The Finnish Cases, Explained

Today is Finnish Language Day! I’m going to make this a short post by virtue of the fact that, while I have seen a lot written about this topic, I usually haven’t seen it in “bite-sized” pieces.

So here we go!

First off: Finnish is a Finno-Ugric Language with close relatives in Estonian and, to a lesser degree, in the Sami Languages, and more distantly in Hungarian (not also to mention minority languages of the Russian Federation from which their original source likely was).

These languages have very high numbers of cases in comparison to the Germanic or Slavic Languages, but what few people will tell you is the fact that most of these cases are straight-up prepositions (this is true in all of the Finno-Ugric Languages which I have studied: Finnish, Hungarian, Estonian and Northern Sami).

Let’s look at how the word “talo” (house) is declined:

 

talo

Wiktionary.org

 

This probably might not mean much to you if you’re an absolute beginner, so let’s help you. I’ll give the singular examples.

 

Nominative (talo) – use this if it is the SUBJECT of the sentence (so “the house is beautiful” = the house is what the sentence is about).

Accusative (talo) – use this if it is the OBJECT of the sentence (so “the dragon ate the house” = the house is what the primary doer of the sentence is doing the thing to, hence it is in the accusative)

Genitive (talon) – use this to indicate OWNERSHIP. The word “talon” by itself would mean “of the house” or “the house’s”.

Partitive (taloa) – used in a lot of ways, but use it with NUMBERS or to indicate SOME OF that thing. Taloja -> some houses (note that I used the plural form). The singular you can use with numbers, like with “lähes 400 taloa” -> “nearly four hundred houses” (400 – neljäsataa, which itself uses a partitive in the word “sataa” -> “hundreds” (in the singular because it, too, is preceded by a number)

 

This is where it gets easier:

Talossa – in the house

Talosta – from the house, about the house (as in “tell me more about yourself”)

Taloon – into the house

Talolla – on the house, upon the house (you also use this to indicate ownership, Finnish says “upon me there is” [minulla on] as opposed to “I have”)

Talolta – from upon the house to off the house (you also use this to indicate “from me” in “do you want something from me?”)

Talolle – to the house (you can also give things to people, hence “minulle” -> to me)

Talona – as a house (you may also see this ending to indicate at a time or date or in older words to indicate “in” hence “kotona” -> at home)

Taloksi – into a house (as in “I turned into a house yesterday”, not sure how that could happen). Like the one above except for this one normally highlights the presence of change or transformation.

Talotta – without a house.

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Any thoughts? Corrections? Requests for future content? Let me know!

Is Studying from Grammar Tables Helpful?

Back when I was studying Classical Greek in college, I thought that I would just look at the tables for a long time and that I would somehow internalize them that way.

I was regularly struggling a lot in classical languages (although I did end up graduating with a degree in classics) and this was in part because I had no idea how to study.

Spaced Repetition, memory devices and, of course, the app zoo were completely unknown to me (and in case of the apps, not invented yet).

One degree, many struggles and a lot of shame, as well as many “I hope I’ve gained wisdom from this experience” ‘s later, I found myself learning Finnish. It is a language that… surprisingly isn’t as complicated as classical Greek in terms of its grammatical structure!

Granted, I understand very well that learning an ancient language (note that I do NOT say “dead”)  and learning a living language are two very different things. For one, I need active knowledge of Finnish in order to have a definitive mastery of it, I need to write it in and understand it when it is spoken by native speakers (also, for those unaware, Finnish is the slowest language I’ve ever encountered, especially in news reports. Keep in mind that it is still faster when spoken by native speakers than any language spoken by non-native speakers, however well [e.g. Creole Languages or English as an L2]).

None of that is required in an ancient language (although it may surprise some of you to know that a Modern Latin actually EXISTS and IS SPOKEN!)

So, now to answer the question you’ve come here for…how should grammar tables be used?

Within the past few years, there are a handful of languages that I’ve been using grammar tables for:

  • Icelandic
  • Cornish
  • Breton

And, interestingly, in Irish and Finnish I didn’t really use them that much.

However, I do use some of them in my classes when I teach languages

Allow me to explain:

When using a table, you should recite everything in it OUT LOUD and, if possible, use it with a simple sentence. In a language like Hebrew I would usually ask my students to say “I have a fish” and “I don’t have a fish” (Hebrew has no verb “to have” or indefinite articles, so what they actually say is “there-is to-me fish”, “there-is to-you fish”, and so on).

You can do this with verbs that conjugate (all Indo-European languages), prepositions with personal endings (like in Irish or Hebrew), adjectives that adjust themselves for gender (as in the case in Hebrew or Spanish)  or declensions (Slavic languages, Icelandic and Faroese, the Finno-Ugric Languages).

