Finnish for busy people

Finnish Compound Words – Yhdyssanat

In this article, I want to discuss the structure of Finnish compound words and compare them with how English compound words work.

1. What are compound words?

An yhdyssana (compound word) is a word that consists of two (or more) words glued to one another. In Finnish, compound words are often consistently written as one word. In contrast, English has open (e.g. father figure), closed (e.g. grandfather), or hyphenated compound words (e.g. father-in-law). Some terms can have all three of these options as valid alternatives: for instance, lifestylelife–style, and life style. For some other words, the spelling is different for British and American English.

The structure of Finnish compound words is as follows: the first word (grammatically this part is usually called the “modifier” – määriteosa) specifies or limits the meaning of the second part. This latter word is referred to in grammatical sources as the “head” – edusosa).

Finnish compound words do have an unpredictable factor: they can have an -n- in the middle of the word. There are some guidelines for when to use this genitive -n.

2. The famous examples

If you’re going to be reading up on Finnish compound words from an English source, you’re guaranteed to come across some of the following examples. These are examples of compounds where the ingenuity of Finnish compounds is admired greatly by non-Finnish speakers: “Computers are literally knowledge machines, wow!”

Finnish English English
tietokone computer tieto “knowledge” + kone “machine”
jääkaappi fridge jää “ice” + kaappi “cupboard”
lentokone airplane lento “flight” + kone “machine”
sukkahousut tights sukka “sock” + housut “pants”

3. English and Finnish compound words sometimes match up

While directly translating anything from English to Finnish is strongly advised against, sometimes the two languages do match up – at least as far as compound words go. The following table contains words that have a similar construction in both languages

Finnish English English
kengännauha shoelace kenkä “shoe” (gen) + nauha “lace”
liikennevalot traffic lights liikenne “traffic” + valot “lights”
lumihiutale snowflake lumi “snow” + hiutale “flake”
kävelykeppi walking stick kävely “walking” + keppi “stick”
hiekkalinna sandcastle hiekka “sand” + linna “castle”
kirjanmerkki bookmark kirja “book” (gen) + merkki “mark”
sivunumero page number sivu “page” + numero “number”
vieraslista guest list vieras “guest” + lista “list”
tuulimylly windmill tuuli “wind” + mylly “mill”
kultakaivos goldmine kulta “gold” + kaivos “mine”
hätäjarru emergency brake hätä “emergency” + jarru “brake”
neliömetri square meter neliö “square” + metri “meter”
purjevene sailboat purje “sail” + vene “boat”
aikapommi time bomb aika “time” + pommi “bomb”
nyrkkitappelu fistfight nyrkki “fist” + tappelu “fight”
verenpaine blood pressure veri “blood” (gen) + paine “pressure”
nettiyhteys internet connection netti “internet” + yhteys “connection”
kynsilakka nail varnish kynsi “nail” + lakka “varnish”
viikonloppu weekend viikko “week” (gen) + loppu “end”
auringonnousu sunrise aurinko “sun” (gen) + nousu “rise”
syntymäpäivä birthday syntymä “birth” + päivä “day”
pyörätuoli wheelchair pyörä “wheel” + tuoli “chair”
taideteos artwork taide “art” + teos “work”
korkkiruuvi corkscrew korkki “cork” + ruuvi “screw”

4. Different combinations inside compound words in English and Finnish

English and Finnish sometimes both utilize a compound word to name something, but the compound consists of different elements. I find this extremely interesting. For examples, “health insurance” in Finnish is literally “sickness insurance”. Here’s some examples explained, followed by a table which contains some more compounds with a similar shift in focus.

  • Chairman: I’ll take a guess that the English word probably dates back to the days when important people were carried around in chairs. In Finnish, we focus on what the chairman does: they’re a puheenjohtaja “speech leader”.
  • Blackboard: English focuses on the color of the board. Finnish focuses on what you use to write on it: you need liitu “chalk” to write on a liitutaulu “chalk board”.
  • Lipstick: English focuses on the form of the thing you put at your lips. Finnish focuses on the color: huulipuna is literally “lip red”.
  • Skyscraper: the English compound combines “sky” and the more rough verb “to scrape” as a basis for this word, while the Finnish pilvenpiirtäjä combines pilvi “cloud” and the more artistic verb piirtää “to draw”.
Finnish English English
sairausvakuutus health insurance sairaus “sickness” + vakuutus “insurance”
puheenjohtaja chairman puhe “speech” (gen) + johtaja “leader”
liitutaulu blackboard liitu “chalk” + taulu “board”
huulipuna lipstick huuli “lip” + puna “red”
taskulamppu flashlight tasku “pocket” + lamppu “lamp”
kermavaahto whipped cream kerma “cream” + vaahto “foam”
täytekakku layer cake täyte “filling” + kakku “cake”
kulmakarva eyebrow kulma “corner” + karva “hair”
olohuone living room olo “being” + huone “room”
pilvenpiirtäjä skyscraper pilvi “cloud” (gen) + piirtäjä “drawer”
hehkulamppu light bulb hehku “glow” + lamppu “lamp”
talouspaperi paper towel talous “housekeeping” + paperi “paper”
syömäpuikot chopsticks syömä “eating” + puikot “sticks”

