Finnish consonant gradation

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Consonant gradation is the term used for a set of alternations which are widespread in Finnish grammar. They also occur in other Finnic and Uralic languages, see Consonant gradation for a more general overview.


Consonant gradation involves an alternation in consonants, between a "strong grade" in some forms of a word and a "weak grade" in others. The strong grade usually appears in the nominative singular of nominals, and the infinitive of verbs, though there are some special types of words where these forms have the weak grade.

Whether the strong or the weak grade appears is determined by grammatical rules. Each suffix or inflectional ending triggers either the strong grade or weak grade, and this is inherent in that particular suffix or ending. The weak grade originally appeared when a consonant stood at the start of a closed syllable (a syllable ending in a consonant), but the loss of consonants in certain cases has created exceptions to this so that the process is no longer predictable.

The consonants subject to this change are the plosives (p, t, k) when preceded by a vowel, sonorant (m, n, l, r) or h. Plosives that are preceded by any other obstruent, or followed by any consonant, do not display gradation.

Gradation is the simplest for geminated (long) plosives. These are simply reduced to their short versions in the weak grade. This type of gradation is called quantitative gradation.

Strong Weak Example
pp p pappi : papit, lamppu : lamput
tt t katto : katot, kortti : kortit
kk k pukki : pukit, pankki : pankit

Gradation patterns for single plosives are more varied and unpredictable. As a general rule, voiceless plosives become voiced sounds, but there are several special types. This kind of gradation is called qualitative gradation.

Strong Weak Example Notes
p v pi : lävet
t d katu : kadut
k pako : paot
v puku : puvut, kyky : kyvyt In the combinations -uku- and -yky-.
j jälki : jäljet, kurki : kurjet When followed by e and preceded by h, l or r.

In a subtype of qualitative gradation, the weak grade of a single plosive after a nasal or liquid becomes a copy of the preceding consonant. This is assimilative gradation.

Strong Weak Example
mp mm kampi : kammet
nt nn lento : lennot
lt ll kielto : kiellot
rt rr parta : parrat
nk /ŋk/ ng /ŋː/ kenkä : kengät

Some words have exceptional gradation patterns that don't precisely fit into the general scheme explained above. For example, the plural (weak grade) of poika 'boy, son' is pojat, not poiat. The k:j gradation pattern is particularly unpredictable, as it does not always apply. In some words where k might be expected to become j, it disappears altogether, such as in pyyhkeet : pyyhe 'towel'; or remains unchanged, such as in pihka : pihkat 'resin'.

The gradation of loanwords may include new quantitative gradation patterns that are not native to Finnish:

Strong Weak Example
bb b lobbaan : lobata
gg g bloggaan : blogata

Scope of gradation[edit]

Gradation applies to words that were inherited from Proto-Finnic or the period shortly after it. It is no longer fully productive, and words whose phonological shape would suggest that they could gradate often don't. Gradation therefore has to be specified as a lexical feature of particular words. Only quantitative gradation is still productive and applied to new words, while qualitative gradation is mostly restricted to somewhat older words. Slang words, coinages and personal names are by default unaffected by qualitative gradation. Speakers will also attempt to inflect native words without gradation or other associated morphophonological alternations, if they are previously unfamiliar with the gradational inflection: e.g. paasi 'monolith' will be often have the unalternating genitive singular paasin rather than alternating paaden (compare native vesi : veden 'water', versus recent loanword vaasi : vaasin 'vase'). On the contrary, personal names may still be affected by qualitative gradation, if they are derived from a known common noun (e.g. Säde from säde 'ray', Sointu from sointu 'chord').[1]

Personal first names and recent loanwords do not usually have qualitative gradation, but they do sometimes have quantitative gradation, for example Hilta : Hiltan, but Pekka : Pekan. Surnames generally have both gradation types. Acronyms do not gradate if they include the vowel (NaPa : NaPan, compared to the common word napa : navan), but do gradate if they end in a consonant (PIK /ˈpikːi/ : PIK:n /ˈpikin/). Many loanwords ending in plosives act similarly, having gradation when inflected (parsek /pɑrsek/; parsekin /pɑrsekin/; parsekia /pɑrsekːiɑ/).

The discussion below focuses on gradation as it appears in native vocabulary.

Gradation types in words[edit]

Generally speaking, there are two distinct patterns of strong and weak grades that occur in words:

Type Stem ends in Infinitive
Nom. sg.
1st sg. present
Gen. sg.
Vowel stems Vowel Strong grade Weak grade
Consonant stems Consonant (usually) Weak grade Strong grade

Consonant stems are sometimes said to have "inverse gradation", because the "dictionary forms" of the words exhibit a weak grade and gradate "in reverse" to a strong grade in other forms.

