Finnish for busy people

Mennä and Lähteä – Finnish Verb Differences

The verbs mennä and lähteä can confuse some students. It’s especially common for native Estonian speakers, but not limited to only them. In this article, we’ll look at what causes the confusion and at what rections you can expect with these two verbs.

This article idea was suggested by on our Discord server. A lot of the information is based on a Master’s thesis by Kristi Pällin and Annekatrin Kaivapalu.

Table of Contents
  1. Finnish “mennä” and Estonian “minema
  2. The main difference between mennä and lähteä
    1. Mennä: movement towards
    2. Lähteä: movement away from
  3. The biggest problem with mennä and lähteä
    1. Mennä kotiin vs. lähteä kotiin
    2. Mennään elokuviin vs. Lähdetään elokuviin
    3. Olen menossa kotiin vs. Olen lähdössä kotiin
    4. Menen koulusta kotiin vs. Lähden koulusta kotiin
  4. English Speakers versus Estonian Speakers
  5. More specific information about mennä
    1. Movement towards a location
    2. Movement towards an activity
    3. Expressing how something goes
    4. Expressing a change
    5. Exchange of something to someone
    6. Movement without an explicit goal
    7. Collocations of the verb mennä
  6. More specific information about lähteä
    1. Movement starting from a location
    2. Movement leaving a location
    3. Movement away in order to do an activity
    4. Expressing the starting point of a static location
    5. Expressing the starting point of a development
    6. Expressing detachment from something
    7. Collocations of the verb lähteä
  7. Conclusion
  8. Read more elsewhere

1. Finnish “mennä” and Estonian “minema

Finnish and Estonian are closely related. This means that they have quite a few words in common, which makes learning Finnish generally easier for Estonian speakers. However, this also causes some issues from time to time. Speakers of Estonian regularly complain that they have trouble deciding when they can trust that something works the same way in Finnish. Some things just don’t work the same way, which can come out of the blue.

The Finnish verb mennä and the Estonian minema have the same origin. However, in current Estonian, the Finnish verbs mennä (“to go”) and lähteä (“to leave”) have been combined into one verb. The verb’s infinitive in Estonian is minema, but the first person present tense is lähen. As you can see, this is bound to cause confusion for Estonian speakers. In Finnish, there are two paradigms: [mennä : menen] and [lähteä : lähden].

The following two tables are meant to demonstrate the differences and similarities between the conjugation of these two verbs. First, you can find a list of forms that are the same. Then, there is a list of forms that are clearly different. In fact, they probably remind you very strong of the verb lähteä.  

Forms that are the same between mennä and minema

Form Finnish verb mennä Estonian verb minema
Infinitive mennä minema
Imperative mene! mine!
Illative menemään minema
Present passive mennään mindakse; mindaks
Past passive mentiin mindi
Perfect passive on menty on mindud

Forms that are the different between mennä and minema

I’m presenting the minä and sinä forms, but it’s the whole paradigm. Check it out here in Verbix.

Form Finnish verb mennä Estonian verb minema
Present tense minä menen ma lähen
Present tense sinä menet sa lähed
Past tense minä menin ma läksin
Past tense sinä menit sa läksid
Conditional minä menisin ma läheksin; läheks
Conditional sinä menisit sa läheksid, läheks
Perfect tense minä olen mennyt ma olen läinud
Perfect tense sinä olet mennyt sa oled läinud

2. The Main Difference Between Mennä and Lähteä

The Finnish verbs mennä and lähteä are quite distinct from one another. Sometimes this distinction is also visible in English, but other times things don’t quite match up there either. Due to experience, I know it’s not only Estonians that have trouble with these two verbs, so there must be other languages with a different system.

(Sidenote: You will use the verb käydä when you want to focus on visiting a place rather than the movement towards the location. This article doesn’t cover that topic.)

2.1. Mennä: movement towards

The verb mennä expresses a movement towards a place (e.g. menen elokuviin, menen torille). The starting point of the movement is either unknown or unimportant. For example, Menen kotiin “I go home” of course implies that there’s a place we’re leaving from, but the focus is on where we are going. We are certain where the movement will end. We can also include the starting point in the sentence (e.g. Menen koulusta kotiin), but it’s impossible to just say “menen koulusta”.

