An introduction

There is a wonderful site called Old English Aerobics Anthology where you can (try to) read Old English texts in the original language. Each word is explained in detail, so even if you do not know the declensions and conjugations, you can try to understand what the text says. It occurred to me that something similar could be done for the Kalevala, and these pages are a modest step in that direction.

On this site, I have provided a 134-line fragment from chapter 43 of the Kalevala, my own annotations to the text and an English translation. The Finnish text is taken from the website of the Finnish Literature Society. The translation is from William Forsell Kirby’s Kalevala, The Land of the Heroes, Volume Two (first published 1907), via Project Gutenberg. Below are some instructions for reading the annotations, followed by a brief discussion of the language, meter and some other qualities of the poem.

Reading the annotations

The style of presentation that is used here is largely derived from the Anthology site. When you click on a word in the Finnish text, an explanation appears in a popup window. There are also some notes for specific phrases, which you can view by selecting the “Notes” radio button. The notes explain idioms and other potentially difficult parts of the text. An annotation for a word looks something like this:

lapsi, noun. ‘child’.

lapsensa, nominative pl (with possessive suffix; object). ‘its children’.

The parts of the first paragraph are:

  • Dictionary form of the word (infinitive for verbs, nominative for nouns, etc.). If the word is a compound, its parts are separated by hyphens.
  • Part of speech.
  • General meaning(s) of the word. The meanings that are listed are mainly those that are relevant to the text at hand. Translations of words that are unknown to me or are used in an unfamiliar meaning are usually based on Jussila (2009).

In the second paragraph we have:

  • The actual form found in the text.
  • Explanation of that form.
  • Translation. This second translation is omitted if there is nothing to add to the general gloss. I have tried to find a balance between explaining what a given inflected form would usually mean and indicating how it might be translated in its current context. In the above example, the translation is given as ‘its children’ based on the context (Kalevala 43:10 is referring to a bird), even though the form in itself has other meanings (‘his/her/its child/children’). Since we are apparently talking about a bird mother, one could go further (like Kirby does) and translate ‘her children’.

The dictionary forms of words are usually given as they would appear in Standard Finnish (StdF), which sometimes means that they differ from genuine “Kalevalaic” forms. For example, the word for ‘to row’ is listed as soutaa (which is the form that is found in Finnish dictionaries), although the infinitive that is used in the Kalevala itself is soutoa. This is convenient, because my main source (Jussila 2009) gives most words in their StdF forms, and tracing some verb forms to their correct infinitives would be difficult without any assistance. On the other hand, words that have no inflection and forms that I have treated as independent lexical items are listed exactly as they appear in the text. For instance, kokohon ‘together, to one place’, although it contains an inflectional suffix, has been treated an independent word and is not replaced by the corresponding StdF form kokoon. The StdF equivalents are sometimes mentioned in the annotations.


I have referred to the language that is found in the Kalevala as Finnish, but it should be noted that much of the source material of the work was, in fact, in Karelian. Finnish grammars and dictionaries should be useful for reading the Kalevala, but from the point of view of Standard Finnish, there are many differences. Many words are unknown to modern Finnish speakers, and while much of the grammar is familiar, the precise forms are often different. We have, for example, sa’an ‘hundred (genitive)’, kaloa ‘fish (partitive)’, tulevi ‘comes’, merehen ‘sea (illative)’ for StdF sadan, kalaa, tulee, mereen.

The rest of this section will introduce some of the main linguistic features that will be encountered in our short fragment.

Long and short syllables

There are eight vowels: a e i o u y ä ö. The following combinations of two vowel letters can represent diphthongs in StdF and probably in the Kalevala as well (VISK § 21): ei öi äi oi ai, ey öy äy, eu ou au; yi ui, iy iu; ie yö uo. Some of these may also be pronounced as two vowels in hiatus (belonging in different syllables). Twelve consonant letters are used: g h j k l m n p r s t v. A doubled vowel letter stands for a long vowel, and a doubled consonant letter similarly stands for a long consonant (always divided between two syllables: jot-ta ‘so that’).

