Frequently Asked Questions about Finno-Ugrian Languages

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Usein kysyttyä suomalais-ugrilaisista kielistä.

Read this first
The "Urheimat", or Our Primeval Home


Language Relationship


Finno-Ugrian Languages in Our Modern World


The Wonderful Finnish Language


Read this first

Here are some questions that an average Finno-Ugrian linguist will hear in a few years, plus some answers based on my humble knowledge. Seriously speaking, these answers represent the so-called Finnish mainstream Finno-Ugristics.

Additional information can be found in books (a small bibliography) and also in the Internet (did you visit my link list?).

If you are really anxious to find an answer, send me an e-mail: Johanna.Laakso@Helsinki.FI.


The Urheimat, or Our Primeval Home

Where did the Finns come from?

The Finns never "came" to Finland, because Finns, Finnish identity or Finnish language in its present sense have never existed anywhere outside Finland. What now counts as "Finnish" has been formed here, during thousands of years, influenced by many peoples, languages and cultures.

Many Finns have learnt at school that our ancestors arrived from the east (where languages related to Finnish are still spoken) some 2.000 years ago. This was a plausible theory in its time, but not any more: contrary to what was believed in the first half of this century, Finland has been continuously populated ever since the latest Ice Age, that is: our first ancestors lived here already some 9.000 years ago. Of these first people of Finland very little is known: we don't know where they came from (from the south, of course...) or what language they spoke (it could have been Finno-Ugrian or even some language of a completely unknown ancestry). Of course, even after that Finland has received many cultural and language influences from many directions.

OK, let's put it this way: where did the Finnish language come from?

A few decades ago the family tree of the Finno-Ugrian languages was interpreted as a map showing how the FU peoples wandered to their present homes. Modern archaeology obviously does not support such wide migrations. Also recent loan word research has shown very old Indo-European loanwords especially in Finnish and the westernmost (Finnic) branch, which means that some pre-form of Finnish must have been spoken relatively close to the Baltic Sea already quite early.

On the other hand, Finnish is certainly related to languages spoken in Middle Russia and West Siberia. This means either that the area of the Finno-Ugrian (Uralic) proto-language has been very wide, reaching perhaps from the Baltic Sea to the Urals, or that we must find alternative explanatory models to account for the spreading of these languages. 

The Bend of the Volga or Northern Central Europe?

Some scholars have proposed that Uralic languages would have been spoken far more westward, even in what is now Northern Germany and Denmark. Especially Kalevi Wiik, a professor of Phonetics, has claimed that Germanic languages were originally "Indo-European spoken with a Uralic accent". However, Wiik's hypothesis has received hard criticism from the side of Finnish Indo-Europeanists. There seems to be no hard evidence that could help us identify the languages probably spoken in Northern Europe before the present-day Indo-European and Uralic languages.


Language relationship

You mean Finnish is not related with Russian?

One of the best ways to make a Finn jump is to tell him/her that Finns have slanting eyes and speak Russian or something like that. In fact - this is how almost any Finn will answer - English and almost all European languages, including Russian and other Slavic languages, belong to the great and mighty Indo-European language family, but Finnish doesn't. Finnish, together with Estonian, Hungarian, Sámi ("Lappish") and many others (see below), belongs to the Finno-Ugrian (or Uralic) language family.

Of course, Russians have been our eastern neighbours for a thousand years or so. (Before Eastern Slavic tribes arrived to what is now Northern (Central) Russia, the area was probably inhabited by Finno-Ugrian tribes speaking languages now long since extinct. Some names of these peoples and languages are mentioned in old chronicles, but no other records survive.) It has been claimed that Moscow, for example, is situated in ancient Finno-Ugrian territory. Later on, the Finnic languages (Finnish and its closest relatives) have clearly influenced the neighbouring Northwest Russian dialects. The eastern Finnic languages (like Karelian) have also been deeply impregnated by Russian loanwords and other influences. The speakers of Finnish, however, were mostly subjects of Sweden (until 1809) and received most of their loanwords and cultural influences from the West.

There are some Russian loanwords in Finnish, and some later influences can be seen e.g. in the slang of Helsinki (words like mesta ’place’ or snaijata ’to know’ were used in the streets of 19th-century trilingual Helsinki), but generally speaking, the influence of Russian in Finnish has been rather weak compared with that of Swedish. Even now, although Finland often claims to be an important gateway between East and West, there are surprisingly few Finns who speak Russian (far less, in fact, than Finns who know French or German, for example).

 

Is it true that "the theories about Finno-Ugrian language relationship have been shown to be false"?

No, it isn't. No serious scholar of the Finno-Ugrian languages has ever doubted the common origin of these languages. Of course, there are different opinions on how this common origin and the relation between FU languages should be concretely explained and interpreted.

