Finno-Ugric languages

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Geographical distribution of Finno-Ugric (Finno-Permic in blue, Ugric in green). Also shown are the Samoyedic and Yukaghir languages (after Ruhlen, 1987)
Geographical distribution of Finno-Ugric (Finno-Permic in blue, Ugric in green). Also shown are the Samoyedic and Yukaghir languages (after Ruhlen, 1987)

The Finno-Ugric languages form a subfamily of the Uralic languages. The majority of linguists believe that Finnish, Hungarian and Estonian, among other languages, should be included in the group. Unlike most of the other languages spoken in Europe, the Finno-Ugric languages are not part of the Indo-European family of languages. The Uralic languages also include the Samoyedic languages, and some linguists use the terms Finno-Ugric and Uralic as synonyms. Many of the smaller Finno-Ugric languages are endangered and near extinction.



The "Urheimat" of Proto-Finno-Ugric, the proto-language of the modern Finno-Ugric languages, cannot be located with any certainty. The area west of the Ural mountains is generally assumed as a likely candidate, at a time of maybe the 3rd millennium BC. This is based both on linguistic migration theory, which appears to suggest a "centre of gravity" somewhere around the middle Volga River, and on reconstructed plant and animal names (notably including spruce, Siberian pine, Siberian fir, Siberian larch, brittle willow/elm, and hedgehog). Proto-Finno-Ugric contains Indo-Iranian loanwords, notably the words for "honeybee" and "honey", probably from the time when Indo-Iranian tribes (such as Scythians and Sarmatians) inhabited the Eurasian steppes.

There is evidence that before the arrival of the Slavic tribes to the area of modern-day Russia, speakers of Finno-Ugrian languages may have been scattered across the whole area between the Urals and the Baltic Sea. This was the distribution of the Comb Ceramic Culture, a stone age culture which appears to have corresponded to the Finno-Ugric populations, c. 4200 BC–c. 2000 BC.

There have been attempts to relate the Finno-Ugric languages to the Indo-European languages, but there are not enough similarities to link them with any certainty. Conversely, there have been suggestions that the Germanic languages evolved from an Indo-European language such as Celtic imposed on a Finnic substrate, but no satisfactory proof yet exists. (On the other hand, it is now believed that Germanic was initially much more akin to Balto-Slavic and moved closer to Celtic during its protohistoric development.)

A portion of the Baltic-Finnic lexicon is not shared with the remaining Finno-Ugric languages and may be due to a pre-Finnic substrate, which may coincide in part with the substrate of the Indo-European Baltic languages. As far as the Samic (Lappic) languages are concerned, a hypothesis has been advanced that the Sami were originally speakers of a different language, who adopted their current Finno-Ugric speech under the pressure of their Finnic neighbors.


The first mention of a Uralic people is in Tacitus' Germania, mentioning the Finns as adjacent to Germanic territory. 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 look into linguistic evidence. In 1671, Swedish scholar Georg Stiernhielm commented on the similarities of Lapp, Estonian and Finnish, and also on a few similar words in Finnish and Hungarian, while the German scholar Martin Vogel tried to establish a relationship between Finnish, Lapp and Hungarian. These two authors were thus the first to outline what was to become the classification of a Finno-Ugric family. In 1717, Swedish professor Olaf Rudbeck proposed about 100 etymologies connecting Finnish and Hungarian, of which about 40 are still considered valid (Collinder, 1965). In the same year, the German scholar J. G. von Eckhart (published in Leibniz' Collectanea Etymologica) for the first time proposed a relation to the Samoyedic languages. By 1770, all constituents of Finno-Ugric were known, almost 20 years before the traditional starting-point of Indo-European studies. Nonetheless, these relationships were not widely accepted. Especially Hungarian intellectuals were not interested in the theory and preferred to assume connections with Turkic tribes, an attitude characterized by Ruhlen (1987) as due to "the wild unfettered Romanticism of the epoch". Still, in spite of the hostile climate, the Hungarian Jesuit J. Sajnovics suggested a relationship of Hungarian and Lapp in 1770, and in 1799, the Hungarian Samuel Gyarmathi published the most complete work on Finno-Ugric to that date.

