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date: 05 July 2022

Uralic Languages

Abstract and Keywords

All but three of the thirty-nine Uralic languages are endangered, most of them seriously so; of the family’s ten main branches, only two have members considered safe (Finnish and Estonian of the Fennic branch, plus Hungarian). This chapter surveys a selection of phonological, morphological, and syntactic features of the Uralic languages; the emphasis is on presenting aspects that are usually ignored, oversimplified, or misrepresented. Among the topics broached are vowel harmony; consonant gradation, which in the Uralic context is of four distinct kinds, three of them quite old; less-than-agglutinative (i.e. fairly fusional features of several languages); problems of phonological reconstruction; the inflection of personal pronouns; person marking on nouns and Subject, Agent, and Object marking on verbs; and kinds of relative, complement, and support clauses.

Keywords: Uralic, Fennic, vowel harmony, consonant gradation, endangered languages

Languages, Geographical Distribution, Endangerment

The majority of speakers of Uralic1 languages live in three discontinuous latitudinal bands stretching from Europe into northern Asia: in the northernmost band (60o–75o, ranging from Fennoscandia in the west to the Taimyr peninsula in the east) live speakers of the Saamic, Fennic, Komi, Mansi, Khanty, and Samoyedic branches; in a middle band (52o–58o, in parts of the watershed of the Volga, Oka, Kama, and Vyatka rivers) live speakers of Mordva, Mari, and Udmurt; in the southernmost band (45o–49o, in the Carpathian basin) live most speakers of Hungarian. Of the thirty-eight Uralic languages still spoken today, only three—Hungarian (magyar), Finnish (suomi), and North Estonian (eesti)—are not endangered. Twelve are nearly extinct, while another twelve are seriously endangered; together, these twenty-four languages have no or only a very few speakers under the age of thirty (see table 1).

Table 1


Letter Code

Language Name


Number of Speakers

Core Location(s)



South Saami



Norway, Sweden

Ume Saami



Sweden (Norway)

Pite Saami



Sweden (Norway)

Lule Saami



Sweden, Norway

North Saami



Norway, Sweden, Finland

Inari Saami




Kemi Saami


extinct since 1800s


Skolt Saami



Finland, Russia

Akkala Saami


extinct since 2003 vs. 2


Kildin Saami




Ter Saami












60,000 +

Estonia, Russia

North Estonian



Estonia and elsewhere








Finland and elsewhere








Russia, Finland

Olonetsian (Livvi)



Russia, Finland





















Hill Mari (Western Mari)




Meadow Mari (Eastern Mari)














Komi- Permyak






< 2,000







Hungary and elsewhere


North Mansi




East Mansi




West Mansi


extinct since 1900s


South Mansi


extinct since 1900s



North Khanty




East Khanty




South Khanty


extinct since 1900s








Tundra Enets




Forest Enets






extinct since 1800s


Tundra Nenets




Forest Nenets











extinct since 1989




extinct since 1800s


Note: Uralic languages (data adapted from Siegl and Grünthal, 2012); in the fourth column, “2” marks severely endangered and “1” marks critically endangered languages; “e” labels languages which have become extinct; the classification “3” indexes languages which, despite reatively robust speaker numbers, are nevertheless at risk for a range of sociopolitical and cultural reasons. “NE” = not endangered

The remaining eleven Uralic languages must still be classified as endangered, but in different ways. For example, the relatively southern languages Udmurt, East Mari, and Erzya and Moksha Mordva can count their speakers in the hundreds of thousands, but nearly all speakers are bilingual in Russian, and live, work, and intermarry with Russian speakers; they use Russian for a broad gamut of activities, and settlement is for the most part scattered. To take an extreme example, less than one-third of the Mordva live in the Republic of Mordovia, and according to the 1989 census only about 3 percent of those spoke Mordva well.2 At the other end of the scale are the two most successful Uralic arctic languages, Tundra Nenets, with some thirty to forty thousand speakers, and North Saami, with some fifteen to twenty-five thousand. A special case of revitalization is South Estonian (Võro, but there are other subvarieties), with perhaps over eighty thousand speakers, and with official support since the late 1980s.

