The Uralic languages (; sometimes called Uralian languages ) form a language family of 38 languages spoken by approximately 25 million people, predominantly in Northern Eurasia. The Uralic languages with the most native speakers are Hungarian, Finnish, and Estonian, while other significant languages are Erzya, Moksha, Mari, Udmurt, Sami and Komi, spoken in northern regions of Scandinavia and the Russian Federation.
Finno-Ugric is sometimes used as a synonym for Uralic, though Finno-Ugric is widely understood to exclude the Samoyedic languages. Scholars who do not accept the traditional notion that Samoyedic split first from the rest of the Uralic family may treat the terms as synonymous.
The characteristic genetic marker of peoples speaking Uralic languages is haplogroup N1c-Tat (Y-DNA). Samoyedic peoples mainly have more N1b-P43 than N1c. Haplogroup N originated in the northern part of China in 20,000–25,000 years BP and spread to north Eurasia, through Siberia to Northern Europe. Subgroup N1c1 is frequently seen in non-Samoyedic peoples, N1c2 in Samoyedic peoples. In addition, haplogroup Z (mtDNA), found with low frequency in Saami, Finns, and Siberians, is related to the migration of people speaking Uralic languages.
In 2019, a study based on genetics, archaeology and linguistics found that Uralic speakers arrived in the Baltic region from the East, specifically from Siberia, at the beginning of the Iron Age some 2,500 years ago.
The first plausible mention of a people speaking a Uralic language is in Tacitus's Germania (c. 98 AD), mentioning the Fenni (usually interpreted as referring to the Sami) and two other possibly Uralic tribes living in the farthest reaches of Scandinavia. There are many possible earlier mentions, including the Iyrcae (perhaps related to Yugra) described by Herodotus living in what is now European Russia, and the Budini, described by Herodotus as notably red-haired (a characteristic feature of the Udmurts) and living in northeast Ukraine and/or adjacent parts of Russia. In the late 15th century, European scholars noted the resemblance of the names Hungaria and Yugria, the names of settlements east of the Ural. They assumed a connection but did not seek linguistic evidence.
The affinity of Hungarian and Finnish was first proposed in the late 17th century. Three candidates can be credited for the discovery: the German scholar Martin Vogel, the Swedish scholar Georg Stiernhielm and the Swedish courtier Bengt Skytte. Vogel's unpublished study of the relationship, commissioned by Cosimo III of Tuscany, was clearly the most modern of these: he established several grammatical and lexical parallels between Finnish and Hungarian as well as Sami. Stiernhelm commented on the similarities of Sami, Estonian and Finnish, and also on a few similar words between Finnish and Hungarian. These authors were the first to outline what was to become the classification of the Finno-Ugric, and later Uralic family. This proposal received some of its initial impetus from the fact that these languages, unlike most of the other languages spoken in Europe, are not part of what is now known as the Indo-European family. In 1717, Swedish professor Olof Rudbeck proposed about 100 etymologies connecting Finnish and Hungarian, of which about 40 are still considered valid. Several early reports comparing Finnish or Hungarian with Mordvin, Mari or Khanty were additionally collected by Leibniz and edited by his assistant Johann Georg von Eckhart.
In 1730, Philip Johan von Strahlenberg published his book Das Nord- und Ostliche Theil von Europa und Asia (The North and East Parts of Europe and Asia), surveying the geography, peoples and languages of Russia. All the main groups of the Uralic languages were already identified here. Nonetheless, these relationships were not widely accepted. Hungarian intellectuals especially were not interested in the theory and preferred to assume connections with Turkic tribes, an attitude characterized by Merritt Ruhlen as due to "the wild unfettered Romanticism of the epoch". Still, in spite of this hostile climate, the Hungarian Jesuit János Sajnovics travelled with Maximilian Hell to survey the alleged relationship between Hungarian and Sami. Sajnovics published his results in 1770, arguing for a relationship based on several grammatical features. In 1799, the Hungarian Sámuel Gyarmathi published the most complete work on Finno-Ugric to that date.
