A look at two Finno-Ugric languages, Finnish and Estonian, from the point of view of how hard they are for an English speaker to learn. Finnish is legendary for being one of the hardest languages on Earth to learn. Estonian is like a simplified version of Finnish. Both have highly elaborate case systems and utilize vowel harmony.
One test of the difficulty of any language is how much of the grammar you must know in order to express yourself on a basic level. On this basis, Finno-Ugric languages are complicated because you need to know quite a bit more grammar to communicate on a basic level in them than in say, German.
Finnish is very hard to learn, and even long-time learners often still have problems with it. You have to know exactly which grammatical forms to use where in a sentence. In addition, Finnish has 15 cases in the singular and 16 in the plural. This is hard to learn for speakers coming from a language with little or no case.
talo – the house
Cases: talon house's taloasome of the house taloksiinto as the house talossain the house talostafrom inside the house talooninto the house talollaon to the house taloltafrom beside the house talolleto the house taloistafrom the houses taloissa in the houses
It gets much worse than that. This web page shows that the noun kauppa – shop can have 2,253 forms.
A simple adjective + noun type of noun phrase of two words can be conjugated in up to 100 different ways.
Adjectives and nouns belong to 20 different classes. The rules governing their case declension depend on what class the substantive is in.
As with Hungarian, words can be very long. For instance:
non-commissioned officer cadet learning to be an assistant mechanic for airplane jet engines
Like Turkish, Finnish agglutination is very regular. Each bit of information has its own morpheme and has an exact place in the word.
Like Turkish, Finnish has vowel harmony, but the vowel harmony is very regular like that of Turkish. Unlike Turkish or Hungarian, consonant gradation forms a major part of Finnish morphology. In order to form a sentence in Finnish, you will need to learn about verb types, cases and consonant gradation, and it can take a while to get your mind around those things.
Finnish, oddly enough, always puts the stress on the first syllable. Finnish vowels will be hard to pronounce for most foreigners.
However, Finnish has the advantage of being pronounced precisely as it is written. This is also part of the problem though, because if you don’t say it just right, the meaning changes. So, similarly with Polish, when you mangle their language, you will only achieve incomprehension. Whereas with say English, if a foreigner mangles the language, you can often winnow some sense out of it.
However, despite that fact that written Finnish can be easily pronounced, when learning Finnish, as in Korean, it is as if you must learn two different languages – the written language and the spoken language. A better way to put it is that there is “one language for writing and another for speaking.” You use different forms whether conversing or putting something on paper.
Some pronunciation is difficult. It can be hard to tell the difference between the a and ä sounds. The the contrast between short and long vowels and consonants is particularly troublesome. Check out these minimal pairs:
One easy aspect of Finnish is the way you can build many forms from a base root:
kirja – book
kirje – letter
kirjoittaa – to write
kirjailija – writer
A problem for the English speaker coming to Finnish would be the vocabulary, which is alien to the speaker of an IE language. Finnish language learners often find themselves looking up over half the words they encounter. Obviously, this slows down reading quite a bit!
Finnish verbs are very regular. The irregular verbs can almost be counted on one hand:
and a few others. In fact, on the plus side, Finnish in general is very regular.
In the grammar, the partitive case and potential tense can be difficult. Here is an example of how Finnish verb tenses combine with various cases to form words:
I A-Infinitive Base form mennä II E-Infinitive Active inessive mennessä Active instructive mennen Passive inessive mentäessä III MA-Infinitive Inessive menemässä Elative menemästä Illative menemään Adessive menemällä Abessive menemättä Active instructive menemän Passive instructive mentämän
As in many Asian languages, there are no masculine or feminine pronouns, and there is no grammatical gender. The numeral system is quite simple compared to other languages. Finnish has a complete lack of consonant clusters. In addition, the phonology is fairly simple.
Finnish is rated 5, hardest of all.
Estonian has similar difficulties as Finnish, since they are closely related. However, Estonian is more irregular than Finnish. In particular, the very regular agglutination system described in Finnish seems to have gone awry in Estonian. Estonian has 14 cases, including strange cases such as the abessive, adessive, elative and inessive. On the other hand, all of these cases can simply be analyzed as the genitive case plus a single unvarying suffix for each case. In addition, there is no gender, so the only things you have to worry about when forming cases are singular and plural.
Estonian has a strange mood form called the quotative, often translated as “reported speech.”
tema on – he/she/it is
tema olevat – it’s rumored that he/she/it is or he/she/it is said to be
This mood is often used in newspaper reporting and is also used for gossip.
Estonian has an astounding 25 diphthongs. It also has three different varieties of vowel length, which is strange in the world’s languages. There are short, vowels and extra-long vowels and consonants.
lina – linen – short n
linna – the town’s – long n, written as nn
`linna – into the town – extra-long n, not written out!
There are differences in the pronunciation of the three forms above, but in rapid speech, they are hard to hear, though native speakers can make them out. Difficulties are further compounded in that extra-long sonorants (m, n, ng, l, and r) and vowels and are not written out. All in all, phonemic length can be a problem in Estonian, and foreigners never seem to get it completely down.
Estonian pronunciation is not very difficult, though the õ sound can cause problems.
At least in written form, Estonian is not as complex as Finnish. Estonian can be seen as an abbreviated and modernized form of Finnish. The grammar is also like a simplified version of Finnish grammar and may be much easier to learn.
Estonian is rated 4.5, extremely difficult.
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