On Finno-Ugric languages

Jan 13, 2011 by

The Mari language, discussed in yesterday’s posting, is one of the Finno-Ugric languages, spoken in parts of Scandinavia and the Baltic region, Hungary, central Volga region and as far east as the eastern slopes of the Ural mountains. This family includes such better known languages as Finnish and Hungarian and such relatively little-known languages as Mordvin, Komi and Udmurt.

As the name suggests, the Finno-Ugric family consists of two major branches: Finnic languages and Ugric languages. The former branch includes Finnish, as well as Estonian, Saami, Komi, Mordvin, Udmurt, Mari and several other smaller languages such as Karelian, Votic, Veps and Livonian. The Ugric branch includes Hungarian and its closest relatives: Khanty and Mansi languages spoken… on the eastern slopes of the Urals! How come Hungarian is spoken so far away from its closest linguistic relatives will be the topic of tomorrow’s posting, but here we’ll briefly discuss other Finno-Ugric languages.

First of all, as is the case for other language families as well, Finno-Ugric languages share basic vocabularies and certain underlying grammatical patterns. For example, a typical Finno-Ugric language has agglutinative morphology, meaning words are composed of several morphemes which attach to each other loosely, without many changes happening at the juncture of morphemes. Each morpheme in an agglutinative language carries its own meaning, so a typical Finno-Ugric verb will consist of (in addition to the root) separate morphemes encoding tense, aspect, agreement; similarly, a noun will have separate morphemes for number and case.

Speaking of case, Finno-Ugric languages have a relatively rich system of cases with as many as 9-10 cases to encode spatial relationships (which we encode by prepositions in English). For example, in Hungarian the inessive case suffix -ban means ‘in’, the illative case suffix -ba means ‘into’ and the elative case suffix -ból meaning ‘out of’. Other spatial cases in Hungarian include the superessive -n meaning ‘on’, sublative -ra meaning ‘onto’, ablative -tól meaning ‘from’ and others.

Another commonality among Finno-Ugric languages is the lack of grammatical gender, even in their pronouns. As a result, the same pronoun is used for ‘he’ and ‘she’: hän in Finnish, tämä in Votic (an endangered language spoken by only about a dozen speakers in northwestern Russia), tema in Estonian, ő in Hungarian.

Finally, a prototypical Finno-Ugric language also has the so-called vowel harmony phenomenon whereby vowels assimilate to each other across intervening consonants. In particular, vowels in suffixes in languages like Finnish and Hungarian harmonize to be back or front depending on the vowel of the root (the front-back feature of the vowel refers to the position of the tongue on the horizontal axis; for example, /i/ in feel is a front vowel and /u/ in fool is a back vowel). Take, for example, the elative case suffix in Finnish (recall from above that elative case means ‘out of’). It can be pronounced in one of two ways: either with the [æ] sound (this is the sound in the English word cat, but it is spelled as ä in Finnish) or [a] depending on the vowel of the root. For instance, when added to the adjective ‘stupid’ the case suffix is pronounced with the front vowel ä because the vowels in the adjective root are themselves front vowels: y (pronounced like /i/ but with the lips rounded) and ä. Hence, the resulting word is tyhmä-stä ‘stupid’. But when the same suffix is attached to a word with back vowels, such as the word ‘naughty’, the suffix is pronounced with a back vowel too: tuhma-sta ‘naughty’.

This commonality of Finno-Ugric languages leads to join programs and projects for speakers of Finno-Ugric languages, across national and ethnic borders. For example, developers in Russia are going to create an online phrasebook that will include more than 1,000 most frequent words and word-combinations of everyday life for 11 Finno-Ugric languages. The list includes the Hungarian, Karelian, Komi, Mansi, Komi-Permyak, Mari, Moksha, Erzya, Udmurt, Finnish, and Khanty languages, as well as two lingue francae: Russian and English. The initiator and customer of this project is the ministry of national policy of the Komi Republic (a subject of the Russian Federation). The resulting online phrasebook will be published under a free license that will allow all volunteers to use and develop it on their own thus allowing for the growth of the phrasebook, which will be ultimately available in three versions: on websites, a short version by the cell phones, and after downloading in off-line mode on the computer.