Up to the beginning of the 19th century, knowledge on the Uralic languages spoken in Russia had remained restricted to scanty observations by travelers. Already Finnish historian Henrik Gabriel Porthan had stressed that further progress would require dedicated field missions. One of the first of these was undertaken by Anders Johan Sjögren, who brought the Vepsians to general knowledge and elucidated in detail the relatedness of Finnish and Komi. Still more extensive were the field research expeditions made in the 1840s by Matthias Castrén (1813–1852) and Antal Reguly (1819–1858), who focused especially on the Samoyedic and the Ob-Ugric languages, respectively. Reguly's materials were worked on by the Hungarian linguist Pál Hunfalvy (1810–1891) and German Josef Budenz (1836–1892), who both supported the Uralic affinity of Hungarian. Budenz was the first scholar to bring this result to popular consciousness in Hungary, and to attempt a reconstruction of the Proto-Finno-Ugric grammar and lexicon. Another late-19th-century Hungarian contribution is that of Ignácz Halász (1855–1901), who published extensive comparative material of Finno-Ugric and Samoyedic in the 1890s, and whose work is at the base of today's wide acceptance of the inclusion of Samoyedic as a part of Uralic. Meanwhile, in the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland, a chair for Finnish language and linguistics at the University of Helsinki was created in 1850, first held by Castrén.
In 1883, the Finno-Ugrian Society was founded in Helsinki on the proposal of Otto Donner, which would lead to Helsinki overtaking St. Petersburg as the chief northern center of research of the Uralic languages. During the late 19th and early 20th century (until the separation of Finland from Russia following the Russian revolution), a large number of stipendiates were sent by the Society to survey the still less known Uralic languages. Major researchers of this period included Heikki Paasonen (studying especially the Mordvinic languages), Yrjö Wichmann (studying Permic), Artturi Kannisto (Mansi), Kustaa Fredrik Karjalainen (Khanty), Toivo Lehtisalo (Nenets), and Kai Donner (Kamass). The vast amounts of data collected on these expeditions would provide edition work for later generations of Finnish Uralicists for more than a century.
The Uralic family comprises nine undisputed groups with no consensus classification between them. (Some of the proposals are listed in the next section.) An agnostic approach treats them as separate branches.
There is also historical evidence of a number of extinct languages of uncertain affiliation:
Traces of Finno-Ugric substrata, especially in toponymy, in the northern part of European Russia have been proposed as evidence for even more extinct Uralic languages.
All Uralic languages are thought to have descended, through independent processes of language change, from Proto-Uralic. The internal structure of the Uralic family has been debated since the family was first proposed. Doubts about the validity of most or all of the proposed higher-order branchings (grouping the nine undisputed families) are becoming more common.
A traditional classification of the Uralic languages has existed since the late 19th century. It has enjoyed frequent adaptation in whole or in part in encyclopedias, handbooks, and overviews of the Uralic family. Donner's model is as follows:
At Donner's time, the Samoyedic languages were still poorly known, and he was not able to address their position. As they became better known in the early 20th century, they were found to be quite divergent, and they were assumed to have separated already early on. The terminology adopted for this was "Uralic" for the entire family, "Finno-Ugric" for the non-Samoyedic languages (though "Finno-Ugric" has, to this day, remained in use also as a synonym for the whole family). Finno-Ugric and Samoyedic are listed in ISO 639-5 as primary branches of Uralic.
Nodes of the traditional family tree recognized in some overview sources:
b. Austerlitz accepts narrower-than-traditional Finno-Ugric and Finno-Permic groups that exclude Samic
c. Häkkinen groups Hungarian, Ob-Ugric and Samoyed into a Ugro-Samoyed branch, and groups Balto-Finnic, Sami and Mordvin into a Finno-Mordvin branch
d. Janhunen accepts a reduced Ugric branch, called 'Mansic', that includes Hungarian and Mansi
Little explicit evidence has however been presented in favour of Donner's model since his original proposal, and numerous alternate schemes have been proposed. Especially in Finland, there has been a growing tendency to reject the Finno-Ugric intermediate protolanguage. A recent competing proposal instead unites Ugric and Samoyedic in an "East Uralic" group for which shared innovations can be noted.
