Timing and irony in Helsinki

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I'm back, for the first time since August 2001, in Helsinki, Finland. I love this city, for all sorts of reasons. Intelligent and interesting academic friends; big, beautiful public buildings in brilliant white and yellow; the views across the harbor (hardly any of the sea is frozen today, so the big car ferries are moving with no trouble and the icebreakers are mainly up north); the comfort of the Hotel Arthur; but above all (for yes, this is Language Log, not Baltic Tourism Log) the coolest language in the world. Finnish seems wonderful to me. Delicious. Speaking the little bits of it that I can manage, or even just reading out signs, actually gives me a tingling feeling on the tongue. (Yliopistokirjakauppa: it tastes like iced champagne.) And I learned a tiny bit more about Finnish pronunciation within minutes of arrival. I thanked the taxi driver by saying kiitos ("Thank you") as I got out, carefully making the i twice as long as the o, which is what I thought was correct. But I clearly heard my friend Hanna, who had kindly come to the airport to meet me, say to the driver what sounded to my ear more like kitos. As soon as we got inside the hotel I asked her, what's up? Why was her first-syllable vowel shorter than mine? And like a solid linguist she was able to answer me instantly and authoritatively.

The answer is, said Hanna, that the phonetic length ratio for long vowels and short vowels is not 2 to 1. It's about 1.5 to 1 (she has a colleague who has studied this). If you make the vowel fully twice the length of a short one, it sounds like there is ironic intent. (Oh, tha-a-a-ank you so much, you jerk!) I had been making my long vowels a bit too long. I hope the taxi driver didn't pick up any unintended sarcasm.

Finnish, it seems (and I am trusting Hanna's report here), actually has three vowel lengths: standard length (1 timing unit), long (1.5 units), and expressively lengthened (2 or more units). The way to say kiitos correctly — and I rehearsed this in my head — is to imagine five very short but equally spaced timing units for the word, with the kii part taking three of them:

k  i  i t  o  s
  1 2 3 4 5

The next morning I gave my plenary lecture ("The Strange Case of English Linguistic Prescriptivism") to the conference of the LANGNET national graduate program in language studies. Of course I gave it in English (I am not competent to do otherwise). But when I concluded it, I thanked the audience without irony: "Kiitos", I said, fairly swiftly, but making sure the -os took just about two-thirds as long as the kii- part.


  1. Rachel Cotterill said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 11:12 am

    Finnish is a fascinating language, and Finland is beautiful (though personally I much preferred Turku over Helsinki). Thank you for the helpful pronunciation hints.

  2. Cameron said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 11:32 am

    so, a short vowel is like an 8th note, and a long vowel is like a dotted 8th note?

  3. Quintesse said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 12:24 pm

    I remember this from the time I learned a bit of Finnish. Getting the lengths right was difficult enough, but being able to HEAR the difference, now THAT was difficult. I still remember "tilu", "tiilu" and "tillu" and the way people would laugh at me for getting it wrong hehe. I don't know a large amount of languages, but it is definitely the most difficult language I ever tried to learn, even an "alien" language (compared to most european languages that I'm used to) like Japanese seemed easier to learn (I stress "seemed" here because I didn't spend more than a year on each of them).

  4. James C. said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 12:55 pm

    Estonian is well known for having three lengths. So Finnish apparently has a this, although it's not very productive? Can you give us a reference? Is this three-way distinction a reflex or an innovation in Estonian that has influenced Finnish?

  5. Joe said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 1:03 pm

    Hopefully, you'll make available or have comments about your lecture ("The Strange Case of English Linguistic Prescriptivism") for those of us who couldn't visit Helsinki

  6. Dunkleosteus said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 1:19 pm

    Couple answers from a native speaker… Interesting post, haven't thought about this… Maybe because I'm from Central Finland, we tend to use long vowels ('mää' instead of 'mä', which is a colloquial variant of 'minä', "I").

    James, Finnish has only two types of lengths, short and long.

