Where does Finnish come from?

People often assume that Finnish must be similar to the languages of neighbouring Sweden or Russia. Our article tells you why that’s simply not true.

There is a certain logic in thinking that languages spoken in neighbouring countries must be closely related. However, that’s not the case with Finnish.

Finns often run into questions like “Is Finnish like Swedish?” or “Does everyone in Finland speak Russian?” A simple answer to both questions is no. Both Swedish (one of the two official languages of Finland) and Russian belong to the Indo-European group of languages, while Finnish is a Finno-Ugric language. The latter group also includes Hungarian, Estonian, Sámi (spoken by the indigenous people of northern Finland, Sweden and Norway and northwestern Russia) and several lesser-known languages spoken in areas of Russia. The Finno-Ugric languages share enough common lexical and grammatical features to prove a common origin. Although these languages have developed separately for thousands of years, it can be seen that common features include:

1) absence of gender (the same Finnish pronoun, “hän,” denotes both “he” and “she”)
2) absence of articles (a and the in English)
3) long words due to the structure of the language
4) numerous grammatical cases
5) personal possession expressed with suffixes
6) postpositions in addition to prepositions
7) no equivalent of the verb “to have”

There are various speculative theories about the time and place of the origin of the so-called Proto-Finno-Ugrian language. According to the most common theory, Hungarian and Finnish are separated by a mere 6,000 years of separate development.

How long Finnish-speakers have populated Finland is a question that has always interested Finnish scholars. Nowadays it is thought that speakers of a Finno-Ugric language have been living in the area of present-day Finland since at least 3000 BC. During the following millennia contacts proliferated between the speakers of the Finno-Ugric language and speakers of neighbouring Indo-European languages (e.g. Baltic, Germanic and Slavic dialects). Numerous loan words borrowed by Finnish, Estonian and the other Baltic Finnic languages (Karelian, Lude, Vepsian, Vote and Livonian) demonstrate the existence of contacts between the people speaking Finnic languages and people speaking Indo-European languages. Not only vocabulary has been borrowed, but also many grammatical features. Most loans in present-day Finnish have come from the Germanic and Scandinavian languages, especially from Swedish.

By Hannele Branch, lecturer in Finnish, University of London