[Finnish] Pronunciation 2 : Syllables, Intonation, & Vowel Harmony

This is the second part about Finnish pronunciation! I’ve been going slowly through this chapter because I believe pronunciation is important, and I never really took the time to get it right when I was studying other languages (I always learnt from books, so it was easy to just excel in reading and writing and ignore the other skills).

In this particular post we’ll talk about syllables, stress/intonation, and vowel harmony.


The usual rule for Finnish syllables is: “There is a syllable boundary before every sequence of a single consonant followed by a vowel”.

To put it more simply, each syllable starts with a consonant (excluding words that start with a vowel), and ends when the next consonant in the word appears. For example, let’s look at the word ‘kaunis’ (beautiful). There are two syllables in ‘kaunis’ : kau-nis. The first syllable begins with the consonant ‘k‘, and the second syllable begins with the consonant ‘n‘.

Let’s take a longer word: ‘jokainen’ (every). There are three syllables here: jo-kai-nen. Each syllable begins with a consonant.

Many times, morphological and syllable boundaries coincide. Basically, sometimes the suffixes added to words in Finnish blend in to the syllables.

For example, take the word ‘naistakin’ (also a/the woman). We’ll get into cases later, but the partitive suffix ‘ta’ is added to ‘nainen’ (woman), creating the word ‘naista’. Then, the clitic ‘kin’ is added, which means ‘also’. So: ‘naistakin’ (also a/the woman). Don’t worry if that doesn’t make too much sense, I’m just explaining how the word is split up!

Split up into syllables, it would be: nais-ta-kin. The particle ‘ta’ becomes its own syllable, even though the two consonants ‘s’ and ‘t’ are together (naistakin). It isn’t split up as ‘naist-a-kin’, but ‘naista-kin’, because the syllables will all (typically) start with a consonant.

Another example is ‘puissa’ (in (the) trees). The letter ‘i’ is added to make the word plural, and the suffix ‘ssa’ is added, which means ‘into/inside’. Split up, the syllables would be: puissa. Not pu-i-ssa, because the lone vowel ‘i’ cannot be its own syllable. Each syllable must begin with a consonant. So therefore: puis-sa. The first syllable ‘puis’ is said as one syllable rather than two, althought the ‘u’ still makes an ‘oo’ sound. So it is, sort of, ‘pu-i-ssa’, but the ‘ui’ blends together well enough that it is still one syllable.

Here’s some examples of me enunciating the syllables so you get a feel for how the words split up (it’s going to sound really weird because I’m essentially enunciating each of the syllables separately. Saying the word normally will sound different!) : syllables

This is the list of words I’m saying, in order:

ka-la (a/the fish)                   jo-kai-nen (every)

kui-ten-kin (however)       sit-ten (then)

päi-vä (a/the day)                 al-kaa (to begin)

pur-kis-sa (in a/the jar)      purk-kiin (into a/the jar)

An-tin (of Antti)                     An-til-le (to Antti)

Hel-sin-kiin (to Helsinki)   Hel-sin-gis-sä-kin (in Helsinki, too)

puis-sa (in (the) trees)          nais-ta-kin (also a/the woman)

For practise, try separating these words yourself!
vapaa, koalitio, voida, bulevardi, aatteellisuus 

There is also a syllable boundary in the middle of certain vowel pairs like ‘sanoa’ (sa-no-a), and ‘kireä’ (ki-re-ä).

Stress & Intonation

In Finnish, the main stress is always on the first syllable in a word (I’ve highlighted each of them in the words below).

Helsinkiin ; vapaa ; voida ; jokainen ; maalaan ; aatteellisuus ; koalitio ; poliitikko ; psykologi ; psykologia ; bulevardi ; arkeologi

Listen here : syllable stress

When it comes to sentences, in general, the rise and tone of your voice will change depending on what part of the phrase you are emphasising.

Let’s look at the sentence : “Kalle söi omenan!” (Kalle ate an apple). In this example, we are going to stress the word “omenan” (apple), as in “Kalle ate an APPLE”. Listen : Kalle söi OMENAN

Now let’s rearrange the sentence: “Omenan Kalle söi!” It is the same sentence, but it means more like “It was an APPLE that Kalle ate”. We are still emphasising the apple, but it comes at the beginning to emphasise it more (we will discuss more about Finnish word order and emphasis later!).  Listen to this version of the sentence: OMENAN Kalle söi

The vocal emphasis is still on “omenan”.

Depending on the placement of the word and the particular emphasis you’re trying for, your voice could rise at the beginning of the sentence or at the end.

Here are some more examples:

HUOmenna Pekka lähtee HELsinkiin (tomorrow Pekka is going to Helsinki)

ILLAlla MEnen RAvintolaan tanssimaan (In the evening I am going dancing at a restaurant)

URho KEKkonen oli SUOmen presidentti (Urho Kekkonen was the President of Finland)

TURkuun minä lähden, eN HELsinkiin (I am going to Turku, not to Helsinki!)

Vowel Harmony

This particular topic is relatively simple. To start off, let’s go over back vowels and front vowels in Finnish.

Back vowels: a, o, u
Front vowels: ä, ö, y

If you pay close attention when pronouncing each one, you should notice how the back vowels are said using your throat and the front vowels are said more with your lips in the front of your mouth.

Vowel harmony is essentially a rule saying that the ending of a word must match its stem as far as whether it has back or front vowels.

For example, the stem “talo” (house) has a back vowel (a), so if we add the ending “ssa” (inside), then the “a” will be a back vowel a, and not a front vowel “ä”. Talossa.

However the stem “kylä” (village) has a front vowel (ä), so if we add the ending “ssa” this time, then the “a” must also be a front vowel “ä”, so the entire word would look and be pronounced like this: kylässä.

Each suffix/ending, whether you have one or three will follow this pattern. If the stem has a front vowel, each ending/suffix will have a front vowel. If the stem has a back vowel, each ending/suffix will have a front vowel.

*With the ‘neutral’ vowels, “i” and “e”, some derivational endings contain a back vowel (you can see in the examples). I don’t know the particular rule for this, or if it’s always the case.

Examples (the hyphen in this case separates the stem from the endings, and is not indicative of the syllables):

Back vowels: talo-ssa ; Turu-ssa ; Pori-ssa ; poja-lla ; kirja-ssa-han

Front vowels: kylä-ssä ; käde-ssä ; venee-ssä ; äidi-llä ; kynä-llä-hän

There are two exceptions to this: the partitive singular forms of the nouns “meri” (sea) and “veri” (blood). They become “merta” and “verta”, respectively.

For some words of foreign origin that have both back and front vowels in their stem (amatööri – amateur), the ending can fluctuate. So in this particular example, you could say “amatööri-na” (as an amateur), or “amatööri-nä”. The book I’m using says the back vowel ending “na” is the recommended usage, but either one seems to be correct.


That’s all for the pronunciation part of all this. I might add on more as I go, but this is everything I’ve found in the book I’m using. I hope I explained everything in a way that made sense, but don’t hesitate to ask if you have any questions!

*All examples were taken from:
Karlsson, Fred. Finnish: An Essential Grammar. Trans. Andrew Chesterman. 3rd ed. London [u.a.: Routledge, 2003. Print.


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