However, looking back to my journey in Breton, I remember stupidly reciting a lot of the tables over and over again and hoping it would stick. And it usually didn’t ,except for the most basic sentences (like “I am Jared”).

However, now I can have conversations in Breton without any major issues, so how did I get there?

For one, did the following, AFTER having recited the tables (but not memorized them):

 

  • Used them in small sentences of my own creation (e.g. I am Jewish. Are you American?)
  • Learned a bunch of sentences that I might need (e.g. I’ll have a crepe, please). I got these sentences primarily from my Colloquial Breton book, my Kauderwelsch Breton book, and Clozemaster (not also to mention too many other websites to list). To remember these sentences, I associated them with imaginary places, emotions or situations. (A sentence like “I have a boyfriend!” is very likely to conjure mental images of an emotion AND a situation regardless of who you are)
  • After having poked around sentences that use these constructions, I returned to the table to fill in my gaps, and repeated the process.

 

That’s one way to do it.

Another way I managed it with a language like Faroese (before I forgot almost all of it) was that I not only did what I did above, but I also used immersion, listening to Faroese music regularly during my commutes, walking around, cleaning, etc. In so doing, I unconsciously picked up patterns as to what prepositions used what case. I developed, like native speakers of these languages, a sense of what “felt right”.

Even if you’re a memory master, you may not pick up the true sense of how to equip yourself with your declensions / conjugations / grammar immediately. You may come to recognize it, but like with any new tool, you’ll have to fiddle with it a while, try out new things, look at people using it on the internet, and be willing to experiment and even mess up more than a few times.

Sentences are also very helpful, in programs like Anki or Clozemaster or the Tatoeba Sentence Database, or even reading them out loud from phrasebooks or UniLang courses (these may be helpful with a translation into a language you understand as well!). In so doing, you’ll be able to note general patterns between them, and after five to sixteen exposures to a common word, you’ll find it fixed into your long-term memory.

The same is also true of various declensions as well. Now, there comes the case with irregular declensions and irregular verbs, and so you want to return to the tables and the grammar guides after you’ve made some satisfactory progress with your language and you want to fill in more gaps.

In so doing, you’ll soon put everything in the tables in your long-term memory before you know it!

And in some language, you may actually get exposed to irregular verbs via immersion on a regular basis (Spanish and the Scandinavian Languages did this for me), and you may come to associate particular sentences or song lyrics with an irregular verb form that may be useful to you!

So, to answer the questions, are tables useful?

 

Yes, but don’t cram your way into knowing them. You have to use them in tandem with the way the language is used in real life (in any form) in order to truly let them become a part of your understanding of that language.

I didn’t look at the Breton verb conjugations or the Icelandic declensions once and then memorized them forever. I didn’t do that with any language. Instead, I put it together in my understanding, piece by piece, by using the language in a genuine manner, actively and passively.

Yes, chanting verb tables can help, I know it did for Spanish (which I still remember) and Latin (which I don’t), but above all it is you that has to assemble the puzzle of your dream language together with using every tool you have—the book itself isn’t going to cut it, although it will help.

Happy learning!

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Northern Sami: What? Why? How?

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Something to think about: the person who designed the Sami National Flag is only a few years older than I am. Sobering…but comforting, because the Sami Flag is one of my personal favorites anywhere!

One fine day at the Nordic Museum in Stockholm, I was walking around and I was very hungry, having traversed each of the four stories of the very large museum. (Yes, there was a restaurant, but it was expensive and it didn’t seem that it would have too high quality food. And besides, it was on the bottom story and I was on the upper floors when the hunger hit!)

The Nordic Museum is a fantastic place, complete with a journey through Swedish fashion throughout the ages, and an in-detail description of the life and writings of August Strindberg, possibly the best known Swedish author of them all (okay, Astrid Lindgren also deserves a mention).

The top story of the museum had an array of Sami crafts and clothing, not also to mention a history of Swedish-Sami relations. For those of you who have ever heard of “Lapland”, “Sami” is the politically correct term for the people who live there, with the word “Lapp” and “Lappish” being considered offensive in some circles, despite being used on multiple translations of Wikipedia. (These words still make me cringe when I hear them spoken…)

The indigenous people of Northern Scandinavia, the Sami have a host of languages to their name, the most prominent of which is Northern Sami (Davvisámegiella), in which the National Anthem of Samiland (Sápmi) is written.