    Quintesse, perhaps you mean 'tili' ("account"), 'tiili' ("brick"), 'tilli' ("dill")? Because none of the variations you listed mean anything…

  7. Aviatrix said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 1:32 pm

    Estonian manages to have different lengths of plosive consonants. I have no idea how they manage that, but I once challenged two native speakers in a bar to pronounce minimal pairs at one another and two beers down they didn't miss a one. I could hear no difference at all. And I could only gaze in wonder at the fourteen cases.

  8. Kit said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 1:39 pm

    I could not agree more about how wonderful Finnish is on the tongue and in the ear. That's a nice explanation of something I'd casually noticed and wondered about in Finnish vowel length.

  9. Boris Blagojević said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 1:43 pm

    @James C: I wouldn't compare this to Estonian. I'm quite unfamiliar with the language, but the fact that it has three phonological degrees of length is indeed widely spread. It would mean that in Estonian you can have three different words (tilos, tiilos, tiiilos – although I read that they don't mark distinction between long and extra-long vowels), and they could all mean a different thing. In Finnish, it's apparently just a different way to say a word. Like Geoff said, you have it in English too – you can say 'pleeease' (btw. how do you write that? pleeeease? pleaaaase? pleaeaeaease?), or you can scream 'noooooo' for a few seconds, but it doesn't mean English has ultra-long vowels.

    Anyway, be it twice long, or only 50% longer, I just don't get it. They are unbelievable, those Uralic-language-speaking people. Do they all have a fabulous lung capacity, or what? I'm not a big fan of Finnish (they seriously need to halve all those double voiceless stops), but I have somehow managed to fall under the Hungarian's dubious charms, and there are just so many… long things. Long consonants between long vowels in long, long words. And sometimes, you don't get a long consonant between vowels – long or short – but it simply stands ominously on the end of a word, and you were all hoping for a syllable boundary. It's not that I don't know how a long vowel or consonant sounds – we have long vowels too. But we use them very modestly. When these people say they have phonemic length, they mean it.

  10. Nathan Myers said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 3:00 pm

    Is this tingling feeling, "like iced champagne", actual synesthesia, or metaphor? For those readers who have synesthesia, does each language have a characteristic taste?

    In the examples I have access to, there is very little commonality to mappings between e.g. letters and colors, from one person to the next, except that the letter "O" is improbably often white or off-white. Words tend to have a taste, or smell, or color associated with that of the first letter. It makes me wonder how ASL gestures map.

  11. Sili said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 3:24 pm

    Synthaesthesia must come in handy for this sorta thing, for I cannot imagine counting out threes and twos while trying to time my vowels.

    Of course, I'm tonedeaf as well and merely sesquilingual.

  12. des von bladet said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 4:20 pm

    It is always a pleasure to read when people communicate vividly why they like things, and not less so in this case given that Finnish (like Helsingfors) is a thing I also find easy to like. And if I'm ever back in the country I will certainly dot my long vowels and tip my hat to prof P as I do so.

    But as a native and non-native speaker of various flavours ("lects") of Germanic, I really need my diphthongs (I cheerfully settle for "off-glides" in Swedish, since my mouth prefers phonetics to phonology) and my weak unstressed vowels. (I've put in for a new mouth, of course, but apparently the waiting lists for transplants are pretty long.)

  13. Östen Dahl said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 4:50 pm

    Nobody has so far said anything about the ratio between long and short vowels in English here. According to J.C. Wells, A study of the formants of the pure vowels of British English ( http://www.phon.ucl.ac.uk/home/wells/formants/duration.htm), Daniel Jones, measuring his own speech, arrived at a length ratio of 1.87 between the vowels in "seed" and "lid", and Wells says this is in accordance with his own results. So British English would have a greater difference between long and short vowels than Finnish. Yet this difference does not seem to make anyone particularly excited.

  14. Neil Dolinger said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 5:34 pm

    No one gets excited about the difference betweeen "lid" and "seed" because they use different vowels. If we had two words, "lid" and "liid", with the vosel of the second held just 50% longer than the first, then we'd have something to get excited about.

