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From Dictionary of Languages

Afamily of languages of northern Europe and western Siberia. There are in total only 24,000,000 speakers of Uralic languages, but the family includes three national languages, estonian, finnish and hungarian, as well as several important minorities of European Russia (komi, mari, mordvin, udmurt) and the language of the sami or Lapps of northern Scandinavia.

The first written records of Uralic languages date back only to the 13th century. Their earlier history can be traced through notes in historical writings of other nations (especially Romans, Greeks and Chinese) and before that by linguistic reconstruction, which includes the tracing of loanwords between Uralic and other languages. Alongside this goes archaeological exploration of the prehistoric cultures of north-eastern Europe.

Proto-Uralic dialects ancestral to all the modern languages may have been spoken on both sides of the central and northern Ural Mountains – the traditional dividing line between Europe and Asia – in the sixth millennium BC or even before. From this linguistic community the samoyedic languages must have separated first, for these are most different from the rest. Their speakers have perhaps always been foragers and hunters in the forests and tundra of Siberia.

Before the Ugric dialects (with later Hungarian) had separated from the Finno-Permian dialects (with later Finnish), proto-Finno-Ugric borrowed some significant words from proto-Indo-Iranian: the two early languages must, at this time, have been close enough for regular contact. Examples include proto-Indo-Iranian septa ‘seven’, modern Hungarian hét; shata ‘hundred’, Finnish sata, Hungarian száz; sharva ‘horn’, Finnish sarvi, Hungarian szarv; orbho ‘orphan’, Finnish orpo, Hungarian árva.

The Ural Mountains themselves may have formed the dividing line between the proto-Ugric and proto-Finno-Permian dialects, a division which perhaps became established in the third millennium BC. Ugric languages now consist of Khanty and Mansi, still spoken east of the Urals, and Hungarian, whose speakers finally settled in central Europe after centuries of migration.

The Finno-Permian peoples, perhaps always settled on the European side of the Urals, may be tentatively identified with a series of Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age cultures of the upper Volga and its tributary the Kama – and soon spreading to the neighbourhood of the eastern shores of the Baltic. Linguistically, the first to become separated were the most eastern group, the Permian dialects that were to become modern Udmurt and Komi. The remainder (Mari, Mordvin, Sami and the proto-Finnic group that gave rise to modern Estonian and Finnish) began to separate into distinct languages in the course of the first millennium BC.

Proto-Uralic trees

Tree names shared among the modern Uralic languages help to locate the habitat of the speakers of proto-Uralic about eight thousand years ago, and of proto-Finno-Ugric in the next two millennia.

Picea obovata, spruce

proto-Uralic kowese

Finnish kuusi

Pinus sibirica, cembra pine

proto-Uralic sikse

Komi sus-

Abies sibirica, Siberian fir

proto-Uralic nyulka

Mari nulgo

Betula spp., birch

proto-Uralic kojwa

Finnish koivu

Populus spp., poplar

proto-Uralic poje

Mordvin poj

Salix spp., willow

proto-Uralic paje

Hungarian fagyal

Pinus silvestris, fir

proto-Uralic juwe;

Mansi jiw

proto-Finno-Ugric penye

Hungarian fenyo

Larix sibirica, larch

proto-Finno-Ugric nyänge

Komi nyia

Ulmus spp., elm

proto-Finno-Ugric syala

Hungarian szil

Three trees are crucial. Cembra pine and Siberian fir were slowly spreading across the Urals westwards in proto-Uralic times; elm was meanwhile spreading eastwards from central Europe, and reached the northwestern Ural foothills. The region where proto-Uralic dialects were spoken most probably included the relatively narrow zone, west of the Ural watershed, where the two trees met.

Dictionary of Languages © 1998 + 2004

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