Finnish for busy people

Kolme as Kolome – Svaavokaali – Schwa Vowel

Perhaps you’ve run into this phenomenon when listening to people talk: Finns can sometimes pronounce the number three “kolme” as kolome. The extra vowel in the middle is called a “schwa vowel” aka svaavokaali in Finnish. It’s common in many modern dialects.

I decided to make this article after a chat with Khrysanthos in our Discord chat.

Standard Svaa Standard Svaa
kylmä kyly kolme kolome
silmä sili ilma ilima
talvi talavi kahvi kahavi
halpa halapa vanha vanaha
tylsä tyly helppo heleppo

1. What is a Svaavokaali?

A schwa vowel is a vowel that’s added in order to make things easier to pronounce. The Finnish language has less consonant clusters (e.g. kr, pl, str) than many other languages, but they do appear.

Consonant clusters are the most common at the border between two syllables (e.g. kyl-mä, sil, kah-vi, kol-me). As such, the consonant cluster spreads over two syllables. Adding a svaavokaali in the middle (e.g. kyly, sili, kahavi, kolome) helps pronounce these words more easily.

Usually the vowel of the first syllable is repeated as the schwa vowel. So, for example, kylmä will have the –y– repeated: kylymä.

2. Where is the Svaavokaali Common?

Not all Finnish dialects have schwa vowels. For example, the phenomenon isn’t native to Southern Finland dialects. It used to be the most common in Western Finland dialects. These days, you can find it all over mid-Finland, though the type of schwa vowel used can differ per dialect.

In some dialects (e.g. Mikkeli and Savonlinna), the vowel that’s repeated is not the same as the vowel in the first syllable (e.g. kylöand sile instead of kylymä and silimä). How wide-spread the phenomenon is also depends of the area. Some forms will be near-exclusive to Savonian dialects (e.g. meleko ‘melko’, jäläkeen ‘jälkeen’, alakaa ‘alkaa’, heleppo ‘helppo’, selevä ‘selvä’).

3. Why Use a Schwa Vowel?

The first reason why to say kolme as “kolome” has been mentioned before: to make words easier to pronounce. However, not all dialects historically have used it.

My personal experience in Tampere is that schwa vowels fulfill a different function. People in my area use schwa vowels most commonly when complaining. So you might hear someone talk about kylymä talavi (“the cold winter”) or their need for kahavi (“coffee“).

Read more in Finnish:

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None of those words are difficult to pronounce for me in their original forms, even when declined.. I don’t know why though, perhaps its just easier for a 2nd language speaker. I don’t hear these used in Helsinki.

Inge (admin)

It depends on your native language of course, so yes, the normal form of the words usually isn’t difficult at all to most 2nd language speakers.

The proto-Finnic language is said to have had mostly short, open syllables (me-ri, ta-lo, o-vi, su-si, ve-si), so keeping that syllable construction has been something people have found more pleasing to the ear. I’ve had some native Chinese students that – at the beginning of their studies – inject quite a few schwa vowels into their speech. I’m assuming that that is because Chinese also has mostly syllables that end in a vowel.

I’m not surprised that you haven’t heard them in Helsinki. Look at this map:


In English this is called epenthesis, not “schwa vowel”.

Inge (admin)

You made me do a deep-dive into these terms again! 🙂 Epenthetis is a wider concept than a schwa vowel. Epenthesis refers to any addition of a consonant or vowel in the first or last syllable or at the in-between-point of two syllables. It’s often meant to make a word more easy to say, which is of course what a schwa vowel does.

The problem with the term schwa is that, in English, it refers to a specific unstressed and toneless neutral vowel. However, the term schwa can be used for any type of epenthetic vowel, especially in languages where this vowel doesn’t exist. This is the case in Finnish: Finnish doesn’t have the specific schwa-sound English has, but the vowel added between two syllables serves the exact same purpose as an English schwa. The term is translates as svaavokaali in Finnish

To anyone reading this comment: the Wikipedia pages of epenthesis and schwa are both totally worth having a read! This concept is super interesting. The Finnish article on schwas explains things better from a Finnish perspective.