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Description

Uralic

The Uralic language family consists of more than 30 living languages, which are spoken by more than 24.000.000 people. The language family is subdivided into two superordinate nodes: Finno-Ugric and Samoyedic. The Finno-Ugric branch has more than 99% of the speakers, whereas the Samoyedic laguages are spoken by less than 30.000. Most languages of the family are found in northern Eurasia. A remarkable exception to that pattern is Hungarian, the most populous Uralic language, which is spoken in Central Europe.

The assumption of a Uralic language family is commonly accepted by linguists. This notion is supported by a common heritage of features in phonology, morphology, syntax and a common amount of words inherited from a hypothetical Proto-Uralic language. Some scholars consider the existence of a Ural-Altaic language family, consisting of the Uralic and the Altaic languages. This view has rather few supporters nowadays. Common features that occur in both Uralic and Altaic languages are a tendency towards agglutination and vowel harmony. However, these features are best viewed as typological correspondences, and can not be traced back to a common proto-language.

Most scholars consider the homeland of a hypothetical Proto-Uralic people in the vicinity of the central and northern Ural mountains by most scholars, because the Uralic languages share a common set of inherited words, which indicate specific words for animals, plants and animals, that occur only in this area. The predecessors of the Finno-Ugric peoples moved from there to the west and the south, whereas the predecessors of the Samoyedic peoples moved to the north and the east into Siberia.

The Finno-Ugric group is sub-divided into two major groups: Finno-Permic and Ugric. Ugric consists of three languages (Hungarian and the two Ob-Ugric languages Khanty and Mansi), while Finno-Permic is split-up into various subdivisions: the nine Baltic-Finnic languages, with Finnish and Estonian as outstanding members, the eleven Saamic languages, Permic with Komi-Zyrian, Komi-Permyak and Udmurt, Cheremisic with High Mari and Low Mari, and Mordvinic with Erzya and Mokshya.

The Samoyedic languages are spoken in the extreme north of the Russian Federation between the Peninsulae of Kanin and Taymyr.
The Samoyedic branch is subdivided into a northern and a southern group. Nenets, the most populous Samoyedic language, belongs the northern group, alongside with Enets and Nganasan. The only living member of the southern branch is Selkup. Kamas and Mator, two extinct languages, also belong to Southern Samoyedic.

The oldest written monument of a Uralic language is the Hungarian Funeral Oration, which dates from the first half of the 13th century. A short Karelian fragment also stems from the 13th century. The oldest written attestations of a Permic language date back to the 14th century: Old Komi, also called Old Zyrian, was written with a script, that had been developed by the first bishop to the Zyrians. This Old Komi writing system was in use until the 17th century. The first extensive texts of Finnish and Estonian were written in the 16th century. The first written attestations of Saami were produced in the 17th century.

Many Uralic languages have vowel harmony and agglutinative morphology. No Uralic language has grammtical gender.

The morphology of Uralic languages prevalently uses suffixed morphemes to express grammatical relations.

Nouns are inflected for number and case. All languages have singular and plural as numbers, Saami Ob-Ugric and Samoyedic also have a dual number.

Vowel harmony in the Uralic languages is mostly sensitive to the feature [+/-back]. Not all Uralic languages have vowel harmony. Vowel harmony occurs in Finnish, Hungarian, Mordvin, Mari, Mansi, Khanty, and Kamas.

Consonant gradation or the weakening of consonants between vowels (as part of grammatical paradigms) occurs in Baltic-Finnic, Saamic and as an independent innovation in some Samoyedic languages. In Saamic also the reverse process is found: single consonants become geminates in open syllables.

In many Uralic languages stress is bound to the first syllable of the word (Finnish, Estonian, Hungarian, Komi). Related to initial accent is the restriction ofmost vowel phonemes to to first syllable position. In other languages like Eastern Mari, Yazva Komi etc. accent is not bound to any position in the word.

Many Uralic languages have a set of suffixed pronouns. Their main function is to indicate the pronominal possessor.

Uralic languages usually have a rather complex case system. The biggest amount of cases is reported for the Komi-Permyak noun, which has 24 cases. Also Hungarian has a rich inventory of cases with 16-21 cases (the actual number is subject of discussion). Finnish has 14 cases, the Saamic languages usually around six. However, there are also Uralic languages, which have a small amount of cases, for example the Obdorsk dialect of Khanty, which has three cases.

Uralic languages mostly use suffixes and postpositions.

New nouns can be formed by composition and by derivation with suffixes.

The verb is inflected for tense/aspect, mood, number and person. The Samoyedic languages have a very elaborated mood system: Nenets, for instance, has 16 moods. The existence of a (definite) direct object is ecoded in the verbal paradagigms of the following language groups: Samoyedic, Ugric and Mordvinic. The verb of the Cheremisic languages has a witnessed and a non-witnessed past.

The Uralic languages are rich in non-finite verb forms (infinitives, participles and gerunds).

Uralic languages are nominative-accusative type languages, i.e. subjects of transitive and intransitive verbs are treated the same way: both are marked by the nominative case. Direct objects are treated differently from those two: They are marked by the accusative case.

The unmarked order of constituents in most Uralic languages is SOV. The languages in the west (Sami, Baltic-Finnic, and Hungarian) are exceptional to that pattern, since they have SVO order, mainly due to the influence of European languages.

The genuine Uralic equivalent of subordinate clauses are infinite constructions with verbal nouns. However, due to the influence of adjacent languages subordinate clauses with finite verbs are spreading.


Bernhard Scheucher

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