The Uralic languages constitute a language family of 39 languages spoken by approximately 20 million people. The healthiest Uralic languages in terms of the number of native speakers are Estonian, Finnish, and Hungarian. Countries that are home to a significant number of speakers of Uralic languages include Estonia, Finland, Hungary, Romania, Russia, Serbia and Slovakia.
The name "Uralic" refers to the location of the family’s suggested Urheimat (homeland), which was often placed in the vicinity of the Ural mountains. However, there is no reliable proof for this, and modern scientists often places the urheimat more west and more south, close to the urheimat of Indo-European languages.
While the internal structure of the Uralic family has been under debate since the family was originally proposed, three subfamilies, Finno-Permic, Ugric and Samoyedic are usually recognized as being distinct from one another. Historically, Finno-Permic and Ugric have tended to be grouped as the Finno-Ugric family, but the genetic similarities between these groups with respect to other members of the Uralic family do not appear to justify this. In any event, all the Uralic languages are thought to have descended, through independent processes of language change, from Proto-Uralic. There is some disagreement in the two views as to whether Proto-Uralic originally split into two or three branches.
Many efforts have been made to identify the relationship between Uralic and the world’s other major language families, but none have won general acceptance at the present time. The Uralic-Yukaghir hypothesis identifies Uralic and Yukaghir as independent members of a single language family; though often mentioned, it is currently accepted by only a minority of historical linguists. Theories proposing a special relationship with the Altaic languages were formerly popular, based on shared vocabulary as well as grammatical and phonological features (e.g., agglutination and vowel harmony), but are now generally rejected, with such similarities attributed to coincidence and language contact, for most, or to relationship at a deeper genetic level, for a few; in either case, a privileged relationship with Altaic seems improbable.
Theories that include the Uralic family as a node in a proposed macrofamily include the following:
Classification of languages
The traditional classification of the Uralic languages is as follows. Obsolete names are displayed in italics.
- Ugric (Ugrian)
- Hungarian (Magyar)
- Ob Ugric (Ob Ugrian)
- Finno-Permic (Permian-Finnic)
- Permic (Permian)
- Finno-Volgaic (Finno-Cheremisic, Finno-Mari, Volga-Finnic)
- Mari (Cheremisic)
- Mordvinic (Mordvin, Mordvinian)
- Extinct Finno-Volgaic languages of uncertain position
- Finno-Lappic (Finno-Saamic, Finno-Samic)
- Sami (Samic, Saamic, Lappic, Lappish)
- Western Sami (Western Samic)
- Eastern Sami (Eastern Samic)
- Baltic-Finnic (Balto-Finnic, Balto-Fennic, Finnic, Fennic)
The term Volgaic, used to denote a branch previously believed to include Mari and Mordvinic, has now become obsolete. Modern linguistic research has shown that it was a geographic classification rather than a linguistic one. The Mordvinic languages are more closely related to the Finno-Lappic languages than they are to the Mari languages.
Structural characteristics generally said to be typical of Uralic languages include:
- extensive use of independent suffixes, a.k.a. agglutination.
- a large set of grammatical cases (13–14 cases on average; mainly coincidental: Proto-Uralic had 6 cases) , e.g.:
- Erzya: 12 cases
- Estonian: 14 cases (and one is still under some debate)
- Finnish: 15 cases
- Hungarian: 18 cases (and some more case-like suffixes)
- Inari Sami: 9 cases
- Komi: in certain dialects as many as 27 cases
- Moksha: 13 cases
- Nenets: 7 cases
- North Sami: 6 cases
- Udmurt: 16 cases
- Veps: 24 cases
- unique Uralic case system, from which all modern Uralic languages derive their case systems.
- nominative singular has no case suffix.
- accusative and genitive suffixes are nasal sounds (-n, -m, etc.)