If you’re unsure which one to use, but don’t have time to sit down and think through everything this article mentions, you can resort to the following rule. The default usage of mennä is with the mihin form (e.g. menen kotiin, menen terapiaan, menen ravintolaan). It focuses on the movement towards the location you are going to.

2.2. Lähteä: movement away from

The verb lähteä expresses the beginning of the action/movement. It’s more complicated that mennä because it can appear with both the mistä and the mihin form. The default use of lähteä is to express leaving a place (e.g. lähden täältä, lähden koulusta).

However, it’s also possible to use lähteä to express movement towards another place (e.g. lähden kotiin, lähden kaupungille). The difference with mennä generally lies in the fact that we’re still putting the main focus of our sentence on the fact that we’re going away from our current place when we go towards the mentioned place. Whether/when we reach the end location of the movement is somewhat uncertain.

The default usage of lähteä is with the mistä form (e.g. lähden koulusta, lähden kotoa, lähden ravintolasta). It focuses on the location you’re leaving from.

3. The Biggest Problem with Mennä and Lähteä

The most difficult part of the difference between mennä and lähteä is that both can be used with the mihin form: Menen kotiin OR Lähden kotiin.

3.1. Menen kotiin vs. Lähden kotiin

When you say Menen kotiin you are:

  1. Stating the clear goal of the movement you’re about to start
  2. Expressing that you will reach that location
  3. The starting point of the movement is unimportant

When you say Lähden kotiin, you are:

  1. Stating that you’re leaving your current location (clear from the context)
  2. Whether you reach the goal is unimportant/uncertain (maybe you get sidetracked and go to the store first instead)

3.2. Mennään elokuviin vs. Lähdetään elokuviin

  • “Lähdetään elokuviin” has a slight connotation that you just don’t want to be home anymore, you want to leave the place and go somewhere
  • “Mennään elokuviin” has the connotation that you have a clear goal which you are going to go to, it’s unimportant from where you start the movement

3.3. Olen menossa kotiin vs. Olen lähdössä kotiin

  • “Olen menossa kotiin” focuses on the movement, the process towards a specific location.
  • “Olen lähdössä kotiin” focuses on the beginning point of the movement.

3.4. Menen koulusta kotiin vs. Lähden koulusta kotiin

  • Menen koulusta kotiin” focuses on the movement from school to home, on the journey between school and home, which has a specific goal.
  • Lähden koulusta kotiin” focuses on the beginning point of the movement, the goal is mentioned but the movement away from school is the main focus.

3.5. Hän meni ensin kotiin ja lähti sen jälkeen kauppaan.

  • The verb mennä is used because the end (päätepiste) of the movement and the result (lopputulos) of the movement are more important than the beginning (alkupiste) of the movement
  • The verb lähteä is used because the beginning of the movement is important, and the end of the movement isn’t certain.

4. English Speakers versus Estonian Speakers

There is an interesting opposition between the mistakes with the verbs mennä and lähteä for English and Estonian speakers. Estonians are more likely to overuse the verb lähteä, because the verb minema mainly contains lähe-type conjugated forms. On the other hand, English speakers are more likely to overuse the verb mennä, because many of the cases where Finnish uses lähteä, English either uses “to go” or “to start”.

It’s a good idea to go through the following sections and consider how you would say these phrases in your own mother tongue. You might be able to grasp the differences between your native language and Finnish better that way.

5. More Specific Information about Mennä

Below, we’ll take another look at the different situations in which mennä is used. I’m not including all the idiomatic ways mennä is used. The main goal is to give you an overview of the most common ways to use the verb mennä.

5.1. Movement Towards a Location

The focus is on the goal of the movement. It’s not important from where the movement started (though it is possible to mention it). Both people (#1) and things (#2) can move towards a location.

# Finnish English
1 Minä menen kotiin. I’m going home.
1 Minä menen kauppaan. I’m going to the store.
1 Minä menen kuntosalille. I’m going to the gym.
2 Juna menee Tampereelle. The train goes to Tampere.
2 Kaikki paperit menevät kaatopaikalle. All the paper goes to the landfill.
2 Nämä kirjat menevät roskiin. These books go into the trash.
2 Tieto menee suoraan väestörekisteriin. The info goes straight into the register.

