Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Urals Federal District - an Introduction to the Uralic Languages

I've long had a fascination with the Uralic languages.  Having studied Linguistics at university, I already had an idea of what these languages are and (more or less) where they are spoken.  This blogpost is meant as an introduction to the Uralic languages for those of you who have no idea of what they are and where they are spoken, but it's also an opportunity for me to refresh my memory and learn a little bit more about these languages, especially about their fate in the 21st century.

So where are they spoken?

It's no coincidence that I'm writing these blogs as part of my research into the Urals - I've already mentioned the Khanty-Mansi people in my overview of the Urals Federal district, but the Uralic languages are spoken by more than 20 million people and extend way beyond the Urals region, north and east into Siberia, west into the Volga region and into Eastern Europe, where the major Uralic languages of Finnish, Saami, Estonian and Hungarian can be found. 

It's still not really known with any certainty where the Uralic languages originated - the generally accepted theory is to the west of the Urals, in the Volga region - other theories, include, Siberia, the Baltic region, even eastern Poland has been posited as a possible homeland for the speakers of these languages. What's certain is that the languages exist on both sides of the Urals, so Uralic has been adopted as a kind of compromise term.

Further sub-divisions

What I didn't really realise, prior to doing some research into the Uralic languages is that they are further sub-divided in a way that roughly divides them up into:

- languages closely related to Finnish, Saami and Estonian
- languages closely related to Hungarian
- languages that are distinct from both of these

The languages related to Finnish, Saami and Estonian are the ones in the Volga region (Mordvin, Komi, Udmurt, Mari).  The ones closest to Hungarian are the Urals languages (Khanty and Mansi).  The languages that are distinct from both of these are those of the far north, eg Nenets and Selkup and are still known by the offensive term of Samoyedic languages, from the Russian самоед (samo-yed) which literally means 'self-eater' or cannibal! 

This reminds me of when I was blogging about Togo and Greenland and came across the origin of the term Eskimo which is from the Algonquian language and means 'eaters of raw flesh'.  The term has gone out of use, rightfully so, and so should the term Samoyedic - an alternative, Samodeic has been suggested by concerned ethnologists, but it would probably be even better to have a term derived from one of the languages concerned. 

Linguistic diversity in Russia

Again, it might surprise people to know that there is a real diversity of languages spoken in Russia, very few of them being Indo-European (Russian and Ossetian being the other most-referenced Indo-European languages, although I can't help thinking of all the ethnic Ukrainians, Germans etc. that live in Russia).  Apart from the Uralic languages, there are millions of speakers of other non-Indo-European language families, such as Altaic (Turkic, Mongolian and Tungusic), Caucasian languages and even Paleo-Asiatic languages, which bridge the linguistic spectrum from Russia into Alaska and Canada.  Of course, Russian is the lingua franca and spoken by 85% of Russia's population.  Being a champion of lesser used languages, I hate to see the smaller ones disappear and certainly the advent of the Internet age is helping revive and resusicate languages which, otherwise would be dying out.

Wikipedia and the preservation of lesser used languages

I think Wikipedia is a good example of how smaller languages can be given new life.  Being open-source and created by dedicated users, Wikipedia is a perfect platform (not the only one) for those who are interested in keeping a language alive.  As part of my research, I did a quick analysis of the presence of Uralic languages on Wikipedia.  Of course, Finnish has the greatest presence, with over a quarter of a million articles on the Finnish version of Wikipedia.  It's currently the 15th 'biggest' language on Wikipedia and has more articles than, for example, the Turkish and Korean wikipedias.  Finnish is followed by Hungarian (more than 180,000) articles and Estonian (more than 81,000 articles), but many of the 'smaller' Uralic languages also have a presence on Wikipedia.

Another thing I learned about the Uralic languages in Russia is that there is a big difference in numbers between the languages in the Volga region, which have about 2.5 million speakers between them and the languages in the Urals, which have about 12,000 (Khanty) and 3,000 (Mansi) speakers.  It's probably not surprising then, that the languages of the Volga (Mordvin etc.) have their own versions of Wikipedia, whereas Khanty and Mansi don't. 

