A commentary address to László Honti’s Zur Morphotaktik und Morphosyntax der uralischen/finnisch-ugrischen Grundsprache

by Tapani Salminen (Helsinki) <tasalmin@cc.helsinki.fi>

One of the main ideas in professor Honti’s presentation (Honti 1995) is that at least some of the case suffixes known from the nominal declension were also present in the inflection of personal pronouns, and that they were responsible for the formal difference in verbal and possessive suffixes. As we know, the Uralic languages are basically divided into two groups with respect to the inflection of personal pronouns: those where there is no principal distinction between personal pronouns and nouns proper, and those where they are markedly different. In my opinion, those languages where the inflection of personal pronouns and nouns is uniform are more innovative, in other words, in languages like Finnish the nominal case declension has secondarily spread to personal pronouns.

If such a conclusion, which is widely held, but rejected by Honti, continues to be valid, the formal difference of verbal and possessive suffixes must be explained from another background. I have always found Alo Raun’s idea of verbal suffixes being older than possessive suffixes a very plausible one. Honti states that Raun is mistaken, but I can see no obvious reason why the agglutination of two distinct classes of elements had to be simultaneous, even if their source was the same, as in this case the personal pronouns.

Trying to establish Pre-Uralic properties or developments is, however, not an entirely well-defined task for comparative Uralic studies. I shall therefore restrict my remaining comments to such features of the Uralic proto-language which are more or less reliably reconstructable. In tables 1 and 2, I try to illustrate the reconstruction of one such area, namely the basic system of possessive suffixation. Contrary to Honti’s view, I hold that from the concrete data we have from many branches of Uralic, including the extreme western and eastern branches, Sámi and Samoyed, singular possessive suffixes of grammatical cases can be reconstructed precisely and unambiguously.

Table 1. Pite Sámi aah'tjie ‘father’ (Lehtiranta 1992, 159)

Table 2. Tundra Nenets ngacya ‘dad’ (cf. Salminen forthcoming)

There may in fact be a few analogical forms in these tables, but I assure you that the reconstruction that must underlie both modern systems is not invalidated by them. The reconstruction itself is seen in table 3.

Table 3. Proto-Uralic possessive suffixes (Janhunen 1982, 32)
While it can be reached directly from tables 1 and 2, it can also be found in Janhunen (1982). The Pite Sámi material in Table 1 was not available to Janhunen then, but he relied on similar reflections of the proto-system in Finnic and Mordvin. Special attention is to be paid to the non-agglutinative character of the 1st person possessive suffixes, because it’s one of the few instances of complex morphophonology reconstructable for Proto-Uralic. It can be seen both from the Sámi consonant gradation and the Nenets morphophonology that the 1st person accusative and genitive suffixes, in contrast to the respective 2nd and 3rd person forms, could contain only one consonant, i.e. no co-affix was present. The difference between the vowels in the 1st and 2nd vs. the 3rd person suffixes is retained in Nenets and reflected as vowel alternation in Sámi. Furthermore, not only the westernmost branches of Uralic show the original difference in the verbal vs. possessive suffixes (e.g., 1sg *m vs. *mə) but on the basis of the Samoyed material it dates back to Proto-Uralic, and an attempt to explain the difference as a Finno-Volgaic innovation by Korhonen (1981, 267–269) is therefore obsolete.

Mari, by contrast, does not show traces of the three contrastive series of possessive suffixes. This state of affairs is perhaps not too difficult to explain, assuming that at an early stage in the history of Mari, the three series merged, and the grammatical case forms became homonymous in possessive declension. Consequently, two factors became active in restoring the lost contrast between cases. Firstly, a simple language-internal analogy offered a pattern where case suffixes could be attached to the ambiguous possessive forms. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, a similar pattern was attested in the neighbouring Turkic languages, whose influence on Mari was extensive. These two factors finally led to the present system where the accusative and genitive suffixes follow the possessive suffixes, while the local case forms where no merger took place retained the original order. To sum up my view, there is little reason to doubt the well-established reconstruction of the relative order of case and possessive suffixation.