There is a syllabic boundary 1) before a sequence of consonant + vowel: sa-ta, pil-ven; and 2) between two vowels, if they are not found in the list of diphthongs: sam-po-a, poi-ka-si-a, sou-a. The majority of words can be correctly divided into syllables using only this rule.

When we have the correct syllabification, we can define a long syllable as one that contains a long vowel or a diphthong, or ends in (at least one) consonant. Other syllables are short. For example, the following words have a long initial syllable: ei-kä, kat-so, tuol-la; in these words, the initial syllable is short: sa-ta, a-jat-te-le-vi. The metrical significance of syllable length is explained below.


Nouns, adjectives, numerals and pronouns are inflected for number and case. Adjectives agree in case and number with the noun they modify, thus vanha Väinämöinen ‘old Väinämöinen’, vanhalle Väinämöiselle ‘for old Väinämöinen’. Verbs are inflected for person, tense and mood (potential mood for indicating that something is probable, imperative mood for commands and conditional mood for ‘would’ will be encountered). There are a few enclitic particles, such as -kO (for turning a sentence into a question), -pA, -kAnA and -ki. The meaning of some particles tends to be highly context dependent, and their exact contribution in a sentence is sometimes hard to pin down.

The object of a clause

In my annotations, I have explicitly marked the objects (only the main word, not any associated adjectives), but something needs to be said about grammar and terminology. Most of the time, the object is in one of three cases: nominative, a case marked by the suffix -n, and partitive. The -n case is historically an accusative, but it has become identical with the genitive. In my annotations it is called genitive, as in VISK (§ 1226). Some grammars have called it accusative, and to make things more confusing, even the nominative has traditionally been called accusative when it serves as the case of an object. In addition to these three, certain pronouns have a distinct accusative form that is marked by -t, but it does not seem to appear in the present text.

Things not to worry about

The choice of a certain form over another is not always very significant. For example, the Kalevala barely makes any distinction between the past and present tenses; the choice often seems to be determined by metrical reasons. When three syllables are needed, one uses sanovi ‘says’, but when two are enough, one uses sanoi ‘said’. Similarly, the poem can switch between ordinary nouns and their diminutives without any obvious change in meaning. It is even possible to add an extra filler word, on ‘is’, to a line that would otherwise be one syllable short.

Features of Kalevala-meter poetry


The hexameter of Homer is based on the alteration of long and short syllables, while Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter is based on the alteration of stressed and unstressed syllables (this is also true of Kirby’s Kalevala translation). The traditional poetic meter used by several Baltic-Finnic peoples, now called the Kalevala meter after the Kalevala, is unlike either of these. Instead, it makes a three-way distinction between stressed long, stressed short and unstressed syllables. The highly regular form of the meter that appears in the Kalevala can be defined by the rules given below. My presentation is based on Rintala 1999, which is intended as a practical guide for people who wish to compose poetry in the meter. Other authors might list a different number of additional rules and formulate them differently, but there is no disagreement about the basic principle of the meter defined by the main rule. The wording of the main rule is also influenced by a newer source (“Kalevalamitan perussäännöt”).

The line.
The line is made of four trochaic feet. We will call the first syllable of a foot its rise and the second syllable its fall. If we use arrows to mark rises and falls, and separate the feet with vertical lines, the line could be presented as follows:


Main rule.
a) If the first syllable of a word occurs at the rise of a foot, it must be long.
b) If the first syllable of a word occurs at the fall of a foot, it must be short.

For example, in tark-ko|a ta|kai-nen | tai-vas (“Look thou to the sky behind thee”, 43:32), the first syllable of takainen must be short, while the first syllable of taivas must be long. The initial syllable always carries the main stress, so we could also talk about stressed syllables instead of first syllables.

Additional rule 1.
The main rule does not apply to the first foot, which may be freely composed of 2 to 4 syllables.