Language preserved in songs and stories

As is often the way with languages that are dying out, it is the older generation who continue to speak them  on a day-to-day basis and as a native tongue.  I guess if you are a young person who speaks Khanty and you want to seek further opportunities, for example, by finding a job in Moscow, then it's inevitable that you will end up speaking Russian most of the time and lose touch with your native language.  Like my own native language, Irish, there does seem to be something of a revival of languages on the Internet and it's become a lot easier in recent years to communicate in your native language online with people at a distance and also to access native speech and texts through online media.

Another great source of materials is, of course, Youtube and I'm pasting in a little video below posted by nurianbek225 which will let you hear the Khanty language in speech and song.  Any of you who speak Hungarian might be surprised to find similarities between Hungarian and Khanty, whose modern-day speakers live thousands of miles apart!

The structure of Uralic languages and the importance of geography

What's interesting about the Uralic languages from an Indo-European point of view is that they are so different.  If you've ever heard spoken Finnish or Hungarian, I'm sure you'll know what I mean!  What's also interesting is that Hungarian and Khanty can retain so many similarities in vocabulary and grammatical structure, despite the geographical divide and the intervention of centuries of separation, with little contact between speakers. 

In the models of language families currently accepted by Linguists the world over, stemming from the Victorian period and the scientific emphasis on categorising everything, this is proof of fact that language families exist.  However, I'm always interested in looking at things from a different angle and there are a lot of question marks around the categorisation of Uralic languages, in the same way as I suspected a certain amount of 'lazy linguistics' in the categorisation of African languages (see my earlier blogpost). 

Rather than slotting things into a box and leaving it at that, I wonder if it would be worth spending more time exploring the non-Uralic languages that have come into contact with the languages mentioned in this blogpost.  I still have a few question marks, which I'm listing below:

1. Contact with Russian:  Uralic languages are notorious for the number of noun cases they have, including things like lative (to the thing) and locative suffixes (at the thing).  Finnish has no less than 15 cases, including Essive and Marginal cases, which makes it incredibly difficult for non-Uralic speakers to learn.  Of course, Indo-European languages also have cases, but nowhere near as many and they seem to fizzle out the further West you go, with English barely keeping any of them!

Having studied Russian, I'm also aware of the fact that the Russians have chosen to retain a large number of cases.  My question is if Russian and English are both descended from a proto-Indo-European language, why did Russian keep so many cases and English get rid of them?  I wonder if mere historical contact with the Uralic languages influenced the development of Russian.  In the same way, Old English had a lot more noun cases and declinations than modern English does, which has been influenced by contact with French. 

2. Contact with Swedish and Norwegian.  A small point, but the Uralic languages use postpositions, rather than prepositions (ie. home at, rather than at home).  With my very limited knowledge of Scandinavian languages, I've also wondered why they affix the definite article after the noun (eg. hem home, hemmet home-the) rather than before, like in most other Indo-European languages that have articles.  Again, could this be the influence of contact with Finnish and Saami?

3. Contact with Turkic and Mongolian languages.  There are a lot of similarities in the grammatical structure of Uralic and Altaic languages, the most obvious being that the languages are agglutinative, ie. they keep adding syllables to the root of the word, rather than have seperate words, which can then be moved around.  The similarities are so strong tha some Linguists have suggested a link between the Uralic languages and the languages of Mongolia. 

I think the danger with Historical Linguistics is that it puts too much emphasis on lexicon, ie. languages having similar words for things, eg. comparing the numbers 1-10, whereas words are easily borrowed and shift from one language into another.  Think of the vocabulary of your grandparents and the words you most frequently use today.  Would they understand concepts such as google, wiki and twitter?  Yet these words have entered the mainstream of most modern languages very very quickly!

I think it would be better to look at the underlying grammatical structures of language and compare these, as well as using lexicon to describe a languages' relationship to the ones around it.

4. Contact with the South of India.  Something I hadn't heard of before, was the idea that the Uralic languages might bear some similarities to the Dravidian languages of southern Indian, possibly due to earlier geographical proximity or migration! 

To be honest, I find it all fascinating and look forward to doing further research into the Uralic languages at a later date. 

Image credits:

The map of the where Uralic languages are spoken was provided copyright free on Wikimedia, by wikiuser Martintg - Martintg is a prolific contributor to Wikipedia and seems to have somewhat of a specilisation in Estonia and Estonian culture.  You can see more info at his user page

The image of the poster written in Estonian was taken by me on my recent trip to Tallinn.  I've providing this copyright free with attribution (especially a link to this blogpost) and share alike. 
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