At the beginning of the 19th century, research on Finno-Ugric was thus more advanced than Indo-European research. But the rise of Indo-European comparative linguistics absorbed so much attention and enthusiasm that Finno-Ugric linguistics was all but eclipsed in Europe; in Hungary, the only European country that would have had a vested interest in the family (Finland and Estonia being under Russian rule), the political climate was too hostile for the development of Uralic comparative linguistics. Some progress was made, however, culminating in the work of the German Jozsef Budenz, who for 20 years was the leading Finno-Ugric specialist in Hungary. Another late-19th-century contribution is that of Hungarian linguist Ignac Halasz, who published extensive comparative material of Finno-Ugric and Samoyedic in the 1890s, and whose work is at the base of the wide acceptance of the Samoyed-Finno-Ugric relationship today.

During the 1990s, linguists Kalevi Wiik, Janos Pusztay and Ago Künnap and historian Kyösti Julku announced a "breakthrough in Present-Day Uralistics", dating Proto-Finnic to 10,000 BC. The theory was almost entirely unsuccessful in the scientific community (cf. Merlijn de Smit, see external links).

Structural features

All of the Finno-Ugric languages share structural features and basic vocabulary. Around 200 basic words have been proposed and include word stems for concepts related to humans such as names for relatives and body parts. This common vocabulary includes, according to Lyle Campbell, at least 55 words related to fishing, 33 related to hunting and eating animals, 12 related to reindeer, 17 related to plant foods, 31 related to technology, 26 related to building, 11 related to clothing, 18 related to climate, 4 related to society, 11 related to religion, and 3 related to commerce, giving an interesting picture of proto-Finno-Ugric society.

The structural features are seen by linguists as strong evidence for a common ancestry. These include inflection by adding suffixes (instead of prepositions in English). The Finno-Ugric languages are also famous for having a large number of grammatical cases, of which Finnish has at least 15 and Hungarian has at least 24.

Another feature of the Finno-Ugric languages is that verbs are inflected, i.e. conjugated, by person and number. (This is the familiar way verbs are conjugated in most Indo-European languages; but Chinese, Vietnamese and other isolating languages do not share this feature.)

Finally, the Finno-Ugric languages lack possessive pronouns, such as my and your, communicating the same information via declension. In some languages, the genitive of the personal pronoun is used to express possession. Examples: Estonian mu koer 'my dog' (literally 'I-gen. dog'), Northern Sami mu beana 'my dog' (literally 'I-gen. dog') or beatnagan 'my dog' (literally 'dog-my'). In others, a pronominal suffix is used, optionally together with the genitive case of a pronoun: thus Finnish (minun) koirani, 'my dog' (literally 'I-gen. dog-my'), from koira "dog". Similarly, Hungarian, lacking determinative possessive pronouns, uses possessive noun suffixes, optionally together with pronouns; cf. 'the dog' = a kutya vs. 'my dog' = az én kutyįm (literally, 'the I dog-my') or simply a kutyįm (literally, 'the dog-my'). Hungarian, however, does have independent possessive pronouns; e.g. enyém 'mine', tiéd 'yours', etc. These are declined; e.g. nom. enyém, acc. enyémet, dat. enyémnek, etc.


It is generally agreed that the Finno-Ugric subfamily of the Uralic languages has the following members:

Ugric (Ugrian)

Finno-Permic (Permian-Finnic)


The classification of Finno-Ugric within Uralic, and of Finnic and Ugric within Finno-Ugric, is accepted by practically all scholars. Dispute is at present largely confined to the Finno-Permic family, surrounding different proposals for the arrangement of the its subgroups and regarding the validity of the Volgaic group.

The term Volgaic denoted a branch believed to include Mari and Mordvinic, but it has now become obsolete: research has shown that it was a geographic classification rather than a linguistic one. The Mordvinic languages are more closely related to the Finno-Lappic languages than they are to the Mari languages.

Another dispute surrounds the affinity of the Yukaghir languages, which is traditionally regarded as a language isolate, with some scholars proposing a strong affinity to Uralic (Collinder, 1965).

The relation of the Finno-Permic and the Ugric groups is remote by some standards. With a time depth of only 3 or 4 thousand years, it is far younger than many major families such as Indo-European or Semitic, and about the same age as, for instance, the Eastern subfamily of Nilotic. But the grouping is still far from transparent — the absence of early records constitutes an obstacle to exact reconstruction not found in, for example, Indo-European or Semitic. While much has been speculatively deduced about the Finno-Ugric Urheimat, little is certain, and, of course, the relatedness of the languages does not necessarily imply any racial or cultural unity of the peoples speaking them.

