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The riddle of the uralic peoples 2/3


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Part Two: Tracing Their History

Stone Age People

Tracing the presence and movement of stone-age people is very difficult because they seldom leave archeological records. And even when some are found, they are silent, and are subject to various, often contradictory interpre-tations. Only linguistics is equipped with the requisite tools for attempting to reconstruct the past. And just as in the case of the Indo-Europeans, the reconstruction of the Uralic story was made possible by the creative application of the historical and comparative methods. Following this method, linguists theorized that the language of the Uralic ancestors may not have been homogeneous. This is borne out by a very early split in the group. The language of the departing tribe is referred to as the Yukaghir, which has preserved the most archaic elements of the Uralic mother tongue. The Yukaghir are a mystery. In the course of past millennia, the Yukaghir must have drifted about 3000 miles East and away from the original homeland to the extreme edge of Siberia in the far North. Today, less than 800 ethnic Yukaghirs survive in two enclaves along the Kolyma River above the Arctic Circle. One group is referred to as the “Tundra Yukaghir.” They are reindeer breeders. The other group is called “Forest Yukaghir.” Their main livelihood derives from fishing and hunting. They speak two different dialects. According to the latest report, there were ony 60 people who still speak their native tongue. In all likelihood this closest living language to the hypothetical Uralic mother tongue will become extinct. In many respects, Yukaghir is different from the rest of the extant Uralic languates. Some linguists challenge its inclusion in the Uralic family and prefer to classify it as an “isolate,” meaning that it has no known relatives. Others, (Yukaghir linguists themselves) however, assert that, in some crucial aspects the Uralic connections are undeniable.

The First Break

About 6000 or 7000 years ago, the initial Uralic population broke into two main branches: the first designated as Samoyedic, and the other collectively named Finno-Ugric. Subsequently, the Samoyeds splintered into many different groups and dialects. Some moved north and adopted a sub-Arctic nomadic way of life; others spread south, thinly occupying a huge area between the Dvina and Yenisey rivers. The largest group of the Northern Samoyeds call themselves Nenets. Like the Lapps, they are expert reindeer breeders. In physical traits, they resemble the Eskimos. Other Samoyedic groups are scattered west of the Urals, and some are located as far South as the Sayan Mountains. The various Samoyedic ethnic clusters consist of numerically small populations ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand. The present combined demographic status of the Samoyedic peoples is around 40-45,000. Linguistically, the Samoyedic languages preserve many archaic features of the ancestral Uralic.

Linguistic evidence tends to indicate that for about 2000 years, between 4000 and 2000 B.C., there existed a Finno-Ugric community southeast of the Ural Mountains which both the Finns and the Hungarians could claim as their common parentage. Their speech was the hypothetical "Proto-Finno-Ugric"”language. This language provides evidence of contacts with neighboring Indo-Iranians because Finnish, Hungarian and the other Finno-Ugric languages contain some very ancient Iranian loan words. Some of these relate to bee-keeping. For example: the Old Iranian word for ‘honey’ is “medhu,” in Finnish the word is “mesi,” in Hungarian “mez.” Interestingly, this word survives in the English language as “mead.”

Copper and Bronze Age

The end of the third millenium B.C. ushered in the Copper and bronze ages in the Urals region. We don’t know exactly how this may have impacted the ancient Finn—Ugors of the area. We can only speculate whether it had anything to do with the split that resulted in the separation of the Finns from the Ugors (a moment enshrined in the legend of the White Stag?), and the two groups dispersed in different directions. From then on, the two populations have pursued their diverging historical destinies. According to one theory, around 500 B.C. a detachment of the Ugors left the “Ugric Homeland” and turned south, and after 1500 years of roaming in the Southern steppes of Russia, it succeeded in conquering the Carpathian basin in South Central Europe and founded a national state that has endured for a thousand years. The people who accomplished this later became known as the Hungarians. Presently, there are between fourteen to fifteen million speakers of the Hungarian language. The rest of the Ugors migrated Northeast settling on both sides of the Ob and Irtish rivers in northeastern Siberia and adapted to a sub-Arctic way of life. Of the many Ugric speaking tribes most disappeared. The last surviving remnants are the Khanti and the Mansi, two small ethnic entities, together numbering fewer than 30,000 souls. The number of those who can still speak their language is rapidly diminishing.

The genealogical chart of the Finnic people is more complicated, due mainly to the fact that many more of them were able to survive to our times as distinct ethnic entities than the less fortunate Ugrians. Also, they are more widely spread geographically, ranging from the Baltic and Scandinavia to Central Russia and Siberia. The Finnic people splintered into three main branches: 1. Balto-Finnic, 2. Volgaic, 3. Permic. The first group includes the Finns, Estonians, Karelians, Livonians, and several other languages in the Baltic and Northwestern Russian, some of the verge of extinction. By their location, the Lapps should be included in this group, but there is considerable controversy about the precise identity of the Lapps. The approximate number of speakers of these languages today: Finns five milllion; Estonians one and a half million; Karelians 130,000; Lapps 35,000.