5.2. Movement Towards an Activity

In addition to going somewhere, you can go do something. We can use both nouns (#1) and verbs (#2) in the mihin form for this. Things usually can’t move towards an activity (#3).

# Finnish English
1 Minä menen lenkille. I’m going for a run.
1 Minä menen kalaan. I’m going fishing.
2 Minä menen luistelemaan. I’m going to ski.
2 Minä menen katsomaan televisiota. I’m going to watch television.
3 Asunto meni myyntiin. The apartment went on sale.

5.3. Expressing How Something Goes

We can use the verb mennä to express how a thing goes or went (#1). In these situations, we’re expressing a static situation, not a movement. The verb mennä won’t get the mihin form in these cases: we’re using the verb in combination with an adverb (usually hyvin or huonosti).

If something goes a certain way for a person, we use the adessive case (-lla) (#2). In English, you will generally translate these differently. For example, “miten sinulla menee” is literally “how is it going for you”, but sounds more natural in English as “how are you doing”.

# Finnish English
1 Päivä meni hyvin. The day went well.
1 Koko vuosi meni huonosti. The whole year went badly.
1 Kaikki on mennyt odotetusti. Everything has gone as expected.
2 Pojalla meni hyvin koulussa. The boy is doing well in school.
2 Miten sinulla menee? How are you doing?

5.4. Expressing a Change

We can use the verb mennä in combination with the translative case (-ksi). This case can express a change in state, status or purpose; a transition takes place. The translative is usually used with other verbs.

Finnish English
Hän meni sinne oppaaksi. He went there to be a guide.
Hän meni kalpeaksi. He went pale.
Asia meni uusiksi. The thing had to be restarted.
Maljakko meni sirpaleiksi. The vase shattered.

5.5. Exchange of Something to Someone

A thing (abstract or concrete) can “go” to someone. In these sentences there is generally a human middleman, which is not named. Using the verb mennä and the allative (-lle) is a way of focusing on the “destination” of the thing.

Finnish English
Palkinto meni Tapaniselle. The prize went to Tapaninen.
Lottovoitto meni amerikkalaiselle. The lottery winnings went to an American.
Ilmoitus menee suoraan esimiehelle. The notice goes straight to the supervisor.
Tieto meni viranomaisille. The information went to the authorities.

5.6. Movement Without a Explicit Goal

While these sentences don’t contain a destination, they still refer to the journey and have an implicit location which the speaker is certain about.

Finnish English
Minun pitää mennä. I have to go.
Nyt on aika mennä. It’s time to go now.
Mennään! Let’s go!

5.7. Collocations of the Verb Mennä

There are many collocations with the verb mennä. Below you can find a select few of them. I think I probably should make a separate article with a more complete list!

Finnish English
mennä tiehensä to go their (separate) way(s)
mennä rikki to break; to be broken
mennä poikki to break; to get cut off
mennä pilalle (pic) to spoil; to be ruined
mennä pieleen to go wrong, awry
mennä vikaan to go wrong, amiss
mennä mönkään to go wrong, awry
mennä konkurssiin to go bankrupt
mennä sekaisin to go haywire; to get tangled
mennä hukkaan to go to waste, be wasted
mennä päin vittua to go to hell, be ruined
mennä tukkoon to clog up
mennä solmuun to go into a knot
mennä ristiin to cross
mennä menojaan to go off; to run its course
mennä kaupaksi to find a market; to sell
mennä umpeen to expire, no longer valid
mennä pitkälle to go far
mennä pitemmälle to go further
mennä perille to sink in, to register
menee läpi to go through
mennä ohi to pass, to blow over
mennä naimisiin to get married
mennä marjaan to go pick berries

6. More Specific Information about Lähteä

I’m not mentioning every single way to use the verb lähteä. The main goal is to give you an overview of the most common ways to use the verb.

6.1. Movement Starting from a Location

First and foremost, the verb lähteä is used to express a movement away from a place. The goal of the movement is not important or not known. Most commonly, it’s people moving away from a location (#1). In addition, vehicles can also move away. (#2)

# Finnish English
1 Minä lähden täältä nyt. I’m leaving here now.
1 Minä lähdin juhlista aikaisin. I left the party early.
1 Minä lähdin kotoa ilman takkia. I left home without a coat.
2 Juna lähtee raiteelta kaksi. The train leaves from track two.
2 Ambulanssi lähti rikospaikalta. The ambulance left the crime scene.

