SFHS Topmenu: Finlander | SFHS | Repository | Talko | DEE |

The Origin of Finnish and Related Languages


Jump to: navigation, search

Finnish belongs to the Baltic-Finnic group of the Finno-Ugrian or Uralic language family. It is the largest language in its group, the next largest being Estonian. The Baltic-Finnic language group is one of the westernmost branches of the Finno-Ugrian language family; only the Sami territory in western and northern Norway extends further west. In the east, the domain of the language family extends to the Yenisey river and the Taimyr peninsula, and the farthest outpost to the south comprises the Hungarians, in the Carpathian basin of Central Europe.

Present-day Finno-Ugrian languages and their territories

In all, about 23 million people speak the languages of the Finno-Ugrian language family. However, many of the languages are tiny: apart from Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian, they are all threatened minority tongues whose territories lie within the Russian Federation.

Even within the Baltic-Finnic group, the languages of Karelian, Vepsian, Ludian and the remnants of Ingrian dialects and Votian are spoken only in Russia. Although the Karelians have their own republic, which belongs to the Russian Federation, only 10% of the republic’s population is Karelian-speaking; there is also a sizeable Karelian population in the Tver region outside the republic. The evolution of a standard written language was hampered until recently by fragmentation into several highly disparate dialects.

Many other Uralic languages, even some of the most widely spoken, suffer from the same problem. The traditional territory of Livonian is along the shores of Courland in Latvia. Only a handful of Livonian speakers remain.

The Baltic-Finnic group

The Baltic-Finnic group thus consists of seven languages, with only Finnish and Estonian being large and viable. The languages are closely related, and a Finn and an Estonian can learn to communicate without unduly great effort, though without training a Finn cannot really understand Estonian. These two languages are therefore not as closely related as the Scandinavian languages are to each other.

However, the Baltic-Finnish group consists of continua formed by languages that are more or less closely related; for example, the northernmost dialects of Karelian are quite close to the dialects of eastern Finland (so much so that they are mutually intelligible), while the southernmost Karelian dialect, Aunus or Livvi, closely resembles Ludian and Vepsian.

The Saami language group

The Saami language group forms a geographic linguistic continuum. Its home region extends from the North Sea coast in central Norway, along a strip of coast 100 km to 200 km wide, to the eastern tip of the Kola peninsula. There are Saami speakers in four countries: Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia.

There are ten Saami languages, Northern Saami being the largest; it is spoken in all three Scandinavian countries. The main language in the Kola peninsula is Kildin Saami, while in the more southern areas of Sweden and Norway, the language is Southern Saami. Saami languages spoken in Finland include Inari Saami and Skolt Saami (the latter is also spoken in the Kola peninsula), with a few hundred speakers each; these languages are highly threatened.

There is only one hiatus in the continuum of Saami languages; this runs between Northern Saami and Inari Saami, dividing the languages into western and eastern sub-groups. Otherwise, the continuum means that adjacent languages are fairly closely related and a neighbour’s speech is always intelligible.

The exact number of Saami is not known, as the definition of ‘Saami’ varies from one country to the next. Estimates range from 50,000 to 80,000.

The largest Saami population is in Norway, the smallest in Russia (some 4,000, of whom only 1,500 speak the vernacular). Many minor Saami languages are on the verge of extinction (Ume and Pite Saami in Sweden and Akkala Saami in Russia), while the speakers of many others are numbered in dozens or hundreds (Southern Saami in Sweden and Norway, Inari and Skolt Saami in Finland, and Ter Saami in Russia).

The Saami are not mere reindeer herders, though this is the main source of livelihood for many of them, the Northern Saami in particular. Fishing is the chief occupation for many of the ‘Forest Saami’ (especially the Inari and the Skolt) and the ‘Sea Saami’ of the Arctic coast.

Central Russia is home to the Mari, the Mordvin, the Komi and the Udmurt

Central Russia is home to three main groups of the Finno-Ugrian language family: Mari, the Mordvin languages and the Permian languages.

The Mordvin, the Mari, the Komi and the Udmurt each constitute a minority group within a republic bearing its name.

Altogether there are some 1,150,000 Mordvin, only just over 300,000 of whom live in the Mordvinian Republic. Two thirds of the republic’s inhabitants are non- Mordvin, mainly Russians and Tatars.