The Finno-Permic grouping still holds some support, though the arrangement of its subgroups is a matter of some dispute. Mordvinic is commonly seen as particularly closely related to or part of Finno-Samic. The term Volgaic (or Volga-Finnic) was used to denote a branch previously believed to include Mari, Mordvinic and a number of the extinct languages, but it is now obsolete and considered a geographic classification rather than a linguistic one.
Within Ugric, uniting Mansi with Hungarian rather than Khanty has been a competing hypothesis to Ob-Ugric.
Lexicostatistics has been used in defense of the traditional family tree. A recent re-evaluation of the evidence however fails to find support for Finno-Ugric and Ugric, suggesting four lexically distinct branches (Finno-Permic, Hungarian, Ob-Ugric and Samoyedic).
One alternate proposal for a family tree, with emphasis on the development of numerals, is as follows:
Another proposed tree, more divergent from the standard, focusing on consonant isoglosses (which does not consider the position of the Samoyedic languages) is presented by Viitso (1997), and refined in Viitso (2000):
The grouping of the four bottom-level branches remains to some degree open to interpretation, with competing models of Finno-Saamic vs. Eastern Finno-Ugric (Mari, Mordvinic, Permic-Ugric; *k > ɣ between vowels, degemination of stops) and Finno-Volgaic (Finno-Saamic, Mari, Mordvinic; *δʲ > *ð between vowels) vs. Permic-Ugric. Viitso finds no evidence for a Finno-Permic grouping.
Extending this approach to cover the Samoyedic languages suggests affinity with Ugric, resulting in the aforementioned East Uralic grouping, as it also shares the same sibilant developments. A further non-trivial Ugric-Samoyedic isogloss is the reduction *k, *x, *w > ɣ when before *i, and after a vowel (cf. *k > ɣ above), or adjacent to *t, *s, *š, or *ś.
Finno-Ugric consonant developments after Viitso (2000); Samoyedic changes after Sammallahti (1988)
The inverse relationship between consonant gradation and medial lenition of stops (the pattern also continuing within the three families where gradation is found) is noted by Helimski (1995): an original allophonic gradation system between voiceless and voiced stops would have been easily disrupted by a spreading of voicing to previously unvoiced stops as well.
Structural characteristics generally said to be typical of Uralic languages include:
Basic vocabulary of about 200 words, including body parts (e.g. eye, heart, head, foot, mouth), family members (e.g. father, mother-in-law), animals (e.g. viper, partridge, fish), nature objects (e.g. tree, stone, nest, water), basic verbs (e.g. live, fall, run, make, see, suck, go, die, swim, know), basic pronouns (e.g. who, what, we, you, I), numerals (e.g. two, five); derivatives increase the number of common words.
The following is a very brief selection of cognates in basic vocabulary across the Uralic family, which may serve to give an idea of the sound changes involved. This is not a list of translations: cognates have a common origin, but their meaning may be shifted and loanwords may have replaced them.
Orthographical notes: The hacek denotes postalveolar articulation (⟨ž⟩ [ʒ], ⟨š⟩ [ʃ], ⟨č⟩ [t͡ʃ]) (In Northern Sami, (⟨ž⟩ [dʒ]), while the acute denotes a secondary palatal articulation (⟨ś⟩ [sʲ ~ ɕ], ⟨ć⟩ [tsʲ ~ tɕ], ⟨l⟩ [lʲ]) or, in Hungarian, vowel length. The Finnish letter ⟨y⟩ and the letter ⟨ü⟩ in other languages represent the high rounded vowel [y]; the letters ⟨ä⟩ and ⟨ö⟩ are the front vowels [æ] and [ø].
As is apparent from the list, Finnish is the most conservative of the Uralic languages presented here, with nearly half the words on the list below identical to their Proto-Uralic reconstructions and most of the remainder only having minor changes, such as the conflation of *ś into /s/, or widespread changes such as the loss of *x and alteration of *ï. Finnish has even preserved old Indo-European borrowings relatively unchanged as well. (An example is porsas ("pig"), loaned from Proto-Indo-European *porḱos or pre-Proto-Indo-Iranian *porśos, unchanged since loaning save for loss of palatalization, *ś > s.)