To accelerate the discussion, these thirty-eight languages may be conveniently grouped into ten sub-branches as follows, listed here with older names and the single-letter abbreviations used in this essay: (1) Saamic (Lapp; L); (2) Fennic (or Baltic-Finnic; F); (3) Erzya and Moksha Mordva (M); (4) Mari (Cheremis; C); (5) Permian (P; = Udmurt, Komi-Permyak, Komi, and Komi-Yazva); (6) Hungarian (H); (7) Mansi (Vogul; V); (8) Khanty (Ostyak; O); (9) South Samoyedic (Selkup and a range of extinct language varieties, most commonly identified under the names Kamass and Mator; S); (10) and North Samoyedic (Nganasan, Tundra and Forest Enets, Tundra and Forest Nenets, N). Given their current status it should be evident that eight of the ten branches of the Uralic family are threatened with extinction; this chapter aims to highlight some of the diversity that will be lost.3

The genetic sub-classification of the Uralic languages is not entirely straightforward, and the ten branches conceal a few uncertainties regarding the internal historical subdivisions.4 But rather than presupposing a clear binary split anywhere along the west–east continuum from Saamic to Samoyedic, it is helpful to think in typological terms of relatively western and relatively eastern branches and languages. If we work with a west-to-east chain such as

  • L F M C P H V O S N

we will find that Hungarian (H), for example, often patterns with the more eastern languages, but may also, in other respects, pattern with more western ones. Thus, Hungarian, like its eastern congeners VOSN, has indexing of features of the direct object on its finite verb forms:

  • L F M C P | H V O S N

    − | + object indexing on verb

In this particular array Mordva seems to be an outlier, but see the section on Verb Inflection. On the other hand, the distribution of inflectional dual forms places Hungarian just inside a central swathe of languages which lack them:

  • L | F M C P H | V O S N

    + | − | + dual

Variations on the central region also crop up when we look at the distribution of syllabic and rhythmic gradation (see the section on consonants, under Phonology):

  • L F | M C P H V O | S N

    syllabic gradation

    L F | M C P H V O S | N

    rhythmic gradation

and a range of other features with positive values at the extremes, and negative ones at the center:

  • L F | M C P H V O | S N

    rounded vowels reconstructible for 2nd syllable5

    L F | M C P H V O | S N

    noun plural in *-t

    L F M C | P | H V O S N

    n-extension on pronouns

    L F M | C P H V O S | N

    homophony of sg.2.imp and conneg suffixes

    L F | M C P H V O S | N

    NP-internal agreement6

Broadly speaking, the languages spoken at the geographical extremes—the far western Saamic and Fennic and the far eastern (especially northern) Samoyedic—seem to have preserved best certain original Uralic features. Since they do not represent shared innovations, these putative preservations are suggestive, rather than diagnostic of cladistics.

With regard to the reconstruction of the vowels of both the first and second syllable too much reliance has been placed on the evidence of Saamic and Fennic (especially of North Saami and Finnish). It has long been recognized that the history of the vowels of the first syllable has been strongly influenced by that of the vowel of the second syllable, but attempts at reconstructing trajectories from putative proto-Uralic vowels to their reflexes in the daughter languages have not dared to move substantially away from the three tongue-heights attested in Finnish, presupposing original *ä, *e, and *i in the forerunners of Finnish käsi “hand,” pesä “nest” (and, usually, veri “blood”), and silmä “eye.”7 Yet an examination of the reflexes of these words in the other western languages suggests rather different starting-points. The first-syllable vowels of the North Saami cognates suggest that “blood” had more in common with “eye” than with “nest” (varra čal’bmi beassi), and the vocalism of “hand” (giehta) seems to have leap-frogged, as it rose from *ä, over that of the *i of “eye” as this latter descended to low back a (čal’bmi). Yet these oddities vanish if we assume that the proto-Saamic *e traditionally reconstructed for “blood” had risen from an earlier long *ǟ in an I-stem, namely *wǟri; the trajectory would then be (1) the natural rise of long low *ǟ to *ē; (2) the subsequent shortening of this *ē (in synch with the shortening of high *ī) to give short *ӗ, developing then into the range attested in the Saamic languages ranging from ë (e.g., South and Skolt Saami), o (Inari Saami), and the ɔ of North Saami varra.8

The second-syllable evidence from Saamic and Fennic is often incomplete because the cognate has vanished from use before it could be recorded, or the vowel has been elided by a derivational suffix (as in Finnish pen|i, whose Erzya Mordva cognate preserves the underived root in pińe “dog”), but even if the second-syllable vowel has survived it is not always conclusive because of certain later rotations and Saamic-Fennic borrowings. Helimski (1976) demonstrated conclusively that information about the proto-Uralic second syllable can be gleaned even from just Selkup evidence.

