Finnish for busy people

Baltic and Germanic Loanwords in Finnish Etymology

This article attempts to scratch the surface of a very interesting topic: the existence of ancient Baltic and Germanic loanwords in Finnish. This topic takes us back thousands of years into the history of the Finnish language.

Languages don’t just get born and stay the same forever. They’re always evolving, and have been doing that for thousands of years. Linguists often dedicate their time to finding out more about ancient Finnish, as far back as thousands of years before our current calendar. Etymology is the study of the history of words.

1. How do we know which words are ancient Finnish?

Of course there were no written records that far back, so how can we say anything about ancient Finnish? One such way is by looking at archeological finds. Linguists and archeologists work together to figure out what cultural changes happened in the lives of Finns over the centuries. After all, you don’t need a word for bronze until you actually learn about its existence during the Bronze Age. Likewise, if you’re not doing any agriculture yet, you don’t need words such as plow.

In addition to changes in the lifestyle of Finns, linguists also can get very theoretical and compare cognate languages to see how they differ from one another. We know that Estonian, Votic, Livonian, KarelianUdmurt and Hungarian all share common roots with Finnish. At different times, these languages broke off of the parent language they shared with Finland and started a journey of its own.

Linguists are able to compare the changes a split-off language’s words have undergone once they went their own way. Through lots of meticulous research, linguists can date and reconstruct words that only exist in theory. For example, the word kaksi originally was probably more like kakte, and the partitive form vettä would probably have sounded more like vetetä.

This is a super interesting topic, but I won’t go any further into it in this article. The focus of this article is on the types of ancient Baltic and Germanic loanwords in Finnish as it’s spoken today. We are not talking about any recent loanwords such as pankki or hotelli – this article dives much further back into history!

2. Why adopt words from other cultures?

There are multiple reasons why Finns could choose to adopt a new term. First, the new words might describe a new concept from a different culture. We do this in modern Finnish as well: e.g. WiFi-internet is often just called wifi in Finnish as well. It’s technology that has come to us from abroad and we’ve adopted the word as it is. When talking about ancient Baltic and Germanic loanwords, we’re not dealing with advanced technology. Rather, they’re things to do with agriculture, building, the domestication of animals and so on.

Close-knit relationships with people coming from a different culture might also make us adopt some of their vocabulary. After all, when a friend or lover from a  different culture uses certain words, you might adopt some of them as your own over the years (or centuries). Another reason to adopt new words could just have been that this was fashionable at the time.

3. Ancient Baltic Loanwords in Finnish

The first layer of loanwords I want to look at in this article are ancient Baltic loanwords.

Starting from about 2000 BC (this is a very vague estimate) a new culture pushed its way into the current Baltic countries’ area and into South-Western Finland. It’s likely that their biggest influence on the Finnish language was between 1800 BC and 1500 BC. We know this because we’ve been able to date back archeological objects from that period. The culture of the time has been called vasarakirveskulttuuri (battle axe culture in English), because what has been found from this period are hammered war axes which were polished from stone.

3.1. Terms related to agriculture, tools, domestication and building

Ancient Baltic words that linguists can trace back to this period often have to do with agriculture or with the domestication of animals. There are also words that show Finns got introduced to new tools and ways of building structures.

These words show what types of new technology and ways of life the ancient Baltics brought to Finland with them.

Tools Domestication Buildings Agriculture
Finnish English Finnish English Finnish English Finnish English
hihna belt, strap härkä ox seinä wall siemen seed
kauha ladle oinas ram hirsi log, timber heinä hay
kirves ax paimen shepherd silta bridge herne pea
seiväs pole vuohi goat vaja shed, hut ohra barley
kypärä helmet vuona lamb tarha farm
ratas cogwheel villa wool
reki sleigh käärme snake
aisa shaft
luuta broom

3.2. Terms related to relationships

Most interesting by far, in my opinion, are the words that show that the Baltic newcomers actually started to intermingle with the Finns. The birth of words like the ones in the table below shows us that the Baltic newcomers and the native Finns had close and peaceful relations. This brought words such as sisar into the Finnish lexicon.