What has been falsified is probably the antiquated idea of Finno-Ugrian cultural or even racial relationship. Besides, there are people possessed by more or less crazy ideas of relating their native language with some very prestigious or exotic language (e.g. Hungarian with Sumerian). There may be political or nationalist undertones to this, like in Hungary in the 19th century, when some Hungarians who didn't want to be "related" to "the most primitive peoples in Eurasia" fought their "Ugro-Turkic war", trying to prove that Hungarian is related to the Turkic languages - which would have made them descendants or relatives of the mighty warriors of the East.

(As for Finno-Ugric and Turkic, I have now compiled a homepage with more detailed explanations.)

 

What does it mean that the Finno-Ugrian languages are related?

The FU languages still share some central characteristics and vocabulary items, allowing us to reconstruct many features and details of a common proto-language.

From this proto-language, the present FU languages have developed to different directions, due to both internal drifts and foreign influences. Traditionally, this has been illustrated with a family-tree model, which, of course, is a coarse and simplified description of the relationship. Nowadays, many linguists draw a more bush-like model, with the main branches (Finnic, Sámi, Mordvin, Mari, Permian, Ugric, Samoyed) all equal; their internal relationships cannot be satisfactorily accounted for in terms of the family-tree model.

The proto-language was spoken at least some six thousand years ago (roughly at the same time as the Indo-European proto-language), which means that the most distant branches of the FU language family are very distantly related. The relationship between Finnish and Hungarian could be compared to that between English and Hindi. (This means that there is necessarily no more racial or cultural similarity between Finns and Hungarians...)

More information (in Finnish) on my proto-language page.

 

How can you know that some languages are related?

Languages are genetically related if their common characteristics - words, affixes, features - can be explained as inheritance from a common proto-language.

Finding such common characteristics is not easy. We must take into account

You can't prove genetic relatedness by merely finding similarities in dictionaries and word lists. Instead, you should find systematic correspondences, reconstruct common proto-forms, explain the developments leading from them and make all this coherent with what is known of the history of the languages in question and languages in general. Besides, similar words are not enough, because words change and are replaced: you should find correspondences in grammar and affixes, too.

 

Are the Finno-Ugrian languages related to other language families? What about Finnish and Turkish?

Most Finno-Ugrists would answer: we don't know, at least nothing has been proved yet. Some linguists have proposed a relationship between the Finno-Ugrian and Indo-European language families, but it seems more probable that the Indo-Europeans are simply our old neighbours: the FU languages have some really ancient IE loanwords.

Some other hypotheses have also been proposed (Uralo-Altaic, Uralo-Dravidian, Finno-Basque, Hungaro-Sumerian etc. etc.); as a rule, these are either based on antiquated ideas or created by (lay) people with no expertise on one (or both) of the language groups in question. The Ural-Altaic hypothesis still survives in some parts of the world as a common belief that "Finnish and Turkish are related". However, as pointed out earlier, the structural similarities between Finnish (or other Finno-Ugrian languages) and Turkish (or other Turkic or "Altaic" languages) are of a typological character: these languages belong to the same type. The basic vocabulary in these languages is quite different and does not allow for the reconstruction of a common proto-language. Besides, the existence of the "Altaic" language family (Turkic, Mongolic and Tungusic languages, perhaps also Korean) is also doubted by many scholars.

(Although not genetically related, Turkish does have some connections with the Finno-Ugrian languages. Some FU languages spoken in Central Russia and Western Siberia have been influenced by the neighbouring Turkic languages, and Hungarian has many layers of loanwords adopted from different Turkic-speaking tribes.)

Sadly enough, it seems probable that genetic relationship beyond the language families known by now can never be proved. Some attempts have been made, most notably the Nostratic theory (a macro-family comprising many language families in the Old World) and even the "Proto-World" hypothesis, which, however, must be regarded as wild fantasy (more information on the excellent sci.lang FAQ pages).

 

They say Finnish and Hungarian are related. What, exactly, are the related words?

This, together with the eternal "Where did the Finns come from?", is the mother of all Finno-Ugric FAQ's. After years of distributing references to etymological dictionaries and other exotic stuff, I have finally given up and composed a new page dedicated to this question, complete with a new bibliography...


Finno-Ugrian Languages in Our Modern World

What languages belong to the Finno-Ugrian language family?