The two largest Finnic populations in the Volgaic group are the Mordvin and the Mari, situated southeast of Moscow in the area bordered by the Volga, Oka and the Kama rivers. Their combined numbers hover around two million. They are mainly agricultural people. The Permic group dispersed Northward comprising the Udmurt and the Komi. The Permic group altogether has less than one million speakers.

In prehistoric times, the Finnic tribes which were migrating westward, ultimately settled in the Baltic region. Scores of ancient Finnic languages and dialects have existed until modern times in Latvia, Estonia, and in Russia in the area around St. Petersburg. Among the Baltic-Finnic languages, the northern Estonian dialect is closer to Finnish than to the southern Estonian dialect. All this tends to indicate that the ancestors of the modern Finns originally inhabited the Baltic and moving North, they settled present-day Finland gradually over a long period of time.

Language and Destiny

Although descended probably from the same ancestral tongue, the languages of the Uralic peoples are widely divergent. Even within a particular ethnic group there are many dialects which are not mutually understood. Thousands of years of separation, isolation, foreign influences, and not the least, the peoples’ own inventiveness, have made each language a world in itself. It required not a small amount of linguistic detective work to establish a scientifically defensible category termed the “Uralic Family of Languages.” It should be mentioned that the supporting evidence and the inferences of some linguists have not always been accepted by those who hold differing opinions. Consequently, sharp contro-versies still dominate the field. Yet, when the layers of accumulated changes and traditions are peeled away, a whole galaxy of commonalities appear which point to strong genetic connections. In the first place, the stems of many basic words related to body parts, kinship terms, action verbs, natural phenomena, seem to correspond across the whole spectrum of Uralic languages. For example: the stem of the verb “to go” in Finnish “men-;” in Hungarian “men-,” in Estonian “min-,” in Lapp “manna-,” in Mari “miya-,” in Komi “mun-,” in Khanti “moen-,” in Samoyedic “min-.” In Yukaghir “go” sounds like “yong,” (a wordstem which exists in Hungarian in the form of “you,” where it means “to come”). The word for “eye” is “silmä” in Finnish, “szen” (pronounced “sem”) in Hungarian, “Silm” in Estonian, “chalb’me” in Lapp, “sincha” in Mari, “sin” in Komi, “sem” in Khanti, “sew” in Samoyedic.

Turning to grammar, a common characteristic of Uralic languages is the principle of “agglutination.” Words are formed by “gluing” prefixes, suffixes, speech particles and regular grammatical markets to a stem which results in word formations which can be quite long. A word like this may require a whole sentence in English translation. A typical case in Hungarian: “they could still sit around for a while” reads “eluldogelhetnenek.” In this long word, the stem is “ul” which means “sit,” all the other elements are added particles. Another characteristic is the fact that the stress is usually on the first syllable. Also, Uralic languages are noted for their “vowel harmony.” This requires that the vowels of the front and end syllables be in harmony with the vowels within the word. In broad terms, if the stem or root, for example, contains an “a” sound, the vowel harmony principle mandates that the speech particles we append to the stem should also contain the “a” vowel. And still another, consonant clustering is an abomination and such words as the Czech “kn” (blood), or “smrt” (death) are unimaginable in Uralic tongues.

Also shared is the way negation, or a negative statement is constructed (e.g. I don’t go). The negative marker, in general, is the particle “-el” or some of its varieties, such as “-en,” “-et,” “-ei,” or just “-e.” For example, Finnish mene-n “I go,” e-n mene “I don’t go.” In Yukaghir, met meruyeng “I went,” met eluyeng “I didn’t go.” In Hungarian a fossil particle “-e” survives in the negative interrogative mode: “Didn’t I go?” mentem-e.

A fascinating aspect in Uralic is how the concept of possession is expressed. In the Indo-European languages the equivalents of the verb “have” are used to indicate actual property status. “He has a horse..” signifies an assertive and exclusive possession of an object. The corresponding expression in Uralic languages utilizes the verb “is” by saying: “to him there is a horse..” as though it were implicit that there is a horse for him to use (only?). Perhaps Uralic languages reflect here an earlier more egalitarian conception of property from their tribal past.

It is indeed a strange twist of history that the two demographically most significant surviving Uralic nations, the Finns and the Hungarians, should also be linguistically the most distant. During their 1500 year trek trhough central and southern Russia, the Hungarians came into contact with Iranian and Turkic peoples, and upon entering the Carpathian basin they interacted with indigenous Slavic, Germanic and Avar populations. In the centuries following their conquest, the Hungarian state absorbed waves and waves of Turkic, Iranian and Indo-European invaders. Their imprint on the Hungarian vocabulary and on the language in general was not negligible.

In turn, the Finns, too, were impacted by Baltic, Germanic, and Slavonic influences. Both languages diverged considerably from their common ancestral tongue in the course of their historical evolution, although Finnish has remained more “pristinely” Uralic than Hungarian. Yet, in spite of thousands of years of separation and massive outside influences, the two languages share a great deal in common. Even today, about 3000 words in the Hungarian lexical stock is Uralic. Numerous words in both languages preserve their ancestral origins in various degrees of mutation. The logic and mental attitues that underlie grammatical structures in both languages are the same or very similar.

By Michael Keresztesi, Professor Emeritus of Wayne State University

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