The remaining Mordvin are scattered over a territory reaching east from the republic all the way to the Ural Mountains, spanning several republics. The Mordvinian Republic itself lies southeast of Moscow, nestled in the great bend of the Volga.

The Mari have their own republic, located east of Moscow, mainly on the north side of the middle Volga.

The total number of Mari is approximately 670,000, half of whom live in the republic. The largest Mari population outside the Mari Republic (106,000 people) lives in Bashkiria to the east.

East-northeast of the Mari Republic lies the Udmurt Republic, with some 500,000 ethnic Udmurt among its population of one and a half million.

A further quarter of a million Udmurt live outside the republic, chiefly in the adjacent regions of Kirov and Perm and in the Tatar and Bashkir Republics.

The Udmurt Republic lies within the traditionally multi-ethnic Russian heartlland, with plentiful natural resources and a substantial processing industry which has brought people of many different nationalities to the region.

The Mari and the Mordvin language

The Mari language is divided into three main dialects that could be considered independent languages. Attempts to create a written language to cover all three have failed.

There are two Mordvin languages, Erzya and Moksha. These have a total of about one million speakers between them, and thus the Mordvin are the third largest group in the language family after the Hungarians and the Finns; there are about as many Mordvin speakers as there are Estonian speakers.

Both Erzya and Moksha are written languages.

Permian languages

There are three Permian languages: Komi, Permyak and Udmurt.

The Komi can be divided into two groups – the Komi (Zyryan) and the Permyak – on linguistic and cultural grounds. Both groups have their own territories: the Komi inhabit most of the Komi Republic, a large area rich in resources, located between the Province of Archangel and the Ural Mountains at approximately the same latitudes as Finland but larger than Finland by one third.

The Permyak have a district of their own at the republic’s southern edge.

There are approximately half a million ethnic Komi, including 150,000 Permyak. Some 70% of each group speak the national language.

Ugric languages

The group of Ugric languages is linguistically uniform but geographically diffuse. In particular, the link between Hungarian and the Ob-Ugric languages spoken on the Siberian side of the Ural Mountains has been (and still is) considered uncertain, but from a purely linguistic viewpoint the relationship is indubitable. Of course, there is no question of closely related languages in this group as there is in the groups presented above, but this is also true of the Samoyed languages.

These groupings are based not so much on kinship and mutual intelligibility as on historical innovations that separate languages from other branches and language groups in the language family.

Thus, the Ugric group contains Hungarian and also the Ob-Ugrian languages of Khanty and Mansi, both spoken over an extensive area of westernmost Siberia, along the Ob and its tributaries.

There are fewer than 30,000 Kanty and Mansi combined, and fewer than half of them actually speak their own languages.

The geographical gulf in this group can be explained by the fact that the Hungarians were caught up in mass migrations in southern Russia and thus ended up far away from their ancient homeland around the Ural Mountains.

The Ob-Ugrians, on the other hand, probably only recently spread out along the taiga towards the north, even as far as the tundra in the case of the Khanty, adopting reindeer husbandry from the Samoyed who had been living inthat area since time immemorial.

The Kanty and Mansi have their own district; the indigenous people only account for a few per cent of the population. Most of the population consists of various nationalities, brought to the area by the oil and gas industry.

Samoyed group

The Samoyed group today contains four northern and one southern language. There used to be more southern Samoyed languages, but by the last century they had by and large been absorbed by the Turkic languages of Siberia.

Today, the only southern Samoyed language left is the Selkup; these people, about 1,500 in all, live along the Yenisey, east of the Khanty.

The largest northern Samoyed people are the Nenets, with a population of about 30,000. They live in a zone in the northern tundra extending from around the mouth of the Yenisey to the eastern parts of the Kola peninsula.

The minor northern Samoyed languages are Yurats, Enets and Nganasan.


The roots of the Finnish language lie in Proto-Finno-Ugrian, to which all the languages described above can be traced. Common structural features and basic vocabulary shared by all of them point to a common linguistic ancestor.

The structural features are more significant from the theoretical point of view and constitute firmer evidence of the languages’ shared past and common ancestry than the shared vocabulary, since it is the basic structure of a language that is usually preserved best during the changes that all languages undergo during their history.

The common basic vocabulary, on the other hand, helps identify the environment and cultural setting in which the ancient proto-language was used.

