The Finno-Ugrian (also known as Uralic, Finno-Ugric and even Fenno-Ugric) languages are a small language group with some 23 million speakers, notable primarily for sticking out like a sore thumb in otherwise (almost) solidly Indo-European Europe.

Features

Finno-Ugrian languages are highly inflected, meaning that affixes are used instead of prepositions. A not unusual example of literary Finnish:

Kirjoittauduttuamme hotelliin menimme kolmannessa kerroksessa sijaitsevaan huoneeseemme.

registered-after-having-our hotel-into went-we third-in floor-in situated-being-in room-into-our

After having registered into the hotel we went to our room, which was on the third floor.

See the node longest word for a few even more silly examples. Nouns, in particular, have a nearly ridiculous number of cases: Finnish has 15 while Hungarian racks up two dozen. Verbs are inflected by person. Finno-Ugrian languages also employ a rather odd construct called the possessive suffix to indicate ownership, and this has been of prime importance for fleshing out the family tree.

In terms of pronunciation, Finno-Ugrian languages aren't particularly difficult. They are not tonal, usually stress the first syllable in every word, and (with the possible exception of the front vowels) do not feature many unusual sounds. English speakers will, however, have to learn to differentiate between short and long vowels and to articulate unstressed syllables clearly. Then there's consonant gradation and vowel harmony, but I'll skip the in-depth explanations so you won't run away screaming quite yet...

Origin

Anthropologists used to think that all speakers of Finno-Ugrian languages shared a common ancestry and that they had migrated out from somewhere deep in the Ural mountains, but this theory doesn't hold much water these days; there is some evidence that forms of proto-Finnish were spoken around the Baltic Sea as long as 9,000 years ago. It thus seems likely that such proto-Uralic languages were spoken across northern Eurasia, and modern-day Finno-Ugrian languages are evolved remnants.

All Finno-Ugrian languages have borrowed vocabulary very heavily from Indo-European languages, most notably Russian, although Finnish has done most of its (later) borrowing from Swedish. "Truly" Finno-Ugrian words are few and far between -- for example, only 300 are still reckoned to exist in modern Finnish -- and this makes linguists' lives difficult.

Finnic Languages

The two main languages in the Finnic group are Finnish, with some 5 million speakers, and Estonian, with a bit over one million. The two languages are almost, but not quite, mutually intelligible. Karelian (40,000) and Olonetsian (30,000) retain a chance of survival, Vepsian (6,000) and Ludian (5,000) are borderline, while Ingrian, Votian and Livonian only have 20-300 native speakers and are headed for extinction.

Sámi Languages

Sámi (aka Saami) languages are spoken by the people of the same name in Lapland. 10 distinct languages are recognized, although all except North Sámi (aka Davvi Sámi, with some 30,000 speakers) are highly threatened or already existinct.

Mordvin, Mari, Permian groups

In Central Siberia are three related groups of Finno-Ugrian languages, with a bit less than one million speakers each:

Mordvin consists of Erzya (500,000) and Moksha (250,000), and is spoken primarily in the Republic of Mordovia, a part of Russia.

Mari, aka Cheremis, is usually divided into Eastern Mari (500,000+ speakers) and Western Mari (less than 50,000). The Mari also have their own republic, called -- surprise surprise -- the Mari Republic.

The Permian group contains Udmurt aka Votyak with half a million speakers and Komi with 350,000, this sum further subdivided into Permyak and Komi (aka Zyrian). The Udmurts live in the Republic of Udmurtia, while the Komi inhabit the Komi Republic.

Ugric languages

The largest Finno-Ugrian language is Hungarian, which clocks in with over 14 million speakers. Oddly enough, despite their clear linguistic resemblance the other so-called Ob-Ugric languages are all tiny and located far away; Mansi (Vogul) and Khanty (Ostyak), spoken on the Siberian side of the Ural mountains, have around 3,000 and 13,000 speakers respectively.

Samoyed languages

And finally we have the Samoyed languages from northern Siberia near the Kola Peninsula. Nenets is the most sizable group with an estimated 27,000 speakers; Selkup manages 1,500, Nganasan 600, and Enets already has a foot in the grave with grand total of 50 (split among two incompatible dialects at that).

References

http://www.helsinki.fi/~jolaakso/fufaq.html
http://virtual.finland.fi/finfo/english/langua1.html

U*ra"li*an (?), U*ral"ic (?), a.

Of or relating to the Ural Mountains.

 

© Webster 1913.

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