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Finnish vowels: e ä a

Does anyone know where I can learn the difference between these three vowels? I'm from Germany, and since we don't have this very open ä (German ä is basically the Finnish e), I'm having trouble pronouncing it... The problem is that I can't really practice the sounds, because I only find Youtube videos that teach the difference between e and ä, or ä and a, but never all three together, so I just end up pronouncing ä as a when it is contrasted with e, or ä as e when it is contrasted with a. Normally, I wouldn't be concerned if I couldn't pronounce a vowel in a new language, but since Finnish has so few vowels, I feel like it's really important that I get this right. Do you know of any website or video, where I can practice all three vowels at the same time?

July 2, 2020



Thanks, I'll give it a try :)


One way is to listen to examples of words being pronounced on https://forvo.com/languages/fi/


Thank you, I'll listen to those annoying äääääs until I can't hear anything else :P


Prepare yourself for a lecture! There are so many minimal pairs in Finnish that will get you into trouble if you forget this, so I can understand that you are a bit worried about this. hellä, "tender"; hella, "kitchen stove"; helle, "heatwave". Jee.

A, /ɑ/, is pronounced at the back of the mouth, very low, where the root of the tongue is. It's similar to the vowel sound in the English "car". Ä, /æ/, is pronounced in the front part of the mouth and it's similar to the vowel sound in the English "cat". Again it's pronounced very low, but right under the lower teeth in the fleshy corner near your jaw. When you form it, your tongue rests against the lower teeth. It's there so that it does not leave your mouth when you push it slightly forward. The tip is quite relaxed, so it's not actually the tip resting on the teeth but the upper part of tongue behind the tip. And then you pretend you are a sheep: bääääää! You can actually try to produce it first with sticking your tongue out and focusing on keeping the sound under the teeth, if doing the whole procedure feels too complicated at first. Both /ɑ/ and /æ/ are open sounds so there's plenty of room for air between the tongue and the ceiling of the mouth.

You must have seen a chart like this before. It's a "picture" of our mouth cavity. The teeth and the lips are on the left. This one shows where the Finnish vowels are produced:


And here are the German ones:


In German, the "normal A", /a/, is central rather than a back vowel, so you can push it back if you want to. Using the German A instead of the Finnish one will not lead to you being misunderstood, but pushing it back may help you keep it separate from the Finnish Ä. The most frequent one of the two German E's, /e/, (like the first E in "leben") is pronounced very close to both Finnish and German I, /i/, behind the front teeth. The Finnish E is pronounced lower, where your other E, /ɛ/, is pronounced (as in "nett"). You do not have to do anything to this sound, if you do not want to. Finns rarely mistake it for anything else. As for Ä, if the instructions in the second paragraph do not help, take /ɛ/ in the German "nett" as a starting point and then force it down into that fleshy corner near your jaw to produce the Finnish Ä in nätti, "pretty". On Forvo: nätti, and another Finnish word netti.

Since you are learning French, French speakers have an interesting way of getting around this: learning to control their noses. Although Finnish does not have any nasal vowels per se, it usually helps a French speaker to think of /ɑ/ and /æ/ as nasals in the beginning, since they are pronounced in similar positions. The "normal French a", /a/, as in "sa", is pronounced very close to the teeth. BUT. /ɑ̃/ in the French word "sans" is the same sound as the Finnish one, pronounced in exactly the same position. Except that it's nasal and the Finnish one is not. /ɛ̃/, as in the French word "vin", on the other hand, is pronounced just a tad higher than /æ/. Bring the nasal down as low as you get it and control your nose and voilà! Here is a link to Forvo to a page where you can listen to the Finnish words saan ("I get") and sään ("of weather") pronounced.


Thanks for the extensive answer! I will try bääääing like a sheep! :D It's also really funny to see the distribution of vowels :D Finnish vowels are so nicely distributed, and the German ones are just all over the place, wow :D :D


Watch out, the "a" in "car" varies a lot from dialect to dialect in English, and within one country as well as between different countries. Animal sounds also famously vary from language to language. In English, sheep say "baa" or "bah".


If you know how to pronounce "thanks" correctly, you should be able to pronounce the Finnish Ä. It's the vowel sound from that word.


Not everybody pronounces "thanks" the same though. At least some people in some parts of the US pronounce it more like "thenks" and in extreme cases almost like "thinks". But as long as you're not one of those speakers you'll probably get it just fine.


Sadly, I don't know how to correctly pronounce "thanks" (or "cat" or any of those äääs in English). I learned English at a German school, so we were all just saying thenks and cet and so on. Until recently, I didn't even realize, that it's actually pronounced with an ä :(


Listen to the lyrics (in Finnish)!

Rakastan sinua, elämä
(Я люблю тебя, жизнь)

• Laulu: Petrus Schroderus (2020)
Suomenkieliset sanat: Pauli Salonen

– – – Y, Ä, Ö – – –
elämä [e-lä-mä]
elämää [e-lä-mää]
eikä [ei-kä]
helminä [hel-mi-nä]
jäänyt [jää-nyt]
päivä [päi-vä]
päivän [päi-vän]
päättyy [päät-tyy]
siirtää [siir-tää]
piirtää [piir-tää]
sydän [sy-dän]
sävel [sä-vel]
tietäni [tie-tä-ni]
ystävä [ys-tä-vä]
myrskyihin [myrs-kyi-hin]
yö [yö], työ [työ], lyö [lyö]

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