- three-way distinction in the local case system, with each set of local cases being divided into forms corresponding roughly to "from", "to", and "in/at"; especially evident, e.g., in Hungarian, Finnish and Estonian, which have several sets of local cases, such as the "inner", "outer" and "on top" systems in Hungarian, while in Finnish the "on top" forms have merged to the "outer" forms.
- Uralic locative suffix exists in all Uralic languages in various cases, e.g., Hungarian superessive, Finnish essive, North Sami essive, Erzyan inessive, and Nenets locative.
- Uralic lative suffix exists in various cases in many Uralic languages, e.g., Hungarian illative, Finnish lative, Erzyan illative, Komi approximative, and Northern Sami locative.
- vowel harmony (recently lost in standard Estonian, but exists in dialects).
- a lack of grammatical gender.
- negative verb, which exists in almost all Uralic languages, e.g., Nganasan, Enets, Nenets, Kamassian, Komi, Meadow Mari, Erzya (in the first preterite, the conjunctional, optative and imperative moods, sometimes there are alterations in choice of negative verb stems), North Sami (and other Samic languages), Finnish, Estonian, Karelian, etc. (Some innovative languages have lost this feature, e.g., Hungarian.)
- palatalization of consonants; in this context, palatalization means a secondary articulation, where the middle of the tongue is tense. For example, pairs like [ɲ] - [n], or [c] - [t] are contrasted in Hungarian, as in hattyú [hɒccuː] "swan". Some Sami languages, for example Skolt Sami, distinguish three degrees: plain [l], palatalized <'l> [lʲ], and palatal [ʎ], where <'l> has a primary alveolar articulation, while has a primary palatal articulation. Original Uralic palatalization is phonemic, independent of the following vowel and traceable to the 6000-year-old Proto-Uralic. It is different from Russian palatalization, which is of more recent origin. Baltic-Finnic languages have lost palatalization, but eastern varieties have reacquired it, so Baltic-Finnic palatalization (where extant) was originally dependent on the following vowel.
- lack of phonologically contrastive tone.
- lots of postpositions (prepositions are very rare).
- basic vocabulary of about 200 words, including body parts (e.g., eye, heart, head, foot, mouth), family members (e.g., father, mother-in-law), animals (e.g., viper, partridge, fish), nature objects (e.g., tree, stone, nest, water), basic verbs (e.g., live, fall, run, make, see, suck, go, die, swim, know), basic pronouns (e.g., who, what, we, you, I), numerals (e.g., two, five); derivatives increase the number of common words.
- possessive suffixes.
- no possessive pronouns.
- dual, which exists, e.g., in the Samoyedic, Ob Ugrian and Samic languages.
- plural markers -j (i) and -t (-d) have a common origin (e.g., in Finnish, Estonian, Erzya, Samic languages, Samoyedic languages). Hungarian, however, has -i- before the possessive suffixes and -k elsewhere. In the old orthographies, the plural marker -k was also used in the Samic languages.
- no verb for "have". Note that all Uralic languages have verbs with the meaning of "own" or "possess", but these words are not used in the same way as English "have". Instead, the concept of "have" is indicated with alternative syntactic structures. For example, Finnish uses existential clauses; the subject is the possession, the verb is "to be" (the copula), and the possessor is grammatically a location and in the adessive case: "Minulla on kala", literally "I_on is fish", or "I have a fish (some fish)". In addition, Finnish can also employ possessive suffixes, e.g. "Minulla on kalani", literally "I_on is fish_my", or "I do have my own fish". In Hungarian: "Van egy halam", literally "Is a fish_my", or "I have a fish".
- expressions that include a numeral are singular if they refer to things which form a single group, e.g., "négy csomó" in Hungarian, "njeallje čuolmma" in Northern Sami, "neli sõlme" in Estonian, and "neljä solmua" in Finnish, each of which means "four knots", but the literal approximation is "four knot". (This approximation is inaccurate for Finnish and Estonian, where the singular is in the partitive case, such that the number points to a part of a larger mass, like "four of knot(s)".)