Linguists criticizing the Finno-Ugric group (e.g. Angela Marcantonio, see References) believe that Ugric and Finnic are more distantly related than proponents advertise, and possibly are no closer than the Turkic and Ugric groups. These linguists propose an Ural-Altaic supergroup. Such proposals do not contest the ultimate relatedness of Finno-Ugric, but rather try to include more languages (on even more tenuous grounds) into the family. Other supergroups have been advanced (Uralo-Dravidian, Finno-Basque, Hungaro-Sumerian) but are almost universally regarded as spurious.

Common vocabulary

This is a small sample of cognates in basic vocabulary across Uralic, illustrating the sound laws (based on the Encyclopędia Britannica and Hakkinen 1979). Note that in general two cognates don't have the same meaning; they merely have the same origin. Thus, the English word in each row should be regarded as an approximation of the original meaning, not a translation of the other words.

English Finnish Estonian North Sami Inari Sami Mari Komi Khanty Hungarian Finno-Ugric reconstruction
heart sydän, sydäm- süda, südam- čotta, čoddaga - šüm śələm səm szķv *śiδä(-mɜ) / *śüδä(-mɜ)
lap syli süli salla, sala solla šəl syl jöl öl *süle / *sile
vein suoni soon suotna, suona suona šön sən jan ķn 'sinew, tendon' *sōne / *se̮ne
go mennä, men- minna, min- mannat moonnađ mije- mun- mən- menni, megy  ?
fish kala kala guolli, guoli kyeli kol - kul hal  ?
hand käsi, käte-
gen. käden, part. kättä
käsi, kät-
gen. käe, part. kätt
giehta, gieđa kieta kit ki köt kéz *käte
eye silmä silm čalbmi, čalmmi čalme, šalme šinča śin sem szem *śilmä
one yksi, yhte-
gen. yhden, part. yhtä
üks, üht-
gen. ühe, part. üht(e)
okta, ovtta ohta ikte ət'ik ĭt egy  ?
two kaksi, kahte-
gen. kahden, part. kahta
kaks, kaht-
gen. kahe, part. kaht(e)
guokte kyeh“ti kokət kyk kät kettő/két *kakta / *käktä
three kolme kolm golbma kulma kumət kujim koləm hįrom *kolme / *kulme
ice jää jää jiekŋa, jieŋa jiena ij ji jöŋk jég *jäŋe
louse täi täi dihkki tikke tij toj tögtəm tetű  ?

(Orthographical note: the Finnish letter 'y' [y] represents the same phoneme as the letter 'ü' in other languages. The voiced dental spirant [š] is the origin of the standard Finnish 'd', which is realized differently in each dialect today. The same sound is marked with the letter đ in the Sami languages. The Sami 'č' is a voiceless postalveolar affricate [ʧ]. Hungarian 'gy' is the palatalized [dʲ], not a 'g'.)


The numbers from 1 to 10 in Finnish, Estonian, Võro, North Sami, Erzya, Meadow Mari, Mansi, Hungarian, and Proto-Finno-Ugric.

Number Finnish Estonian Võro North Sami Inari Sami Erzya Meadow Mari Mansi Hungarian Proto-F-U
1 yksi üks ütś okta ohta vejke ikte akva egy *ykte
2 kaksi kaks katś guokte kyeh“ti kavto kokət kityg kettő *kakte
3 kolme kolm kolm golbma kulma kolmo kumət hurum hįrom *kolm-
4 neljä neli nelli njeallje nelji ńiľe nələt nila négy *neljä-
5 viisi viis viiś vihtta vitta veƭe wizət at öt *vit(t)e
6 kuusi kuus kuuś guhtta kutta koto kuδət hot hat *kut(t)e
7 seitsemän seitse säidse čieža čiččam śiśem šəmət sat hét n/a
8 kahdeksan kaheksa katõsa gįvcci käävci kavkso kandaš(e) ńololov nyolc n/a
9 yhdeksän üheksa ütesä ovcci oovce vejkse indeš(e) ontolov kilenc n/a
10 kymmenen kümme kümme logi love kemeń lu lov tķz n/a

Finno-Ugric Swadesh lists

100-word Swadesh lists for certain Finno-Ugric languages can be compared and contrasted at the Rosetta Project website: Finnish (, Estonian (, Hungarian (, Erzya ( Notice that particularly the Finnish list is unreliable, because it contains several neologisms or formal words, e.g. "henkilö" instead of the more commonly used "ihminen", which is much closer to Estonian "inimene". The Finnish list has also spelling errors.