The Finno-Ugrian or Uralic (like Tapani Salminen, I use these two words as synonyms) language family consists of the following branches:

(The names in brackets and quotation marks, like "Ostyak" or "Zyryan", used previously in the Western world and also in Pre-Soviet Russia, are originally given by neighbouring peoples and often considered derogatory by the peoples themselves. Some scholars still use them, as the usage of the names used by the peoples themselves, like "Khanty" or "Komi", is, so they say, only a seemingly democratic remnant of Soviet hypocrisy. However, it seems that the usage of the peoples' own ethnonyms seems to become a standard. Some "exonyms" can also be dangerously misleading: the name "Ostyak" has been used for three different peoples and languages, i. e. Khanty of the Ugric branch, Selkup of the Samoyed branch and also Ket or "Yenisey Ostyak", a "Palaeo-Siberian" language outside the Uralic language family, and this usage still confuses the local authorities and their statistics, even the local people themselves!)

Speaker statistics.

 

Aren't they all extinct?

Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian are official and majority languages in independent states and thus relatively safe. Other FU languages (like most of the languages of the world, in fact) are more or less endangered.

The Volgaic and Permian languages have hundreds of thousands of speakers, but most of the fluent speakers are elderly and live in the countryside; many urban and young people tend to give up their language in favour of Russian. These peoples had their own titular republics already in the Soviet Union. However, these republics have Russian-speaking majorities and the Russian language dominates in most domains of language use; besides, the area of the titular republics does not cover all areas inhabited by these peoples. In recent years, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a national awakening has brought about some positive developments especially in the Komi and Mari republics.

Of the smaller FU languages, e.g. Votian, Livonian and some smaller Sámi languages are almost extinct. Even languages spoken by thousands of people are very endangered as long as children and young people are not helped to grow up to be fluent speakers.

A lot depends on

 

How do the Finno-Ugrians live?

There is no such thing as "Finno-Ugrian culture" or "Finno-Ugrian way of life". FU languages are spoken by peoples who live in many kinds of surroundings.

When speaking of Finno-Ugrian languages, most Finns will think of exotic hunters and reindeer breeders living in a wigwam-like hut on arctic tundra. This picture corresponds, to some extent, to the northernmost Finno-Ugrians (Sámi, Ob-Ugrian, Samoyed), whose history and form of living has many analogies with the (better known) fates of some North American First Nations.

However, the Finnic, Volgaic and Permian peoples do not fit in with this picture: they have been farmers for thousands of years, and their life has been very similar to that of their Russian-, Swedish-, Latvian- or Turkic-speaking neighbours. (Replace the hut with a log house and the tundra with forests and fields; you can also put some apple trees or bee hives around the house.) The Hungarians, before settling down in Hungary (according to old chronicles, this happened exactly 896 AD), were probably horse nomads on the steppe of what is now Ukraine or Southern Russia.

In the last hundred years, urbanization and industrialization have arrived to the Finno-Ugrian lands, too. In some cases, this has meant the loss of language and identity. In Russia, factories and growing cities also brought more Russian-speaking population, which is one (although by far not the only) reason why the Finno-Ugrians of Russia constitute a minority even on their titular areas.


Our Wonderful Finnish Language

"Is it true that Finnish is the most ancient language in the world?"

Even questions like this are sometimes asked. Of course, all languages change all the time, but Finnish is, in some respects (especially in the sound system), quite conservative: it has even preserved some Indo-European loanwords in a form quite close to the original. Fi. kuningas is closer to Old Germanic *kuningaz than its modern descendants, English king, German König or Swedish k(on)ung (or, for that matter, Russian knyaz' ’prince’, a loanword from the same Germanic source).

On the other hand, Standard Finnish can be called a young language. The first books written in Finnish appeared in the 16th century, but Modern Standard Finnish was only created in the 19th century, as an amalgam of words and features from different dialects.

 

Is Finnish something totally different from all the other languages in the world?

Because Finnish deviates from Indo-European languages in many visible respects, it seems even more exotic than it really is. In fact, the FU languages are quite typical Northern Eurasian languages. Particularly the Finnic languages have been deeply impregnated by Indo-European (especially Baltic and Germanic, also Slavic) influences, both in vocabulary and grammar.

Finns themselves often believe their language to be "exceptional" because all the foreign languages they know are Indo-European and they take Indo-European peculiarities for universals. In fact, the lack of grammatical gender (FU languages have only one word for "he" and "she"), the lack of a verb for "have" (Finnish uses structures like "there is a book with me" for "I have a book") or the lack of a grammatically expressed future tense are universally quite frequent phenomena.

 

What is good Finnish?

Standard Finnish, like most other written languages, has its "official" grammar and rules. These rules, of course, are not dictated by heavenly inspiration but compiled by human beings. These people try to make the rules as good as possible, on the basis of what is native and known to most Finns (the traditions of written Finnish, the dialects of Finnish), or what is thought to be as clear, as logical or even as beautiful as possible. However, these may be controversial things; sometimes they are simply a matter of taste. This means that forms that deviate from the standard aren't necessarily "worse" or "more un-Finnish" than other forms.