The Estonian philologist Mall Hellam proposed cognate sentences that she asserted to be mutually intelligible among the three most widely spoken Uralic languages: Finnish, Estonian, and Hungarian:
No Uralic language has exactly the idealized typological profile of the family. Typological features with varying presence among the modern Uralic language groups include:
Many relationships between Uralic and other language families have been suggested, but none of these is generally accepted by linguists at the present time: All of the following hypotheses are minority views at the present time in Uralic studies.
The Uralic–Yukaghir hypothesis identifies Uralic and Yukaghir as independent members of a single language family. It is currently widely accepted that the similarities between Uralic and Yukaghir languages are due to ancient contacts. Regardless, the hypothesis is accepted by a few linguists and viewed as attractive by a somewhat larger number.
The Eskimo–Uralic hypothesis associates Uralic with the Eskimo–Aleut languages. This is an old thesis whose antecedents go back to the 18th century. An important restatement of it is Bergsland 1959.
Uralo-Siberian is an expanded form of the Eskimo–Uralic hypothesis. It associates Uralic with Yukaghir, Chukotko-Kamchatkan, and Eskimo–Aleut. It was propounded by Michael Fortescue in 1998. It is currently the most supported hypothesis regarding close relatives of Uralic. Modern supporters include Morris Swadesh, Juha Janhunen and Häkkinen. Michael Fortescue (2017) present next to new linguistic evidence also several genetic studies, that support a common origin of the included groups, with a suggested homeland somewhere in Northeast Asia.
Theories proposing a close relationship with the Altaic languages were formerly popular, based on similarities in vocabulary as well as in grammatical and phonological features, in particular the similarities in the Uralic and Altaic pronouns and the presence of agglutination in both sets of languages, as well as vowel harmony in some. For example, the word for "language" is similar in Estonian (keel) and Mongolian (хэл (hel)). These theories are now generally rejected and most such similarities are attributed to language contact or coincidence.
The Indo-Uralic (or Uralo-Indo-European) hypothesis suggests that Uralic and Indo-European are related at a fairly close level or, in its stronger form, that they are more closely related than either is to any other language family.
The hypothesis that the Dravidian languages display similarities with the Uralic language group, suggesting a prolonged period of contact in the past, is popular amongst Dravidian linguists and has been supported by a number of scholars, including Robert Caldwell, Thomas Burrow, Kamil Zvelebil, and Mikhail Andronov. This hypothesis has, however, been rejected by some specialists in Uralic languages, and has in recent times also been criticised by other Dravidian linguists, such as Bhadriraju Krishnamurti.
Nostratic associates Uralic, Indo-European, Altaic, Dravidian, and various other language families of Asia. The Nostratic hypothesis was first propounded by Holger Pedersen in 1903 and subsequently revived by Vladislav Illich-Svitych and Aharon Dolgopolsky in the 1960s.
Eurasiatic resembles Nostratic in including Uralic, Indo-European, and Altaic, but differs from it in excluding the South Caucasian languages, Dravidian, and Afroasiatic and including Chukotko-Kamchatkan, Nivkh, Ainu, and Eskimo–Aleut. It was propounded by Joseph Greenberg in 2000–2002. Similar ideas had earlier been expressed by Heinrich Koppelmann in 1933 and by Björn Collinder in 1965.
In her book, The Uralic language family: facts, myths, and statistics, linguist Angela Marcantonio argues against the validity of several subgroups of the Uralic family, as well against the family itself, claiming that many of the languages are no more closely related to each other than they are to various other Eurasian languages (e.g. Yukaghir or Turkic), and that in particular Hungarian is a language isolate.
A more ambiguous review comes from linguist Edward Vajda, who does not, however, specialize in Uralic languages. Although he also rejects all of the book's new proposals (including the author's dismissal of Uralic as a language family), he agrees that Marcantonio has raised a number of worthwhile questions that both Uralicists and non-Uralicists should aim to answer seriously.
Various unorthodox comparisons have been advanced. These are considered at best spurious fringe-theories by specialists: