Finnish for busy people

Banaani vs Panaani – Finnish Phonology Issues

Finnish pronunciation is easy, they say. Just pronounce everything the way it’s written! While this is close to true, there are definitely some exceptions to this rule. In this article, I just want to talk about the consonants p and b in Finnish (banaani vs panaani). Why specifically these consonants? Because they show something cool about how language works.

Each language has its own set of sounds. Some languages have more consonants, while others have more vowels. Finnish has more vowels: think of A and Ä for example: many languages don’t have both of these vowels.

When we look at the consonants that are used in spoken Finnish, we can see that some consonants are used extremely rarely. For example, the consonants c, x and z don’t appear in any native Finnish words at all. More interesting than those three, however, are the consonants p and b.

Banaani Panaani

The consonant b appears, for example, in the words banaani (banana), bussi (bus) and pubi (pub). As you can see, all of these are loanwords. What’s interesting about these words is that their pronunciation isn’t always perfect in Finnish. Many Finnish speakers can say panaani, pussi and pupi instead of using the proper b-sound. This makes sense, because the consonant b is ultimately still a foreign consonant in the Finnish language.

Paperi Babru

However, you can see the opposite happening in spoken language for the word paperi (paper). In colloquial language, papru is a fairly common synonym for paperi, but you might also hear babru instead. Here, the b has invaded a word that does not originally have a b in it.

Pubi Pupi

Peculiar? Maybe. The main cause of this is most likely that most Finns are aware of their habit to turn b‘s into p‘s, and jokingly play around with their language. This is not only reserved for spoken language, however. Tampere, for example, has a bar that’s called “Ale Pupi“, instead of pubi.

Minimal Pairs

So why do Finns have trouble with the b-sound? It’s a matter of phonology. In order for a language to differentiate between two sounds, there need to be minimal pairs.

A minimal pair consists of two words that only have one sound that differs between them. Think of, for example, the words pit and bit in English, or pot and bot. English has several clear minimal pairs for the difference between p and b, and thus, native speakers can easily tell the difference between both sounds.

If a language doesn’t have a minimal pair for two sounds, speakers of that language will not be sensitized to hearing the difference between them. For Finns, this means that b and p sound kind of the same (there is no banaani vs panaani for example).

Likewise, for English speakers, this means saari and sääri sound very similar, because English doesn’t have any opposition between those vowels. English speakers are not sensitized to hearing the difference between them.

Pussi Bussi

I bet some of you have found a gap in my explanation already. Doesn’t Finnish have an opposition between pussi and bussi (bag and bus)? You’re quite right, those are a Finnish minimal pair that should sensitize Finns to the difference between p and b. However, it is hard to find other such pairs for the same consonants. The more minimal pairs there are, the easier native speakers can notice the difference between the sounds.

If we look back on saari/sääri, we can reinforce the difference by also noticing the minimal pairs jaa/jää, takki/täkki, lappaa/läppää and sala/sälä. Because this is such a common minimal pair type, the difference between these sounds is much easier for a Finn than p and b.

Read more online

You can read more about minimal pairs (e.g. banaani vs panaani) by googling. In Finnish, the term is minimipari, with the words äänneoppositio and foneemioppositio closely related to it. The wikipedia article on foneemianalyysi is also an interesting read.

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with papru-babru, a similar phenomenon occurs with the word biisi, it originally originates from english piece, but the p has been hyper foreignised into b. similarly the é at the end of french words in english is often hyper foreignised into /eɪ/ (or /æɪ/) when in french its just a /e/.

Gwen the Nerd

Awesome explanation, thank you! As a native English speaker I’m pretty sure we do have a minimal-pair difference between (the sounds for) “a” and “ä” – for example, the words “cot” and “cat” – but the use of both is much more constrained in English than it is in Finnish. English speakers are so used to figuring out how to pronounce a written a from context that, when Finnish does something that would break the unspoken rules of English, it can really throw us for a loop despite being able to distinguish “a” from “ä” when we hear them. I know I have plenty of trouble with mixing up “a” and “ä” when I try to read Finnish out loud…

(Incidentally, have you heard the term “allophones” before? It’s a weird bit of linguistics jargon, but it’s the technical term for what “p” and “b” are in Finnish, similar sounds that speakers of a given language think of as the same sound.)