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?


The Bilingual U.S. – Hungarian Politics in the U.S.

The interplay between foreign politics and immigration at work in Cuban Miami was not a singular occurrence in U.S. history. Long before José Martí made the rounds of the Cuban-American communities in New York, Tampa, and Key West, before Miami played host to Cuba’s opposition leaders, ousted Hungarian “Governor-President” Lajos (Louis) Kossuth was drumming up support for his cause on a legendary tour de force of the United States.

After the revolt led by the Governor-President against Hungary’s Austrian overlords was crushed in 1849 by the Hapsburgs’ Russian allies, Kossuth had been imprisoned in Turkey. In his exile he continued to lobby for a free and democratic Hungarian Republic, and upon being freed in 1851 travelled first to England and then to the United States to promote his cause.

In the U.S. his ideals met with a hearty welcome- in less than a year’s time he was invited to speak in front of the legislatures of New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Maryland, and Ohio, was personally entertained by President Millard Fillmore, and became the first foreigner since the Marquis de Lafayette to address a joint session of the United States Congress.

The eloquent promulgator of democracy spoke prolifically throughout his travels; as the American Anti-Slavery Society wrote in a letter to Kossuth in 1952, “Less than a month has passed since your arrival; but, during that brief period, you have made more addresses, and received more delegations,- representing various professions, societies, and corporations,- than any other man living.” In Boston he spoke in historic Faneuil Hall. In St. Louis he spoke to the French community in French. At the Broadway Tabernacle in New York he addressed the crowd in German.  And everyone that he went he received money in support of his cause or, as was the case in Ohio, “two hundred muskets, to aid him in achieving the independence of Hungary.”

Perhaps hoping to avoid offending the U.S. government, Kossuth never directly addressed the topic of slavery, one of the most important political discussions of the era. Nevertheless, his philosophy spoke clearly; the equality of men of different ethnicities and languages was a firm point in Kossuth’s definition of democracy.

In a letter to the New York Times he wrote, “How often have I…said to my countrymen that they must be strictly just, and seek their future greatness, not in the predominance of one race, but in the perfect equality of all! My counsel was adopted, and made the basis of the government. The same freedom, the same privileges, without regard to language or religion, the free development of each race under the protection of the law, were accorded to all. We not only guaranteed the right to use any language in the churches and schools, but we afforded aid for the education and development of each nationality. The principle we announced was, that either the State should protect no religion, no nationality- leaving all to the free action of the people- or that it should protect all alike.”

Kossuth’s 7-month tour of the United States had a tremendous impact on the nation in an important political moment. In addressing the Ohio legislature, Kossuth stated, “All for the people and all by the people. Nothing about the people without the people. That is Democracy, and that is the ruling tendency of the spirit of our age,” words which would go on to influence President Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg Address.

One hundred years later his memory would be bitterly evoked as a Hungarian rebellion was once again put down by Russian guns. Although the Hungarian Revolution of October 1956 was not successful, it put in the chink in the Iron Curtain and produced 200,000 refugees (about 2% of the country’s population), 38,000 of whom found asylum in the United States. Just as they would do for the Cuban refugees a few short years later, the Attorney General, in collaboration with the CIA, waived restrictive (6,500/year) immigration quotas to allow the refugees in.

The CIA encountered communicative difficulties in working with this refugee population: “Two language factors came to light: (a) the intelligence community probably has fewer language specialists in Hungarian than in any other but the most exotic Eastern and Near Eastern languages, and (b) the Hungarians have a lower coefficient of second-language competence than any other civilized population except Americans.”

Perhaps an enlightened, Kossuth-inspired language policy could help the United States to develop these missing second-language competences; from Cuban to Hungarian refugees, the base materials are certainly not lacking.