Finnic traits in Russian

Feb 2, 2011 by

As mentioned in the previous posting, the current consensus among Slavic linguists is that Finnic languages once spoken in what is now central Russia have left their mark on the Russian language. In the domain of vocabulary such Finnic influences are rather limited to toponyms (such as the city of Vologda, with stress on the first syllable, as in Finnish, or the names of the lakes Il’men, Ladoga and Chud’). But, as mentioned in my earlier posting, given the kind of contact that Russian speakers had with Finnic speakers — mixed marriages and massive second-language learning — we would expect more influences of Finnic languages on the Russian grammar than on its vocabulary.

But when it comes to the question of Finnic impact on the Russian grammar, especially in what concerns Standard Russian grammar rather than that of northern Russian dialects, things get more controversial. Wolfgang Veenker in his 1967 work on the Finno-Ugric substratum in the Russian language cites three cases of Finno-Ugric influence on Russian: (1) the non-application of so-called akan’e, the pattern of reduction of certain unstressed vowels; (2) the so-called nominal sentence, lacking the copula in the present tense; and (3) the use of the verb ‘to be’ instead of ‘to have’ to express possession. Yet, each one of these three peculiarities of the Russian grammar ascribed to the influence of Finno-Ugric languages is not uncontroversial in its own way.

Take, for example, the Standard Russian rule of akan’e, which involves reducing unstressed phonemes /o/ and /a/ to [ɐ] (similar to the mid-central-unrounded vowel of the English love) or to [ə] (pronounced in the first syllable of about), depending on the position in the word. This phonological rule of akan’e results in the pronunciation of the word moloko ‘milk’ with three different vowels [məlɐ’ko], although the ethymologically correct vowel in all three syllables is /o/.

Note that this rule came into Standard Russian from southern and central dialects, as it does not apply in northern Russian dialects, such as those of Kostroma and Vologda, which feature okan’e instead, that is, retaining the unreduced pronunciation of non-high back vowels /o/ and /a/. Thus, in Standard Russian, as well as in southern and central dialects, the names of the two above-mentioned northern cities are pronounced [kəstrɐ’ma] and [‘voləgdə], whereas in those cities themselves they are pronounced [kostro’ma] and [‘vologda].

As the map below shows, the land of the okan’e — the northern Russian dialects marked 1-5 on the map — coincides with the territory formerly inhabited by Finnic-speaking peoples. Finnic languages do not have vowel reduction. Ergo, northern Russian dialects got the okan’e from Finnic languages, the logic goes.

But not so fast! Let’s look a bit more closely at the area where the rule of akan’e applies. This area includes central and southern Russian dialects (marked 6-11 on the map above) and Belorussian (where the akan’e is even stronger than in Standard Russian, reducing unstressed /o/ to [a] rather than central-mid-unrounded vowels, as discussed above). However, there is no akan’e in Ukrainian! But Ukrainians did not have much contact with the Finnic-speaking peoples of the north; instead, they have much more extensive contact with Turkic speaking peoples of the Pontic steppe. So it seems that rather than “blaming” Finnic languages for the okan’e of northern Russians, we should consider akan’e as the aberrant pattern that applied to (southern dialects of) Russian and Belorussian.

Let us now consider the second phenomenon in Russian which is “blamed” on the Finno-Ugric substratum: the so-called nominal sentence. Unlike in English, where the copula be is required in all tenses including the present tense (I was a linguist, I will be a linguist and I am a linguist), Russian drops the copula in the present tense: Ja lingvist. According to Lenore Grenoble’s contribution to The Handbook of Language Contact, this pattern is “found throughout all Finno-Ugric languages except those in the Baltic subgroup” (p. 584); hence, it is the Finnic substratum that is to “blame” for this pattern in Russian. However, it is not clear that she is right on this: the World Atlas of Linguistic Structures Online lists not only Votic (from the Baltic subgroup of Finnic) but also Mordvin, a central Volga Finnic language, as languages with obligatory copula, à la English. I do not know whether Merya, Murom or Meshchera used the copula in the present tense or not.

Finally, let’s consider the non-use of the verb imet’ ‘to have’ in Standard Russian (except in scientific prose and some other marginal genres). Instead, Russian uses the verb ‘to be’ (which, again, is omitted in the present tense), in combination with the preposition u ‘at, by’ and a genitive form of the possessor. So instead of ‘I had…’, a Russian would say ‘To me there was…’. However, it is not entirely clear whether this is an influence of Finnic languages.

Two theories have been proposed to account for the lack of ‘to have’ in Russian (again, except in some very limited contexts). One theory treats it as an example of change induced by contact with Finnic languages, whereas the alternative takes it to be a relic of the earlier state-of-affairs in Common Slavic, inherited from Proto-Indo-European, which is generally believed to have been lacking a ‘have’ verb. Note that all modern Slavic languages have a ‘have’ verb — with the exception of Russian, which immediately suggests Finnic influence. Another piece of evidence in support of the Finnic-induced-change theory comes from Baltic languages: Latvian — which had Finno-Ugric contacts — also uses a ‘be’-based construction to express possession, while Lithuanian — which did not — uses a ‘have’ verb.

However, the proponents of pan-Slavic-minus-Russian-innovation theory — which states that the core of Slavic languages introduced the verb ‘have’ while Russian was geographically removed from the center of this innovation — point out “the fact that in OCS [Old Church Slavonic] texts all instances of imeti ‘have’ are loan-translations from the Greek” (Grenoble, p. 585).

Thus, a more careful study of both Standard Russian (in comparison to Belorussian and Ukrainian) and of northern Russian dialects in particular is needed if we are to gain a better understanding of the Finnic impact on Slavic.

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