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The riddle of the uralic peoples 1/3

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Part One: Forging the Tools

Deep in the Hungarian national psyche lives an image of a mythical white stag. Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, lived a king named Nimrod who had two sons, Hunor and Magor. One day, the two youths went hunting in the forest when they came upon a magnificent white stag in a clearing. Before they could aim their arrows, the animal escaped into the thicket and disappeared. The brothers decided to pursue it from two directions. Hunor went North and Magar began to run in the opposite direction. The stag got away. The brothers became lost in the forest and were separated forever.

According to the legend, the descendants of Magor became the Magyars, the name the Hungarians call themselves. But not until about 200 years ago could they identify the descendants of Hunor. A Hungarian scholar returning from a journey to Scandinavia announced that he had found them. In studying the language of the Finns he became convinced that Hungarians and Finns must have had the same parents. The Finns, then, must be the descendants of Hunor. Ever since, the Hungarians look at the Finns as their lost brothers.

The early 19th century was a time of great excitement in the scholarly world. In the 1780s, a learned English jurist of Welsh ancestry and a linguist who knew 28 languages, Sir William Jones, working on behalf of the British India Tea Company in Calcutta, India, startled the scholarly world by proclaiming that Sanskrit, the earliest written language of the Hindus, had so many striking similarities to Greek, Latin and Persian that they must have originated from a common ancestor. The similarities were indeed obvious. Take for example the word “father.” In Sanskrit it is “pitar,” in Old Persian “padar,” in Greek “pater” (pronounced pawteyr), in Latin “pater.” Another example: “I give” in Sanskrit is “dadami,” in Old Persian also “dadami,” in Greek “didomi,” in Latin “do.” There were a large number of other similarities which could not be a coincidence. The contemporary grammarians of Europe, the same people who had been unimpressed earlier when the common origins of Finnish and Hungarian had been proposed now enthusiastically embraced Sir William Jones’ proposition.

In their eyes, the speakers of these two obscure languages were peoples of “pariah” nations on the fringes of Europe. There was no prestige involved in dealing with them. Sanskrit, Greek and Latin, on the other hand, were languages of classical authors, curricula in high schools and colleges. Subsequently, scores of prominent scholars in Europe began to commit their talents and energies to the discovery of relationships among the various European languages. In doing so, they gave rise in the 19th century to a new field of study, the science of Comparative Linguistics. The principles and the methodologies of how to determine valid relationships among languages were then elaborated and endure to this day. Soon, evidence began to accumulate showing that all European languages, with the exception of Finnish, Hungarian, Estonian, and Basque (spoken in Northern Spain and the Southwest corner of France), were related not only to each other but also to such distant Asian languages as Persian, Hindu and Bengali. This revolutionary concept implied that despite the enormous geographical distances, as well as the physical and cultural differences of the peoples speaking them, English, German, Icelandic, Russian, Italian, French, Lithuanian, Greek, Albanian, Iranian, Hindu, Urdu, and many others, were all genetically connected and belonged to the same linguistic family. This assemblage of related languages is referred to collectively as the Indo-European Family.

To explain why these Indo-European languages are so different and mutually unintelligible to their speakers, remained the task of two scholarly disciplines: Comparative Linguistics, and Historical Linguistics. Accordingly, the first indication that two languages may be genetically connected is when we find some or many identical or almost identical words in them. But we must be cautious. These alone may not prove a genetic relationship. They may be coincidences, or loanwords, adopted from another language. On the other hand, linguists are tuned in to words that at first glance seem to have no resemblance but have the same or some related meaning. At closer look such words may turn out to stem from a common root word, thus proving that they derive from the same source. As an illustration, here is the English personal pronoun “I”; it is “ich” in German, “ik” in Dutch, “jag” (Yagh) in Swedish, “jeg” (Yehg) in Danish, “ego” in Greek and Latin, all considered to be essentially varieties of the same word. A succession of sound changes are revealed; a guttural “ch” (kin) in German changes to a hard “k” in Dutch; then the Dutch hard “k” changes to a “g” in Swedish and a soft initial vowel (pronounced ‘ye’) appears at the beginning of the word; the Swedish vowel “a” (‘ah’) turns into an “e” (‘eh’) sound in the Danish “yeg,” which sounds almost like the Greek and Latin form of “ego.” In this case, the Danish form “yeg” is closest to the Greek and Latin form, and the English “I” is the farthest. This phenomenon is called “soundshift.” Over time, linguistic scholars observed certain patterns of sound changes from one language to the other and rules were formulated that attempt to explain this process and also to shed light on the discrepancies in pronunciation and spelling. How and why languages change is not yet fully understood. The “soundshift” rules that apply to Indo-European languages also provide guidance to linguists when they study languages belonging to non-Indo-European groups. They enable us to discover genetic relationship between words in different languages when at first it does not seem to be obvious.

