The Uralic Language Family

Although Indo-European languages represent the vast majority of languages in Europe, they are not the only language group on the Old Continent. Finland is certainly part of Scandinavia, but the Finnish language is not at all a relative of its Nordic neighbors to the west. Nor is it a cousin, not even a distant one, of the mother of all Slavic tongues spoken by its eastern neighbor. The Uralic language family which includes Finnish, Estonian, and Hungarian is not related in any significant manner to other European languages.

Hungarian, Finnish and Estonian seems like an odd mix- while Finland and Estonia are Baltic Sea neighbors, Hungary is a landlocked Eastern European country with Germanic (Austria), Romance (Romania), and Slavic (Slovakia, Slovenia, Serbia, Croatia and the Ukraine) neighbors. Slovakia, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia lie between Hungary and its closest linguistic relative, Estonia, and it is even farther from its ancestral linguistic homeland in the Ural Mountains, the spine of mountains which is traditionally considered to be the natural Eastern boundary of Europe.

Today the area just to the west of the Ural Mountains is still home to a number of minor Uralic languages, each spoken by approximately half-a-million people, all of which have official language status alongside Russian in their respective regions.

According to some linguists, the ancestral homeland of the Uralic languages was not confined to the Ural Mountains but extended westward all the way to the Baltic Sea. The Karelian language spoken in the Russian Republic of Karelia along the Finnish border and the Saami languages of Northern Scandinavia join Finnish and Estonian in testifying to this past.

The most distinctive feature of the Uralic languages is agglutination. To understand agglutination- which literally means “gluing together”- it is first necessary to understand inflection– the practice of specifying the syntactical role of a word through affixes (prefixes and suffixes) rather than relying on auxiliary words and word order. In English inflection is used only in a few instances, for example when we form the plural (usually by adding “-s”), turn an adjective into an adverb by adding “-ly” (happy -> happily), or say “he”, “him” or “his” depending on whether we are talking about a subject, object or possessor.

Other languages rely much more heavily on inflection. Those who studied Latin will certainly remember the torture of memorizing cases and declensions. A “house” is casa when it is a subject (nominative case), casae when it is possessive (genitive case), casam when it is a direct object (accusative case), and so on. The high level of inflection in Latin allows for much greater liberty in word order, making the poetry of Horace, Catullus, and Vergil that much more interesting and that much harder to translate.

Agglutination takes inflection to its extreme consequences by instating a one-to-one relationship between syntactical category (i.e. subject, direct object, possession) and affix. The result is a vast number of possible prefixes or suffixes and highly specific syntactical categories. Hungarian has 18 noun cases, while Finnish has 15 and Estonian has 14.

So while “house” in Hungarian is Ház when it’s the subject of the sentence (nominative case), it is Házat when it is the direct object (accusative), Háznak when it is “of the house” (dative-genitive), Házzal when it is “with the house” (instrumental), házastul when it is “with the house and its parts” (essive-modal), házzá when it is “into a house” (translative), házért when it is “for the house” (causal-final), házba when it is “into the house” (illative), házra when it is “onto the house” (sublative), házhoz when it is “to the house” (allative), házban when it is “in the house” (inessive), házon when it is “on the house” (superessive), háznál when it is “at the house” (adessive), házból when it is “out of the house” (elative), házról when it is “from (top of) the house” (delative), háztól when it is “from (nearby) the house” (ablative), házig when it is “as far as the house” (terminative), and házként when it is “as a house” (formal). In addition, there is a temporal case which cannot be illustrated with the word house- “house o’clock” isn’t an actual time, even in Hungary.

Features like agglutination make Hungarian, Finnish, and Estonian difficult for a speaker of an Indo-European language to learn. Have you had any experience with a Uralic language?

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