  15. Neil Dolinger said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 5:35 pm

    "vowel" not "vosel". I reallly wish we had spellcheck here!

  16. Tom Recht said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 6:03 pm

    "The coolest language in the world" – it's interesting how common this aesthetic response is. I've always found Finnish easily the most beautiful of the languages I know well enough to have any opinion about (say fifteen or twenty), and I've often heard others say the same. (Tolkien's invented languages were famously influenced by the sound of Finnish, of course.) Why is this? The high vowel-to-consonant ratio? The small consonantal inventory? The near absence of voiced stops? Has anyone studied this kind of linguistic aesthetics?

  17. Ryan said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 6:05 pm

    This post has made me long for synesthesia. I'd also like to know if there have been any studies done or articles published about multilingual synaesthetes.

  18. joseph palmer said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 8:53 pm

    There is an unwritten law in linguistics that it is only possible to have emotional responses when they are positive, and when they refer to cultures or languages that are not all that well known. I fear we shall never hear about the ugliest language!

  19. Zeborah said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 9:47 pm

    When I say anything in (New Zealand) Maori, which also has a long/short vowel distinction, I fudge it by putting a bit of emphasis on the long vowels — it's imperfect but often works because emphasising (as well as increasing the volume) tends to increase the length; and also because long vowels in Maori generally do get the accent in a foot.

    I think I tried the same trick with Mongolian, but while I was there I was mostly too busy trying to figure out what was going on to get any feedback on my pronunciation.

  20. Ray Girvan said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 9:48 pm

    Tom Recht: It's interesting how common this aesthetic response is

    Yes: I feel the same way. Lately I've been getting into Finnish folk music via Loituma – they of Ievan Polkka – and the language seems very lyrical. Check out Kun Mun Kultani Tulisi (better known as Jos Mun Tuttuni Tulisi from the Kanteletar) on YouTube: I find it still heartrending even after the nth time of hearing it.

  21. Jonathon said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 10:52 pm

    Hopefully, you'll make available or have comments about your lecture ("The Strange Case of English Linguistic Prescriptivism") for those of us who couldn't visit Helsinki


  22. Harry Campbell said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 11:28 pm

    "No one gets excited about the difference betweeen "lid" and "seed" because they use different vowels. If we had two words, "lid" and "liid", with the vosel of the second held just 50% longer than the first, then we'd have something to get excited about."

    Except that we do, nowadays. With the decay of certain centering diphthongs, the difference between shed and shared, or even bid and beard in modern RP is, I suggest, pretty much down to quantity alone. So in a sense we do have a word liid, only we spell it leered.

  23. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 11:30 pm

    I'm not sure what the big deal is about phonemic vowel length. Czech, Slovak and Serbocroat [sic] have it. Does that make them cool?

    In Japanese, it's well known that the prefix "Ō" (long), written 大, means "big" (as in Ōsaka, "big slope"), while "O" (short), written 小, means "small" (as in Obama, "little beach"). How cool is that!

  24. Harry Campbell said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 12:14 am

    Another example of a foreign visitor's phonetic hypercorrection having unwanted implications springs to mind in the form of an anecdote told by David Crystal. Visiting Rio de Janeiro, he asked the way to Copacabana, whic he was careful to pronounce with plenty of nasality. He got a funny look and directions to a dubious establishment called the Copacabana Club, and speculated that a similar thing might happen to a visitor to London who asked the way to "Soho" with a special exaggerated nasal emphasis. Cross-cultural salacious voice tone?!

  25. Östen Dahl said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 1:05 am

    "No one gets excited about the difference betweeen "lid" and "seed" because they use different vowels. If we had two words, "lid" and "liid", with the vosel of the second held just 50% longer than the first, then we'd have something to get excited about."

    The data on this webpage show that Finnish long and short vowels have different formant values, in other words, differ not only quantitatively but also qualitatively:


    I suspect that this is the case to some degree in most languages which have a long-short distinction.