Thanks largely to the Sami people being on the recieving end of a host oppressive campaigns of many sorts, as well as the fact that the Sami people and languages have been influenced by Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia, and that these cultures have been influenced by the Sami in return—there are many resources for the learning the Sami Languages, especially Northern Sami, with the most popular being Giella Tekno at the University of Tromsø: (http://giellatekno.uit.no/)

I cannot speak about the other Sami Languages right now, although it should be noted that a significant amount of them have become extinct and a host of others are still living. The Sami Languages are not mutually intelligible, but since I have only put serious effort into one of them I cannot comment on the similarities between them (or lack thereof).

If you are a Finnic Language buff, you may recognize that the word “Giella” in Northern Sami resembles that of “Kieli” in Finnish and “Keel” in Estonia. Northern Sami is Finno-Ugric, and as a result resembles Finnish and Estonian not only in cognates but in other regards:

(1)   The accent is always on the first syllable (a hard-set rule throughout the language family).

 

(2)   No articles!

 

(3)   Consonant Gradation is a thing. Note in Finnish: “Katu” = “a/the street” vs “Kadulle” (on the street)—the “t” changes to a “d”. Other times this gradation doesn’t happen: “Pomo” = “a/the boss” vs. “Pomolle” = “to/for a/the boss”

 

In Northern Sami, it isn’t as intuitive (Remember that with the lack of articles, “the” can be also translated as “a” in the example):

 

Jávri = the sea (subject)

Jávrri = of the sea, sea (direct object)

Jávrái = to the sea

Jávrris = from the sea, by the sea

Jávrriin = to the sea

Jávrin = such as the sea

 

Note the nominative with the singular “r” and the other forms with two. Now for this:

 

Sápmi = A Sami person

Sámi = of a Sami person, Sami person (direct object)

Sápmái = to a Sami person

Sámis = from a Sami person, by a Sami person

Sámiin = to a Sami Person

Sápmin = such as a Sami Person

 

In this example, the nominative has the “pm” and then is gradated to “m”. Hence, Finland in Northern Sami is “Suopma”, of Finnish/Finland would be “Suoma”.

About Northern Sami itself, I have heard people asking why I even bother to invest my time in it every single time I bring it up! In other cases, I’m even lucky if I’m asking people who know what it is. If they do, however, the fact that I know even a bit of Northern Sami is very, very heartily appreciated.

I cannot understand why many people overlook the fact that very rarely spoken languages can reap huge rewards when you run into the right people—or even with commanding a significant respect from many others who have never even heard of it! Even if you know only about one page’s worth of vocabulary! (This was particularly true about a year ago when I had a non-serious flirtationship with Greenlandic. Now that relationship is serious…)

So that’s your homework: get learning a very rare language. There are lots of them. And more resources for them that you realize. Start today!

Back on topic…

The primary reason I chose to invest in Northern Sami was because I have an interest in Nordic Culture and I wanted to investigate the linguistic interplay between the Northern Sami Languages and Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, and Russian (and I look forward to dragging Russian out of my “Forgotten Language” zone).

One fine day at a pool party I brought my very trusty Northern Sami notebook (the words “Ale Stuža!” [Do not splash!] were very useful!), I had to explain what sort of language this was and why I was learning it(for what was not the first and what definitely will not be the last time).

Why? Understanding Scandinavia better, through its more unheard voices.

What? Picture this: Norwegian and Swedish have a baby, and then that baby grows up and has a baby with the Finnish Language. That is what Northern Sami is…very, very roughly.

What do you do with it? Well, that’s up to you. There are translations to be done, there is the Bible in Northern Sami, there is even a Learn Useless Northern Sami Page on Facebook (which has been inactive for a while but is still useful). If you learn by association (the way I do), the other Nordic Languages become easier to memorize and learn (especially Finnish).

Of course, it is also a vital piece of history as well, and in many tourist attractions in Sweden you can see Northern Sami being used in Museum media. It is, after all, one of the official languages of Sweden, and one of the official languages of NRK, the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation.

There is also a Sami kindergarten in Helsinki and in all four countries which make up a part of Samiland, there are efforts and usages that will reward you, not also to mention “Ođđasat” (the Sami News channel), a Kubuntu translation, and a handful of Northern Sami video games that you can find it you look hard enough!

And for those of you who scrolled all the way to the bottom in order to find out how many speakers the language has, I’ll place the estimate at around 20,000, a number which is probably either from UNESCO or Wikipedia.

As to what I used, the biggest piece of it was a Northern Sami-Swedish Course called “Gulahalan” (I Make Myself Understood), which has twenty lessons all for free! I will review the course on another occasion!

Until then, I hope that this post inspires you to take up a study, however serious, of some small language that you may have had your eyes or heart on for a while!

What’s stopping you?