Finnish pronunciation

Finnish pronunciation is rather regular as compared with many other languages. Generally, one letter corresponds to one sound in a fixed manner. This document describes the sounds roughly. On a closer look, there are several exceptions, some of which are listed here.

This document tries to describe Finnish pronunciation in simple terms. There is a more detailed description of it in my e-book Introduction to Finnish. There is also Pronunciation of Finnish in a nutshell (for linguists), which uses special (IPA) symbols and terms.

The Finnish language has very regular pronunciation. There is almost one-to-one correspondence between letters and sounds. However, some sounds are a bit difficult to produce for foreigners. The phonetic values of letters resemble the original (Latin) ones, not those occurring in English.

Both vowels and consonants can be short (written with one letter) or long (written with two letters). The length is distinctive, and words may well differ only in the length of a sound. For instance, you should pronounce "lakki" 'cap' with a clearly prolonged k to distinguish it from "laki" 'law'.

Pronunciation instructions such as "lak-ki" (or "luck-kee", in an attempt to express the pronunciation by English orthography) can be misleading. Although conventional syllable division in Finnish is indeed lak-ki, there is no break between the syllables in speech, and the second syllable is unstressed. You might use lak-ki, with a pause between syllables, as an artificial attempt to say that you mean "lakki" and not "laki". But in normal speech, you should try and use the real pronunciation, in which "kk" is basically like "k" but lasts (as a particular kind of stop in the flow of air, which is how the "k" sound is produced) 2 to 2,5 times longer.

The first syllable always takes the main stress, but the stressing is usually not very emphatic. (This is one of the causes of the somewhat melancholic "melody" in Finnish.) In long words, other syllables (usually the 3rd or 4th) may have secondary stress. In compound words, the first syl­la­bles of components other than the first one have secondary stress. For instance, the word "kauppa­tori" 'market square' (from "kauppa" 'shop; trade' and "tori" 'square') is better understood if you pronounce it in the Finnish way: main stress on the syllable "kaup", secondary stress on "to".

In English, vowels of unstressed syllables are very often reduced, i.e. pronounced as short neutral vowels (e.g. the last vowel in "speaker"). In Finnish this does not take place - vowels have almost the same pronunciation in unstressed as in stressed positions. However, in colloquial speech some vowels (particularly a final "i") is sometimes dropped out, e.g. "yksi" 'one' becomes "yks".

The normal phonetic values of letters are:

A is roughly the same sound as in German, French, or Italian; thus AA is pronounced roughly as A in AFTER (in British pronunciation); short A resembles u in British English "cup" or o in American English "hot"
D is a normal D (but often replaced by other sounds or just omitted in dialects)
E is like E in HEN; you might find Finnish long E (EE) difficult since it does not occur in English, but it is simply a prolonged E
G occurs, in purely Finnish words, only in the combination NG which is a double consonant: the last sound of SING doubled (so there is no G-sound in Finnish NG); otherwise, G is in principle pronounced as G in GET
H generally similar to H in English, but may also appear at the end of a syllable; varies according to the vowel of the same syllable
I is like I in FIT
J is like consonantal Y in English
K is softer than English K (no aspiration)
L is normal L
M is normal M
N is normal N (except in NG, see above, and in NK, which is pronounced as in English)
O is like O in TOP in British pronunciation, or like A in ALL but shorter and more closed
P is softer than English P (no aspiration)
R is a relatively clear R-sound (much stronger than American R in ARE, and even stronger than R in RAIN); just let your tongue tremble; long R (RR) may require some practice
S is a rather neutral S-sound, near to English S, but pronounced less acutely (since the contrasts to Z and SH are missing)
T is softer than English T (no aspiration)
U is like U in FULL
V is similar to English V but weaker (no friction)
Y is like French U or German U-umlaut (Ü, i.e. U with two dots above it); this can cause some difficulties for English-speaking people, but you might try the following: prepare your mouth for pronouncing the i sound (as in "hit") but round your lips and breathe out
Ä (A with two dots above it) is roughly like A in HAT
Ö (O with two dots above it) is roughly like the same letter as in German or EU in French; it is the front vowel counterpart to O

Diphthongs occur frequently, and they are written simply using their components. In general two different adjacent vowels form a diphthong, belonging to the same syllable. Thus e.g. OU is pronounced as an O smoothly followed by a U (roughly as "ow" in English "show"), and AI is pronounced like the English pronoun "I". In a diphthong, it is always the first component that is more stressed. So for instance "Suomi" 'Finland' is pronounced so that "u" is more stressed than "o" (in contrast with e.g. Spanish and Italian diphthongs). But don't take too much stress - foreigners often have difficulties in pronouncing "suo" as one syllable.

Other letters occur only in words of foreign origin. The letter G is usually pronounced as in English "get". The letter Z is used rarely, and the pronunciation varies: it could be voiced S (as in English), normal S, or German-style TS.

