary to this rule is that if a word contains a, o or u (without umlauts), no other vowel is allowed to have an umlaut on it, and y is not allowed in the word. In both cases, suffixes adjust their internal vowels (getting either a, o, or u or ä, ö or y) depending on the vowels that are already present in the stem.

Finally, these rules come with one caveat: a word is more or less defined as a single word stem with its attached suffixes, not as a word written on paper. In compound words, you may see sequences of vowels that violate vowel harmony, because they are technically in separate words that have only recently been jammed together. The word yläosa ‘upper part’, for instance, is perfectly fine in Finnish because it’s a compound.

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!

Finnish is Easy: Case Endings

Let’s talk about one of the first things that comes up in almost any discussion of Finnish among people who find the language scary: noun cases. Usually discussions like this lead to people enthusiastically explaining how many of these there are, and how they would never be able to remember all of them. This, of course, is the root of problem, so let’s try and dispel that myth.

Now, first, I want you to forget everything you know about Finnish grammar. Imagine you’re encountering the language for the first time, and perhaps you don’t even know how it’s normally written. With that in mind, imagine someone showed you the following sentence:

Hän asuu Oulu ssa.
S/he lives Oulu in

It’s probably going to be pretty obvious what it means: each element corresponds pretty closely to an English word in the translation “S/he lives in Oulu”, with only two elements — those corresponding to “Oulu” and “in” — being “out of order” in comparison to the English. If I gave you a few more sentences like this (I’m going to pass for now, to keep this post to a manageable length), you’d quickly realize that this is the norm in Finnish: the elements with meanings that in English are expressed by prepositions generally go after the noun.

So how hard is this exactly? In my opinion, not very. Yes, you have to get used to something new, but you also have to get used to a bunch of new words anyway, so there isn’t much additional complexity there.

Now, to get from the sentences above to normal Finnish, all you have to do is remove the space between the noun and the element corresponding to a preposition in English. In speech, this means that they are pronounced together as one word, without any secondary stress on the second element. This, and the fact that vowel harmony and consonant gradation are also sometimes present (we’ll talk more about those later on), are the only reasons why linguists treat -ssa, -lla, and other elements as endings rather than just postpositions.

As an exercise, try talking and writing about who lives in the cities and towns Oulu, Inari, Vantaa, Espoo, and Pori, as well as in a house (talo). You can play around with other words as well, but recognize that there are other processes affecting them as well, and you might get slightly odd forms if you start from those words without reading the next couple of sections.

Happy learning!

Finnish is Easy (Intro)

Whenever I tell people that I’ve been learning Finnish, one of the first things out of their mouths is usually some version of how Finnish is such a hard language, and how it’s impressive that I’ve gotten to such and such a level in it. And while I don’t want to understate the amount of effort that goes into learning a language — any language — to a high level, every time I have this conversation I get a little bit more frustrated at the state of language education, and how it managed to turn a beautiful and largely straightforward language such as Finnish into something complicated and scary by describing it in overly technical, obfuscated terms.

Now, if you’ve been studying Finnish for a while already, and have only just now come across these posts, I recommend that you try not to think about the grammatical information that your teacher or other resources — especially textbooks and grammars meant for linguists — may have told you. That information isn’t wrong, but much of it was probably compiled by linguists and other language researchers, who have been trained to focus on the nuts and bolts of how a language works, rather than the aspects that will be most relatable to you as a new learner. Unless you are yourself a linguist or language nerd, learning this technical terminology doesn’t always do you much good when learning to speak a new language, especially one like Finnish that lends itself to that sort of analysis.

This, of course, is not to disparage linguists. I myself am a linguist, and there is a lot to be gained from the technical analysis of languages such as Finnish. However, speaking a language and studying it academically are two totally different disciplines, and practitioners of both would do well to keep this in mind, especially when making forays into the other’s field.

In this sequence of posts, I will try to explain some of the aspects of Finnish most known for being confusing to new learners in a manner that doesn’t depend on technical linguistic knowledge, and which should be relatable to speakers of English. Because I’m writing in English, I’m going to assume that all readers have a strong command of that language; if there is enough interest in the future, I might be convinced to translate this series into another language.

Finally: if you’re ever interested in studying Hungarian, 90% of what I mention here applies there as well, and the other 10% doesn’t matter because Hungarian grammar is even more logical than Finnish. But more on that some other time.