The typical structural features

The structural features typical of Finno-Ugrian languages are those that a foreigner easily recognizes as features peculiar to Finnish.

These include the inflection of words by adding grammatical affixes instead of using prepositions like English and other Germanic languages, as in: autossa (auto-ssa, in the car), autolla (auto-lla, with the car).

The richness of noun case inflections in Finnish is often considered a peculiar feature that links Finnish and Hungarian: Finnish has 15 cases while Hungarian has two dozen.

Both these languages have increased their number of case inflections compared with Proto-Finno-Ugrian, but the basic elements of the inflectional endings can be traced back to ancient noun case inflections.

Also, verbs are inflected by person, as in tanssin (tanssi-n, I dance), tanssit (tanssi-t, you dance), tanssii (tanssi-I, he/she dances), and these basic elements also generate the possessive suffixes attached to nouns, as in autoni (auto-ni, my car), autosi (auto-si, your car).

Possessive suffixes are used in combination with case inflections, as in autollani (auto-lla-ni, with my car) and autossasi (auto-ssa-si, in your car). These features are shared by all Finno-Ugrian languages.

The vocabulary

The common vocabulary consists primarily of basic concepts related to human beings (including names of communities and relatives), the human body, basic functions and the natural environment.

Basic concepts include grammatical small change such as pronouns, words denoting direction and location, and small numbers.

Words related to culture and livelihood reflect a Stone Age hunting and gathering culture (e.g. jousi, bow; nuoli, arrow; jänne, bowstring; pato, weir; äimä, needle); the spiritual culture is represented by the word noita, which originally meant a shaman and in modern finnish means a witch.

Indo-European contacts: a shared past and present

There are only about 300 words in Modern Finnish that can be traced back to Proto-Finno-Ugrian, but the number of words of ancient origin is multiplied if we include derivatives of these basic words.

Various Indo-European languages have also fed plenty of word stock into Finnish, proving that Finnish and its predecessors have been in contact with the Indo-European language family at various stages in their development.

Some loanwords are shared by several Finno-Ugrian languages, and the oldest-established loanwords can in fact be identified as having passed from Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Finno-Ugrian.

There are not many of these words, and few of them are undisputed; perhaps the most certain case is nimi (name). The words vesi (water), myydä (to sell) and nainen (woman) are also considered to belong to this stratum of loanwords.

The most ancient loanwords would thus have been adopted before the break-up of the Proto-Indo-European, which probably occurred in the first half of the fourth millennium BC.

The timing of the Indo-European development helps us to time the break-up of Progo-Finno-Ugrian.

The loanwords, at least, seem to demonstrate that both language families began their expansion at roughly the same period.

Previously, internal reconstruction in the Finno-Ugrian language family, assessment of differences between languages and the estimated rate of differentiation have been used to demonstrate that the break-up of Proto-Finno-Ugrian began no later than six thousand years ago.

This matches the Indo-European timing admirably. The earliest contacts between the Finno-Ugrian and the Indo-European language families must have taken place near what is assumed to be the home region of both proto-languages, i.e. between the steppes north of the Black Sea and the great bend of the Volga river.

To this day, the latter area has a concentration of Finno-Ugrian languages distantly related to one another, and indeed current scholarship places the ‘home’ of the Indo-Europeans in the area north of the Black Sea.

In addition to loanwords adopted at the earliest proto-language stage, Finnish also has a stratum of slightly later, Indo-Iranian loanwords.

These involve significant innovations in both spiritual and material culture, as witness agriculture-related words such as porsas (pig), varsa (foal) and mesi (honey); trade-related words such as sata (100) and the ancient root of the verb ostaa (to buy; cf. Myydä above); and a number of mythological and religious words such as taivas (heaven), marras (dead) and possibly jumala (god).

Most of these words exist to this day in Finno-Ugrian languages. Their Indo-Iranian form shows that they form a younger stratum than the Progo-Indo-European loanwords.

The Indo-Iranian loanwords

The migration of Finno-Ugrian peoples to present-day Finland is most reliably linked to the emergence of the ‘comb-ceramic’ culture in about 3,000 BC. However, language need not have shifted along with cultural change; in principle, a uniform Finno-Ugrian language may have been spoken over an extensive area between the bend of the Volga – or even the Ural Mountains – and the Baltic Sea.

On the other hand, it could be argued that some of the Indo-Iranian loanwords date from the period of the ‘comb-ceramic’ culture, being influences conveyed from the east.

