Wednesday 24 June 2009

Oi, Suomi

A choir I sing in is going to Helsinki (though without me) to sing in a festival. Naturally, out of respect to our hosts, we want to be able to sing Sibelius’s Finlandia hymn in Finnish. We had a speaker of Finnish to demonstrate the pronunciation, and fortunately singers are usually quite good at mimicry: so the results were actually very acceptable (I think).
Oi, Suomi, katso, sinun päiväs koittaa,
Yön uhka karkoitettu on jo pois,
Ja aamun kiuru kirkkaudessa soittaa,
Kuin itse taivahan kansi sois.
Yön vallat aamun valkeus jo voittaa,
Sun päiväs' koittaa, oi synnyinmaa.

Oi nouse, Suomi, nosta korkealle,
Pääs' seppelöimä suurten muistojen.
Oi, nouse, Suomi, näytit maailmalle,
Sa että karkoitit orjuuden,
Ja ettet taipunut sa sorron alle,
On aamus' alkanut, synnyinmaa.

After my many years of teaching informant classes at UCL, Finnish is naturally one of the fifty-odd languages about whose phonetics I am fairly well-informed, even if I can’t speak a word of it beyond hyvää päivää and kiitos. I was interested to note which particular aspects of Finnish pronunciation seemed to cause particular problems to this choir of English speakers.
Finnish orthography is very regular. Given the spelling, the pronunciation is predictable. So it’s mainly a matter of learning the letter values. Orthographic y ö ä are IPA y ø æ; everything else is pretty much what you would expect.
The front rounded vowels, orthographic y and ö, seemed not to be a problem — perhaps because people had some familiarity with French. As in the case of English people’s French, however, some singers overcompensated and tended to use an y-like quality even for back u.
The other umlauted vowel, ä, caused more difficulty, because people tended to equate it either with English e, eə (DRESS, SQUARE) or with an Italianate a. Although this vowel is usually transcribed æ and equated with English TRAP, it doesn’t sound entirely the same. I think it may be to do with the pharyngeal constriction that typically characterizes the English vowel but not the Finnish one.
The singers found it hard to maintain the difference between the front quality in että and the very back ɑ quality at the end of koittaa.
The opening diphthongs uo, yö were difficult for people, as was the closing diphthong äy and even the superficially easier äi. I had to bite my tongue not to intervene with a practical phonetics lesson: I wanted to explain that is simply ie plus lip-rounding.
Unlike the English voiceless plosives, the Finnish ones are strikingly unaspirated. The singers were mostly able to imitate this. To my surprise, it didn’t seem to cause difficulty. The big problem was the preconsonantal h in uhka. It’s the phonotactic differences that are trickiest.
Fortunately, the fact that we are singing to strictly timed music takes care of stress and segment duration.
Among the improbable comments overheard from chorus members were that Finnish pronunciation sounds (a) like Afrikaans and (b) like Klingon.


  1. Long consonants?
    Long vowels in strange positions?
    "Continental" vowels? (But that's always a hard one for the English singer. Maybe more today, when there's no more [u:] and [i:].)

  2. In North America, at least, /u/ is steadily moving forward, to the point where Anglo-Saxon Aloud tends to make the Old English u's and y's sound too similar.

  3. @Lipman: length = segment duration, generally dictated by the music. They were told to split long consonants between syllables, e.g. koit-taa, which worked.

  4. hello John,

    is the pronunciation of 'one' rhyming with 'con' a shibboleth northern pronunciation?

    why ar northerners who 'southernise' or americanise their pronunciation invariably insensible to 'one' rhyming with 'sun' e.g. northerners eric idle, john lennon (in his song 'imagine'), cecil parkinson, mike yarwood, russ abbot, julie walters - all northerners but clueless that 'one' rhymes with 'fun'.

    ta loads.

  5. (This Sibelius-guy worked up some cloyingly sweet words, btw!)
    Personally, I have difficulty distinguishing the two vowels in 'että', which is odd considering the fact that my native Dutch (as you'll know, of course) draws a strict distinction between front and back a (both unrounded), i.e. I would expect this would give me ample phonetic 'elbowroom' to find a proper spot for 'ä'. Is this perhaps due to the closeness of Dutch e (ε) and æ?

  6. The words of the Finlandia hymn don't contain the diphthong öy, as in pöytä (table). It's not exactly what you'd expect – rather like Dutch ui.

  7. To Lipman:

    I'd expect [øy], but I hear something like [œʏ]. To me it sounds like Norwegian au rather than Norwegian øy.

    However, I'm not sure that my friend Olli in Finland agrees with me.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.