In The Beginning
Some 15,000 years ago during the last ice age, various Paleo-Siberian tribes inhabited the North. They were children of the North, born under the Northern Lights and expert hunters and fishers who lived and/or traveled between the Baltics and Mongolia in search of food. Sometimes these tribes were cut off from each other for extended periods such as when weather changed and the melting ice stopped melting. During these periods the people looked hunger in the face, and invented ways to survive.
They fished, hunted game, some eventually tamed reindeer and dogs as draught animals,and lived in relative peace and harmony for millennia. Some preferred the Northern climates and the food found in the arctic while others preferred to stay further South. Some stayed in the woods, others took to the plains. The Paleo-Siberians, (who some believe resemble various Mongolian/Samoyed tribes) through mixing and dispersion, differentiated into Finnic, Lapp, Samoyed, and Ugric people.
As the ice continued to melt, lakes and rivers formed at the ice edge, new land rose out of the water. Water fowl such as swans and ducks came in huge flocks on time every year. Game and fish were plentiful. The Finns loved fish and were the first people in the world to fish with nets. All these stone-aged men roamed the rich lands, moving East and West, meeting other strange people coming from the opposite direction and perhaps sharing a meal, shamanistic ritual, a shelter...exchanging women. East meets west on shores of the ice melt. Languages and people mix, divide, and mix again. Over time, a superfamily of languages is born. The Finnish language is born and spoken in tents, then log homes and saunas.
Where are the Uralic People today?
Today the western Uralic and eastern Altaic languages, extend from Scandinavia, Hungary, and the Balkans in the south-west, to the easternmost reaches of the Amur and the island of Sakhalin, and from the Arctic Ocean to central Asia. Japanese and Korean should also be considered Altaic languages according to some researchers. The Finn-Ugric/Samoyed - Mongolian/Turkic/etc. possibly form a large "Superfamily" of languages that split a very long time ago. Much of the relationship is still speculation between Uralic and Altaic, since systematic productive-predictive correspondences have not been established at this time.
Ural-Altaic languages share common characteristics of syntax, morphology, and phonology. The by-me-hunted bear rather than "the deer that I hunted,"(Finnish minun tappama peura) and a-whistling I went (Finnish viheltellen menin) rather than "I whistled as I went" is common to all. There are not many conjunctions. The typical grammatical process is suffixation -- that is, meaningful elements are appended to stems, as in sauna-my, (Finnish saunani)"my sauna," go-(past)-I, "I went," (Finnish menin); sauna-from, "from the sauna,"(Finnish saunasta), sauna-(plural)-my-from, "from my saunas." (saunoistani), go-in-while, "while (in the act of) going," (menneessä), and while I was going (menneessäni).
Ural-Altaic languages often require vowel harmony - vowels that occur together in a given word must be of the same type. Thus löyly, "sauna steam," in Finnish is possible because ö (early) and y (yew) are both mid vowels and belong to the same phonetic class; similarly koulu, "school," is possible because o and u are both compatible vowels. Words such as löylu or poly are not possible, because ö and u, or o and y, are too dissimilar. Stress generally falls on the first or last syllable; it does not move about, as in the English series family, familiar, familiarity. This gives Finnish its characteristic sound. Hungarian, a related language not intelligable to Finns, has some similarity in phonetics and may be mistaken for Finnish for a few seconds. Estonian, a closely related language often has dissimilar vowels in the same word, such as i and a, (arctic) (isa=father) whereas Finnish would use i and ä. (ask) (isä=father)
Ural-Altaic languages typically have no verb for "to have." Possession is expressed by constructions such as the Hungarian nekem van, "to-me there-is," or minulla on, "at/on-me there-is" in Finnish. Most of the languages do not express gender, (Finnish she and he are both hän) do not have agreement between parts of speech (as in French les bonnes filles, "the good girls"), and do not permit consonant clusters, such as pr-, spr-, -st, or -rst, at the beginning or end of words.
Languages that make up a family must show productive-predictive correspondences according to linguists. You should be able to predict the cognates between the languages. Thus Hungarian -d at the end of stems, as in ad, "he gives," is known to correspond to the Finnish consonant sequence -nt- in the interior of words, as in Finnish anta--, "give."
All of the Uralic languages have been shown to be related. The vocabulary and grammar of each language can be examined as between Hungarian -d and Finnish -nt-. Laws of correspondence have not yet been determined. Take k and h for example. They switch both in Finnish and Hungarian, but also in Mongolian. Just as an example, k as in kalain Finnish becomes an h in Hungarian hal (fish). In Mongolian, k and h in the same word also switch between some dialects.
The Uralic languages are divided into two branches, Finno-Ugric and Samoyed. Finno-Ugric contains two subgroups: Finnic and Ugric. Finnic is divided into the Baltic-Finnic, Volga-Finnic, and Permian languages; Ugric comprises Hungarian and the Ob-Ugric languages.