The idea of "good Finnish" is a matter of equality. Our traditions of Scandinavian democracy require a neutral standard language that could serve all citizens equally well. (The situation in Britain, where - so they say - people's speech reveals their social origin and what schools they have gone to, is often mentioned as a terrifying example in this respect ;-).) In Finland, the Research Centre for the Languages of Finland includes The Finnish Language Agency, which gives advice on questions of "correctness".

Of course, having a standard language does not mean that all Finns would use the standard language in all occasions. Finnish, like all other languages, has many dialects. Although schools and mass media have levelled many features of the original dialects spoken still in the beginning of this century, the areal differences still survive - some scholars use the term "areal spoken languages". In spoken use, Standard Finnish, as a relatively artificial formation based on many different dialects, is giving way to colloquial variants of spoken Finnish, and these are used in more and more official contexts.

 

Where do Finnish words come from?

Our oldest words date back to the Uralic (Finno-Ugrian) proto-language, spoken at least 6000 years ago, e.g. Fi. elää ’live’, uida ’swim’, kala ’fish’, nuoli ’arrow’, suksi ’ski’, the numbers from 1 to 6: yksi, kaksi, kolme, neljä, viisi, kuusi. (More examples on the new Finnish-Hungarian page.) Some of these could be ancient loans from the Indo-European proto-language, e.g. nimi ’name’ or tehdä ’do, make’. "Younger" words include descriptive formations and derived words. Finnish has many means of deriving words from other words, and some derived words have become completely independent. For example, no Finn (except a linguist) would think that the word toinen ’second, other’ is derived from tuo ’that’.

Finnish has many layers of Indo-European loanwords. The oldest ones probably represent the Proto-IE stage. Later, Finnish has received loans from Baltic (e.g. morsian ’bride’, silta ’bridge’, kirves ’axe’, härkä ’ox’ etc.) and Germanic languages. Many Germanic loans are technical terms (e.g. rauta 'iron' and laiva 'ship') or connected with organized society and power (e.g. kuningas ’king’, ruhtinas ’prince’, hallita ’to rule’, tuomita ’to judge’). The influx of Germanic loans has continued up to modern Swedish; until last century, Swedish was the language of education and administration in Finland and gave or conveyed us hundreds of loanwords. The influence of Russian has been clearly weaker, although there are some (Old) Russian loanwords common to all dialects of Finnish (and Finnic), e.g. vapaa ’free’, risti ’cross’, pappi ’priest’, lusikka ’spoon’. Now, of course, English is an important source of loan words.

The Sámi languages have given loanwords especially to Northern Finnish dialects (of Sámi words, tundra and [Fi.] mursu ’walrus’ have spread to other European languages as well). Estonian has received hundreds of Finnish loanwords but given us only a couple of neologisms: lavastaja ’stage designer’, lennokki ’model aeroplane’.

Many Finnish words have no cognates in the related languages (outside the Finnic group). It has been proposed that they could be loanwords from an unknown language spoken here before the arrival of our linguistic ancestors, but it is also possible that they are ancient Uralic words whose cognates just haven't been preserved in other Uralic languages, or that they are Indo-European loanwords still to be discovered.


A small bibliography

Abondolo, Daniel [ed.] 1998: The Uralic languages. Routledge.
Häkkinen, Kaisa 1990: Mistä sanat tulevat. Suomalaista etymologiaa. SKS.
---- 1996: Suomalaisten esihistoria kielitieteen valossa. SKS.
Kulonen, Ulla-Maija 1996: Sanojen alkuperä ja sen selittäminen. Etymologista leksikografiaa. SKS.
---- : The origin of Finnish and related languages.
Kulonen, Ulla-Maija & Seurujärvi-Kari, Irja & Pentikäinen, Juha 1994: Johdatus saamentutkimukseen. SKS.
Laakso, Johanna [toim.] 1991: Uralilaiset kansat. Tietoa suomen sukukielistä ja niiden puhujista. WSOY.
Lallukka, Seppo 1990: The East Finnic minorities in the Soviet Union. An Appraisal of the Erosive Trends. Annales Academiae Scientiarum Fennicae B 252.
Lehikoinen, Laila & Kiuru, Silva 1989: Kirjasuomen kehitys. Helsingin yliopiston suomen kielen laitos.
Salminen, Tapani [toim.] 1993: Uralilaiset kielet tänään. Kuopion Snellman-instituutin julkaisuja A 13/1993.

Publications of the Finno-Ugrian Society

Virittäjä


More Finno-Ugrian links.

Updated May 2001.

johanna.laakso@helsinki.fi