The Uralic Languages

According to Kiefer and Laakso (2014), there is a general consensus that there are 6 main branches of Uralic:

  • Ugric: Hungarian (13 million speakers) and, in Western Siberia, the Ob-Ugric languages Khanty (almost 10,000 speakers) and Mansi (probably less than 10,000 speakers)
  • Finnic: Finnish (5 million speakers); Estonian (1 million). Other Finnic languages have many fewer speakers and many of those languages are endangered or even close to extinction. They include some languages spoken in northwest Russia (Karelian—with more than 50,000 speakers—Vote, Ingrian, Veps), Livonian (Latvia) and Sámi (a dialect continuum, usually divided into 10 languages). The most widely spoken variety is Northern Sámi, with 30,000 speakers). Sámi is spoken by the Sámi across northern Scandinavia and the Kola peninsula in northwest Russia, an area once known as Lapland, though that name is now regarded as offensive.
  • Permic: Udmurt and 2 standard varieties of Komi, with more than 460,00 speakers in total, in European Russia
  • Mordvin: Erya and Moksha in European Russia, with more than 400,000 speakers in total
  • Mari: 2 standard varieties in European Russia, with almost 400,000 speakers in total
  • Samoyedic in Siberia and the far north of European Russia: Nenets (more than 20,000 speakers), Enets (a few dozen speakers), Nganasan, Selkup and some extinct languages.

The Uralic family is not part of the Indo-European language family, though speakers of the 2 ancestral languages and their descendant languages have been in contact for several thousand years and these contacts have affected languages in both families.

Features

I refer below to 2 features found in both Hungarian and Finnish. According to Austerlitz (1987) these features also exist in other Uralic languages:

  • a large number of grammatical cases
  • vowel harmony

Many grammatical cases

The Uralic languages are well known for having many grammatical cases. For example, Finnish has 15 cases and Hungarian has between 17 and 27 grammatical cases, depending on how some items are analysed. https://languagemiscellany.com/2022/03/how-many-cases-are-there-in-hungarian-and-finnish/

Vowel harmony

In general in the Uralic languages, all the vowels in a word must be alike in some phonological feature. For example:

  • native Hungarian words do not contain a mixture of front vowels (/ü/ and /ö/) and back vowels (/a/, /o/ /u/). The vowels /i/ and /e/ are neutral (neither front nor back). Also, the form of some Hungarian suffixes depends on whether the word contains a back vowel or a front vowel. For instance, the case suffix meaning ‘in’ is –ban for words with front vowels and –ben for words with back vowels: könyv-ben (‘book in’) vs bolt-ban (‘shop in’).
  • native Finnish words do not contain a mixture of front vowels (y, ö, ä) and back vowels (/u/, /o/, /a/). For instance, the case suffix meaning ‘in’ is –ssä for words with front vowels and –ssa for words with back vowels. kylä-ssä (village in’) vs talo-ssa (‘house in’).

For more on vowel harmony:

Other features

Austerlitz (1987) mentions several other features found in some but not all Uralic languages:

  • consonant gradation: Finnic and Sámi. For instance, Finnish -nt- (‘strong grade’) alternates in some environments with -nn- (‘weak grade’): eg antavat (they give) vs annan (I give)
  • negative verbs: Permic, Mari, Mordvin, some Finnic, Samoyedic (except Selkup). An example is Finnish, which turns a positive verb into a negative verb using an auxiliary verb. https://languagemiscellany.com/2022/01/negating-a-verb-using-an-auxiliary-verb/
  • dual number (separate from singular and plural): Ob-Ugric, Samoyedic, Sámi.
  • a grammatical reference to a definite object: Ugric, Samoyedic, Mordvin. For example, Hungarian lop-j-uk (‘we steal it’) vs lop-unk (‘we steal’, not something definite)
  • a definite article: Hungarian, Mordvin. Hungarian a ház (the house); Mordvin kudo-ś (‘house-the’)
  • stress on the 1st vowel, except in Udmurt (and with some lesser exceptions in Mari, Komi, Permyak)
  • rounded vowels (ö, ü): Hungarian, Finnic, Mari (and to some extent in Khanty).

Austerlitz describes the basic word order as subject-object-verb (SOV) in Ob-Ugric and Permian, SVO in Finnic and fairly free in the other languages. In contrast, Hungarian does not regulate the position of the subject and object. Instead, it regulates the positions of the topic and the focus. Any part of the sentence (including the subject or object) can be the topic or the focus:

Vocabulary

Austerlitz says that all Uralic languages have:

  • recent loan words from Slavonic;
  • ancient loan words from Iranian or even Indo-Iranian. One example is Finnish sata, Hungarian száz, both meaning ‘one hundred’—perhaps an indication that speakers of Proto-Uralic had trading contacts with speakers of Proto-Indo-Iranian or of Proto-Iranian.

Austerlitz also says that:

  • all the languages except Finnic and Sámi borrowed words from later stages of Iranian and from Turkic, though Samoyedic and Ob-Ugric did not borrow from East Turkic.
  • Finnic, Sámi and Mordvin borrowed from the Baltic languages (the group whose modern members are Latvian and Lithuanian).
  • Finnic, Sámi and Hungarian borrowed from Germanic, though Hungarian started doing so only after around 1200 CE.

I presume that these borrowing patterns indicate when the Uralic languages diverged and when contacts with speakers of other languages became more intense or less intense.  

Sources

Uralic, Ferenc Kiefer and Johanna Laakso, in The Oxford Handbook of Derivational Morphology, edited by Rochelle Lieber and Pavol Štekauer (2014)

Uralic Languages, Robert Austerlitz (1987), in Comrie (editor, 1990)

Hungarian, Daniel Abondolo (1987), in Comrie (editor, 1990)

The Syntax of Hungarian (2002), by Katalin É. Kiss

Hungarian (Routledge Descriptive Grammars Series), by István Kenesei, Robert M. Vago and Anna Fenyvesi (1998)

Finnish, Michael Branch (1987), in Comrie (editor, 1990)

Finnish: a comprehensive grammar, by Fred Karlsson (2018)

The Major Languages of Eastern Europe, edited by Bernard Comrie (1990)

Vowel Harmony, by Harry van der Hulst and Jeroen de Weijer, in The Handbook of Phonological Theory (Blackwell Handbooks in Linguistics), edited by John A Goldsmith (1995)

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *