The Uralic Family: The history and language contact of family members

Theresa D. Bird
Linguistics 450
Professor Cynthia Hallen
March 12, 1998

(Sinor, Denis ed. The Uralic Languages: Description, History, and Influences. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1988.)

Before doing this research, I had no idea what the Uralic Family was or what it consisted of. I was baffled in trying to keep in mind where each language originated and how they related to one another. I found the circle representation of the Uralic family, in The Uralic Languages by Sinor, to be quite useful in clarifying the different members of each family branch. The Uralic languages geographically cover Scandinavia, Finland, and Eastern Central Europe to Central Russia. As seen in Fig.1, the Uralic family consists of the Finno-Ugric and the Samoyed languages. The Finno -Ugric group is divided into two language groups: the Ugric and the Western Finno-Ugric. The Ugric language group is comprised of Hungarian, and the Ob-Ugric languages, which are Vogal and Ostayak. The Western Finno-Ugric language group covers the Fennic languages which include Finnish, Karelian, Vepsian, Vote, Estonian, and Livonian. These languages were combined with the Lappish, Mordvin, Cheremis, Votyak, and Zirynene languages to make up the Western Finno-Ugric group. The Samoyed language group is divided into Northern Samoyed and Southern Samoyed. Three language groups reside within Northern Samoyed: the Nenets, the Enets and the Nganasan. Only two language groups remain in the South: the Selkup and the Sayan Samoyed. As you can tell, the Uralic family is rather huge. I will cover the history and language contact that a couple of these languages have encountered. I will focus on the Nenets and the Selkups (from the Samoyed languages) and also the Hungarian, Finnish and Lapp (from the Finno-Ugric languages) so that each language subgroup will be fairly represented.

Samoyed History

The ancient Samoyed people separated from the Finno-Ugrians about 3,000 B.C. Hajdú mentions that they headed east but remained in the woodlands near the Ural Mountains. They have remained in contact with other Uralic groups for a time but even that contact was severed. The Proto-Samoyed people settled in western Siberia. In this region, they had little contact with other people. This helped maintain a common language and lifestyle among them (Samoyed 42). The Turkic people were the first to come in contact with Samoyed in the first centuries B.C. According to Chinese almanacs;

‘some Turkic tribes had the borders of Europe. . . as a result of the pressures of the restless peoples behind them. The westernmost and northwestern most of these were the people known. . .as the Ting-ling. . . there lived among the Ting-ling a fur trading people who spoke a strange language and slid faster on their hoofs than a horse (Hajdú, Samoyed 43).’

The people described in that passage were the Nganasan, one the Northern Samoyed groups who have distinctive boots that resembles a hoof. The contact between the Turks and Nganasan seemed to be one of trade and commerce. The length of their contact in unknown but certain Samoyed words such as "money" and "sable" have Turkish origin. Hajdú goes on to explain an eastern movement of the Samoyed groups scattering all over the northern regions of Siberia. The northern groups of the Samoyed separated from the southern groups and advanced into northern Siberia. The southern group stayed in their location but soon a group of them headed northeastward toward the middle course of Ob’ River and later another group started to move to the Sayan Mountains (Hajdú, Samoyed 44).

The Nenets

The Nenets, a Northern Samoyed group, traveled to the borders of Europe and Siberia. As the Russian Empire gradually gained control over the region, the contact with Russia brought on new technological advances and transmitted loan words. However, these advances came with a heavy price. The Nenets and gradually the entire Samoyed nation inevitably became subjected to heavy taxation. Hajdú states that they paid this tribute until they became so impoverished that they revolted. Unfortunately, they did not last long against the Czar’s armies. Change came to the them through the 1917 Soviet Revolution. Their living conditions were greatly improved and their economy was enhanced by collective farming and reindeer keeping. Industrialization and new methods in agricultural farming further increased their livelihood. Education among them was focused on eradicating illiteracy. Schools are now available to teach them in their native language. The Nenets language rose to become the literary standard. Schoolbooks, folklore, and newspapers made the language the most cultivated among the Samoyed people (Hajdú, Samoyed 48-51).

The Selkup

The Southern branches of the Samoyed separated from their northern relatives not only in distance but also in language. According to Hajdú, some Selkup groups had settled in the Taz and Turuhan valleys. Others lived near Narym, who were bilingual in Russian and Selkup but later decided to adopt Russian as their language. The majority of Selkup speakers now remain in the Taz and Turuhan areas (Finno-Ugrian 230). The Selkup had different dialects in their language. Kai Donner, a researcher who collected linguistic material among these dialects, had to use Russian as the medium of communication between them (Hajdú, Finno-Ugrian 231). Now only half the Selkup population uses this language.

Language contacts of the Samoyed people

The Samoyed people had language contact from the Altaic language family. The Altaic language contact came to the Samoyed from the Turkish people. This influence was greatest in the Southern groups mainly due to their location. The Southern groups had more contact with the Turkish tribes and have even maintained contact until now. Loanwords have floated between the two through trade and association. Many words came from Turkish origins. The northern groups did not show many cognate words from Turkish origins and it may be that their exposure to them is through contact with the southern groups (Hajdú, Samoyed 53).

The Tungus language have also influenced the Samoyed language. Its influence is particularly felt with those living near Tungus. Russia’s influence came more recently, but nonetheless left its mark on the Samoyed vocabulary (Hajdú, Samoyed 55). Hajdú also mentions other small language contacts that have found its way into specialized fields of occupation. We can not forget that the Samoyed settled into areas that have already been occupied. It is safe then to assume that some assimilation of words and culture occurred also (Samoyed 55-56).

The History of the Lapps

The Lapps live in the vast area of northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Kola Peninsula. From what is known, the Lapps have always been north of their relative languages. Their move into their current location is due to migrations in the Common Finnic period. The tie between the Lapps and Common Finnic were severed in the last few centuries before Christ. During this time, the Lapps had already migrated into what is now Finland and Scandinavia. They were later pushed up into the northern regions by Finnic tribes. In these different areas, regional dialects are spoken. The three groups of dialects consists of the west, south, and east. All together they make up a total of eight dialects.

The Lapps had an uneventful past, however they did not escape paying taxes. Those in northern Scandinavia had to pay taxes to the Norwegians while others paid taxes to the Common Finnic. As time went on they paid taxes to the Carelians. The eastern Lapp came under the influence of Novgorod and later Moscow. Those in the west were caught up by the Swedish and Norwegian cultures. The Lapps in the south became assimilated by their neighbors the Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, and Russians. The Lapps no longer go by this name, they are now known as the S_mi (Hajdú, Finno-Ugrian 208-210).

Language contacts of the Lapps

As you can see in the history of the Lapps, they have come in contact with many other languages and cultures. Hajdú mentions that a huge part of their vocabulary is related to the Baltic Finnic languages. Germanic and Baltic loanwords have also been passed down through the contact with Common Finnic. There are scores of borrowings from Old Scandinavian, Norwegian, Swedish, and Russian. Although there are a good number of loanwords, the Lapp language have a third of their words that come from unknown origin (Hajdú, Finno-Ugrian 205).

Finnish History

The Finns are largest group that make up the Baltic Finns. They reside in the eastern part of Scandinavia. Hajdú suggests that as the Finnish tribes gathered themselves into the western and southwestern of the Scandinavian coastal strip, they mixed with the Lapp locals. The Finnish tribes managed to dominate the area, but they did not establish any kind of political authority. Both tribes lived side by side and benefitted from one another. Their prosperity soon drew unwanted attention from Sweden (Hajdú, Finno-Ugrian 184).

Hajdú explains that in the middle of the twelfth century, the Swedes launched a crusade to convert their Finnish neighbors to Christianity. Their rule lasted about six hundred years. In the meantime, the Finnish tribes became united into one people. The process of unification was aided by the acceptance of Christianity and the Swedish influence. The irony of this takeover is that the majority of the Finns are now Lutherans due to the Reformation of the Roman Catholic Church (Hajdú, Finno-Ugrian 184-185).

Life under Swedish rule was one of oppression for the Finns. They not only suffered economically but also carried the burdens of being soldiers in the Thirty Years’ War. Although the Swedes did attempt to make improvements in Finland, the Finns were not the beneficiaries of these improvements. War soon enveloped Finland and this time the victor was Peter the Great of Russia. All of Finland became part of Russia in 1809 (Hajdú, Finno-Ugrian 185).

Though still under Russian rule, a movement swept through the land to promote Finnish culture and language. The movement was a counter measure against Swedish influence. Russia also started to implement a program of Russification. The Finnish language in the second half of the century managed to be recognized as an official language in Finland, but it was not until 1919 the Republic of Finland was created (Hajdú, Finno-Ugrian 186).

Language contact of the Finns

In modern Finnish, five dialectal groups are recognized: the South-West, the Häme, the Northern dialect, the Savo and the South-East group. It is said that the Suomi, another name for Finnish ancestors, crossed the Gulf of Finland and settled the south-west coast. As the Finns moved north and south they came in contact with the Carelians. In his book, Hajdú states:

From a mixture of these, new tribal and linguistic divisions arose. The Savo, for example, are believed to be a mixture of Häme and the Carelians. The dialect of South Pohjamaa is the result of a fusion between South-West Suomi and Häme, while Central Pohjamaa displays not only western elements but traces of the Savo dialect of the Eastern type (Finno-Ugrian. 182-3).

The Finnish language came about because of the continual movement and mixture of dialects among the groups. However, this did not exclude other language contacts. Hajdú suggests that Germanic, Baltic, and Slavic loanwords were passed to the Finns through the Common Finnic period. The Finns more recent influence came from six hundred years of rule under the Swedes. Russia also made their mark in the Finns’ language while Finland was a part of Russia (Hajdú, Finno-Ugrian 179).

Hungarian History

The origin of the Hungarians could be traced back to the Magyars. The home of these Ugric people originally lies west of the Ural Mountains. They migrated to western Siberia after the beginning of the Christian era (Collinder 22). Having formed a linguistic unit, the tribes faced a new lifestyle as the entered the east of Ural Mountains. They had become a strong military organization. The northern outskirts of Asia were prone to attacks from armies of the east. Of these attacks the Huns, a Altaic people, were most successful. They controlled a empire that stretched from the Sea of Japan to Lake Aral. Their conquests left a gap in central Asia that was filled by the Turkic Avars. The Avars had settled in western Hungary (Pannonia) but were later conquered by Charlemagne (Collinder 23).

With empires being crushed and conquered by other rising empires, the remaining dominate force now lay in the hands of the Turks. Collinder suggests that the Magyars at this time had modeled themselves after Turkish organization and joined a Turkish confederation that later settled in Central Europe. In their travels from western Siberia to Kuban and the west of the Strait of Kerch, they came contact with the Alans. This language contact was evident in some loanwords like vám ‘customs, duty’ and vár ‘castle’(Collinder 24). During this time, the Turkish confederation became known as the Hungarian confederation. Through failed expeditions because of ally betrayal, the Hungarians, now a mixture of Magyars, Huns, and Turks, yearned to return to their homeland east of Carpathians. Unfortunately, it was occupied by the Pechenegs upon their return, and the Hungarians had to retake it. The geographical location of Hungary made it susceptible to invasions, and the nation faced many misfortunes (Collinder 25-26).

Language Contacts of the Hungarians

The Turkic tribes that the Magyars had come in contact with gave them an considerable amount of vocabulary. The Slavs of Hungary also contributed numerous loanwords along with their introduction of the Christian faith. German influence is still evident due to the Hungarians defeat to the Nazi army. It is remarkable that a small village tribe of Magyar hunters had traveled so far and become a strong nation. Throughout their travels and battles they have managed to keep the national individuality while being influenced by outside sources (Collinder 28).


The languages that were covered in this paper hardly scratched the surface of the Uralic Family. Their brief history give some insight to what happened in their countries that affected their language. I found each language to be like clay in the hands of a potter. The events that occurred in history became the hands that shaped the clay. The migration of these people can be seen as the movement of the spinning clay. Patterns of word borrowing and some assimilation that occurred became the patterns that adorned the revolving clay. The countries that shape and manipulated the languages under them became carving tools. Commerce and trade between two countries or tribes added the different array of colors that decorate the clay. The clay was then put through the fire and tempered by time. The languages that now exist are beautifully decorated vase, sculpture, or pot. Unfortunately, they do not come with a lifetime guarantee and some begin to deteriorate like the S_mi language.

Works Cited

Collinder, Björn. An Introduction to the Uralic Languages. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1965.

Hajdú, Péter. Finno-Ugrian Languages and Peoples. Trans. G.F. Cushing. Great Britain: André Deutch Limited, 1975.

---.The Samoyed Peoples and Languages. Bloomington: Indiana University, (Revised edition)1968.

Sinor, Denis ed. The Uralic Languages: Description, History, and Influences. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1988.

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Department of Linguistics
Brigham Young University
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