Finnish for busy people

Word Order in Existential Sentences

Word order is something that we can write many articles about. In this article, we will be focussing solely on what makes the word order in existential sentences important. Note that we are focusing on the general, neutral, word order.

Table of Contents
  1. Word Order in Existential Sentences
  2. Word Order in Regular Sentences
  3. Word Order Influences Meaning
  4. Read More

1. Word Order in Existential Sentences

Existential sentences express that something is somewhere. However, we should say that they express that somewhere there is something, if we want to follow the Finnish word order. The syntax of a normal existential sentence can be simplied as:

location + verb in third person singular + subject.

Finnish Literally English
Huoneessa on sänky. In the room is a bed. There is a bed in the room.
Puistossa on lapsia. In the park are kids. There are kids in the park.
Bussipysäkillä oli bussi. At the bus stop was a bus. There was a bus at the bus stop.
Kotona ei ollut ruokaa. At home wasn’t food. There was no food at home.

The English translation of these phrases will generally include “there is” or “there are“, though it can differ based on which verb we are using. While all the example sentences above utilize the verb olla, you can also use other static verbs, such as nukkua, seisoa, esiintyä, sattua, tapahtua and kävellä.

2. Word Order in Regular Sentences

I’m not sure what the proper term is for a “regular sentence”, but these sentences express, for example, that someone is doing something. By looking at the sentences below, you can see the difference in word order, as well as the difference in the conjugation of the verb.

Finnish English
Puistossa seisoo miehiä. There are men standing in the park.
Miehet seisovat puistossa. The men are standing in the park.
Pöydällä on hiiri. There is a mouse on the table.
Hiiri on pöydällä. The mouse is on the table.

3. Word Order Influences Meaning

Sentences in general – in any language – contain both new information and old information. If we’re talking about a man and then say “he had grey hair”, the “he” is the old information, while the new information is related to his hair.

In Finnish, the general rule is that the old information will be at the beginning of the sentence. This is important because Finnish doesn’t have definite articles. In English, you can show the difference between new information (a man) and old information (the man) through a and the. In Finnish, this is often done throught word order.

Old New
Puistossa seisoo mies.
Miehellä on sininen takki.
Takki on hänelle liian iso.
Miehen täytyy käydä kaupassa.
Kaupassa on ystävällinen myyjä.
Old New
In the park is standing a man.
The man has a blue coat.
The coat is too big for him.
The man has to go to a/the store.
In the store is a friendly salesperson.

Because English has these pronouns, it is just as easily possible to say “A man is standing in the park”, while still maintaining that “the park” is the old information and “a man” is the new information. This is generally not true in Finnish. Changing the word order in Finnish will also change the value of the information. For example “Puistossa seisoo mies” (A man is standing in the park) and “Mies seisoo puistossa” (The man is standing in the park) give different information to the reader.

4. Read more

In this article, you can find the general, neutral, word order for existential and regular sentences. However, word order can be played around with in order to stress something. You can read more about this in Finnish here. I might make another article in English with similar information, but in this article, I wanted to stick to the basics.

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Adam
Adam

Thanks for a great post! I noticed some errors though, that can easily be fixed.

New and old are in the wrong order. The old/given (theme) comes first and then the new (rheme). This is a general tendency for all human languages, but it becomes very clear in languages like Finnish, that lack definite articles (which also have the function of marking what’s already given/old).

Hiiri (given/thematic) on pöydällä (new, rhematic)
Pöydällä (given/thematic) on hiiri (new, rhematic)

And also, demonstrative pronouns are pronouns like “se” and “tuo”. What written Finnish is lacking is definite articles.

Inge (admin)

Ah yes, thanks for your comment! I guess I wasn’t focusing enough when I made this. These have been corrected now.

Adam
Adam

Super, and keep up the good work! Olet auttanut valtavasti suomen kielen opinnoissani.