  26. Östen Dahl said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 1:37 am

    I guess there are two features that make quantity more salient in Finnish than in many other languages which distinguish long and short sounds. One is that both vowel length and consonant length are phonemic and operate reasonably independently of each other. The other is the consistent use of doubling to indicate long vowels and consonants in Finnish orthography. A word like "Eurooppa" does stick out and may make foreigners feel that the doubled letters must really be pronounced with an extreme length.

  27. mollymooly said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 3:41 am

    In my dialect of Irish English, the vowels of "ant" and "aunt" are distinguished by length and not quality.

    The only Finnish word I know is saippuakivikauppias, "dealer in lye".

  28. Jongseong Park said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 5:38 am

    I have to love the consistent use of doubling in Finnish orthography to indicate long vowels. My own native language of Korean does not distinguish long and short vowels in its orthography, which might be related to the fact that phonemic vowel length distinction has been virtually lost. I myself certainly don't distinguish long and short vowels. In school, we had to memorize for instance that bam was to be pronounced with a long vowel for 'chestnut' and with a short vowel for 'night', when in reality we made no such distinction. As prescribed, the differences between the long and short vowels are only of quantity except in the case of the vowel eo (ㅓ), which is something like [ɘː] for the long version and [ʌ] for the short version. Since I only use [ʌ], [ɘː] for eo sounds strange to my ears.

    On a different note, I noticed some speakers of Finnish use a sibilant sound that didn't sound like a purely alveolar [s]. I'm guessing with only one class of sibilants, there must be some variation in the actual realizations, since I've noticed a similar thing with some speakers of Greek.

  29. Breffni said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 5:52 am

    mollymooly: in my Irish English, "ant" and "aunt" are homophonous, but these pairs are distinguished by length only – [a] vs [a:]:

    matter – mater (in alma mater, Mater Hospital)
    mass (physics) – mass (religion)
    cant – can't
    lagger – lager
    Dara (male) – Dara (female)

  30. Graham said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 6:32 am

    Jongseong Park – I think that Finnish /s/ is apical, while English /s/ is usually laminal. Spanish, Dutch and Danish (where again, there is no contrast between /s/ and /ʃ/) also have apical /s/.

  31. Jongseong Park said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 7:58 am

    Graham – Thanks for pointing out the distinction. I'm not really familiar with the apical vs laminal issue, and frankly can't tell which sound I use let alone which is usual in Korean. I've even seen the term apico-laminal used to describe some Korean coronal consonants, though I don't know if it applies to /s/. I suspect there is some speaker variation. In any case, what you are suggesting regarding languages that don't contrast /s/ and /ʃ/ tending to have apical /s/ makes sense, and I wonder how generally that applies.

  32. Jukka Kohonen said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 10:40 am

    I don't think any serious linguistic work proposes that Finnish would have a three-length vowel system. Maybe Hanna was jesting?

    Sure, markedly modified length might be used to express things like irony (just like the Geoffrey demonstrates you can do in English), but I wouldn't count that as a phonemic distinction.

    The phonemic system really has two lengths both for vowels and consonants: short and long, with distinctions like /tuli/ 'fire' – /tu:li/ 'wind' – /tul:i/ 'customs' etc. There's no such systematic three-length distinction.

    In a few words you can find a long /a:/ followed by a short /a/, for example "raa'an" /ra:an/ 'raw [genitive]', and you might be tempted to count that as an extra-long or "triple a", except that those a's happen to belong to different syllables.

  33. Dan Lufkin said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 11:01 am

    Swedish has not only the vowel length phoneme, but also a pitch phoneme. Some short vs long vowel pairs are "dam" [da:m] lady vs "damm" [dam} dust, "tak" [ta:k] roof vs "tack" [tak] thanks, "led" [le:d] joint vs "ledd" [led] direction.

    Vowel length is usually, but not always, shown by the spelling. "Dam" certainly lends itself to ironic use by hyper-lengthening.

    The pitch structure is what makes Swedish (and some versions of Norwegian) sound so Swedish: "búren" the cage vs "bùren" carried, "áxel" shoulder vs "àxel" axle.

