Finnish for busy people

Vanha vs Wanha – 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 advice. In this article, I just want to take a look at the consonants v and w as how they appear in wanha vs vanha.

Each language has its own set of sounds that appear in the language. 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.

Not quite a v, not quite a w

I’ve found the Finnish consonants v and w interesting for a long time. In many languages, v and w are clearly different, but in Finnish, they’re almost the same. Neither of the two is pronounced “properly”. Instead, both v and w are pronounced kind of half-heartedly, not committing to either sound completely, but rather having the sound be something in between v and w. Or that’s how it sounds to me, as a native Dutch speaker.

In Dutch, there’s an opposition between the [v] and [w] sounds. This means that there are words which would become harder to tell apart if you wouldn’t be pronouncing the [v] in a clearly different way than the [w] (e.g. vind “find” versus wind“wind”, or veer “feather” versus weer “again”). In Finnish, such an opposition doesn’t exist.

Vet vs Wet

Just like in the article about p and b, we can find some explanation for this in 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 vet and wet in English.

English speakers clearly hear the difference between the two, and it is possible to put up a fake German accent by replacing the w‘s with v‘s (e.g. Vat vill you do?).

There are no minimal pairs at all between the two in Finnish. If a language doesn’t have a minimal pair for two sounds, speakers of that language will not be sensitivized to hearing the difference between them, nor feel a need to pronounce them differently. Because of this, when Finns speak Finnish, v and w sound very similar: they get pronounced as a half-vowel that’s close to u. So with wanha vs vanha, we could also theoretically choose to write it “uanha“, I guess.

The sounds v, w and u are also interesting historically, because they’ve been written down in many ways over the centuries. Read more about the history of written Finnish below.

Agricola: Taiualinen vs Taivaallinen

Mikael Agricola is the “father of the Finnish written language”. His books were the first ones written in Finnish and are interesting because we can see how Finnish was written way in the beginning. As expected, there is a lot of variation. Agricola used the letter u, v and w to mean both u and v.

Sounds Old spelling Modern spelling Translation
w instead of v wanha vanha old
w instead of v owat ovat are
w instead of v wähä vähän a little
w instead of uu wsi uusi new
w instead of uu helmenkwla helmenkuulla in February
w instead of uu cwle kuule listen
u instead of v taiualista taivaallista heavenly (partitive)
u instead of v leiuen leivän bread (genitive)
u instead of v hyue hyvä good
w instead of y wlosannetan ylösannetaan given up
v instead of u vskoit uskoit believed

For the further history, we can use the Wikipedia description as a source for information. It says that in the Bible that was published in 1642, the v-sound was being marked fairly regularly with a letter w, up until the middle of the 1800s. The letter v was only used for Latin. In the later half of the 1800s, the letter v started appearing next to the letter w. At the end of the 1880s dictionaries started using mainly the letter v.

V versus W in Current Finnish

The fact that both Virtanen and Wirtanen are Finnish surnames even today shows that there has been a lot of variation. Another interesting tidbit of information is this: in Finnish libraries, names starting with a v or w will not be alphabetical. They will be grouped together as though they’re just different forms of the same consonant. Take for example the next 4 surnames: Virtanen, Wirtanen, Valta and Walta. You would alphabetize these as:

  • In English: Valta, Virtanen, Walta, Wirtanen
  • In Finnish: Valta, Walta, Virtainen, Wirtanen

These days the letter w is rarely used, but it does have its place as a style element. This is the case, for example for wanha vs vanha. The stylistic word wanha will appear in texts that are meant to sound old, sophisticated, funny or foreign.


I think that’s where I will leave this article! I considered adding more information about the relationship between v and f, but that’s a story for another day. I hope you learned something new about Finnish phonology!

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