Finnish English
sisar sister
tytär daughter
morsian bride
kaima namesake
heimo tribe

3.3. Old concepts but new names

Baltic loanwords don’t always mean that the concept is new to Finnish culture. That must have crossed your mind when you saw the word “daughter” in the table above. Often there are older Finnish synonyms for these loanwords which already existed at the current time.

From a modern Finnish perspective, these synonyms are not exact synonyms: they get a more specific close-related meaning. For example, ancient Finns did have a word for “snake”, which was kyy. However, the Baltic influence brought us the new word käärme. In modern Finnish, kyy is a specific kind of snake, while käärme is the general term for all snakes.

In the table below, I’m giving the translation of each word according to what these words mean now. As you can see, these synonyms have developed a specific meaning over time, which sets them apart from one another.

Baltic loanword English translation Ancient synonym English translation
käärme snake kyy common European adder
hihna belt nauha ribbon, band
ratas cogwheel pyörä wheel
kirves ax vasara hammer

Sometimes the Baltic loanword takes over the function of the ancient Finnish word completely. This is the case, for example, for the words hammas “tooth” of which the ancient name was pii.

4. Proto-Germanic Loanwords in Finnish

Starting from the beginning of the calendar, old Germanic loanwords started appearing in Finnish. We know about nearly 500 ancient Germanic loanwords. The word äiti for example is a Proto-Germanic loanword!

Finnish has of course adopted Germanic loanwords for a vast period of time. There are the old Proto-Germanic loans from about 500 BC until 100 AD, followed by Proto-Norse loans from about 100 BC to 800 BC. Starting from that date, it’s common for linguists to label words as Swedish loanwords: first ancient Swedish and then modern Swedish loans.

The loanwords I’m listing below are the earliest layers of Germanic loanwords: Proto-Germanic and Proto-Norse loans.

3.1. Terms relating to agriculture, cattle and clothing

Ancient Germanic loanwords are related to many different parts of everyday life. Just like Baltic loanwords, many Proto-Germanic loanwords were related to agriculture and cattle breeding. The names of many clothing items can also be traced back to old Germanic origins.

Agriculture Cattle Clothing
Finnish English Finnish English Finnish English
multa soil laidun pasture, field hame skirt
niittää to cut hay lammas sheep lakki cap
aura plow lauma herd paita shirt
humala hop nauta bovine sukka sock
mallas malt kana chicken vaate garment
ruis rye juusto cheese vaippa cover, cloak
kaura oats rasva grease sauma seam
laiho growing grain teuras slaughter keritä to sheer
akanat chaff kello (cow) bell
turve peat
pelto field
vainio largish field
lanta manure
tunkio dunghill

3.2. Terms related to the workings of society

Ancient Germanic loans are often also centered around culturally important vocabulary related to social life. A government was starting to form and money was starting to play a big role in Finnish society. In addition, more words for tools were added.

Society Tools Everyday Life
Finnish English Finnish English Finnish English
kauppa trade miekka sword kampa comb
mitta measure keihäs spear leipä bread
raha money linko spin dryer taikina dough
vuokra rent verkko net ruoka food
laina loan lukko lock malja bowl
sakko fine nasta pin patja mattress
veto bet naula nail pöytä table
kansa the people neula needle saippua soap
avio marriage rengas ring, link kattila kettle
valta power tanko rod, pole kura dirt, grime
ruhtinas prince siima fishing line
kuningas king
hallita to rule
tuomita to judge
murha murder
varas thief
vartija guard
kunnia honor

Read more online

Read more in books

Your best chance to get a hold of most of these books is by visiting a Finnish university’s library. Many of them don’t get printed anymore, which makes them very precious at least in my eyes.

  • Kaisa Häkkinen: Nykysuomen etymologinen sanakirja, WSOY 2004
  • Veijo Meri: Sanojen synty, Gummerus 2004
  • Jouko Vesikansa (toim.): Nykysuomen sanavarat, WSOY, 1989
  • Tapani Lehtinen: Suomen kielen esihistoriaa, Helsingin yliopiston suomen kielen laitos
  • Lauri Hakulinen: Suomen kielen rakenne ja kehitys
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As a Baltic person who’s learning Finnish, I never knew about this! Very interesting! Kiitos!