- the stress is always on the first syllable, except for the Mari, Udmurt and Komi-Permyak languages. The Erzya language can vary its stress in words to give specific nuances to sentential meaning.
The following is a very brief selection of cognates in basic vocabulary across the Uralic family, which may serve to give an idea of the sound changes involved. This is not a list of translations: cognates have a common origin, but their meaning may be shifted and loanwords may have replaced them.
|| North Sami
| fire || *tuli
|| tu |
| fish || *kala
|| xalya |
| nest || *pesä
|| pyidya |
| hand, arm || *käti
|| - |
| eye || *śilmä
|| sæw° |
| fathom || *süli
|| tyíbya |
| vein / sinew || *sïxni
|| ín 'sinew, tendon'
|| te' |
| bone || *luwi
|| le |
| liver || *mïksa
|| mud° |
| urine || *kunśi
|| - |
| to go || *meni-
|| myin- |
| to live || *elä-
|| yilye- |
| to die || *kaxli-
|| xa- |
| to wash || *mośki-
|| masø- |
- Abondolo, Daniel (ed., 1998), The Uralic Languages, London and New York, ISBN 0-415-08198-X.
- Collinder, Björn (1957), Survey of the Uralic Languages, Stockholm.
- Collinder, Björn (1960), An Etymological Dictionary of the Uralic Languages, Stockholm.
- Décsy, Gyula (1990), The Uralic Protolanguage: A Comprehensive Reconstruction, Bloomington, Indiana.
- Hajdu, Péter, (1963), Finnugor népek és nyelvek, Gondolat kiadó, Budapest [Transl. G. F. Cushing as Finni-Ugrian Languages and Peoples (1975), André Deutsch, London].
- Laakso, Johanna (1992), Uralilaiset kansat (Uralic Peoples), Porvoo – Helsinki – Juva, ISBN 951-0-16485-2.
- Rédei, Károly (ed.) (1986-88), Uralisches etymologisches Wörterbuch (Uralic Etymological Dictionary), Budapest.
- Sammallahti, Pekka, Matti Morottaja (1983): Säämi – suoma – säämi škovlasänikirje (Inari Sami – Finnish – Inari Sami School Dictionary). Helsset/Helsinki: Ruovttueatnan gielaid dutkanguovddaš/Kotimaisten kielten tutkimuskeskus, ISBN 951-9475-36-2.
- Sammallahti, Pekka (1988): Historical Phonology of the Uralic Languages In: Denis Sinor (ed.): The Uralic Languages, pp. 478-554. Leiden: E.J. Brill.
- Sammallahti, Pekka (1993): Sámi – suoma – sámi sátnegirji (Northern Sami – Finnish – Northern Sami Dictionary). Ohcejohka/Utsjoki: Girjegiisá, ISBN 951-8939-28-4.
- Sauvageot, Aurélien (1930), Recherches sur le vocabulaire des langues ouralo-altaïques (Research on the Vocabulary of the Uralo-Altaic Languages), Paris.
- Önija komi kyv. (Modern Komi language) Morfologia/Das’töma filologijasa kandidat G.V.Fed'un'ova kipod ulyn. — Syktyvkar: Komi n’ebög ledzanin, 2000. — 544 s. ISBN 5-7555-0689-2.
- Künnap, A. (2000). Contact-induced perspectives in Uralic linguistics. LINCOM studies in Asian linguistics, 39. München: LINCOM Europa. ISBN 3895869643
- Abondolo, D. M. (1998). The Uralic languages. Routledge language family descriptions. New York: Routledge. ISBN 041508198X
- Collinder, B. (1965). An introduction to the Uralic languages. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Collinder, B. (1960). Comparative grammar of the Uralic languages. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell.
- Wickman, B. (1955). The form of the object in the Uralic languages. Uppsala: Lundequistska bokhandeln.