Rather than beginning every line with a long syllable, a poet can therefore say things like Vaka vanha Väinämöinen (“Väinämöinen, old and steadfast”, 43:23). An example of an overlong first foot (with three syllables) is pie-ni on | pil-vi | poh-jo|ses-sa (“Rises north a cloud, a small one”, 43:47). These are rare, and a first foot with four syllables is even rarer.

Additional rule 2.
A line cannot end in a monosyllable.

Additional rule 3.
A line cannot end in a syllable containing a long vowel.

Other considerations.
The main rule does not apply to monosyllabic words (Rintala 1999, 28, 30). The following line is permissible: Ju-ma|lall’ on | ilm-an | viit-ta (“Jumala is lord of weather”, 43:337). Another detail not given above is that lines of the type *vaka Väinämöinen vanha, with a four-syllable word in the middle, are not possible (ibid., 27). Finally, it may be noted that the parts of a compound are treated as if they were separate words (ibid., 36). In suo-rit|ti so|ta-ve|no-sen (“As a war-ship she prepared it”, 43:6), the compound sotavenonen is treated like sota venonen, so that the initial syllables of both parts must be short.


Parallelism is a common stylistic feature of Kalevala-meter poetry. In a typical case, a line states an idea, and the following line expresses the same idea again in different words. In addition to the semantic similarity, the repeated line must also follow strict formal requirements. According to Kuusi et al. (1977, 66), the repeated line must parallel every item of the first line except for verbs and particles. Nothing new can be added. A simple example is provided by the lines 43:5–6:

rakenteli Pohjan purren,
suoritti sotavenosen

Here suoritti ‘prepared’ corresponds to rakenteli ‘equipped’ and sotavenosen ‘warship’ to Pohjan purren ‘ship of Pohja’.


As the examples on this page make clear, alliteration is heavily used in the Kalevala. Unlike the Germanic forms of alliterative verse, though, the Kalevala meter never requires its presence. Alliteration of the type Tavoittihe tauloihinsa (“Then he took a piece of tinder”, 43:107), where the words share not only the initial consonant but also the following vowel, is often preferred.

Symbols and abbreviations

1p, 2p, 3pfirst person, second person, third person
Aeither a or ä
Oeither o or ö
StdFStandard Finnish


  • Jussila, Raimo. 2009. Kalevalan sanakirja [“Kalevala dictionary”]. Helsinki: Otava. ISBN 978-951-1-23222-3.
  • “Kalevala”. Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura.
  • “Kalevalamitan perussäännöt” [“Main rules of the Kalevala meter”]. Kalevalaisen Runokielen Seura.
  • Kirby, W. F. [1st ed. 1907.] Kalevala, The Land of the Heroes, Volume One.
  • –––. [1st ed. 1907.] Kalevala, The Land of the Heroes, Volume Two.
  • Kuusi, Matti, Keith Bosley and Michael Branch (ed. and transl.). 1977. Finnish Folk Poetry: Epic. An Anthology in Finnish and English. Helsinki: Finnish Literature Society. ISBN 951-717-087-4.
  • Rintala, Aulis. 1999. Kalevalamitan opas urbaanille runoniekalle [“Guide to the Kalevala meter for the urban poet”]. [Tampere, Finland]: Uno-Soft. ISBN 951-98185-0-2.
  • Turunen, Aimo. 1981. Kalevalan sanat ja niiden taustat [“Words of the Kalevala and their background”]. 2. p. [Joensuu, Finland]: Karjalaisen kulttuurin edistämissäätiö. ISBN 951-9363-24-6.
  • VISK = Ison suomen kieliopin verkkoversio [“Online version of Iso suomen kielioppi (Comprehensive Finnish Grammar)”]. 2008. Helsinki: Kotimaisten kielten tutkimuskeskus, Helsingin yliopiston suomen kielen ja kotimaisen kirjallisuuden laitos, Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura. URN:ISBN:978-952-5446-35-7. ISSN 1796-041X.


2012-01-25: Published.