Regardless of how old we consider the Finno-Ugrian-speaking culture on the shores of the Baltic Sea (or the Finnish language) to be, it is clear that the roots of Finnish lie farther east, where related languages are still spoken.

The Baltic and Germanic loanwords

The ‘hammer-axe’ culture appeared alongside the ‘comb-ceramic’ culture in Finland in about 2,300 BC. This culture is held to represent the northern Indo-European populations, whose languages were early versions of present-day Baltic and Germanic languages.

In Finnish, the impact of these cultures is evident in a substantial stratum of Baltic and Germanic loanwords; the latter, in particular, exist in a number of different strata in Finnish and its closest related languages (the Baltic-Finnic languages), as well as in Saami.

The oldest Baltic and Germanic loanwords are so old that their sources had not yet diverged considerably from Proto-Indo-European; we should remember that the break-up of Proto-Indo-European is surmised to have happened only 1,000 years before the appearance of the ‘hammer-axe’ culture.

However, these words exist in a restricted western area both in the Indo-European and in the Finno-Ugrian sphere, which indicates that the words have been transmitted from one family to the other in or near present-day Finland. This, in turn, demonstrates that Finnish and its predecessors have been spoken in what is now Finland for thousands of years.

The oldest (proto-)Baltic and (proto-)Germanic loanwords mainly relate to nature. Particularly interesting in this sense are the sea-related words derived from the Baltic branch, meri (sea) itself and the fish-names lohi (salmon) and ankerias (eel). These words at least seem to imply that the proto-Finns, or more accurately the Finno-Ugrian peoples, had never lived by a salt sea before coming into contact with the Baltic peoples.

The ancient Finno-Ugrian word stock does contain words referring to water, but they all concern inland waterways and freshwater fauna. Rivers, inland waterfowl and freshwater fish constitute the most typical Finno-Ugrian word stock.

Later Baltic and Germanic influences primarily show the development of agriculture. Numerous names of cultivated plants and natural phenomena related to agriculture were borrowed from these sources. Words related to agricultural technology came from the Germanic peoples, while words related to construction came from the Baltic peoples. This may reflect the areas in which these peoples were specialized in the Bronze Age and Iron Age.

The proto-Scandinavian vocabulary

The younger Germanic influence, deriving from the proto-Scandinavian period, extended over a wider range of categories.

The proto-Scandinavian social vocabulary, with such loanwords as kuningas (king), valta (power), kihla (guarantee), tuomita (to judge) and kaupunki (town), is particularly important. It has often been pointed out in connection with these ancient Germanic loanwords that the conservative sound structure of Finnish has, interestingly, preserved these loanwords in a form that is very close to their original proto-Germanic or proto-Scandinavian guise. A case in point is kuningas, whose descendants in the Germanic languages have drifted far from the original, while the Finnish form is nearly identical with the proto-form of 2,000 or 3,000 years ago.

Old Russian loanwords

The number of loanwords increases, the closer we come to the present. Apart from the strata already mentioned, there is also an important Slavic, mainly (Old) Russian, stratum.

The number of words adopted from Russian, however, is nowhere near the number adopted from Scandinavian and Swedish, and the Russian loanwords are limited to domestic and military matters.

Finnish has an eastern foundation and a western surface

In all, we can say that the roots and building blocks of the Finnish language have produced a language that is a mixture of eastern and western elements. The fundamental structure and the most ancient core of the language are eastern, as are the oldest loanwords – in the sense that the basic vocabular and core of the Indo-European language family are also eastern.

The bulk of the vocabulary of Finnish, apart from newly created, derived and compounded indigenous words, consists of words borrowed from western Indo-European languages. In fact, western Indo-European languages from proto-German and Old Scandinavian up to modern Germanic languages and the common European linguistic heritage have affected Finnish not only in terms of vocabulary but in terms of structure, adapting the ancient Finnish sentence structures to European models.

Finnish, therefore, has an eastern foundation and a western surface or, to take another metaphor, has its roots in the East and its branches in the West.

Finfo 13-98

Ulla-Maija Kulonen, Professor, Department of Finno-Ugrian Studies, University of Helsinki Published by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Department for Press and Culture. Helsinki, Finland

Back | To the beginning | till början | alkuun | Finlander

Personal tools
blog comments powered by Disqus