A few words must be said here about Uralic etymological dictionaries, most of them critical. Dictionaries centered on individual languages, such as TESz or SKES (or its heir SSA) or EEW or (to a lesser degree) КЭСК, while invaluable as first ports of call, often do not examine or sometimes even cite data offered from other, related languages in sufficient detail. The UEWb, on the other hand, while a welcome update of Collinder’s earlier work (1955), is the product of many authors, and discrepancies in its entries often reflect a lack of co-ordination; it also fails to mark its reconstructions with asterisk, a pernicious practice which is now spreading. As adumbrated earlier, these reconstructions also reflect an oversimplified vowel PU system, one which, oddly enough, accords well with traditional IE reconstructions.

Recent descriptions and accounts are most readily available in Abondolo (1998), Sinor (1988), and Janhunen (2009); the best overall outline of proto-Uralic phonology and morphology is still Janhunen (1982).


General Introduction

Uralic languages exhibit a great range of sizes and kinds of segmental inventories and systems, ranging from the five vowels (i e a o u) of Erzya Mordva to a reported twenty-five for Taz Selkup (twelve short/long pairs plus one unmatched long ɔ̄). Word stress is most often reported as falling on the first syllable, but there are numerous exceptions, even in non-borrowed vocabulary, in many of the midwest-to-central languages (Moksha Mordva, various varieties of Mari, most of Permian) and in Samoyedic. In Komi-Permiak, different stress patterns are determined by different classes of inflectional and derivational morphology (Batalova 1975: 115–123). Consonant inventories vary widely, as well, even within branches, not so much because of differences in the number of phonemes but rather because of different kinds of oppositions and correlations. Proto-Uralic lacked distinctive voice but had a correlation of palatalization with at least three members. In some present-day languages, palatalization is rife and deeply embedded while voice is incipient and/or a byproduct of the morphonology (Tundra Nenets, Kildin Saami); in others, voice is firmly entrenched but palatalization has been eliminated or replaced by relatively inert palatals (Hungarian); in Permian, both distinctively voiced and palatalized consonants are present in morpheme-initial, medial, and final positions.

Proto-Uralic seems not to have had any word-initial consonant clusters. It also lacked word-initial *r, and there are only a very few good Uralic-wide etymologies with initial *l. This combination of circumstances poses a challenge: if we wish to demonstrate Uralic-IndoEuropean contacts or common origin, we will have to reckon with changes of the kind *dr- (and *dhr-, *str- etc.) > *d- > *t- rather than the *str- > r- attested for Germanic loans into Fennic. (The pariah status of l and r as we head east into Siberia and Asia is a commonplace, but comparisons of Uralic with “Altaic” have proven sterile.9)

Vowel Harmony

Various kinds of vowel harmony, in which the vowels of suffixal morphemes adjust to match vowels of the stem to which they are attached, occur widely in the Uralic languages (there seems also to have been a kind of vowel harmony within roots and stems, although this seems not to have always rigidly applied). Uralic vowel harmony as attested today always involves at least the “horizontal” opposition front/back; for example, we have Vakh Khanty “son/stone” păɣam/kȫɣäm with a/ä in second syllable, and similarly Finnish sg.Inessive “vein/ mushroom” suone-ssa/siene-ssä; the Finnish examples also illustrate that certain vowels (here, i and e) are phonologically front when alone in a root (sienessä) but neutral when combined with back vowels (suonessa). Vowel harmony occasionally also involves the additional opposition [+/−rounded]: both Hungarian and East Mari exhibit this, although with inverse priority, for example, front [+/−] rounded ö/e versus back, non-distinctively rounded o in accusative forms of Hungarian “twin/ox/bush” ökör/ikër/bokor, viz. ikr-ët/ökr-öt/bokr-ot, but front rounded ö versus “other” e/o in present participles of East Mari pört = šö/nal = še/pušt = šo “taker/buyer/killer” from the verbs pört-/nal-/pušt-.

Original Uralic vowel harmony has been lost in many languages, in a variety of ways. In language branches like Estonian and Saamic, many qualitative and quantitative distinctions beyond the first syllable have been eroded, and the focus of phonological contrast has concomitantly shifted to the nucleus and coda of the first syllable; we therefore have neutralization of the older *a/ä opposition in the second syllable, seen in the genitive singular of Finnish hopea-n/pimeä-n “silver/dark,” to a in North Estonian hõbeda-0/pimeda-0. In some eastern branches of Saamic, erosion of second-syllable vowels has been extreme, but even in central varieties vowel harmony became disrupted by a vowel rotation whereby second-syllable *a/ä merged as *i, while *i became low back *a: compare Finnish kala/pesä/käsi with North Saami guolli/beassi/giehta “fish/nest/hand.”