Conditions for gradation[edit]

As mentioned above, gradation is tied to syllable structure: the strong grade appears when the consonant stands at the beginning of an open syllable (ending in a vowel), while the weak grade appears when the syllable is closed (ending in a consonant). By and large, this is still applicable to modern Finnish, this explains the distinction between consonant stems and vowel stems: in consonant stem nominals, the final consonant itself closes the preceding syllable, while in verbs, the combination of stem-final consonant plus the infinitive ending closes the preceding syllable. In the present/genitive, an extra e is inserted after the stem, which opens the syllable, hence creating a strong grade.

Due to the fact that the strong grade of short consonants coincides with the weak grade of long consonants, it may not always be straightforward to identify the grade of a particular consonant. The weak grade of long consonants still triggers the weak grade on a preceding syllable, however, even though the consonant itself is no longer long. It can usually be recognised that there is a short plosive in a closed syllable, implying that it must be the weak grade of an originally long consonant. Examples include:

  • The privative suffix -ton, for example tietotiedoton.
  • The infinitive ending -ta of some verbs, for example tapaan : tavata. Historically, the stems of these verbs ended in *-t-, which combined with the infinitival *-dak to produce *-ttak which then weakened to modern -ta.

Sound changes affecting gradation[edit]

Sound changes have obscured the general picture further in some cases, so that there are now also open syllables preceded by weak grades, and closed syllable preceded by strong grades. Consonant stems may turn out to be vowel stems, or the reverse.

Former word-final *-k and *-h were lost, but since they formerly closed the final syllable of a word, they triggered the weak grade. In modern Finnish, these cases appear as a weak grade consonant followed by a word-final vowel, but the word will have a special assimilative final consonant that causes gemination to the initial consonant of the next syllable. This assimilative final consonant is a remnant of the former final *-k and *-h. Forms where this applies include:

  • First infinitive, -a, -da, -ta (Proto-Finnic *-dak, *-t'ak). The second infinitive is equivalent, but with e. The t in the ending -ta is thus a weak grade, reflecting a former long consonant, which was formed by combining the verb's stem-final -t- (seen in the imperative -tkaa) with the normal infinitive -t-. Verbs with this infinitive ending are thus actually consonant stems.
  • Connegative forms of verbs (Proto-Finnic *-k).
  • The second-person singular imperative (Proto-Finnic *-k).
  • Most nominals ending in -e (Proto-Finnic *-eh and *-ek), for example ranne : ranteen. These nominals look superficially like vowel stems, but the former final consonant makes them consonant stems and they still inflect as such.

The loss of certain consonants in the middle of a word caused the two adjacent syllables to fall together into one. The former of these syllables was open, and so the syllable began with consonants in the strong grade. After they fell together, this continued to be the case, even when this new syllable was closed. Most occurrences in non-initial syllables of long vowels or diphthongs ending in u or y are the result of this loss of consonants, and therefore trigger the strong grade on the consonants at the start of the syllable, regardless of whether the syllable is closed. Some examples of this include:

  • Illative case, for example kukkakukkaan (formerly *kukkahen).
  • Present tense of verbs with infinitive ending in -ta, for example tavata : tapaan (formerly *tapaden). Verbs of this type are consonant stems; the lost *-d- is the weak grade of the former stem-final consonant *-t-.
  • The imperative endings -kaa- and -koo- (formerly *-kade, *-kohe-).
  • Most case forms of nominals ending in -s, for example kuningas : kuninkaat (formerly *kuninkahat).
  • Most case forms of nominals ending in -e, for example hylje : hylkeet. As mentioned above, these are consonant stems and formerly had a final consonant *-k or *-h in the nominative.

An exception occurs in the present tense passive ending -taan. This ending shows a weak grade, where the other passive endings have a strong grade, such as the past (-ttiin) and conditional (-ttaisiin) passive. The conditional ending is clearly segmented into three parts -tta-isi-in, where -isi- is the conditional mood suffix. It could therefore be argued that the present tense simply lacks any infix at all. By this reasoning, the suffix is underlyingly *-tta-an, which consists of a long vowel with no lost consonant, so that the syllable is closed and the initial consonant is weakened.


  1. ^ Yli-Vakkuri, Valma (1976). "Onko suomen kielen astevaihtelu epäproduktiivinen jäänne?" (PDF). Sananjalka. Suomen kielen seura (18).