Finnish for busy people

What is Derivation? – Finnish Derivational Suffixes

In this article, I want to take a closer look at what derivation means in the Finnish language. Linguists use a lot of grammatical terms to describe how language works. For a casual learner of a language, this will generally be needlessly complicated. As a general rule, I try to replace many grammar terms on my website with easier terms, and I attempt to describe the terms I do use in each article. However, not all grammar terms can be avoided, and you benefit from knowing at least a selection of them.

Derivation is a way of forming new words. Basic words can get a suffix (kirja -> kirjasto) or a prefix (kohtelias > epäkohtelias) and, thus, get a new meaning – related to the meaning of the base word but no longer the same.

1. Terms related to derivation

You do not have to remember all these terms! I’m listing them below but – as long as you understand the base concept – you should be fine reading this article.

  • Derivation: the act of forming new words from existing words (Finnish: johtaminen, johto)
  • To derive: to form new words from existing words (Finnish: johtaa)
  • Derivational element: an element added to a word to create a new word (Finnish: johdin, johtopääte)
  • Suffix: a derivational element glued to the end of a word (Finnish: suffiksi, takaliite)
  • Prefix: a derivational element glued to the beginning of a word (Finnish: prefiksi, etuliite)
  • Derivative: a new word that has been formed from an existing word (Finnish: johdos)

In addition, you will need to have an understanding of the terms below, which I’m only describing in their prototypical meaning:

  • Noun: a word that refers to a thing, place or person (Finnish: substantiivi)
  • Adjective: a word that describes the quality of a noun (Finnish: adjektiivi)
  • Adverb: a word that describes the quality of a verb (Finnish: adverbi)
  • Verb: a word that refers to an action, a “doing word” (Finnish: verbi)

2. Derivational elements in English

If this concept is completely new to you, you might benefit from learning that English also has derivational elements. Some common elements in English are:

  • Suffixes: -ly (as in quickly), -ness (as in weakness), -ship (as in friendship), -er (as in writer)
  • Prefixes: un- (as in unhappy), re- (as in rewrite), dis- (as in disagree)

Because not all of us are linguists, we could also add -ing (e.g. singing, dancing, killing) to this list. Technically, this is an inflection of a verb, but since it looks like a suffix, it can be useful to also acknowledge its existence here. There is not just one translation for -ing in Finnish, but two verb forms that often correspond to the English -ing are -minen (laulaminen, tanssiminen, tappaminen) and -massa (laulamassa, tanssimassa, tappamassa).

3. Derivational elements in Finnish

There are a lot of derivational elements in Finnish. My intention is to include the most common ones. You should keep that in mind while looking at this page: this is not an exhaustive list. If you want to get a more complete overview of all the elements used in Finnish to create new words, you should see if you can find the book Miten sanoja johdetaan, suomen kielen johto-oppia by Anna-Liisa Lepäsmaa, Anneli Lieko and Leena Silfverberg.

If I currently have an existing article that goes into more detail about an element, I’ve added a link to said article. The ones currently missing will probably be the topic of a new article at some point.

3.1. Noun > Adjective

By adding a suffix, you can make an adjective out of noun. Many of these suffixes are very common and productive. When an element is productive, this means it can be used to create new words, even today.

Finnish English Finnish English Related article
onni happiness onneton unhappy Derivational suffix -ton/tön
Suomi Finland suomalainen Finn(ish) Derivational suffix -lainen/läinen
väri color värillinen colored Derivational element -llinen
ruoho grass ruohikko lawn Derivational element -kko/kkö
kulta gold kultainen golden Derivational element -inen
kala fish kalaisa fishy Derivational suffix -isa/isä
lahja gift lahjakas gifted Derivational suffix -kas/käs

3.2. Noun > Adverb

Derivational elements that make nouns into adverbs are less common and usually unproductive. When an element is unproductive, this means you can’t add the suffix to just any word. Rather, it’s based on certain, already existing nouns only.

Finnish English Finnish English English
tunti hour tunneittain hourly Derivational suffix -ttain/ttäin
silmä eye silmikkäin eye-to-eye Derivational suffix -kkain/kkäin
aamu morning aamuisin every morning Derivational suffix -isin
kirje letter kirjeitse by letter Prolative derivational suffix -tse

3.3. Verb > Noun

There are many suffixes that can be used to turn verbs into nouns. Many of these word types are productive, ie. you can create new nouns following this pattern.