In other languages, such as (Erzya and Moksha) Mordva and Tundra Nenets, traces of front/back distinctions in vowels became transferred to the palatalization of preceding consonants; as a result, both these languages have relatively small vowel and relatively large consonant inventories, and vestigial vowel harmony is found only sporadically. In Nenets, we have the palatal variant of the prosecutive suffix (with -ny-) when this is attached to front-prosodic yiq “water”: yiq-monya; contrast the parallel form of non-front “reindeer,” te-wona, with -n- (Salminen 1997: 66–67; this word has non-front prosody because of its distinctively non-palatal initial t-). In Mordva similar phenomena are attested for a restricted set of inflectional morphemes. In Nganasan, front/back prosodies of the root have, through rotation, yielded abstract [+/− labial] harmony classes: the third-person singular suffix of hoδür/baŋ/d’eńśi/biə “letter/dog/price/wind” is –tü/-tu/-ti/-δï (Várnai 2002: 58–59; for the alternation of t with δ, see section on consonant gradation).

The Permic languages lost vowel harmony not only because they underwent massive reduction and loss of their second syllable vowels (as in eastern Saamic and Estonian) but also because of a turbulent series of vowel shifts. For example, in Komi many instances of first-syllable *i and *ä have merged as back vowels, while instances of back *u have become front i: contrast the (in most dialects) homophonous Komi pon/pon “dog/end” and pi “breast” with Finnish pen|i/pää and povi or Erzya Mordva pińe/pe and poŋɡo. On the other hand, despite some vowel shifts that appear far-reaching, eastern Khanty, the now extinct southern Mansi, and Hungarian preserve(d) vowel harmony fairly intact.

Vowel harmony is nothing peculiar to Uralic; it is widely attested worldwide, and is especially well represented in the northern Eurasian context, cropping up in various guises not only in Turkic, Mongolic, and Tungusic but also in reconstructed Japanese and Korean;10 it is even found (in vertical form) Chukotkan and Nivkh.

Consonant Gradation

What is peculiar to Uralic is a system of alternations called consonant gradation, attested in various forms in the westernmost branches Saamic and Fennic, and the easternmost (and northernmost) Samoyedic language, Nganasan. Consonant gradation has been likened to alternations involving fortis versus lenis versions of word-internal consonants in non-Uralic languages; it has even been ascribed to the mechanisms involved in Verner’s Law—and vice versa. However, to appreciate the uniqueness of Uralic consonant gradation we must understand that at least two, and possibly three, separate yet interconnected phonological processes were involved.

One of these processes is best termed syllabic gradation: it entails alternations of fortis and lenis versions of consonant(ism)s and syllable codas that are triggered by phonological (or morphonological) material to their right, as the Finnish nominative and genitive singulars pappi/papi-n “clergyman sg.Nom/Gen” and papu/pavu-n “bean sg.Nom/Gen.”11 It is instructive to compare the North Saami parallel forms for “clergyman” and “bean,” namely báhppa/báhpa and báhpu/bábu (wherein orthographic <hpp> and <hp> represent relatively long vs. short stretches of preaspiration). Here the material triggering the gradation, reconstructable as the Uralic genitive suffix *-n, has been eroded, but it continues to do its work through the word-internal proxy of gradation.

Syllabic gradation (SG) is best attested at the west and east edges of the Uralic family, that is, more or less in those languages which suffered the least phonetic “degradation” of non-initial consonants.12 It should not be confused with an associated, but distinct kind of gradation (best termed strengthening) that seems to be restricted to the most western branches Saamic and Fennic. For example, in the history of North Estonian, entire final syllables have been “lost,” but traces of this phonological material remain in the form of strong grades to the left: note, for example, the strong grade [r̄k̆] of the nominative singular kõrge “high,” a form which has historically “lost” its third syllable *ta, though this syllable surfaces intact when followed by the genitive suffix, which is in turn now phonetically zero but synchronically triggers gradation in a form such as sg.Genitive kõrgeda-0, cited in connection with vowel harmony. It is instructive to compare the North Estonian singular Genitive and Partitive forms sepa/seppa “smith sg.Gen/Part,” in which orthographic <p> and <pp> represent a short geminate [p̆p̆] versus the stronger, “overlong” sequence [p̄p̆]. Parallel phenomena may be seen in Finnish dialects and in the South Estonian sg.Nominative/Partitive forms kala/kal̀là (where <l̀> represents a long initial component of the geminate, and <à> a “half-long” [a])13; further afield we have the North Saami oar’ri “squirrel,” in which the “overlong” trill [r̄r̆] reflects the “lost” third syllable *wa; compare Finnish orava. All these examples are a kind of strengthening and should not be confounded with what is often erroneously termed “reverse” gradation.14