In addition to correspondences among individual words, linguists also point to similarities in grammatical structures as subjects of investigation. This may be even more significant than word analogies, because grammar does not change as rapidly as vocabulary. It is estimated that roughly every thousand years one fifth of the vocabulary of a language changes. Thus, scores of new words have crept into English over the past one hundred years, the grammar has remained unchanged.

Comparative study of languages also involved scrutinizing the underlying logic and recurring patterns in the building of sentences and expressions, and finding regularities in the changes of sounds. These main elements: vocabulary, grammar, structuring patterns of speech and the way people create and adapt sounds in a particular language, are some of the key areas of study in Comparative and Historical Linguistics. Clearly, this is an extremely complicated scholarly pursuit beset with immense difficulties.

To say that English, Russian, Greek, French, Icelandic, Hindu and Persian, just to name a few, are cousins, linguistically speaking, may appear at first as sheer nonsense. But when we look at the history of the Indo-European family, the relationship is unmistakable.

Experts presume that in the very distant past, there was a people that had a language that was parental to this multitude of Indo-European languages spoken today. Linguists refer to this ancient language as Proto-Indo-European (PIE), “proto” meaning “very ancient,” or, “primal.” When and where this very ancient people lived, we don’t know. Estimates range from 5000 to 8000 years ago. As to their homeland, linguists, archeologists, anthropologists, historians suggested Central Asia, the Ukraine, today’s Turkey, the Balkans, Eastern Europe, even the Baltics, among several other possible places. In time, this primal group began to subdivide creating two main clusters: a European and an Asian one. The Asian group then split into two principal subfamilies: the Indo Iranian, among whose contemporary descendants are the Persians, Afghans and Kurds, and the Indo Aryan, whose descendants are the Hindus in India. Each of these two sub-families in turn spawned many dialects, which later developed into autonomous languages. The Irani group became highly diversified and in historical times it was very prominent in Central and North Central Asia and Persia. The warlike Aryans overran and occupied the Indian subcontinent around 1500 B.C. The European group of the Indo Europeans split into many subfamilies, as for example, Anatolian, Hellenic (Greek), Italic (Latin and the Romance languages), Slavonic, Germanic, Baltic, Celtic, etc. Languages of the Anatolian branch became extinct. From each of these subfamilies evolved the multitude of the separate national languages of Europe.

Many people erroneously believe that Hungarian is one of the Slavic languages and Finnish is a Scandinavian tongue. Scandinavian, which includes Danish, Norwegian, Swedish and Icelandic are members of the Germanic subfamily. These languages represent the North Germanic branch of the Germanic subfamily, of which the closest relatives are the Slavonic and Baltic subfamilies. They are offshoots of the same branch. Finnish and Hungarian, however, are members of an entirely different group. They are part of the Uralic family of languages. What has been said so far is just a sketch to give a hint of the diversity and complexity of the subject matter that we have to deal with here. It is preliminary to the understanding of how, on what basis, languages are classified. The Indo-European comparative approach serves us as a model in our discussion of the Finnish-Hungarian connections and their relationships to other languages.

We need to remember that numerically, the Indo-European is the largest, and historically the most successful population on the face of the glove, taken as a whole. It is estimated that well over one and a half billion people speak languages classified as Indo-European. The next most populous group is the Chinese with about one billion speakers. In contrast to the hundreds and hundreds of millions of speakers of the various Indo-European tongues, the total number of speakers of Uralic languages is 25 million or less.

The Uralic Family Tree

What accounts for this enormous disparity? The answer may lie partly in geography. With the exception of the Hungarians, most Uralic people inhabit areas in the Northernmost tier of the Eurasian land mass, many of them in the sub-Arctic zones. Here, life has always been precarious. Ten thousand years ago, following the last ice age, this region with its vast band of rising Northern forests, extending grasslands at its Southern edges, a web of broad rivers teeming with fish, marshes with abundant fur-bearing animals, and most importantly, with an exploding elk population to hunt, may have been an enticing habitat for the earliest ancestors of Uralic peoples. We don’t know why, how, when and from where, these early migrants moved to the North of the Kama River in today’s Northern Russia, West of the central ranges of the Ural Mountains that separate Europe from Asia. But most scholars accept that the ancestral homeland of the Uralic people was somewhere in this general area.

Michael Keresztesi, Professor Emeritus of Wayne State University


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