Suomen kieli ulkomaalaisille/Spoken and Written Language Differences

One of the curious things about Finnish is that there are essentially two parallel languages. There is the spoken language or puhekieli which follows one set of grammar rules and rules for sentence construction, and a related but different language called kirjakieli used only in formal written settings such as books, magazines, letters, and in certain formal spoken settings such as in formal speeches, and semi official communication media such as news broadcasts.

The Finn begins life imbibing the rules of spoken language from parents, grandparents and siblings which happens quite naturally and without formal education. He or she will have been exposed through books to the more formal written language though until the age of learning to read aloud and write, this will not have been a generative process. From the age of about seven right through to late teen, native Finns have to be taught the rules and constructions of the written language. This happens at school in lessons called äidinkieli or mother tongue (which is an ironically bad name given that most children will only have ever heard their mothers using puhekieli and that in äidinkeli lessons usually try to prevent children from using in their written work, the language they actually learnt from their mothers (which was puhekieli) and teach them how to use kirjakieli. This takes years. Finnish kids spend hours each week in formal lessons from the age of seven through through to their late teens in formal lessons learning how to use the written language.

For some reason which is not entirely clear, foreigners learn the language in the reverse sequence. Formal lessons begin teaching only the formal written language and not the spoken language. This may be because Finns have spent hours and hours learning this language form and decide to put the foreigner through the same torture. A kinder explanation is that both forms are valid and that teachers regard it better to teach the formal language (which is more regular and rule bound). The sad truth is though, that the native speaker regards puhekieli as quite easy to learn (because he or she learned it so easily as a child). Foreigners are frequently left to struggle on their own without formal assistance to learn the spoken language, and then only after they have learned the written language. Teaching the formal language first may help the really keen foreigner who is eager to write books in Finnish, write to newspapers, and understand official communications from government and private companies. But sadly this makes very little sense because he or she is left unable to understand people in everyday situations such as shops, hotels and restaurants, and Finnish movies and t.v. drama programmes remain completely incomprehensible. When seeking employment, a foreigner who has had instruction in the written language is able to answer questions (because Finns of course understand both forms of the language, even though it is odd to hear people speaking in the written language) but many foreigner fail before this because they did not even understand the question (because it is delivered in spoken language which he or she has not been taught. It is little wonder that most foreigners only get the lowest paid jobs and many remain unemployed.

Spoken Finnish has its own grammar rules which are in some ways similar to, but in other ways different from the forms used in the formal written language. Spoken language has different rules for verb formation, and there many audible differences in the formation of words. Unless the learner of Finnish gets to hear spoken language or see it written down (which is quite rare) then he or she will only ever use the formal language and he will actually sound somewhat "odd" to the native speaker and may have great difficulty in understanding others who will be speaking a different language to the one that he learned in the language classes or read in his Finnish language teaching texts. He will be understood, but it is not natural to hear people speaking in the formal language and therefore the foreigner always stands out from the crowd.

There is nowadays a great informality in written communication between persons in the form of emails, cell phone texting and real time internet in which use of the everyday puhekieli is acceptable and even quite normal. However, in formal writing situations, such as customer communication, letter writing, most advertising, magazines, school examinations, puhekieli is not used and only the formal language is used.

This section aims to teach the informal spoken language and how it compares with the formal language.

Verb formation edit

Verbs are formed slightly differently in puhekieli. The first main differences are that the first person plural forms are generally in the passive form seen in the written language, i.e. "Me mennään kahville" ("Let's get some coffee." Literally, "We go to coffee"). The second main difference is that sounds elide. In other words, parts of words disappear; in other words, there are elements that are present in the formal language forms that are modified in the spoken language. Sometimes two separate words form a contraction. This happens to a lesser extent in the formal language but is extremely common in the spoken form. These modified words do not appear in most dictionaries so unless the foreigner sees how this happens he can become totally lost when listening to any conversation as he will have no tools with which to decipher what is being said.

In this section we will see how the formal language and spoken languages differ and you will begin to get an idea of how to understand this everyday language better.

  • Puhekieli
    • Kirjakieli
      • English
        • comments, special notices and highlighted differences and (optional text or spoken forms)

Let's look first at the OLLA verb to be. This is somewhat irregular just like its counterpart in the written language. Later we will look at some other verbs.

OLLA VERBI - Preesens (Verb To Be - Present Tense)
Written Language Spoken Language English
(minä) olen mä oon I am
(sinä) olet sä oot You are
hän on se on or hän on (S)he is
(me) olemme me ollaan We are
(te) olette te ootte You all are (plural)
You are (formal singular)
he ovat ne on They are

Notes to the above table

1. As in the formal language, the verb OLLA in the spoken language is also irregular so it is just necessary to learn the various personal forms. Note especially that whereas in the formal language it is not always necessary to give the personal pronouns minä, sinä, me, and te, in the spoken language these are almost always spoken and not omitted.

2. Note the very different verb form accompanying the third person plural (i.e. following me (we). The verb form is identical to the passive present tense and not the active present tense as seen in all the other forms.

3. Note that in the formal language, the correct form for She is hän and that se is reserved as a pronoun for animals and inanimate objects. In the spoken language the form se is sometimes used in informal situations to talk about people. However, in formal situations (for example in job interviews) it is best to stick to hän. Finnish does not regard using se for a person as insulting, as it might in English.

4. Note the third person plural form uses either of the two possible plural forms ne or he for the pronoun (again, ne can refer to people in informal situations) but the verb form is the same as the singular form on (i.e. not ovat).

5. In very formal written language (not shown), te is sometimes written with an initial capitalization (i.e. Te)

And now the regular past tense (imperfect).