See also

External links

  • [1] ( A more comprehensive link collection
  • FAQ about Finno-Ugrian Languages (
  • Linguistic Shadow-Boxing ( Johanna Laakso's book review of Angela Marcantonio's "The Uralic language family. Facts, myths and statistics"
  • Uralic Linguistics Vs. Voodoo Science! ( A collection of links about the "new paradigm" debate by Merlijn de Smit
  • Numbers in Asian languages ( Counting to ten in a variety of languages


  • Benkő, Lorįnd: Etymologisches Wörterbuch des Ungarischen (Etymological Dictionary of Hungarian). Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1992-1997., ISBN 9630562278
  • Collinder, Björn: Fenno-Ugric Vocabulary. Uppsala, 1955, ISBN 3871181870.
  • Collinder, Björn: An introduction to the Uralic languages. Berkely, California
  • Campbell, Lyle: Historical Linguistics: An Introduction. Edinburgh University Press 1998.
  • Csepregi Mįrta (ed.): Finnugor kalauz (Finno-Ugric Guide). Budapest: Panorįma, 1998., ISBN 9632438620
  • Encyclopędia Britannica 15th ed.: Languages of the World: Uralic languages. Chicago, 1990.
  • Häkkinen, Kaisa: Suomalais-ugrilaisten kielten etymologisen tutkimuksen asemasta ja ongelmista (About the situation and problems of the etymological research of the Finno-Ugric languages) (1979), in Nykysuomen rakenne ja kehitys (Structure and development of modern Finnish) volume 2, (NRJK 2) Pieksämäki 1984, ISBN 951-717-360-1.
  • Laakso, Johanna: Karhunkieli. Pyyhkäisyjä suomalais-ugrilaisten kielten tutkimukseen (A Bear Tongue. Views on the Research of the Finno-Ugric Languages). Helsinki: SKS, 1999.
  • Laakso, Johanna (ed.): Uralilaiset kansat (Uralic Peoples). Porvoo - Helsinki - Juva: WSOY, 1992, ISBN 951-0-16485-2.
  • Marcantonio, Angela: What Is the Linguistic Evidence to Support the Uralic Theory or Theories? - In Linguistica Uralica 40, 1, pp 40-45, 2004.
  • Marcantonio, Angela: The Uralic Language Family: Facts, Myths and Statistics. 2003.
  • Marcantonio, Angela, Pirjo Nummenaho, and Michela Salvagni: The "Ugric-Turkic Battle": A Critical Review. In Linguistica Uralica 37, 2, pp 81-102, 2001. Online version (
  • Ruhlen, Merritt, A Guide to the World's languages, Stanford, California (1987), pp. 64–71.
  • Sammallahti, Pekka: Historical phonology of the Uralic languages. - In: Denis Sinor (ed.), The Uralic languages. Description, history and foreign influences. Leiden - New York - Kųbenhavn - Köln: Brill, 1998.
  • Sammallahti, Pekka, Matti Morottaja: Säämi - suoma - säämi škovlasänikirje (Inari Sami - Finnish - Inari Sami School Dictionary). Helsset/Helsinki: Ruovttueatnan gielaid dutkanguovddaš/Kotimaisten kielten tutkimuskeskus, 1983, ISBN 951-9475-36-2.
  • Sammallahti, Pekka: Sįmi - suoma - sįmi sįtnegirji (Northern Sami - Finnish - Northern Sami Dictionary). Ohcejohka/Utsjoki: Girjegiisį, 1993, ISBN 951-8939-28-4.
  • Sinor, Denis (ed.): Studies in Finno-Ugric Linguistics: In Honor of Alo Raun (Indiana University Uralic and Altaic Series : Volume 131). Indiana Univ Research, 1977, ISBN 0933070004.
  • Vikųr, Lars S. (ed.): Fenno-Ugric. In: The Nordic Languages. Their Status and Interrelations. Novus Press, pp. 62-74, 1993.
  • Языки народов СССР III. Финно-угорские и самоитйские языки (Languages of the Peoples in the USSR III. Finno-Ugric and Samoyedic Languages). Москва (Moscow): Наука (Nauka), 1966.
  • A magyar szókészlet finnugor elemei. Etimológiai szótįr (The Hungarian Vocabulary of Finno-Ugric Origin. Etymological Dictionary). Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, Sprachen

et:Soome-ugri keeled eo:Finn-ugra lingvaro fr:Langues finno-ougriennes nl:Finoegrische talen nn:Finsk-ugriske språk hu:Finnugor nyelvek pl:Języki ugrofińskie ro:Limbile fino-ugrice se:Suopmelaš-ugralaš gielat fi:Suomalais-ugrilaiset kielet sv:Finsk-ugriska språk


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