6.2. Movement Leaving a Location

We can use lähteä with the mihin form as well, as mentioned earlier. In these sentences, we’re only mentioning the goal; not the origin. Regardless, the verb lähteä inherently means that the focus lays in the movement away from the starting. As such, minä lähden nyt kotiin means “I’m leaving now to go home”, rather than “I’m going home now”. Here, as well, we can have vehicles moving (#2).

English has the phrase “to leave for [a location]”, so this meaning is not completely unheard of for English speakers. However, it’s more common to use the verb “to go”.

# Finnish English
1 Minä lähden kotiin. I’m going home (from here).
1 Minä lähden kävelylle. I’m going for a walk (from here).
1 Kissä lähti ulos. The cat went outside (from here).
2 Juna lähti jo Ouluun. The train already left for Oulu.
2 Autot lähtivät hitaasti ajamaan. The cars started driving (away) slowly.

6.3. Movement Away in Order to Do an Activity

This is one of these situations that confuses many learners of Finnish. We can use the verb lähteä in combination with the mihin form of a noun or a verb. While this does mean that you want to go to a place, the meaning is still focused on moving away.

You’re either inviting someone to leave your current location or expressing that someone has left the location in question. In English, you will use “go” for this; not “leave”.

Finnish English
Lähdetään syömään! Let’s go (get away from here and) eat!
Lähdetkö mun kanssa kahville? Will you go for a coffee with me?
Hän lähti kävelemään. He went (left here to go) for a walk.
Antti lähti kalalle. Antti went (away) fishing.
Vanki lähti pakoon. The prisoner fled (away).

6.4. Expressing the Starting Point of a Static Location

We can use the verb lähteä also with static locations, when we want to express that something starts there. In English, you will generally use the verb “to start” rather than “to leave”.

Finnish English
Polku lähtee näkötornista. The path leaves from the observation tower.
Reitti lähtee Kilpisjärveltä. The route starts from Kilpisjärvi.
Kävelyreitti lähtee kahvilan edestä. The walking path starts in front of the café.

6.5. Expressing the Starting Point of a Development

When something is based on something, or starts from something, we can use the verb lähteä. This is especially common with things that start small and then grow from there. Usually we’re talking about abstract things. In English, you will use the verb “to start” rather than “to leave”.

Finnish English
Hodarikioskista se lähti. It started with a hot dog stand.
Pienestä se lähti liikkeelle. It started from something small.
Lähdetään siitä, että hän… Let’s just start from the assumption that he…
Kaikki lähti ajatuksesta, että… It all started from the idea that…

6.6. Expressing Detachment from Something

Sometimes, things get loose from what they’re supposed to be attached to. In these situations “to leave” doesn’t sound very natural in English, but it’s the default way to express this in Finnish.

Finnish English
Hampaasta lähti pala. A piece got loose from the tooth.
Potilaan tukka lähtee. The patient’s hair is leaving (falling out).
Takista lähti nappi. A button got loose from the coat (fell off).

6.7. Collocations of the Verb Lähteä

Notice how almost all of these idioms actually come with the mihin form, rather than the default mistä form of the verb lähteä.

Finnish English
lähteä liikkeelle to get started, to move
lähteä käyntiin to start, start up
lähteä matkaan to take the road, to start out
lähteä nousuun to go up (e.g. price)
lähteä laskuun to go down (e.g. in value)
lähteä kasvuun to grow (e.g. interests)
lähteä irti to come loose
lähteä pois to go away
lähteä pakoon to escape
lähteä omille teilleen to part ways
lähteä mukaan to come along
lähteä eläkkeelle to retire
lähteä käsistä to lose control

7. Conclusion

It’s simple in English to translate mennä as “to go” and lähteä as “to leave”, but hopefully this article has given you some insight into why this view is too simplistic.

The verbs mennä and lähteä are quite distinct from each other in Finnish; more so than in English. The verb mennä is used to express the process of the movement. The verb lähteä is used to express where the movement is coming from. Estonians have their own set of problems due to the shared paradigm of [minema : ma lähen]. I hope I have been able to shed some light on when to use minä menen and when minä lähden.

8. Read More Elsewhere

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