Finnish, with 5.1 million speakers, and Estonian, with 1.1 million, are the largest groups of the Baltic-Finnic languages. The statistics of numbers of Finno-Ugric speakers are often outdated. Karelian, is said to be spoken by 175,000 people (perhaps half of that today) in northwestern Russia and eastern Finland (very little); Veps, spoken by 8,000 people south of Lake Onega; (now only 2,000) Votian, spoken by 700 people (somewhat less) of the Udmurt Autonomous Republic of the former USSR; and Livonian, spoken by 500 people in the Livonia district of Latvia. (now perhaps 200) Lapp is similar in structure to Finnish, but the various Lapp dialects--spoken by 40,000 people (and declining) spread over Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Kola Peninsula of Russia--diverge greatly from each other in phonology and even to some extent in grammar. All these languages are worth saving, but some may be beyond hope, and we should concentrate on saving the most saveable first, while not forgetting the others. Thier languages are living testaments of the past, which can never be recaptured once they are gone. Some of you will no doubt help to save them. Yours is a worthy task.
Finnish is famous for its many cases, 12 of which are productive--ie. any Finnish noun can be followed by one of the 12 case suffixes. Consonant gradation, such as the t/d alternation found in the declination of the Finnish word for "hundred": nominative sata, genitive sadan, ablative sadalta, partitive sataa and so on, are characteristics of the language. One distinctive Finnish word means "not to." Compare ulvon, "I howl," with en ulvo, "I do not howl," and ulvo, "you howl," with et ulvo, "you do not howl," where en means "(I) do not" and et "(you) do not."
Volga-Finnic and Permic
Mordvinian, spoken by 1,262,000 people along the middle Volga, and Cheremis, (Mari) spoken by 600,000 people in the district where the Kama joins the Volga, constitute the Volga-Finnic language group. Both of them, but especially Mordvinian, have many similarities to Finnish. Less like Finnish are the Permian languages--Zyrien with its 628,000 speakers, and Votyak with its 704,000 in northeastern European Russia. All of the Volga-Finnic and Permian languages have a negative verb and a large number of cases.
Whereas the Finnic languages are more or less geographically contiguous, the Ugric languages lie at opposite ends of the Finno-Ugric area. Hungarian is in the extreme south-west, and the Ob-Ugric languages, Vogul and Ostyak, are situated in the extreme north-east. Hungarian has 13 million speakers--the largest number of any Uralic language. They migrated from the western Ural Mountains ce835 - ce 893 and settled in the Danube/Carpathian Basin areas. Vogul's 8,000 speakers and Ostyak's 21,000 live east of the Urals, in the Ob Valley.
Objective conjugation is a striking characteristic of Ugric languages. In Hungarian, , adok means "I give," and adom means "I give it" or "I give them." The object of the verb--"it" or "them"--is part of the verb form. Vogul and Ostyak exhibit still more precision. The objective conjugation has three distinct forms, "it," "them" (plural), or "the two things" (dual). Vogul and Ostyak also expresses the subject in the singular, plural, or dual.
Hungarian has more productive cases--upward of 20--than even Finnish has. Vogul and Ostyak, however, have only from four to seven cases, depending on dialect. There is no consonant gradation in Ugric languages.
The easternmost representatives of Uralic as it exists today are the Samoyeds. They were possibly the first to separate from the original, proto-Uralic language. The Samoyeds occupied the arctic regions between the Ural Mountains and Dvina (Finnish Vienan Karjala) Karelia. They came into contact with Lapps, Zyrians and other Finno-Ugric inhabitants of the North. During the Viking trading operations in the north before ce1200 the Samoyeds were moving westward, presumeably to trade furs and ivory. After this trade ended, they became dispersed toward Siberia due to pressures from the south. As a result, they began to mix with Siberians and Mongolian tribes.
Nenets, Enets and Nganasa form a North Samoyed group, and they can be distinguished from the South Samoyed language, Selkup. Other Samoyed languages, now extinct, are known only from 18th- and 19th-century records.
Uralic languages have, in course of their long histories, come into contact with many languages from other language families such as Turkic, Germanic, Baltic (an earlier form of Latvian and Lithuanian), and Slavic. Finnish kuningas, "king," is an early loan from a Germanic language, and so it resembles English king and German Konig. Finnish vapaa, "free," was borrowed from a Slavic language--compare the Slavic root svobod-. Obviously the Finns did not need such a word when there was no slavery or even serfdom amongst the Finns. These were alien, Slavic concepts. The same Slavic root found its way into the Hungarian word szabad.
The oldest significant text written in a Uralic language is a funeral sermon in Hungarian from about 1195. Finnish and Estonian texts survive from the Protestant Reformation, which swept over Scandinavia and much of the Baltic in the 16th century; the reformer of the Finns, Michael Agricola (1512-57), also translated the Bible into Finnish. Zyrien was recorded in the 15th century by orthodox munk Saint Stephen (Tapani) of Perm, apostle of the Zyriens, who fashioned a special alphabet for the language. He skillfully even wrote a reader for them in their own text.
Selection of Finnish History and Literature