OLLA VERBI - Imperfekti (Verb To Be - Imperfect Tense)
Written Language Spoken Language English
(minä) olin mä olin I was
(sinä) olit sä olit You were
hän oli se oli or hän oli She was
(me) olimme me oltiin We were
(te) olitte te olitte You all were (plural)
You were (formal singular)
he olivat ne oli or he oli They were


1. Note the use of the past passive form oltiin (which was ollaan in the present tense). Otherwise the shift from past to present tense in puhekieli is much the same as with the shift in kirjakieli.

2. As in the present tense the -vat ending is not used. The only difference between third person singular and plural is in the choice of pronoun, i.e. hän or se becomes he or ne. The verb part oli is the same in both singular and plural.

And now the perfect tense

OLLA VERBI - Perfekti (Verb To Be - Perfect Tense)
Written Language Spoken Language English
(minä) olen ollut mä oon ollu I have been
(sinä) olet ollut sä oot ollu You have been
hän on ollut se on ollu or hän on ollu She has been
(me) olemme olleet me ollaan oltu We have been
(te) olette olleet te ootte ollu You all are (plural)
You have been (formal singular)
he ovat olleet ne on ollu or he on ollu They have been


1. Note the active participle in pukekieli is ollu (ollut in kirjakieli) and that the passive shift in the 2nd person plural we form takes the passive particple form oltu.

2. Note also that whereas in the written language the plural of ollut is oleet, in the formation of plural verb forms the participle stays in the singular ollu.

and in the pluperfect (pluskvamperfekti)

OLLA VERBI - Pluskvamperfekti (Verb To Be - Pluperfect Tense)
Written Language Spoken Language English
(minä) olin ollut mä olin ollu I had been
(sinä) olit ollut sä olit ollu You had been
hän oli ollut se oli ollu or hän oli ollu She had been
(me) olimme olleet me oltiin oltu We had been
(te) olitte olleet te olitte ollu You all are (plural)
You had been (formal singular)
he olivat olleet ne oli ollu or he oli ollu They had been

Two main things to note here.

1. The final t in ollut in the written language elides in the spoken language and become ollu without the t. This happen to all the -nut -nyt -sut -syt -lut -rut particle endings in the spoken language

2. The active voice in the spoken language for the me (= we or third person plural) uses the equivalent passive verb forms in all tenses, so olemme > ollaan, olleet > ollu, and olimme > oltiin

Negative verb formation edit

And now, here comes the way the negatives are formed

EI OLLA VERBI - kielteinen preesens (Verb Not To Be - Negative Present Tense)
Written Language Spoken Language English
en (minä) ole emmä oo I am not
et (sinä) ole et sä oo You are not
hän ei ole ei se oo or hän ei oo She is not
emme ole me ei olla We are not
ette ole te ette oo You all are not (plural)
You are not (formal singular)
he eivät ole ne ei oo or he ei oo They are not

Note the following

1. The verb form olla in me ei olla is the negative passive olla and not the dictionary form olla. This olla is formed by taking the passive form ollaan and dropping the final an which in this case just happens to be the same as the dictionary form. This will not always be the case. Take for example the verb ottaa (to take). In spoken language me otetaan means we (will) take or we are taking and in the negative this becomes me ei oteta or we won't take or we are not taking.

Reminder! The rule for forming the passive participle in the present tense depends on the verb type. Verbs which in the dictionary form end with a consonant and a single a or ä simply add '-an or -än to the dictionary form to male the passive, and drops the -an or -än when forming the negative. For verbs of type 1 the ending added to the dictionary form is -taan or -tään ((e.g. sanoa > sanotaan > ei sanota), but if the penultimate letter is a or ä then the a or ä changes to e before adding the stem ending (so, ostaa > ostetaan > ei osteta).

2. The logical formation in spoken language of I am not would be en mä oo but in practice en and fuse to form emmä.

3. Note that though emme is used in the formal written language the word emme is NOT used in the spoken language. The normal negative form used is me ei.

EI OLLA VERBI - kielteinen imperfekti (Verb Not To Be - perfect Negative Tense)
Written Language Spoken Language English
(minä) en ollut emmä ollu I wasn't
(sinä) et ollut et sä ollu You weren't
hän ei ollut ei se ollu or se ei ollu or hän ei ollu She wasn't
emme olleet me ei oltu or ei me oltu We weren't
ette olleet te ette ollu or ette te ollu You all weren't (plural)
You weren't (formal singular)
he eivät olleet ne ei ollu or he ei ollu They weren't

Note in the table above how in the formal language, the negative verb part is in the plural form olleet when the person is in the plural (we, you guys, they) but in the spoken language the negative verb part stays in the singular ollu

EI OLLA VERBI - kielteinen perfekti (Verb Not To Be - Perfect Negative Tense)
Written Language Spoken Language English
(minä) en ole ollut emmä oo ollu I haven't been
(sinä) et ole ollut et sä oo ollu You haven't been
hän ei ole ollut se ei oo ollu or hän ei oo ollu She hasn't been
emme ole olleet me ei olla oltu We haven't been
(te) ette ole olleet te ette oo ollu You all are (plural)
You have been (formal singular)
he eivät ole olleet ne ei oo ollu or he ei oo ollu They haven't been
EI OLLA VERBI - kielteinen pluskvamperfekti (Verb Not To Be - Pluperfect Negative Tense)
Written Language Spoken Language English
(minä) en ollut ollut emmä ollu ollu I hadn't been
(sinä) et ollut ollut sä et ollu ollu You hadn't been
hän ei ollut ollut se ei ollu ollu or hän ei ollu ollu She hadn't been
emme olleet olleet me ei oltu oltu We hadn't been
(te) ette olleet olleet te ette ollu ollu You all hadn't (plural)
You hadn't been (formal singular)
he eivät olleet olleet ne ei ollu ollu or he ei ollu ollu They hadn't been