5. English has a lot of opaque compounds

Especially with more advanced vocabulary, a learner of English has to take extra effort to learn a lot of vocabulary that at first glance isn’t totally transparent. It’s one reason why the latter stages of learning Finnish are easier than the same phase for English learners. For example, when coming across the English word “pedestrian” for the first time, a non-native speaker might be stumped by the meaning of the word. A sufficiently advanced Finnish learner can come across the Finnish equivalent jalankulkija and pick up that the word literally means “leg traveler”. Similarly, a volcano is a “fire mountain” (tulivuori), a globe is a “map ball” (karttapallo) and treason is “country betrayal” (maanpetos).

English can be picked apart if you have some knowledge of Latin and ancient Greek. We can trace the word “geography” back to a combination of ancient Greek words amounting to “earth writing”. Geography is a much more opaque word than the Finnish combination of maa “land, country” and tiede “science”: maantiede means geography. The Latin-based word “carnivorous” can be traced back to meaning “flesh-eating“, which is much more clearly ascertainable from the word lihansyöjä (liha “mean” + syöjä “eater).

6. List of 100 Finnish compound words

The following list contains Finnish compound words that are not compound words in English. I’ve roughly organized them, so the easier words are near the top of the list and the harder ones further below. The abbreviation “gen” between brackets indicates that the first part of the compound word is inflected in the genitive case (e.g. maantiede contains the genitive case form of maa).