It is important to notice that the distinction between voiced and unvoiced consonants (e.g. between B and P) is not at all so clear as in English. A Finn very often pronounces the word "bitti" 'bit' almost as "pitti". Originally the Finnish language lacked B, D, and G sounds (but D was, somewhat artificially, introduced in the 18th or 19th century), and there was no need to pronounce e.g. P as definitely unvoiced to distinguish it from the voiced B. Consequently P, T, and K are not so far from their voiced counterparts B, D, and G. If you use normal English pronunciation for P, T, and K (with an H-like component) people usually understand it but realize that Finnish is not your native language! However, sometimes English (or German, or Swedish) P, T, and K are understood by Finns as PP, TT, and KK since they sound so "strong". If you pronounce the "k" in "laki" in the English way, Finns might hear it as "lakhi" or even "lakki"!

Similarly, since Finnish lacks a genuine distinction between S, SH, and Z, the S sound is not very sharp, and you might even hear it as something that is closer to SH than S, and it might also be slightly voiced, i.e. resemble Z.

If you see an S or Z with a V-like hat (caron) above it (Š or Ž), that means SH or its voiced counterpart. They only occur in words of foreign origin and are, due to restrictions imposed by fonts, often replaced by SH and ZH. In practice, the pronunciation is close to or identical with S.

Some words (especially basic forms of nouns ending with -E and imperative and negative forms of verbs) have so-called consonant doubling at the end; it is not shown in the orthography. The doubling means that if the word is followed by a word beginning with a consonant, that consonant is pronounced doubled (long). Thus "anna kirja" 'give (me the) book' is pronounced as "annak kirja"; "anna" is the imperative of the verb "antaa", 'give'. (Historically these words ended with a consonant, usually -K, which was assimilated before a consonant and dropped out otherwise.)

Some assimilation cases are not shown in the orthography. For example, consecutive N and P belonging to distinct morphemes are written as NP but pronounced as MP.

Words of English origin are frequently used in the field of computing. Their pronunciation and even spelling may vary. There is, for example, a genuinely Finnish word ("tiedosto") for "file" as a word of computer terminology (e.g. disk file). However, in colloquial speech and informal writing Finns often use the word "file" but they may pronounce it as if it were a Finnish word (roughly the same way an Englishman would pronounce "filleh") or they may write it in the Finnish way, "fail" or "faili". This can of course be confusing. Also beware that even when Finns try to be careful they sometimes pronounce English words incorrectly, using Finnish values for letters, simplifying the pronunciation, stressing the first syllable as Finnish etc.

You might need information about the standard alphabetic order in Finnish as well as the names of letters (e.g. to spell out your name), so here they are. (The letter å only occurs in Swedish names, with the phonetic value o or oo, but it is traditionally listed in the Finnish alphabet.) The names are to be pronounced according to Finnish rules described above.

A aa	B bee	C see	D dee	E ee	F äf	G gee	H hoo	I ii
J jii	K koo	L äl	M äm	N än	O oo	P pee	Q kuu	R är
S äs
Š hattu-äs
T tee
U uu
V vee
W kaksois-vee
X äks
Y yy
Z tset(a)
Ž hattu-tset(a)
Å ruotsalainen oo
Ä ää
Ö öö

The names äf, äl, äm, än, är, äs and äks have the longer variants äffä, ällä, ämmä, ännä, ärrä, ässä and äksä.

Pronunciation of numerals is the following. (Actually, numerals should often be pronounced in inflected forms, e.g. "5 €" reads as "viisi euroa". And shortened forms like "yks" for "yksi" are common in spoken language.)

number cardinal ordinal (i.e. "zeroeth", "first", "second" etc)
0 nolla nollas
1 yksi ensimmäinen
2 kaksi toinen
3kolme kolmas
4 neljä neljäs
5 viisi viides
6 kuusi kuudes
7 seitsemän seitsemäs
8 kahdeksan kahdeksas
9 yhdeksän yhdeksäs
10 kymmenen kymmenes
100 sata sadas
1000 tuhat tuhannes
1 000 000 miljoona miljoonas
1 000 000 000 miljardi (British "milliard", US "billion") miljardis
1 000 000 000 000 biljoona (British "billion", US "trillion") biljoonas

Numerals in the range 11 - 19 are read as yksitoista, ..., yhdeksäntoista.
Numerals 20, ..., 90 are read as kaksikymmentä, ..., yhdeksänkymmentä.
Numerals 200,..., 900 are read as kaksisataa, ..., yhdeksänsataa.
Numerals 2000,..., 9000 are read as kaksituhatta, ..., yhdeksäntuhatta.
For other numerals, simple concatenation is used, e.g.

27 kaksikymmentä seitsemän
1995 tuhat yhdeksänsataa yhdeksänkymmentä viisi

Kazuto Matsumura has written the Finnish Numerals page where you can type a number with digits and get the corresponding Finnish numeral written back.

Regarding the names of special characters (such as @) there is some variation, but there is also an extensive list of official Finnish names for characters in a European set.