The Finnish language, a long journey to prominence in Finland
Written by Nelson Walker
On 30 May 2024

Finnish is a Uralic language of the Finnic branch, spoken by the majority of the population in Finland and by ethnic Finns outside of Finland.

Uralic language map (Wikimedia Commons)

It is one of the two official languages in Finland alongside Swedish.

Where Finnish is spoken in the world

It is spoken by over five million people, most of whom live in Finland. There are also notable Finnish-speaking minorities in Sweden, Norway, Russia, Estonia, Brazil, Canada and the United States.

The majority of Finland’s population speak Finnish as their first language. The remaining Finnish people speak Swedish, one of the Sámi languages (including Northern, Inari or Skolt) or another language as their native language.

As a member of the Finnic group of the Uralic language family, it is one of the few European languages that is not Indo-European. The Finnic group also includes Estonian and a few minority languages spoken around the Baltic Sea and in Russia’s Republic of Karelia.

Balto-Finnic language group map (Wikimedia Commons)

The Finno-Ugric language group also includes Hungarian and a number of languages spoken in Russia like Karelian and Mari.

Finnish is spoken as a second language by over 160,000 people in the country of Estonia, situated across the Gulf of Finland.

Finnish dialects are largely divided into two groups: western and eastern. Finnish has lots of mutually intelligible dialects.

Dialects of Finnish (Wikimedia Commons)

History of the Finnish language

The Finnish language has been an official language of the European Union since 1995 however it took a long time for it to gain official status in Finland.

During the period of Swedish rule in the country, which ended in 1809, Finnish did not have official status in the country.

The language only gained official status in Finland in the Finland Diet of 1863.

Flag of Finland (Wikimedia Commons)

This meant that at the beginning of the 19th century, Finnish did not have official status and Swedish was used in Finnish education, government and literature.

It was in the 16th century that the modern Finnish language began to emerge in the writings and translation of the Lutheran Bishop Mikael Agricola.

In 1919, Finland’s constitution designated both Finnish and Swedish as national languages.

Swedish and Finnish flags flying (Wikimedia Commons)

Then, in the 2000 constitution, Swedish was guaranteed equal status alongside Finnish. Swedish remains an official language of the country and is a required subject in Finnish schools.

In Sweden, both Finnish and Meänkieli (which has significant mutual intelligibility with Finnish) are official languages.

The Kven language, which like Meänkieli is mutually intelligible with Finnish, is spoken in the Norwegian counties Troms and Finnmark by a minority group of Finnish descent.

Finnish and mutually intelligible languages (Wikimedia Commons)

Many words in Finnish have been borrowed from Indo-European languages, particularly from the Baltic languages, German and Russian.

Key Finnish language features

The written Finnish languages uses the Roman alphabet with the addition of ä and ö. The consonants b, c, z and x are only used in loan words.

Finnish is a notoriously challenging language to learn with its fifteen grammatical cases. Cases mean words can change form depending on their function in a sentence.

By comparison, German has four cases and most Slavic languages have around six to seven cases.

However, Finnish is not a gendered language and it does not have articles, either definite or indefinite.

Furthermore, the third-person singular pronoun (usually ‘he’ or ‘she’ in English) is hän and it can be used to refer to a person of any gender.

The future tense also does not exist in Finnish; the present is just used.

If you enjoyed this piece on the Finnish language, make sure to check out this comprehensive guide to the Scandinavian languages here.

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