# Finnish English English
1 sanakirja dictionary sana “word” + kirja “book”
2 tietosanakirja encyclopedia tieto “knowledge” + sana “word” + kirja “book”
3 kaulakoru necklace kaula “neck” + koru “jewellery”
4 allekirjoitus signature alle “under” + kirjoitus “writing”
5 lautasliina napkin, serviette lautas-, lautanen “plate” + liina “cloth”
6 jälkiruoka dessert jälki- “after” + ruoka “food”
7 kirjekuori envelope kirje “letter” + kuori “shell”
8 tulivuori volcano tuli “fire” + vuori “mountain”
9 kasvissyöjä vegetarian kasvis “vegetable” + syöjä “eater”
10 ripsiväri mascara ripsi “eyelash” + väri“color “
11 työnantaja employer työ “work” (gen) + antaja “giver”
12 vuokranantaja landlord vuokra “rent” (gen) + antaja “giver”
13 savupiippu chimney savu “smoke” + piippu “pipe”
14 hammaslääkäri dentist hammas “tooth” + lääkäri “doctor”
15 hajuvesi perfume haju “smell” + vesi “water”
16 lyijykynä pencil lyijy “lead (metal)” + kynä “pen”
17 päiväkirja diary päivä “day” + kirja “book”
18 sianliha pork sika “pig” (gen) + liha “meat”
19 jäävuori iceberg jää “ice” + vuori “mountain”
20 tuoremehu fruit juice tuore “fresh” + mehu “juice”
21 palapeli puzzle pala “piece” + peli “game”
22 karttapallo globe kartta “map” + pallo “ball”
23 vetoketju zipper veto “pulling” + ketju “chain”
24 avioero divorce avio “marital” + ero “separation, parting”
25 lämpömittari thermometer lämpö “heat” + mittari “meter, gauge”
26 aikamuoto tense aika “time” + muoto “form”
27 suihkulähde fountain suihku “shower” + lähde “source”
28 jalankulkija pedestrian jalka “leg” (gen) + kulkija “traveler”
29 kuorma-auto truck kuorma “load, burden” + auto “car”
30 lastenlääkäri pediatrician lapsi “child” (plural gen) + lääkäri “doctor”
31 viivakoodi barcode viiva “line” + koodi “code”
32 hammasraudat braces hammas “tooth” + raudat “irons”
33 hymykuoppa dimple hymy “smile” + kuoppa “pit”
34 parisuhde relationship pari “pair” + suhde “relation”
35 polttoaine fuel poltto “combustion” + aine “substance”
36 asiantuntija expert asia “thing, issue” (gen) + tuntija “connoisseur”
37 poissaolo absence poissa “away” + olo “being”
38 vuosisata century vuosi “year” + sata “hundred”
39 ristiriita contradiction risti “cross + riita “argument”
40 sukellusvene submarine sukellus “diving” + vene “boat”
41 avaruusolento alien avaruus “space” + olento “being”
42 pyörremyrsky tornado pyörre “vortex” + myrsky “storm”
43 suorakaide rectangle suora “straight” + kaide “railing”
44 anteeksipyyntö apology anteeksi “sorry” + pyyntö “request”
45 maantiede geography maa “land, ground” (gen) + tiede “science”
46 vuorovesi tide vuoro “turn, shift” + vesi “water”
47 painovoima gravity paino “weight” + voima “force”
48 huutokauppa auction huuto “call, yell” + kauppa “commerce”
49 mielipuoli lunatic mieli “mind” + puoli “half”
50 oikeinkirjoitus spelling oikein “correct” + kirjoitus “writing”
51 tietokirjallisuus nonfiction tieto “knowledge” + kirjallisuus “literature”
52 asuntolaina mortgage asunto “residence” + laina “loan”
53 yhteiskunta society yhteis– “common” + kunta “community”
54 esi-isä ancestor esi– “pre” + isä “father”
55 asiakirja document asia “issue, matter” + kirja “book”
56 elinympäristö habitat elin– “living” + ympäristö “environment”
57 kulkuneuvo vehicle kulku “journey” + neuvo “means”
58 yhteenveto summary yhteen “together” + veto “pull”
59 vuosipäivä anniversary vuosi “year” + päivä “day”
60 ennakkoluulo prejudice, bias ennakko “in advance” + luulo “assumption”
61 palkkasotilas mercenary palkka “wage, salary” + sotilas “soldier”
62 tietokilpailu quiz tieto “knowledge” + kilpailu “competition”
63 vaihtoehto alternative vaihto “exchange” + ehto “condition”
64 poikamies bachelor poika “boy” + mies “man”
65 välimerkit punctuation väli “gap” + merkit “marks”
66 maatalous agriculture maa “land, ground” + talous “economy”
67 sivuääni murmur sivu “side” + ääni “sound”
68 taikausko superstition taika “magic” + usko “belief”
69 parannuskeino remedy parannus “cure” + keino “method”
70 muistokirjoitus obituary muisto “memory” + kirjoitus “writing”
71 ensihoitaja paramedic ensi “first” + hoitaja “caretaker”
72 maanpetos treason maa “country, land” (gen) + petos “betrayal”
73 maahanmuutto immigration maahan “into country” + muutto “move”
74 häämatka honeymoon hää- “wedding” + matka “journey, trip”
75 aivotärähdys concussion aivo(t) “brain” + tärähdys “jolt, shock”
76 päivänvarjo parasol päivä “day” + varjo “shade”
77 edelläkävijä pioneer edellä “in front” + kävijä “walker, attender”
78 salakuljetus smuggling sala “secret” + kuljetus “transport”
79 käsikirjoitus script käsi “hand” + kirjoitus “writing”
80 vuorovaikutus interaction vuoro “turn” + vaikutus “influence, effect”
81 norsunluu ivory norsu “elephant” (gen)+ luu “bone”
82 siirtomaa colony siirto “move” + maa “country, land”
83 vallankumous revolution valta “power” + kumous “undoing, revert”
84 ruoansulatus digestion ruoka “food” (gen) + sulatus “melting”
85 oireyhtymä syndrome oire “symptom” + yhtymä “junction, combine”
86 henkilökunta staff, personnel henkilö “person” + kunta “community”
87 sisällissota civil war sisällis- “internal” + sota “war”
88 opetussuunnitelma curriculum opetus “teaching” + suunnitelma “plan”
89 väitöskirja dissertation väitös “assertion, claim” + kirja “book”
90 nälänhätä famine nälkä “hunger” (gen) + hätä “emergency”
91 kauppasaarto embargo kauppa “commerce” + saarto “blockade”
92 metalliseos alloy metalli “metal” + seos “mixture”
93 mittakaava scale mitta “measure” + kaava “layout”
94 ilkivalta vandalism ilki- “bad, troublesome” + valta “power”
95 salaliitto conspiracy sala- “secret” + liitto “alliance”
96 ihmisarvo dignity ihmis- “human” + arvo “worth, value”
97 kiertorata orbit kierto “rotation” + rata “trajectory, course”
98 salamurha assassination sala- “secret” + murha “murder”
99 kaksintaistelu duel kaksin “dual” + taistelu “battle”
100 alkusointu alliteration alku “beginning” + sointu “chord (music)”

That’s it for this article! I do have a lot of other articles on compound words, so check out the following!

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