The Finnish forms parallel to the North Estonian forms for “smith” are sepä-n/seppä-ä. The form of the singular partitive suffix is here in accordance not only with vowel harmony but also in accordance with the workings or a second kind of gradation, vestigial now in western Uralic but very much alive in the morphophonemics of these languages. This second kind of alternation is best termed rhythmic gradation (RG)15: its output—again, termed strong or weak grade—differed depending on whether the affected consonant(ism) occurred to the right of an even- or odd-numbered syllable. In Finnish, RG is frozen in lexical items such as laatu “kind, quality,” with -t- to the right of an odd-numbered syllable (it is a loan from Slavonic *ladŭ) as opposed to vapaa “free,” in which the original dental stop has been lost to the right of an even-numbered syllable (it, too, is a loan from Slavonic, compare Russian svobóda), but it also underlies productive morphophonemic operations in the present-day language such as the t-less partitive singular forms of the bisyllabic stems kala/talo/pesä, viz. kala-a/talo-a/pesä-ä “fish/house/nest” but forms with t built to the monosyllabic stems maa/suo/työ, viz. maa-ta/suo-ta/työ-tä “land/bog/work.” Evidence of RG in some other branches of Uralic may be teased out by means of internal reconstruction, but its operation is still perfectly regular and transparent in Nganasan form sets such as the third-person singular forms of “wife/rope/thumb/march,” namely nï-tï/bïnï-δï/head́ë-tï/kërigëĺi-δï, where we find the weak grade -δï to the right of even-numbered vowels and strong grade -tï to the right of odd-numbered ones.16

A third kind of proto-Uralic consonantal alternation seems to have involved nasals; since, like SG and RG, it seems to have stretched over more than one segment it is best termed nasal prosody. The difficulty with its reconstruction lies in the different ways in which it manifests itself in the daughter languages, and it may well be a phantom. Nonetheless to rescue them from oblivion I list here six historical and synchronic phenomena (1) from varieties of Saamic, where root-internal nasals developed differently depending on whether the word-initial consonant was oral or nasal (Korhonen 1981: 165–167); (2) from Selkup, in which (a) certain roots and suffixal morphemes exhibit stop/nasal free alternation of their final segment (Kuznecova et al. 1980: 141–144), and (b) root- or suffix-internal clusters of homotopic nasal plus stop “gradate” to geminate nasals if a homotopic nasal-plus-stop cluster occurs after the next vowel (Helimski 1998: 555); (3) from Nganasan, where “nunation”—the insertion (or retention) of a nasal after (or instead of) the operation of rhythmic gradation—was still a regular morphophonemic rule when Castrén did his fieldwork in the latter half of the 1840s and where it continues to function optionally (contrast weak-grade t, due to rhythmic gradation, in the imperfective third-person singular form basu-tu-0 “” with strong grade -nt- preserved in munu-ntu-0 “” because of the nasal prosody initiated by the n of the root munu- (Várnai 2002: 64–67); (4) from the *n/*t problem in the reconstruction of certain morphemes, for example, the second-person singular pronoun (see section on pronouns) and the present participle reconstructed as *-ta/*-tä, *-na/-nä, or both (*-nta/*-ntä); (5) from the t- singular: n- plural opposition in certain demonstrative and third-person pronouns in FMC and Komi; and finally (6) from the seemingly quixotic alternations of “strong” versus “weak” clusters involving nasals, termed Nasalschwäche by W. Steinitz (1952: 16–19); these alternations are reconstructed for cognate pairs such as Finnish/Mari povi/poŋɡo “bosom,” seemingly from a word with medial *-ŋ(k)-.17


Personal Pronouns

In this section, I rapidly survey some of the more salient points connected with the paradigms of the unbound (personal) pronouns in the Uralic languages. My remarks are organized around four sets of questions, summarizable as the person, number, and case oppositions involved; the case and person suffixes occurring in various pronoun forms; the roots used for the various persons; a few other points of interest involving Ugric and Samoyedic.

