choose a language or topic »|Thursday, March 30, 2017
You are here: Home » Editors Picks » Uralic Language Family
  • Follow Us!

Uralic Language Family 

uralic

The Uralic language family stretches from Northern to Central Europe to Siberia. It consists of 39 languages spoken by some 25 million people. It is believed that they originated from a common ancestor, *Proto-Uralic, spoken by early-Uralic people who lived some 7,000 years ago in the area of the Ural Mountains, the Russian range that separates Europe from Asia. The predecessors of the Finnic and Finno-Ugric peoples moved west and south, whereas the predecessors of the Samoyedic peoples moved north and east into Siberia. The oldest written documents in the Uralic languages date back to the 13th century.

Uralic languages with the largest number of speakers are HungarianFinnish, and Estonian. The rest are minority languages of Russia in different stages of endangerment, with some on the brink of extinction. Uralic languages spoken by more than 1,000 speakers are listed below.

Finnic (Baltic and Scandinavia)
Estonian 1.1 million
Finnish 5.2 million
Finnish, Tornedalen 110,000
Karelian 128,000
Livvi (Olonets) 19,000
Ludian 5,000
Veps 6,300

Finno-Ugric
 (Western Siberia and Russia, except Hungarian)
Hungarian 14 million
Mari Eastern 535,000
Mari Western 66,000
Erzya 518,000
Moksha 297,000

Permian
 (Western Russia, Ural region)
Komi-Permyak 116,000
Komi Zyrian 262,000
Udmurt (Votyak) 566,000

Sami
 (Kola Peninsula, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Russia)
Saami Eastern 5,500
Saami Western 24,000

Samoyed
 (Northwestern Russia and Siberia)
Nenets 26,700
Selkup 1,570
Khanty 12,000
Mansi 3,200

Status
Three Uralic languages have official status in their respective countries.

  • Hungarian is the official language of Hungary.
  • Estonian is the official language of Estonia.
  • Finnish is the official language of Finland, along with Swedish.

Several Uralic languages spoken in Russia have co-official status in their respective areas along with Russian:

ErzyaMoksha Republic of Mordovia
KhantyMansi Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug
Komi-Permyak Komi Republic
Mari Mari Republic
Nenets Nenets Autonomous Okrug
Udmurt Udmurt Republic

Even though some of the Uralic languages may have hundreds of thousands of speakers, most of the fluent speakers are elderly. Majority of urban and younger people tend to give up their language in favor of Russian. Although these peoples live in their own autonomous republics, these republics have Russian-speaking majorities and the Russian language is dominant in all areas. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a national awakening has brought about some positive developments but smaller languages are very seriously endangered as long as children and young people do not grow up to be fluent speakers. For detailed information on some of the Uralic languages spoken in Russia, consult the Red Book of the Peoples of the Russian Empire:

Enets
Ingrian
Karelian 
Khanty
Mansy 
Nenets
Selkup
Veps

 

Dialects

Despite their small populations of speakers, most Uralic languages have a number of geographical dialects which vary in mutual intelligibility. Below are some examples:

Estonian North and South Estonian considered by some to be separate languages
Finnish two to eight, depending on classification
Hungarian highly standardized, variation is mostly between urban versus rural speech
Mari four depending which bank of the Volga river and how far up- or downstream of it
Komi Zyrian two mutually intelligible dialects
Nenets two major dialects—Tundra Nenets and Forest Nenets—with low mutual intelligibility between the two.

Structure

Sound system
Some of the salient features of the sound systems of Uralic languages will be described below.

Vowels
Uralic vowel systems are characterized by the following:

  • contrast between unrounded and rounded front vowels
  • contrast between short and long vowels
  • vowel harmony which requires that all the vowels in a word are either front or back, depending on the vowel in the first syllable. Vowel harmony does not usually apply to loanwords.

Consonants

  • palatalization of consonants which was probably acquired from the neighboring Slavic languages
  • consonants can be short, long and, in some languages, overly long

Stress
In FinnishEstonianHungarian, and Komi stress always falls on the first syllable of the word. In other Uralic languages, stress can fall on any syllable.

Grammar
The grammars of Uralic languages have certain salient features that are present in different combinations in some, but not all of them.

