Finnish verbs and nouns for shows, scenes and sights

One big problem I have in Finnish is remembering words that are very similar, both in how they are written and what they mean. Two particular downfalls of mine are the words for ‘play’ (in a theatre) and ‘exhibition’. The first one is näytelmä and the second is näyttely. As you can see, the two share the first four letters – no wonder I get mixed up! Etymologically, this is because both of them are related to the verb näyttää, ‘to show’. Their endings, -elmä and -ely, are common for abstract nouns.

However, they’re not the only similar words related to seeing or showing something. Consider this list of nouns:

  • näyttö, screen (e.g. on a TV)
  • näkymä, view (from a window)
  • nähtävyys, sight, point of interest
  • näyttelijä, actor
  • näyte, specimen
  • näytös, show, act, ostentation

And I’m sure that list could be expanded! Note there are while all the words have the first two letters, , in common, the ones that follow are different. This is because there is more than one verb behind them all:

  • nähdä, transitive, to see
  • näyttää, transitive, to show; intransitive, to seem
  • näkyä, intransitive, to be seen, visible
  • and even: näytellä, to act (in a play)
  • and the monster of a verb näytäyttyä, to show one’s face, make an appearance

I suspect they all have a common ancestor, but as I am not a professional etymologist, I won’t get into that.

Now that’s all well and good, you say, but what does this have to do with learning? How can one possibly be expected to remember all of these different words?

Let’s start with my problem pair, näytelmä and näyttely. Näyttely has the same ending as another noun, esittely, which means ‘presentation’ (e.g., a PowerPoint one). I find the two quite close in a sense: an exhibition and a presentation both ‘tell’ you something and give you information. Esittely comes from the v. esittää, ‘to present’, just as näyttely comes from näyttää, ‘to show’. Perhaps this suffix means something… I am loath to suggest what, though. In any case, this is how I’m going to remember that näyttely is exhibition. I am also going to think of ottelu, a sporting match.

What about näytelmä? Let’s see what other words end in this suffix, -elmä (-elma for back vowels):

  • kokoelma, collection
  • tiivistelmä, summary
  • laulelma, tune, jingle

The corresponding verbs are koota (conjugated root koko-), ‘to gather’, tiivistää, ‘to condense’, and laulella, ‘to sing (occassionally), a frequentative of the more usual laulaa, ‘to sing’. Now, I’m not sure if this -elma/elmä is a suffix in its own right, or if the -el- is only a part of a frequentative verb* and the real suffix is -ma/mä (a big list of which you can find here). In any event, I’m going to imagine for my own personal needs that there is a suffix -elma/elmä and that is means something like “result of a transitive action”. Not very specific, but it will have to do for the moment! I’ll try and notice more nouns like this and see if I can tease any more sense out of them.

But for the moment:

Näyttelijä näytteli hyvin näytelmässä, “the actor played well in the play”, and

Näyttelystä tuli suosittu nähtävyys, “the exhibition became a popular attraction”.


*PS: It would appear that the verbs kokoella and tiivistellä, although rare, do exist. The first I found here, on p. 207 of a Finnish dictionary from 1826 by Gustaf Renvall, which says it means the same as koota, and the second can be found in online (often blog) references to summarising sentences.


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