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There are approximately 5 million speakers of Finnish, one of the few languages of Europe not belonging to the Indo-European family. Like Estonian, spoken across the Gulf of Finland, it is one of the Finno-Ugric languages, which constitute the main branch of the Uralic family. The Finnish alphabet contains only twenty-one letters. There are thirteen consonants and eight vowels. There is only one sound for every letter, one letter for every sound, and the stress is always on the first syllable. The language makes no distinction as to gender, and has no articles, either definite or indefinite.
Despite these simplifying factors, Finnish is undoubtedly an exceedingly difficult language to learn. The number of case forms for nouns is staggering: while German has four cases, Latin five, and Russian six, Finnish has no fewer than fifteen! In addition to the familiar nominative, genitive, partitive, and ablative, there are also the elative, allative, illative, essive, inessive, adessive, abessive, and several others. In linguistics, Finnish is defined as a synthetic language meaning that it uses suffixes to express grammatical relations and also to derive new words.
In contemporary spoken Finnish, however, the tendency is to move from synthetic to analytic expression, where grammatical relations are expressed by word order, prepositions and other auxiliary words rather than flexion. The main varieties are Karelian (which is generally classified as a separate language, but actually it is seldom written and was replaced in 1940 by Finnish as an official language), and Torne Valley Finnish, a long-established dialect in northernmost Sweden. South-eastern dialects called 'Karelian' in colloquial Finnish are distinct from true Karelian, to which, however, Finnish is closely related. About 300,000 are bilingual in Swedish.
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