Uralic languages show a uniformly “Latin-type” pattern of Subject and Agent person indexing, with forms corresponding to English inclusive/exclusive “we,” that is, with syncretism of persons 1 + 2, 1 + 2 + 3, and 1 + 3. Number is less consistently represented; although all Uralic languages distinguish singular from plural person, dual forms are restricted to the geographic extremes, namely Saamic, ObUgrian, and Samoyedic. So, for example, Erzya Mordva distinguishes mon from 1.plur miń, and son from 3.plur siń, while Komi distinguishes me from 1.plur mi and sijë from 3.plur najë. In contrast, North Saami has mon/moai/mī, Tromagan Khanty has mǟ/mīn/mĕŋ, and Nganasan has mənə/mi/mïŋ.

Pronominal paradigms usually distinguish more, fewer, or different cases than their noun-paradigm counterparts. Whereas Khanty does not mark the core syntactic functions on its NPs, all save the northwesternmost varieties of Khanty have distinct accusative forms for their pronouns, for example, Tromagan mǟn-t. In a different but comparable fashion, the Tundra Nenets personal pronouns inflect only for the core cases; the local cases, and even the Dative, are formed from person-marked forms of the postposition nya- “at,” that is, with bound forms of the pronouns, for example, unbound Nom/Gen/Acc mønyo/syiqno/syiqmo, but Locative nya-na-no “with/at me” In this behavior they resemble the dual inflection of the noun paradigm (Salminen 1997: 131. This construction is reminiscent of the kind seen in Finnish minu-n pää-llä-ni “on me” or its Komi “equivalent” me vïl-a-m It is distinct, on the other hand, from the kind of construction seen in Hungarian such as Ablative tőle-m “from me,” in which the person suffix is attached to an unbound form of the case suffix -tól ~ -től.18

At the opposite end of the scale, West Mari, which distinguishes not only core grammatical but also local cases in its noun paradigms, has pronoun paradigms that are virtually restricted to Nominative, Genitive, Accusative, and Dative forms, for example, məń/məń-ən/məń-əm/mə-län-em (Alhoniemi 1985: 81). The more widespread scenario is to have cases encoded by means of suffixes different from those in the noun paradigm; for example, Udmurt nouns have their non-possessed accusative forms in zero or -ez (sg.Acc val-0, val-ez “horse”), but the pronoun mon has mon-e (this accusative -e suffix seems to occur in the inflection of only two Udmurt nouns, murt “person” and bur “good(ness),” Bartens 2000: 80).

The West Mari Dative form mə-län-em “to me” exemplifies another way in which pronominal inflection can differ from that of nouns: in addition to case suffixes attached to the root, we often find a person suffix as well, here -em, agreeing with the root in person and number. In this connection, it is worthwhile noting that there is, alongside a parallel dative noun form kit-län-em “to my hand,” also a competing form with the suffix order reversed, namely kiδ-em-län (for a somewhat similar situation in Veps, consider the sg.Illative forms of the first- and second-person singular pronouns minu-hei-ń, śinu-hei-ž cited by Laanest 1975: 191).

Turning now to the pronominal roots used to index person, in the main we find the regular reflexes of proto-Uralic pronouns with initial *m (for and *t (for, as in the pronouns of Komi/Tromagan Khanty/Nganasan/Saami, me/mǟ/mənə/mon. For the first-person forms, there is one glaring exception: Mansi and Hungarian lack an initial *m. There is no universally accepted explanation for this, but it is probably the result of fausse coupe along the lines of something like *tēɣ-l-əm mänəm > *tēɣ-l-əm änəm “I eat.” Whatever the cause, these m-less pronouns appear to be a shared Mansi/Hungarian innovation (see Janhunen 2009 on Mansic and other cladistic issues).

For the second person, however, there are a number of discrepancies. One is trivial: it is assumed that a regular development of *t > s before *i explains the initial s of Fennic forms such as Finnish/Karelian/North Estonian sinä/šie/s(in)a. More interesting is the fact that we find pronouns with initial n- in both ObUgrian languages, for example, Yukonda Mansi nä̆ɣ, Tromagan Khanty nö̆ŋ. This n has had the time to work its way into the personal paradigms of nouns and verbs; whether it is connected with the t (~n) appearing in Samoyedic inflexion, for example, the predicative (Janhunen 1998: 470–471) is unclear.

