Uralic Language Family

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 Hungarian, Finnish, 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 (Volga region)
Mari Eastern 535,000
Mari Western 66,000

Mordvin
(Volga region)
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:

Erzya, Moksha Republic of Mordovia
Khanty, Mansi 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 Finnish, Estonian, Hungarian, 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 tense, aspect, mood, 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

Finnish
Estonian
Hungarian
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
Finnish
yksi
kaksi
kolme
nelja
viisi
kuusi
seitseman
kahdeksan
yhdeksan
kymmenen
Estonian
üks
kaks
kolm
neli
viis
kuus
seitse
kaheksa
üheksa
kümme
Finno-Ugric
Hungarian
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

  • Finnish, Karelian, Saami Western, Hungarian 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?
Estonian, Finnish and Hungarian are considered to be somewhat more difficult that Category II languages for speakers of English.