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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