A third discrepancy involving the second person involves the third person, as well. The material making up forms normally patterns with that of forms as opposed to forms encoding third, non-axis-of-discourse forms, as in East Mari 1/2/ məj/təj/tuδo, Nganasan mənə/tənə/sïtï, Selkup matn/tatn/tëp, but in the ObUgrian languages and in Nenets and Enets we find the opposite: patterns with This is phonologically clear from the shapes of form sets such as 1/2/ mǟ/nö̆ŋ/ʌĕɣw (ʌ represents a voiceless lateral fricative) in Tromagan Khanty and ɔ̄m/nä̆ɣ/täw in Yukonda Mansi, but it is morphologically clear in the suppletive stems husbanded to build forms such as Tundra Nenets and pronouns; note the form set 1/2/ mønyo/pidøro/pida, in which the second- and third-person forms are built to a stem meaning “inside or main part; body,” thus replacing proto-Samoyedic *mə̈n, *tə̈n (Hajdú 1990; Helimski 1997: 249). There has even been borrowing of a pronominal root: in Upper Sysola Komi, a root from the form Russian его “him/his” is reported as having been used alongside or instead of the usual, inherited sï-, giving forms such as sg.Adessive jevë-lën, sg.Comitative jevë-këd alongside standard sï-lën, sï-këd (Žilina 1975: 102–104).

Alongside suppletion of stems as in the Tundra Nenets forms just cited, a different kind of suppletion, one of case, arises in the paradigms of Mordva and Selkup. In Moksha Mordva, Dative forms built with a frozen lative of a spatial noun, *t́e-j, have yielded mońd́ejńə́, but a form lacking the pronoun root moń- is also attested (t́ejńə); the forms are perfectly parallel (tońd́ejt́, t́ejt́). The corresponding forms in Erzya Mordva are less transparent (mońeń, t́eń; tońeń, t́et́); see Bartens (1999: 111–112).

In Selkup, a stem cognate with Tundra Nenets syi- (< pS *kät; cited earlier in and forms) is used to form the Accusative of the and pronouns; this is the -š́- of ma-š́i-pm, ta-š́i-ntï, forms structurally analogous to the Hill Mari Dative mə-län-em. (There are also parallel forms lacking the initial root morpheme: š́i-pm, š́i-ntï). Helimski (1982: 92–94) daringly compares the Hungarian 1/ forms en-ge-m/té-ge-d with these Selkup ones not only in their structure but also in their origins.

Noun and Verb Inflection

Before embarking on a discussion of noun and verb inflection, it bears emphasizing that whereas it is highly unusual for a Uralic language to have no suffix on a verb, in the noun paradigm this is extremely common, as this is the so-called Nominative singular (sg.N) form, with extensive syntactic functions, including, but not limited to (intransitive) S(ubject)s and A(gent)s and several kinds of O(bject). It is perhaps the unique structure of the sg.N that has caused so much difficulty in the systematic synchronic description of noun inflection, as all too often this form has been taken as diagnostic and as if it might somehow be an index of inflectional type. Such is not the case, however, as numerous examples will show.

Because of its polysemy the term agglutinating is best avoided, certainly in connection with Uralic languages, as it is widely used in a variety of crucially different ways. It can be used to imply (1) relatively high levels of segmentability; or (2) of morpheme-shape consistency; or (3) of consistency of morpheme identity with grammatical function. No Uralic language achieves high levels in any of these areas, and many are quite low in two or all of them. In the discussion to follow, I shall first survey some kinds of variation (and resulting low predictability) in the selection or shape of inflectional morphemes (or both).

Noun Inflection

Within any given Uralic language, plural suffixes do not vary from noun to noun, and thus there are not, in that sense, “declensions” of the kind known from Indo-European or Semitic. Many languages do, however, deploy two different plural suffixes in different case forms, thereby scoring lower on variable (3). Examples include Hungarian -ke- in non-possessive forms such as plur.Acc könyve-ke-t “books (Acc.)” versus -i- in possessive forms such as könyve-i-me-t book- “my books (Acc.)”; Selkup -t in plur.Nom forms such as kana-t “dogs” versus -i- in kana-ī-mï “my dogs”; Finnish -t in plur.Nom forms such as kirja-t “(the) books” versus -i- in oblique case forms such as plur.Inessive kirjo-i-ssa “in books”; Tromagan Khanty plural suffix -t in qɔ̄t-ət “houses” (singular qɔ̄t) but plural suffix -ʌa- in qɔ̄t-ʌa-m “my houses” (and note, in passing, that “my house” has metaphony in the root vowel: qūt-əm).19 In these four sets of examples, it appears that for non-possessive subparadigms Hungarian and Khanty have innovated special, unrelated plural suffixes (the -ke- of könyve-ke-t, and the -ʌa- in Tromagan qɔ̄t-ʌa-m). Although they appear in different subparadigms, the deployment of -t- versus -i- to mark some kind of plural in both Finnish and Selkup seems to reflect an ancient state of affairs.