Nouns

Verbs

  • verbs are inflected for tenseaspectmood, number, and person. Some Uralic languages have a very elaborate mood system, for instance, Nenets has 16 moods.
  • evidentiality: verbs in some Uralic languages have a witnessed and a non-witnessed past
  • absence of the verb “to have”

Word order
Uralic languages have a Subject-Object-Verb or free word order, depending on the language.

Vocabulary 
The Uralic languages share a basic vocabulary of about 200 words, including body parts, kinship terms, names of animals, natural objects (e.g., stone, water, tree), common verbs, basic pronouns, and numerals. The rest of the vocabulary consists of borrowings from other languages. The sources of borrowing vary from language to language. Languages spoken on the territory of Russia tend to have russified vocabularies.

Below are some common words and phrases in three Uralic languages

Hello!
hei
halloo, tere
szervusz
Good bye!
hyvästi
hüvasti, jumalaga
ist enhozzád
Thank you!
kiitos
tänan / aitäh
köszönóm
Please!
mielyttää
palun
kérem
Excuse me!
anteeksi
vabandust
pardon, bocsánat
Yes
joo
jah
igen
No
ei
ei
jelentéktelen, nem
Man
herra
mees
ember
Woman
nainen
naine
asszony, nõ

Below are the numerals 1-10 in 8 Uralic languages belonging to different branches.

1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
Finnic
yksi
kaksi
kolme
nelja
viisi
kuusi
seitseman
kahdeksan
yhdeksan
kymmenen
üks
kaks
kolm
neli
viis
kuus
seitse
kaheksa
üheksa
kümme
Finno-Ugric
egy
kettö
három
négy
öt
hat
hét
nyolc
kilenc
tíz
Mari (Cheremis)
ikte
koktit
kumyt
niyit
vizyt
kudyt
shImyt
kandashe
indeshe
lu
Mordvin
veyke
kavto
kolmo
nile
vete
koto
sisem
kavkso
veykse
kemen’
Permian
odig
kIk
kuin’
n’il’
vit’
kuat’
sizIm
t’amIz
ukmIz
das
Sami
okta
guokte
golbma
njeallje
vihtta
guhtta
chiezha
gavcci
ovcci
logi
Samoyed
ngobʔ
s’id’a
n’akharʔ
t’et
saml’angg
matʔ
s’iʔiv
s’idend’et
khasuyuʔ
yuʔ

Writing

  • FinnishKarelianSaami WesternHungarian and Estonian use a modified version of the Latin alphabet.
  • Uralic languages spoken on the territory of the former Soviet Union are written in modified versions of the Cyrillic alphabet. Most of these languages were not written prior to the middle of the 19th century, e.g., Nenets.
  • Komi was originally written in Old Permic (Abur) alphabet devised by the Russian missionary Stepan Khrap (better known as St. Steven of Perm) in the 14th century. This alphabet was replaced by the Cyrillic alphabet in the 16th century. For a brief priod (1930-1940), Komi was written with the Latin alphabet which was, in turn, superceded by the Cyrillic alphabet used for writing the language today.

Difficulty

Language Difficulty
questionHow difficult is it to learn Uralic languages?
EstonianFinnish and Hungarian are considered to be somewhat more difficult that Category II languages for speakers of English.

13 Responses to Uralic Language Family

  1. pakistani1414918

    There is a mistake here. Hungarian belongs to the Ugric branch of Finno-Ugric, the other being Finnic which Finnish is correctly labelled under. Point is Hungarian should fall under the label of Ugric, not Finno-Ugric as that would include the Finnic languages.

     
    • Irene Thompson

      Thank you for pointing out the error. We will make sure to correct it.

       
  2. Hendrik

    You also have some mistakes with the Estonian common words. Thank you in Estonian is “tänan” or “aitäh”, whereas “tänama” means to thank. You also seem to have mixed up the Estonian and Hungarian words for please. However, while “meeldima” is an Estonian word, it means “to like” and not “please”. “Please” in Estonian is “palun”. Otherwise, this site is really awesome.

     
    • Irene Thompson

      Thank you very much for your comment. We will make the changes in the Estonian page.

       
  3. Aivar

    Thank you for this article!

