Finnish for busy people

Pöydällä vs Pöyrällä – Finnish Phonology Issues

This article focuses on another phonological problem in Finnish. This time, we take a look at the letter -d-. We’ll go over the reason why the millä-form of pöytä can be unusual in spoken language: pöydällä vs pöyrällä.

If you’ve studied Finnish for a while, you’ve certainly noticed that it lacks words with the consonants c, q, w, x and z. But did you know that the letter -d- is also a pretty recent addition to the Finnish language? So is the sound /d/. The Finnish language didn’t have the /d/ sound for a long time.

The Letter d in Written Finnish

In current Finnish, you can find the letter d in the middle of words (e.g. sydän, vadelma) and – in loanwords – also at the beginning of words (e.g. data, dosetti).

Usually d will appear in Finnish words as the weak form of t. You will find it in both verbs (e.g. lähteä : lähden; kadota : katoan) and nouns (e.g. pöytä : pöydän; sade : sateen).

The plural genitive can also end in –den (e.g. opiskelijoiden, puiden, huoneiden). Especially in spoken language, this ending will often be replaced with -tten (opiskelijoitten, puitten, huoneitten).

The History of the Finnish d

Old Finnish didn’t have a /d/ sound, but it did have a sound that has in modern day Finnish been converted into a -d-. This might surprise you! Finnish used to have a /ð/ sound. This is the sound you hear at the beginning of the English word the. It’s a voiced dental fricative (soinnillinen dentaalispirantti).

The letter -d- made its way into the Finnish language when Mikael Agricola started planning a writing system for Finnish in the 1500s. Back then, the /ð/ sound was a normal part of Finnish. Agricola ended up writing the sound as either a -d- or a -dh- in the first texts ever written in Finnish (e.g. “sydemen/sydhemen” for sydämen). Eventually, it was decided to only use the letter -d- for the sound /ð/.

This in turn influenced spoken Finnish: since a –d- was written, people started pronouncing it as a /d/. Mind you that this change took place in standard language; not in dialects. However, the /ð/ sound disappeared slowly from most dialects anyway.

The pronunciation of d in current day Finnish

1. Different Pronunciation Varients

In standard and general spoken language -d- can be pronounced as /d/. In dialects, it generally will be pronounced in other ways. Different dialects make up for the lack of the /ð/ sound in different ways. The /ð/ sound has persisted the longest in the Satakunta area in South-West Finland. You can still occasionally hear it in spoken Finnish in Rauma.

The dialects in Finnish are usually divided into two groups. In Western dialects, you’re likely to hear /r/ in the South (yhdessä vs. yhressä – pic) and (more rarely) /l/ slightly higher up in the West. In Eastern dialects, /ð/ is often just omitted. You may also hear a /j/, /h/ or /v/ in those areas.

In the table below, I’ve tried to keep the other letters in the word the same as much as possible. It’s worth noting, however, that other sounds also differ from dialect to dialect. Thus, in addition to saahaan, I could have added suahaan and saarahan. And syörä could also be changed to, for example, syärä.

Standard West East
meidän meirän, meilän, meitin meiän, meän, meijän, meijjän
pöydällä pöyrällä, pöylällä pöyällä, pöyvällä
syödä syörä, syölä syyä, syyvä
uudestaan uurestaan uuestaan, uuvestaan
mahdollisuudet mahrollisuuret, mahlollisuulet mahollisuuet
odottaa orottaa oottaa
kahdeksan kahreksan, kahleksan kaheksan
lähden lähren, lähɾen, lählen lähen
sadan saran, salan, saðan saan, sajan
saadaan saaraan, saalaan saahaan
tiedän tierän tiiän, tiijän
pidettiin pirettiin pijettiin
aidat airat, ailat aijat

2. Shifts and Changes in Pronunciation

Language isn’t static, especially not spoken language. In the 1500s, before people had much contact with the world outside their village, dialects had the time to solidify and stood their ground when coming in contact with other dialects.

These days, locally spoken traits change more. Dialects adopt variants from other areas. For example, in hämäläismurteet (Tavastian dialects) the weak form of /t/ has historically been /l/ (e.g. lehlet “lehdet”; ei tapahlu “ei tapahdu”), but in the Western areas this has largely been replaced with an /r/.

A trait that has spread to other dialects is the omitting of the /d/ sound altogether. Traditionally, this was typical for Eastern dialects (e.g. pöyällä “pöydällä”; saan “sadan”). Now, this practice has spread to the West and South as well. Forms like oottaa “odottaa”, ees “edes” and kaheksan “kahdeksan” are common in many other dialects.

It’s also good to know that the changes in the sound of the /d/ often depend on the word itself. It could differ depending on whether d is the first letter of the word, whether it appears before a short vowel and what consonants are close to it.

3. Pronunciation in a Person’s Idiolect

While dialects are spoken by groups of people, the term “idiolect” refers to the way of speaking of one person. It’s important to take into consideration that many things can influence the way one speaker, or group of speakers, might pronounce letters differently than people in their environment.

A person’s way of speaking is influenced by:

  • Where they live: you are likely to adopt the way of speaking of where you live
  • Their age: younger people are more likely to say /d/
  • Their gender: women are also more likely to say /d/
  • Their education: “In Tampere and Turku using /r/ (to replace /d/) is typical for less educated […] people” (link, not sure I agree)
  • Their attitude towards dialects: a proud citizen of an area is likely to make this reflect in their pronunciation of the /d/ sound.
  • The word they’re saying: the /d/ sound is more likely to appear in foreign or official words than in everyday words (e.g. diabetes, Budapest).

Read more elsewhere

There is so much more to be said about dialects and spoken language! Below, you can find some of the sources I found interesting to read while I was writing this article.

That’s it for the difference for pöydällä vs pöyrällä.

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