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Why Doesn’t Siivota Become “Siipoan”?

The verb tavata becomes minä tapaan, and the verb kiivetä becomes minä kiipeän. This is due to consonant gradation. So why doesn’t siivota become “siipoan“? Why doesn’t the -v- change to -p- in the verb siivota? In this article, we will look at some of these weird things that create holes in the “perfect” rule system of Finnish grammar.

  • tavata : minä tapaan
  • kiivetä : minä kiipeän
  • siivota : minä siivoan

In general, exceptions have a reason that’s buried deep in the history of the development of the Finnish language. Linguists look at patterns in the current language, and combine that with knowledge of other closely related languages. Patterns that seem to repeat themselves strengthen theories about their origin. Sometimes we just don’t know why something is the way it is. Often, all we can make is educated guesses.

One thing we know: the proto-Finnic language didn’t have consonant gradation. All consonants were strong. This is an interesting background to this issue.

1. Pelaan but Pelkään

Let’s first look at the verbs pelata (“to play”) and pelätä (“to fear”). Their infinitive is identical except for the different vowels. Yet, when conjugated, pelata becomes pelaan, and pelätä becomes pelkään.

Pelata Pelätä
minä pelaan minä pelkään
minä pelasin minä pelkäsin
minä pelaisin minä pelkäisin
hän pelaa hän pelkää
hän pelasi hän pelkäsi
hän pelaisi hän pelkäisi

For most students of Finnish, the main thing that will help you remember this is the noun that is connected to these two verbs: peli “game” is related to pelata “to play”, while pelko “fear” is related to pelätä “to fear”.

If we dive deeper, we need to look at the history of these words. For these two verbs the difference in conjugation lays at the root of the word they’ve been derived from. The verb pelata originates from the Swedish spela. That’s why there’s no -k- in the word.

The verb pelätä is related to pelko. The origin of this word doesn’t help us understand the -k- very well, because in most of the variants of the verb in related languages, there is no -k- either (Estonian’s pellätä, Karelian’s pölästyö, Ingrian’s pölätä). Perhaps the -g- in the Veps language verb with the same meaning is an indicator of the presence of a -k- at some point: pöl’gastuda. This isn’t certain.

2. Why Doesn’t Siivota Become “Siipoan”?

According to Nykysuomen etymologinen sanakirja there is no proof that this verb would have been borrowed from any other language. The noun siivo is most likely derived from the verb, and was first mentioned in a proclamation from 1664.

In short, we’re not really sure where this verb came from, but it is likely that it’s an old Finnish word. What matters is that in the history of the verb siivota there has never been a -p- in the word. Words don’t just get strong grades over the centuries; Finnish words only become weak.

3. Why Doesn’t Kävellä Become “Käpelee”?

The verbs käydä and kävellä are related. There has never been a -p- in the history of the word; only a -v- or an -y- (käydä, kävellä). In fact, as far as I can tell, there are no verbtype 3 verbs at all that have v > p consonant gradation.

4. Tavata – Tapaan Tavaan

The verb tavata “to meet” becomes minä tapaan, which you’re likely to know if you’ve studied Finnish for a little while.

Interestingly enough, the verb tavata can also become minä tavaan. This is the case when we’re using the vebr in a different meaning: tavata can also mean “to spell out, spell a word”. When used in this meaning, we won’t have the p > v change, because the base word of this verb is tavu “syllable”.

To meet To spell
minä tapaan minä tavaan
sinä tapaat sinä tavaat
hän tapaa hän tavaa
me tapaamme me tavaamme
te tapaatte te tavaatte
he tapaavat he tavaavat

5. My Advice

I understand the frustration when grammar things don’t follow the patterns you are used to. It’s no wonder that you’re wondering WHY things are the way they are. However, there is no predictable reasoning to most of these things.

The general answer for verbs like the ones above is: history. The cause of the change (or lack of change) can be explained by looking far into the history of the Finnish language. Changes have appeared over time.

However, you can’t know these historical changes. Most Finns don’t know them. The only thing I can advise you to do is to learn the noun at the same time as the verb. More often than not, they will either both be weak, or both be strong. Apart from that, all I can tell you is to take it one verb at a time, and not to sweat the small stuff.

6. Some Verb-Noun Combinations,

The table below contains some verbs that often confuse learners of Finnish due to their consonant gradation.

Verb Minä Noun
pelata pelaan peli
pelätä pelkään pelko
paeta pakenen pako
maata makaan makuu
taata takaan takuu
levätä lepään lepo
kaivata kaipaan kaipuu
kuivata kuivaan kuiva
avata avaan avain
vallata valtaan valta
grillata grillaan grilli

That’s it for my answer to the question “Why doesn’t siivota become siipoan“, and other similar questions. This is a matter that could be explored much further, but which has — in addition to answers — a lot of additional question marks as well.

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Michael Hämäläinen

First, let me say that I really enjoy this etymology-based explanation. Thanks for doing a deep-dive on it for these mostly verbtype 4 examples. Especially for anyone with some familiarity with Swedish (or even German), a lot of insights can be gained here. In the spirit of completely nerding out, below is another “angle of attack”, especially for those who enjoy working directly with data sets.

I have long been fascinated by the auto-generated conjugation/inflection tables (including consonant gradation) in Wiktionary. Finally, I came across some background discussion with user Jyril, and he explains that the “source of truth” for tagging all the Wiktionary entries is a data file prepared by KOTUS, available for download here.
(Note: the data comes as a ZIPed folder of XML (raw data) and DTD (data schema) files, but as a practical expedient you can convert the XML file into an Excel or CSV file online.)
Included is a file (sanalistan-kuvaus.txt) explaining the content and the 13 (A-M) patterns of consonant gradation used in their categorisation.
Essentially, every headword is assigned a KOTUS number and consonant gradation category, with separate numbered entries for homonyms (like ‘tavata: tapaan’ (to meet) vs. ‘tavata: tavaan’ (to spell) and additional columns for variants.
The 27 KOTUS verb types map to the 6 verbtypes used on this site and in most textbooks, so sorting through the data (e.g., with Excel) allows one to quickly find both general patterns and exceptions. Often, etymology information is included in the Wiktionary entries.
To take an example presented here, to test whether ‘no verbtype 3 verbs at all [have] v > p consonant gradation.’, the steps are: (1) filter for KOTUS numbers: 66 (rohkaista), 67 (tulla) and 70 (juosta); (2) filter for consonant gradation type E (v > p). This yields (only) two results: häväistä: häpäisen (to disgrace) and vavista: vapisen (alternative form of ‘vapista‘ (to shiver)).
Perhaps a case of “the exception proves the rule”, but at least the exercise yields some non-obvious results from time to time, and is a useful tool to gain an overview. I present it here not as a learning strategy, but rather as another analytical tool for those who enjoy this level of detail.