    Mistakes that was mentioned 10 months ago by Hendrik about some mistakes with Estonian words, are still not corrected 😉

     
  4. Jennifer

    “Kérem” is not an Estonian word; “please” in Estonian is “palun”.
    “Thank you” in Estonian is “Aitäh” (another way to say it is “tänan”). Without the dots over the a, “tanama” has no meaning in Estonian, and with the dots “tänama” is not a way to say thank you but rather the infinitive form of the verb “to thank”.

     
  5. Karlsen

    Thank you for this site! My grandparents were reindeer herders in Lapland, Sweden. How can I learn to speak Sampi?

     
    • Irene Thompson

      I have no information about it. You may have to do some research to find an answer.

       
  6. Finn

    There are some mistakes in the list of common Finnish words as well.
    -“Good bye” would be “näkemiin” (“hyvästi” is more final, meaning “farewell”)
    – “Mielyttää” is the infinitive form of the verb “to please” (but even then should be written with two l’s as “miellyttää”). “Please” in sentences such as “please do …” this should be “ole hyvä …” (when speaking to one person informally) ) or “olkaa hyvä …” (when speaking to many people or when using a polite form)
    – “Yes” is “kyllä” (“joo” is very casual, “yeah”)
    – “Man” is “mies” (“herra” means “mister” or “master”)

     
  7. Rev Snowfox

    Greetings,

    I value the information found on this site and the idea behind it, but please let me submit some corrections regarding Hungarian, including some explanations. I would be glad if they would be incorporated into the article.

    There are inaccuracies in the common phrases table:

    Hello! – “szervusz” should be “szia, szervusz, helló”, “szia” is used way more often, though only in informal contexts, so older people tend to avoid it with fellow seniors. “Helló” is a loanword not so old, so you might even omit it.

    Goodbye! – “ist enhozzád” should be “viszlát/viszontlátásra”, “viszontlátásra” literally means something like “for seeing in exchange”, but it’s a parting word subtly implying the speaker doesn’t mind or would like to meet again, as opposed to saying “szia” or other, more neutral parting words. “Viszlát” is simply the shorter, more informal form. Besides it’s “istenhozzád”, meaning “God to you”, but I never really heard or read it whatsoever. It does sound awfully archaic, something from the 18th century countryside.

    Thank you! – “köszönóm” should be “köszönöm”. Although Hungarians would understand “köszönóm” said by a foreigner, it’s simply not a word here.

    Please! – “kérem” should be “kérlek/kérem”. “Kérlek” is the form for an indefinite object, and “kérem” is the form for a definite subject. Since the English exclamation “please!” in itself has no definite object, it is certainly “kérlek” in Hungarian, if we use informal language, that is.

    Excuse me! – “pardon, bocsánat” should be “elnézést, bocsánat”. In the sense of the English “Excuse me!” exclamation, “elnézést”, short for “elnézést kérek” (literally “I ask for looking away”) is probably better. “Bocsánat” is fine too, but it translates into English more closely as “sorry”. “Pardon” is really not used that much in informal contexts, I don’t think you should include a French loanword which is not really used in informal contexts.

    Yes – “igen” should be “igen/de”, generally Hungarians use “igen”, but “de” is used to answer negative questions affirmatively.

    No – “jelentéktelen, nem” should be “nem/ne”, “nem” being the general “no”, and “ne” being the exclamative and directive “no”.

    Man – “ember” should be “férfi”, since in the sense of a person of male gender, Hungarian uses “férfi”. For man in the sense of human or person, it does use “ember”.

    Woman – “asszony, nő” should be “nő, asszony”. In the most general sense, “nő” means any person who is female, but most often it refers to adult women. “Lány” refers to “girl” or “young woman”. While “asszony” is correct and valid, it tends to refer to more older women, and it is often used as a title similar in usage to the English “Mrs.” in more formal contexts. Anyway, for “woman”, “nő” is the most used term.

    As for the number word listing from 1 to 10, “kettö” should be “kettő”.

    As for Hungarian being Finno-Ugric, I think that’s actually a supergroup for Finnic and Ugric, thus Hungarian should be called Ugric, but I didn’t checked this in reliable sources.

    And lastly, the Finnic word links to the Wikipedia article for the Ural Mountains, I find this odd, it should point at an article about the Finnic people, if there is any such article, that is.

    Keep up the good work though!

     
    • Irene Thompson

      Thank you very much for the corrections. We will take care of them promptly.

       

Add a Comment