    Internally we usually refer to Swedish as "ärans och hjältarnas språk,"
    the language of honor and of heroes.

  34. Merri said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 11:31 am

    About the aesthetic content of Elvish and Finnish, here is my experience of studying first names ;

    In French, since ca. 1990, the tendency is to what I call "Elvish" first names, especially for girls (Maëlie, Océane, Maya …). They're seen (heard) as harmonious and sweet. Their characteristics are the following :
    – high vowel / consonant ratio, and consequently, few phonems per syllable ;
    – abundant diphthongs ;
    – abundant approximants and nasal consonants ;
    – few voiceless fricatives and few rhotics.

    Those characteristics are shared by Elvish, Finnish and modern Greek, three languages that would surely get their share of votes in a "coolest language" contest.

    I don't think the predominance of voiceless stops over voiced ones is essential, but it could be studied further.
    I think the 'no fricatives' part is essential, especially in French ; the modern Paris pronunciation of final /i/, which sounds like 'ish', is felt as very rough. The same is true of Scottish English.
    Another interesting phenomenon is that, in all three abovementioned languages, there isn't any sensible diminution of sound volume or erosion of sounds at the end of words, contrary to what you have, for exemple, in US pronunciation. Perhaps this makes those languages more "singing", in the same way as Provençal or Italian are compared to French.

  35. Catanea said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 1:30 pm

    @ Harry Campbell et al –
    I know I'm not a linguist, but we DO have "shit" and "sheet" which seem to me to be analogous to "lid" and "seed"…and they DO cause a lot of trouble, at least in Spain. As do many similar pairs. Maybe when the spelling isn't OBVIOUSLY the same, the similarities go unremarked…
    I'd love to hear some of these long plosives, &c.
    With regard to synaesthetes – as soon as the question about "flavors" was asked…I asked my mouth…But I'm afraid the answer is interesting to me, but it is hard to believe it would be interesting to anybody else. Long, subjective & descriptive. And it's more like textures than flavors, at least in my case. If only I could say French was lemon and English was…well, cottage cheese…

  36. Bob Ladd said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 5:00 pm

    It's true that length contrasts strike speakers of languages that don't have them as pretty special. It's also true that the European languages mentioned so far in this thread are actually nothing out of the ordinary. If you really want to blow your Eurocentric intuitions about language out of the water, try Dinka, one of the major languages of Southern Sudan. This really does have three distinct vowel lengths, and there are plenty of word triplets that differ only in vowel length (or else in tone or voice breathiness). If you want to hear what these sound like, you can download a phonetic description of Dinka with embedded sound files based on a project on Dinka and related languages carried out by myself and Bert Remijsen.

  37. mark said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 8:27 pm

    "I reallly wish we had spellcheck here!"
    Firefox (2 and 3 I think) does have spellcheck, which works in-line in forms before you submit them. It tells me that you misspelled "really" as well (not that I wish to be pedantic) and that we are both misspelling the word "spellcheck".

  38. dr pepper said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 9:11 pm

    I'd really prefer the ability to go back and edit my posts because i'm more likely to type the wrog word or leave one out than to mispell one.

  39. luther von ruckerson said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 9:21 pm


    If you *really* want to fall in love with Finnish, get your hands on the 1979 album "Vanha & uusi romanssi" by David Lindholm. The song "Joo, joo, mä rakastan sua" will melt your heart. Kind of like Nick Drake, but even meltier.

    And if anybody has a recording of that album or song, I'd love to hear from you at luthervonruckerson at gmail.com

    I've searched for it many times, never with any luck, and my cassette tape wore out years ago.


  40. Bryn LaFollette said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 9:49 pm

    @Catanea: "we DO have "shit" and "sheet" which seem to me to be analogous to "lid" and "seed"…and they DO cause a lot of trouble, at least in Spain. As do many similar pairs."

