The lost "middle Finns"

Feb 2, 2011 by

In several postings in mid-January 2011 I discussed Finno-Ugric languages (see here, here and here). However, one issue I didn’t not discuss there is the peculiar distribution of Finnic-speaking peoples. The languages from the Finnic branch of the Finno-Ugric family are spoken in two geographically non-contiguous areas: (a) around the Baltic Sea and in Northern Scandinavia and (b) west of the Ural mountains and in the central Volga region of Russia (see the map below).

Given this present-day distribution of Finnic-speaking peoples, it is no surprise that they are “usually portrayed as peoples without history, insignificant pawns of larger powers”, as Martin Lewis points out in a recent Geocurrents posting. But why is there a gap between Western Finns (Finns proper, Estonians, Karelians and the Saami) and their Eastern brethren (i.e., speakers of Mari, Mordvin, Udmurt and Komi-Permyak languages)? Was that gap always there?

The answer is no. As one would expect of a language family, Finno-Ugric languages were once spoken in a contiguous territory running through most of northeastern Europe, as shown in the Geocurrents map below.

The lands occupied by the Finnic-speaking peoples bordered those of the Baltic- and Slavic-speaking peoples as well as of the Turkic-speaking Volga Bulgars and Khazars, whom Finnic speakers traded with extensively.

Of those Finnic-speaking peoples who once inhabited what is today northern and central Russia, some groups survived to the present day: varieties of Komi are spoken by nearly 300,000 people, Mari and Udmurt are spoken by about half a million each, and Mordvin by over a million. Several other Finnic languages barely survive under the pressure of russification: Veps is spoken by less than 6,000 people (by the way, the median language size today is about 6,000), Ingrian is spoken by 360 people and Vod’ — by only 15 people (according to the 1997 census — that number may well be even lower today). Yet other Finnic languages that were once spoken in what is now central Russia — Merya, Murom and Meshchera — gradually disappeared in the late 11th and early 12th centuries CE through acculturation to the Slavic-speaking Russians.

But did these “middle Finns” disappear completely or can we still find traces of their earlier existence? Many historians, especially Russian ones, tend to view these Finnic peoples as insignificant tribes with no statehood and no important contribution to the Russian history, culture or language. However, in recent years those views have been challenged. Work on the Obran Osh and Sarskoye Gorosdishche archeological sites (see the map above) indicate that Finnic peoples may have had something much more like a state than they are usually given credit for. And as the recent work in several disciplines shows, they have left a mark not only in the historical and archeological record, but also in the Russian gene pool and in the Russian language.

According to the 2005 paper by Boris Malyarchuk and colleagues, published in Human Biology 76(6), Finnic-speaking peoples made a significant contribution to the gene pool of the Russians, especially in the northern and eastern parts of European Russia. This contribution is especially pronounced in the Y-DNA, which is passed along the paternal line, from father to son, as compared to the mtDNA, which is passed along the maternal line, from mother to child. Based on this finding, Malyarchuk and coleagues conclude that “Russian colonization of northeastern territories might have been accomplished mainly by males rather than by females” (Malyarchuk et al., p. 877).

This finding has an important consequence for a linguistic study of language contact between Slavs and Finns in this region. In human terms, Malyarchuk et al.’s conclusion means that Slavic-speaking men settled in the former Finnic territories and (often) took Finnic-speaking wives. These women learned the language of their husbands, but did not speak it natively. And as any non-native speaker would, they made subtle “mistakes”, introducing patterns and constructions from their native Finnic tongues. Children who grew up in such linguistically mixed communities incorporated some of the Finnic-based patterns into their otherwise Slavic language. Thus, in this situation of massive second-language learning, patterns from the “subtratum language” (in this case, Finnic languages of the “middle Finns”) gradually penetrated into the Slavic “superstratum language”, which also contributed most of the vocabulary. The difference between vocabulary and grammar in situations of massive second-language learning arises mostly from the fact that we are much more self-conscious of the words than of the grammatical patterns we use.

One reason that the linguistic contribution of Finnic languages to Slavic ones has been downplayed is that earlier scholars looked in the wrong place: in the vocabulary rather than in grammar. While Turkic languages, for example, “loaned” many words to Russian, Finnic contribution to the Russian vocabulary is much more modest. But the other, and perhaps an even more important, reason that Finnic influences on Slavic have gone unnoticed for a long time is that scholars looked for contrasts between the wrong sets of languages. Their logic was as follows: when the “middle Finns” disappeared in the 11th-12th century CE, East Slavic languages were still undifferentiated; hence, the linguistic effect of these Finnic languages should be apparent in comparison of East Slavic languages (Russian, Belorussian and Ukrainian) as a whole with the other two branches of the Slavic family: West Slavic (Polish, Czech, Slovak, etc.) and South Slavic (Serbo-Croatian, Bulgarian, etc.). However, the influences of Finnic tongues were much more local, differentiating not East Slavic, but Russian vis-a-vis its East Slavic brethren: Belorussian and Ukrainian. And perhaps this influence was even more local than that, differentiating northern Russian dialects from southern Russian dialects. Note that Standard Russian arose mostly on the base of central Russian dialects which exhibit some features of both northern and southern Russian dialects.

So what are these patterns that distinguish (northern dialects of) Russian from the more southern East Slavic varieties (i.e., Belorussian, Ukrainian and southern Russian dialects)? I will discuss this in more detail in the next posting.

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