I would further like to refer to a few minor problems. The genitive is actually not on the decline in northern Samoyed. On the contrary, it’s a living case form in most Samoyed languages. However, the genitive form of personal pronouns, where it exists, is clearly secondary, and the nominative continues to be used in possessive structures. In Selkup, the distinction between the 1st and 2nd person vs. the 3rd person pronouns should be highlighted, since the 3rd person pronouns in question derive from demonstrative forms originally with nominal declension, while the others are ancient personal pronouns, with no genitive forms at all. I find this state of affairs as a clear indication of the original lack of nominal case paradigm among the personal pronouns. I do agree with Honti that from a typological as well as a historical point of view, distinct forms of personal pronouns for subject and object functions were necessary throughout the history of Uralic, but taking the very restricted Finnic forms minut, sinut etc. as the basis of the original distribution of Proto-Uralic case endings is quite hazardous, and the resulting patterns of reconstructed forms are not convincing. Rather the Finnic forms can be seen as the last trace of an originally different type of declension for the personal pronouns, and the Hungarian forms with the nominal accusative ending in personal pronouns are best regarded as analogical, while such forms as engem, téged as well as the possessive házad as an object seem to be direct continuations of Proto-Uralic forms, i.e. from a time when no t-accusative existed. In other words, it’s still plausible that in Proto-Uralic there was only one accusative ending which marked the nominal object, and that the paradigm of personal pronouns consisted of two forms, a basic one which was only used for emphasis in connection with forms already marked for person, and another one expanded with the possessive suffixes used in the object function.

The current view is that there were three grammatical cases in the Proto-Uralic nominal declension. However, it’s not universally held that the morphologically marked cases, accusative and genitive, were only used to denote a definite object and possessor, respectively. A striking parallelism between the Finnic and Samoyed, in particular Nenets object rules lends support to a view that the case of object was accusative except in structures without an overt subject like the 2nd person imperative. The use of the nominative as the case of an indefinite object in some Uralic languages may be attributed to the influence of neighbouring languages, for instance Turkic. Similarly, it’s likely that the genitive was invariably used in the possessor function, while the nominative could be used as an attribute expressing material, origin or another characteristic of the main word.

Irrespective of its potential connection with a denominal adjectival derivative, a suffix *j was probably present in Proto-Uralic as the marker of an oblique plural case form, which contrasted with the nominative plural in *t. The rare Finnic forms with *ja or their possible cognates elsewhere are hardly relevant in this context. Furthermore, it seems anachronistic and circular to reconstruct forms such as *kalatem or *kalaten with *t in accusative and genitive plural, when it’s generally assumed that the *kalaten > *kalaδen type genitive plural only developed in Western Finnic to replace the old *kalaj type, and the Eastern Finnic *kaloiδen type appears to be a contamination of the old type and the secondary Western Finnic type. Recontructing other, agglutinative plural case forms in Proto-Uralic is problematic, so that one plausible scenario would still be that the case paradigms were different in the three numbers, with six cases in the singular, only one case in the dual, and the above mentioned two cases in the plural, all with simple suffixal markers (Janhunen 1982, 29–30). There is little evidence that the plural case declension in Samoyed would reflect the existence of a similar paradigm in Proto-Uralic or that the respective dual paradigm would’ve been reduced in Proto-Samoyed.

Finally, the personal suffixes of objective conjugation in Samoyed do not only resemble the respective possessive suffixes but are identical with them. It should not be surprising if that was the case in early stages of Ugrian languages as well, so that the partial differentiation of the two classes of suffixes was secondary. If so, it’s perhaps better to assume that the development of the objective conjugation took place simultaneously in all persons, but only after the Proto-Uralic stage, i.e. quite independently in Mordvin and via mutual interaction among the easternmost branches, Hungarian, Mansi, Khanty, and Samoyed.


Honti, László 1995. Zur Morphotaktik und Morphosyntax der uralischen/finnisch-ugrischen Grundsprache. Congressus Octavus Internationalis Fenno-Ugristarum. Jyväskylä 10.–15.8.1995. Pars I. Redegit Heikki Leskinen. Jyväskylä. 53–82.

Janhunen, Juha 1982. On the structure of Proto-Uralic. Finnisch-Ugrische Forschungen 44. 23–42.

Korhonen, Mikko 1981. Johdatus lapin kielen historiaan. Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seuran toimituksia 370. Helsinki.

Lehtiranta, Juhani 1992. Arjeploginsaamen äänne- ja taivutusopin pääpiirteet. Mémoires de la Société Finno-Ougrienne 212. Helsinki.

Salminen, Tapani forthcoming. Tundra Nenets. The Uralic languages. Edited by Daniel Abondolo. London: Routledge.