Finnish English Finnish English English
keksiä to invent keksintö invention Derivational suffix -nto/-ntö
kunnioittaa to respect kunnioitus respect Derivational suffix -us/ys
elää to live elä life Derivational suffix -ma/mä
kertoa to tell kertomus tale Derivational suffix -mus/mys
laulaa to sing laulaja singer Derivational suffix -ja/jä
paahtaa to toast paahdin toaster Derivational suffix -in
piirtää to draw piirros drawing Derivational suffix -os/ös
aikoa to intend aie intention Derivational suffix -e
leipoa to bake leipomo bakery Derivational suffix -mo/mö
tulla to arrive tulo arrival Derivational suffix -o

3.4. Adjective > Verb

An adjective can be made into a verb.

Finnish English Finnish English English
helppo easy helpottaa to ease up Emotive causative verbs with the suffix -ttaa/-ttää
vaikea difficult vaikeutua to become (more) difficult Translative verbs with the suffix -utua/ytyä
pimeä dark pimetä to become dark(er) Translative verbtype 6 verbs

3.5. Adjective > Noun

I could only think of one derivational suffix that turns an adjective in a nouns, but there might be more!

Finnish English Finnish English English
harmaa grey harmaus greyness Derivational suffix -us/ys

3.6. Adjective > Adverb

The suffix -sti is very common. I’m currently looking at a very long article based on this derivational element, so that’s something to look forward to.

Finnish English Finnish English English
kaunis beautiful kauniisti beautifully Derivational element -sti

3.7. Verb > New verb

Verbs can also be made into new verbs by adding a derivational suffix. I have fairly many articles on this subject already, but more are to come.

Finnish English Finnish English English
pukea to dress pukeutua to dress oneself Reflexive verbs with derivational suffix -utua/ytyä
korjata to fix korjautua to be fixed Automative verbs with derivational suffix -utua/ytyä
löytää to find löyt to be found Automative verbs with derivational suffix -ua/yä
syntyä to be born synnyttää to give birth Causative verbs with derivation suffix -ttaa/ttää
pyörtyä to faint pyörryttää to feel faint Emotive verbs with derivational suffix -uttaa/yttää
odottaa to wait odotuttaa to make wait Verbs causing others to do something -ttaa/ttää
kiertää to go around kierrellä to wander Frequentative verbs with derivational suffix -ella/ellä
seisoa to stand seisoskella to stand around Frequentative verbs with derivational suffix -skella/skellä
lukea to read lukaista to skim, scan Momentaneous verbs with derivational suffix -aista/äistä
katsoa to watch katsahtaa to glance Momentaneous verbs with derivational suffix -ahtaa/ähtää

3.8. Noun > Noun

Nouns can also be made into new nouns. These derivational suffixes are usually not productive, ie. you can’t just add it to a random word and assume that it works.

Finnish English Finnish English English
kirja book kirjasto library Derivational element -sto/stö
laulaja singer laulajatar femal singer Derivational element -tar/tär
ranne wrist ranneke wrist band Derivational element -ke
ravinto nutrition ravintola restaurant Derivational element -la
tyttö girl tyttönen girlie Derivational element -nen

3.9. Adjective > New adjective

Some adjectives can get epä- added to their beginning to make the meaning negative. The suffix -hko/hkö is similar to the English -ish.

Finnish English Finnish English English
kohtelias polite epäkohtelias impolite Derivational prefix epä-
pieni small pienehkö smallish Derivational suffix -hko/hkö

4. Word families

The concept of “word families” (sanaperhe) is one neat concept in Finnish. Taking into account all the different ways, you can create new words based on existing words, you can claim words to belong to a “family” of sorts. Derivation helps us do this.

Take the word kirja for example. The “word family” of kirja contains derived words such as kirjasto, kirjain, kirjaimisto, kirjaimellinen, kirjaimellisesti, kirjoittaa, kirjata, kirjoitus and kirjailija. All these words are derivatives of the noun kirja, created with different kinds of suffixes.

5 4 votes
Article Rating
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

In 3.3 the verb should be leipoa.

Inge (admin)

Yeah, thanks! 🙂