Finnish for busy people

Traktori Raktori – Stressi Ressi – Consonant Clusters in Finnish

There is at least one fairly easy feature in the Finnish language: syllables. While some languages can have many words in which there are syllables with three (or more!) consonants in a row, Finns are fairly conservative with their consonants, so you don’t get a lot of consonant clusters.

The term consonant cluster (konsonanttiyhtymä) refers to the phenomenon where multiple consonants appear in a row in a word. This article only deals with consonant clusters at the beginning of a word. Common consonant clusters in Finnish are -kr-, -kl-, -pr- and -tr-. Triple consonant clusters are -str-, -skr- and -spl-. I use the term consonant reduction to refer to the phenomenon where consonants are dropped from words in order to avoid consonant clusters.

1. Consonant Reduction in Old Finnish Loanwords

Far back in history, when a loanword was adopted into the Finnish language (e.g. from Swedish), consonant clusters were always simplified at the beginning of a word. If a word had multiple consonants, it would be stripped clean, leaving only one. This rule has influenced a whole lot of words that you wouldn’t even really recognize as loanwords anymore.

In the table below, I’ve listed some loanwords that have been adopted into Finnish a long time ago. How old they are exactly and what language (or language group) they are loaned from is not important for this article.

Origin Finnish English
skola koulu school
skinka kinkku ham
skazka kasku anecdote
skruv ruuvi screw
strand ranta beach
stol tuoli chair
kristu risti cross
kruuti ruuti gunpowder
krabba / krapu rapu crab
kringla rinkeli bagel
glas / klasi lasi glass
Origin Finnish English
franska ranska France
plyijy lyijy lead
stall talli stable
trappa rappu staircase
trenki renki servant
spegel peili mirror
skåp kaappi cupboard
knapp nappi button
istyi siisti tidy

2. Finnish Words That Defy the Tendency

The words above were adopted into Finnish a very long time ago. “Foreign” sounds, especially consonants, were almost always converted into a “more Finnish” form, which often meant stripping the consonant clusters. However, newer loanwords don’t always follow the same tendency.

Among newer loanwords, there has been a trend towards allowing “un-Finnish” syllable constructions into Finnish words. Because of this, there is a whole group of words that do have a consonant cluster at their beginning. How old they are exactly and what language (or language group) they are loaned from is not important for this article.

Origin Finnish English
clown klovni clown
cliche klisee cliche
klarinett klarinetti clarinet
krona kruunu crown
kropp kroppa body
granat kranaatti grenade
kris kriisi crisis
xylofon ksylofoni
kvarts kvartsi
president presidentti president
prairie preeria prairie
brand brändi brand
träffa treffit date
traktor traktori tractor
trend trendi trend
tsar tsaari
strategy strategia strategy
struz strutsi

3. Reasons for Defying the Tendency

There are multiple reasons why Finnish would retain a consonant cluster like -kr- or -str- when they don’t really fit into what the Finnish language sounds like in general.

  • Currently, people are more willing to accept and use words with foreign syllable constructions. This has been a gradual process which has become increasingly common. Words are often adopted as-is, with an -i added to the end of them (e.g. printer > printteri) without worrying about the consonants in the word.
  • Some words can’t be simplified without causing confusion. For some words, if we’d remove the consonant cluster, the resulting word would clash with other words that already exist. For example, frakki “dress suit” would step into the territory of rakki “mongrel”. Kriisi “crisis” would be confused with riisi “rice” if it lost its consonant cluser. The word for “prose”, proosa, would be confused with roosa “light pink”.

Rather than either following or denying the rule, quite often there is a word that is not a straight loanword. Think for example of the word “clown”, which can be translated both as klovni and as pelle.

4. Spoken Language Consonant Cluster Reduction

Higher up in this article, we’ve been looking at words that have actually had their consonant clusters made simpler. However, in spoken language, this is often taken one step further. The following words are not standard Finnish (they’re marked with a * to show this). Hypothetically, you might hear the following sentence in spoken Finnish: “Onko tuo rinsessa jäänyt raktorin alle?” (Has that princess ended up underneath the tractor?).

Standard Spoken English
traktori raktori* tractor
prinsessa rinsessa* princess
projekti rojekti* project
printteri rintteri* printer
treenit reenit* workout
reenata* to train
rumpetti* trumpet
krapula rapula*

In some cases, the (usually Swedish) root of the loanword (e.g. brillor) starts with a consonant cluster, which is retained in certain dialects (prillit) and dropped in other dialects (rillit). Many of these words (#1) are listed as colloquial language variants in the dictionary. Words marked with an asterix are not in the dictionary.

# Origin Cluster Simplified Standard English
1 brillor prillit rillit silmälasit glasses
1 kruxa kruksata ruksata rastia to tick checkboxes
1 flicka flikka likka tyttö girl
1 trampa trampata
kulkea to walk back and forth
2 dräng trenki*
renki farmhand, boy
2 skruva kruuvata* ruuvata ruuvata to screw
2 fläsk
lihava fat
2 plätt
ohukainen pancake

5. Addition of Consonant Clusters in Spoken Language

In certain dialects, speakers might add consonant clusters to words, thus putting this whole article upside down. For example, Helsinki slang is infamous for its consonant clusters. They’ll be added in spoken language regardless of the fact that the root origin word does not have a consonant cluster.

# Origin Cluster Simplified Standard English
2 linka klinkata*
ontua to limp
2 sump tsumppi*
kahvi coffee
2 счастье tsäkä*
tuuri luck
3 simma tsimmata*
uida to swim
3 sireeni tsirra*
ambulanssi ambulance

Helsinki slang is known for having more consonant clusters than most other dialects. In Helsinki, adding consonant clusters (or retaining the consonant clusters from Swedish loanwords) has long been a way to make words sound “special”. It’s one of the characteristics of “Stadin slangi”. Especially the addition of -s- at the beginning of a word has been a popular way to create new slang words.

Playing around with words in slang is common. It can result in some very cool examples of the ways different speakers might say certain words:

  • For the word puku (suit) in Helsinki, the following variants have been observed: rigi, prigi, sprigi, frigi, spriki, striki. Note the complex consonant clusters -spr- and -str-.
  • For the word krapula (hangover) in Helsinki, the following variants have been observed: grabbis, krabbis, grappis, skrabbis, skrappis. Note the complex consonant cluster -skr-. In other areas of Finland, the word krapula can actually be simplified into rapula.
  • The Swedish word nubbe “ryyppy” has been transformed into the following alternatives in the speech of different speakers: nubbi, nuppi, gnubbi, knubbi, sknubbi, sknuppi. Note the unusual consonant cluster -skn-!
  • The Finnish word ryyppy has been changed into slang in the interesting forms of krybari and skrybari.

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