Vowel Harmony – Vokaaliharmonia – Finnish Grammar

Vowel harmony, in Finnish vokaaliharmonia or vokaalisointu, is something that influences every verb and noun that you conjugate or inflect. It influences the vowels, aka A, E, I, O, U, Y, Ä and Ö.

1. The Basic Rule

In Finnish, you can divide the vowels in two main groups. In general, inside one word, you will only find vowels from one group OR from the other group. The two groups of vowels don’t normally mix.

  • The vowels A, O and U form one group. You can see these vowels in the words auto, poolo, hullu, laulu, toukka, and aamu.
  • The vowels Ä, Ö and Y form another group. You can find these vowels in the words tyttö, hylly, pöllö, t, mäyrä, käytävä, and mhässä.

This leaves us with the vowels E and I. They can appear in words by their own: kieli, tie, liesi, tee, tiimi. However, the vowels E and I are often called “neutral vowels”. This is because they can appear inside words:

  • with A, O and Utuoli, piano, poliisi, teema, tietokone
  • with Ä, Ö and Y — ääliö, tyyli, seinä, kehä, kynsi, yleisö

2. Vowel Harmony when Words Change

The words above all are in their basic form. However, vowel harmony reaches much further than that. The suffixes you add to the end of words when inflecting or conjugating them will also need to abide by the vowel harmony rules.

  • Derivation is when a word has been formed with another word as its base or root, eg. words ending in -uus/-yys and -ton/-tön.
  • Nouns are inflected when you add a grammatical case to them, eg. when you add -ssa/-ssä or -lla/-llä to them.
  • Verbs are conjugated when you put them in eg. the third person present (-vat/-vät) or the plural imperative (-kaa/-kää).
  • Suffixes will also do the same thing, eg. -han/hän and -ko/-kö.
  • tuhma : tuhm-uus : tuhma-ssa : tuhma-ko
  • tyhmä : tyhm-yys : tyhmä-ssä : tyhmä-kö
  • valittaa : valit-us : valitta-vat : valitta-kaa : valitat-ko
  • välittää : välit-ys : välittä-vät : välitt-kää : välität-kö

When adding these endings to words that solely have the vowels E and I, you will use –yys, -ssä, -kö, etc.

  • kieli : kiel-tä : kiele-tön : kiele-ssä : kieli-kö
  • kiltti : kiltti-ä : kiltt-eys : kilti-llä : kiltti-hän

3. Compound Words

Compound words aka yhdyssanat can have a mix of both vowel groups, when you combine two words from different vowel groups.

  • sivu+pöytä aka side table
  • ilta+päivä aka “evening day” means afternoon
  • jää+kaappi aka “ice cupboard” means fridge
  • t+maa aka “work ground” means building site
  • syys+kuu aka “autumn moon” means September

When you inflect these words, the suffix you add will follow the vowel harmony rule for the last part of the word:

  • sivu+pöydä+llä
  • ilta+päivä+nä
  • jää+kaapi+sta
  • t+maa+ta
  • syys+kuu+ssa
  • maa+tie+llä
  • pesu+sieni+ä
  • kieli+kuva+na

4. Exceptions

There’s a fairly large amount of vowel harmony exceptions to this rule, most of which are the result of loanwords that have been adopted into the Finnish language. Not all these words have been adjusted to follow the Finnish vowel harmony rules, so they create irregularities.

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