Another Finno-Ugric-specific program has been recently started by the Estonian Kindred People’s Programme awarding the Ilmapuu (World Tree) Prize for efforts aimed at preserving Finno-Ugric cultural identity. The first Ilmapuu Prize was awarded in 2010 to Tatiana Efimova, the head of the Society of Votian Culture for “supporting the self-awareness of the Votian people and contributing to the preservation of local customs”.


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  • Erik the Reader

    The Ugric tree is rather an artificial contruct. Someone who reads the "closest" term might think that they are really close but in fact it's a very very distant relationship (a greater one then the relationship between English and Hindi).
    Hungarian and Hanti or Mansi are pretty different languages, anyone who studied Hungarian and the Obi-ugric languages has come to the conclusion that is a myth that Hungarian is simmilar to either Hanty or Mansi.
    Kalman Bela In The history of the Ob-Ugric languages 1966, considers that it's incorrect to put Hungarian and the Ob-ugric languages in the same taxon underlining that Hungarian is not a typical Uralic language.

    "Rein Taagepera and Ago Kuennap analysed the distances among the Uralic and other
    Northern Eurasian languages based on 46 structural features.In their study Hungarian was
    also the most distant from the other Ob-Ugric languages.Not only that, Hungarian was in fact
    far away from the other Finno-Ugric languages while the Ob-Ugric languages were closer to
    Permic languages and Mari (Taagepera et al., 2005: 161). Their Ob-Ugric taxon was the
    closest, i.e., the most compact while Hungarian stands quite far away from them. They also
    measured the distance between Hungarian and Finnic languages. This distance looks
    approximately the same as the distance between Hungarian and Ob-Ugric languages.
    Therefore it is not wise to put Hungarian in the Ugric taxon." from The Enigma of the Classification of the Hungarian Language: Compactness and Relatedness by Yuri Tambovtsev
    Novosibirsk Pedagogical University.

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    @Erik the Reader: Thank you for your comment! I've looked into some of these studies and they don't seem completely reliable. The best evidence we have so far comes from cognates, and they do seem to indicate closer relatedness of Hungarian to Ugric rather than Finnic languages. Naturally, it has also picked up a lot of vocabulary (including some very basic vocabulary) from other languages, but that's to be expected, considering…

    As for measuring "closest", it doesn't actually imply "very close", just that there is no other closer one.

  • Erik the Reader

    In fact Kálmán Béla was a mainstream finno-ugrist
    who specialised in Hanti or Mansi and in Hungarian dialects. He is also the author of a Mansi manual.
    http://hu.wikipedia.org/wiki/K%C3%A1lm%C3%A1n_B%C3%A9la

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  • gkt12

    Hi everyone,

    The secret of comparing Hungarian with other Uralic languages is: looking at Medieval Hungarian manuscripts and really archaic dialects, such as the Csango Hungarian dialect of Transylvania. As a standard modern Hungarian language came to be during the late Middle Ages, it lost quite a large part of its Uralic vocabulary, either by exchanging original terms for Slavic / German loanwords, or exchanging them for self-made constructions (see my example below). But in dialects, a lot of original vocabulary remains; geographical terms, words related to animal husbandry, to fishing, hunting, etc. A famous example would be the two Hungarian words for “river”- modern standard “folyó”, which comes from the verb folyik (to flow), thus means “flowing thing”. This construction came in place of the original Hungarian word for river, “jó”, which is only found nowadays in river names, and maybe used in some hidden away dialects among the mountains. But in Finnish, the usual, everyday name for a river is still “joki”, in Khanty it’s yoken, in Mansi- yaa, in Selkup- kyuke, etc. Personally, I think it’s really cool that one can go to some remote place like the Taymir Peninsula in Siberia and find natives who use words that Hungarians used in the time of the Land Conquest. Pretty neat! 🙂

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