    Although the vowels in these examples and other like them (e.g. 'sit' ~ 'seat', 'bit' ~ 'beet', etc) are labelled as "short" and "long", respectively, in traditional English Grammars, phonetically and phonemically this is not a difference of length but of quality. Phonetically speaking, a difference in vowel length is, literally, the same vowel sound in quality in all respects (essentially), but varying in temporal duration. So in Japanese, which has phonemic vowel and consonant length, when you have /kita/ "came" vs /kiita/ "wrote", the distinction is for how long, temporally, you draw out the vowel. For many not used to phonemic vowel length, this distinction can be difficult to distinquish or produce. As for the duration itself necessary to convey this contrast of length, Japanese is pretty reliably a 1:2 ratio for short:long (though this is less so in fast speech). The interesting thing in this case is just the degree of temporal difference necessary for conveying the phonemic distinction in Finnish vowels, (ideally ~ 1:1.5) and that overdoing it is potentially smarmy (always good to know!).

    The difficulty of distinguishing and pronouncing English vowels differing in, essentially, tenseness (though the subtleties of position of articulation are also at play), such as /i/ and /I/ are similarly challenging for those not used to them. Spanish doesn't have this distinction, and so distinguishing these two vowels or producing them can be challenging to the non-native English speaker. However, there's always such challenges in learning a new language as almost invariably there will be some contrast present in the phonemic or phonetic inventory of the target language that doesn't exist in the speaker's native language(s).

  41. Tom Recht said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 2:31 am

    Luther – I used to have a tape of that Dave Lindholm album too, which is an odd coincidence since I doubt I've owned more than two or three Finnish albums in my life. In any case, it looks like it's readily orderable online – Googling "Vanha ja uusi romanssi" brings up at least two relevant links.

  42. Ray Girvan said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 11:27 am

    On the other hand, before we get too up ourselves about the lyricism in Finnish, there is humppa to consider… Searching YouTube for Eläkeläiset finds representative examples.

  43. Neil Dolinger said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 1:47 pm

    @Ray Girvan

    After reading the Wikipedia link you provided, I am intrigued and will have to check out the other links that you and WP provided. Though the WP article does have an air of The Onion about it: "The first quick step hardly takes any weight and gives the dance an appearance of limping."

  44. David Marjanović said,

    January 31, 2009 @ 2:06 pm

    Estonian manages to have different lengths of plosive consonants. I have no idea how they manage that

    By just holding the plosives longer before releasing them. Don't you do that in English to distinguish "I can" from "Ike can"?

  45. Alissa said,

    February 1, 2009 @ 2:43 am

    I think the non-aspirated stops could also contribute to how nice people think Finnish sounds because (at least to me) they sound less harsh. I really liked how they sounded when I started learning Finnish, which has the effect of making sure I don't forget and pronounce them like English!

  46. Elina said,

    February 2, 2009 @ 5:47 am

    As a native speaker of Finnish I couldn't agree more! While many other languages are beautiful too, I don't think anything can beat Finnish. I'm so glad to have born Finnish, instead of for instance Swedish, or-horror of horrors – French!

    I'm kidding. A little bit.

    Perhaps the falling intonation during the long vowels makes them sound shorter than you'd think from the written form? I think when foreigners try to get them right, they exaggerate and forget to pay attention to natural intonation patterns.

    It occurred to me that sometimes teenagers say "kitoos" when they've been taught to say that, but are in an age when it is not cool to say it too sincerely, for reasons unknown. Playing with the vowel length definitely makes words sound less serious.

  47. Etienne said,

    February 2, 2009 @ 3:09 pm

    I find it interesting that another language which non-natives frequently praise to the skies because of its beauty, Italian, has several features in common with Finnish: phonemic gemination of consonants and a high ratio of vowels to consonants. I was discussing this with a colleague a few years ago, who observed that oddly enough, Japanese, which also has these features, is not normally considered exceptionally beautiful.

    And as a historical linguist, what I find truly wonderful about Finnish is its many loanwords from neighboring Indo-European languages, so beautifully preserved, like prehistoric flies in amber: any language that has KUNINGAS for "king", JA for "and" (the former is more archaic phonologically than the form found in any living or attested Germanic language, and the latter, although still found in Gothic, is extinct in Germanic languages today) or SATA for "hundred" (far closer to the Sanskrit form than the cognate form of any Indo-Aryan language spoken today) certainly has an aura of coolness about it.

  48. Graham Asher said,

    February 3, 2009 @ 1:55 pm

    Dan, you said:

    "Swedish has not only the vowel length phoneme, but also a pitch phoneme. Some short vs long vowel pairs are "dam" [da:m] lady vs "damm" [dam} dust, "tak" [ta:k] roof vs "tack" [tak] thanks, "led" [le:d] joint vs "ledd" [led] direction."

    But in fact the long and short vowels differ completely in quality (at least in the variety of Swedish I was taught) so in this, Swedish is very similar to English. The vowel of 'tak' is lower and further back than that of 'tack', and 'led' is diphthongal, tending to [lied], and tenser than that of 'ledd'.

    I think the old poet's line 'ärans och hjältarnas språk' was intended as humorous, given that he implies that English is steam-driven, and dismisses Danish as too weak to be properly Nordic. Either that or he was mad ;-) I note also this from Swedish Wikipedia '"ärans och hjältarnas språk" idag används som en humoristisk och ironisk omskrivning för svenska språket' (..is used today as a humorous and ironic description…).

  49. Aaron Davies said,

    February 8, 2009 @ 6:23 pm

    @Ray Girvan: now i know what weird al would sound like if he were finnish

  50. Aaron Davies said,

    February 8, 2009 @ 6:27 pm

    re: consonant length: japanese has it too of course, via the っ ("little tsu") length marker. the first minimal pair i could find on wikipedia is /kite/ "come" vs /kitte/ "stamp".

  51. Corcaighist said,

    July 6, 2009 @ 3:02 pm

    I wrote about this on my blog recently: http://corcaighist.blogspot.com/2009/03/77.html but the interesting thing is that this feature has slipped into my English. See the text below.

    As regards the 14 cases. It's actually not all that bad. You get used to it. Now I find their system of cases and postpositions as easy (if not easier) than the prepositional system of the Indo-European languages.

    Another thing I love about Estonian is the use of body parts and other items to indicate location. English does this too but it's not as poductive.

    Estonian has:

    Päikese käes (sun's hand-in – In the hand of the sun) = In the sun(light)

    Raamat on laua peal (book is table's head-at – The book is on the table's head) = The book is on the table

    Mees minu kõrval (man my ear-at – The man at my ear) = The man behind me

    Tule minu juurde! (come my root-to – Come to my root) = Come to me! / Come here!


    I wanted to go out on a walk but my fiancée didn't so she stayed behind and made the dinner. She told me not to be long and I promised I wouldn't. I told her:

    "I'm not going to Sakku."

    I was letting my fiancée know I was just going around the neighbourhood, not to the town centre. What's interesting is that the town where my fiancée lives is Saku, not Sakku but in Estonian consonant and vowel length is a phonemic feature. What this means is that differences in length can carry differences in meaning. Estonian has up to three degrees of length: short, long and overlong.

    So, in Estonian one says: Saku on huvitav linn (Saku is an interesting town [long degree]), but: Ma lähen Sakku (I'm going to Saku [overlong degree]). The 'k' in Sakku is slightly longer than that in Saku.

    An example of phonemic vowel length is the difference between kooli (long) and kooli (overlong) [no difference in written form]. Kool means 'school'. Take a look at the examples below.

    Kooli maja 'school building (building of the school)'. Ma lähen kooli 'I'm going to school'. Again the 'o' is longer in the latter example.

    This feature of Estonian's phonology was difficult for me to grasp at first, let alone make use of, but it seems now that I am getting a hang on it. Not only am I using it where it is productive in Estonian but the feature has slipped into mty English as well. So what I said was:

    "I'm not going to to Saku."

  52. Corcaighist said,

    July 6, 2009 @ 3:04 pm

    PS: Sorry, that should be:

    Mees minu kõrval (man my ear-at – The man at my ear) = The man BESIDE me

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