Noun inflection for plural can score low on variable (1), as well, as in Moksha Mordva forms such as non-possessive plur.Nom śorma-t “letters” but forms such as śorma-ńə “my letters,” where we have a sequence -ńə which is not segmentable in surface structure. A slightly more complex picture is presented by Tundra Nenets, where there is a plural suffix -ʔ- clearly identifiable and segmentable in plur.Locative ŋønoxøʔna “in boats,” but its location in the string is rather unexpected, as it seems to interrupt the Locative suffix: compare sg.Locative ŋønoxøna “in a boat.” And there is no plural suffix segmentable or identifiable in the surface of forms such as plur.Acc myado “tents (Acc.)” nor, indeed, does this form have a clearly identifiable and segmentable Accusative suffix: compare sg.Acc myadom “tent (Acc.).” Again, if we compare the singular and plural Ablative forms of this word, myakødo and myakøto, it is not immediately apparent where one morpheme ends and the next begins (hint: examine the penultimate segment of the pl.Acc form, and recall that the plural suffix -ʔ- “interrupts” the Locative case suffix(es)).

In the examples that we have seen so far, number, case, and person suffixes have been appended to noun stems with varying degrees of fusion, that is: with far from high scores in the three variables mentioned. Beyond these kinds of complication, there are two other gross kinds, which result in either special stem types—declensions or subdeclensions, with large sets of nouns taking one set of suffixes while other sets take others—or special subtypes of inflection. We have room to look at only a few of each of these: number syncretisms, inalienable versus alienable possession, inflection of kin and body-part terms, and animate versus inanimate case marking in Selkup.

In both Moksha and Erzya Mordva, there are three sets of noun inflections: absolute (Erzya kudo “house”), possessive (kudo-zo “his/her/its house”), and so-called definite (kudo-ś “the house, a certain house”). Possessive and “definite” are in complementary distribution. There is also large-scale neutralization of the opposition [singular: plural] in both the absolute and possessive paradigms: in the absolute, singular is distinguished from plural only in the Nominative (kudo ‘house vs. kudo-t “houses”), and in the possessive paradigm, singular possession is distinguished from plural possession in the standard language only if the possessor is or, for example, śorma-zo “his letter” vs. śorma-nzo “his letters,” but śormanok “our letter(s).”

In East Mari, special forms of the and possessive suffixes attach to certain kinship terms: contrast the sg.1 nominative forms of keč́e “sun” and erɣe “son” keč́e-m, erɣə-m (Alhoniemi 1985: 74–75).

In Udmurt, certain noun suffixes have special forms when attached to certain roots referring to body parts and kin: we have -ïd instead of default -ed (eš-ed “your friend” but vïn-ïd “your younger brother”) and sg.Inst -ïn instead of default -en (val-en “horse (Inst.),” but jïr-ïn “head (Inst.)”; Csúcs 1990: 34–42). Notice also the precise parallel between Hungarian 1/ apá-m/ap-ja “my father/his father” but pap-om/pap-ja “my/his religious practictioner” and the Taz Selkup 1/ forms of ësï “father”: äsä-pm/ësï-tï “my father/his father” (compare qopa-pm/qopy-tï “my/his hide”).

In Selkup, there are dedicated case suffixes used with nouns referring to animates (e.g., sg.Dat -nïkŋ in täpä-nïkŋ “squirrel”) contrasting with those used with inanimates (sg.Dat -ntï in mïka-ntï “needle”); in other cases, constructions with postpositions are used with animates while dedicated inanimate suffixes are used with animates (contrast the sg.Ablative forms of “squirrel” and “needle”: täpä-n nɔ̄nï squirrel-Gen from versus mïka-qïnï squirrel-Ablative, Hajdú 1968: 135–138; see also Kuznecova et al. 1980: 173–187). In Mari, animates do not normally take local case suffixes at all except in metaphoric extensions (Alhoniemi 1985: 44).

There are complications in the shapes of noun stems themselves, as well: some Estonian nouns undergo gradation while others do not (sg.Nom/Gen rida/rea “line” but ida/ida “east”); some Hungarian nouns undergo vowel alternations when inflected with certain suffixes, while others do not (sg/plur.Nom szél/szelek “wind/winds,” but szél/szél-ek “edge/edges”; similarly in Taz Selkup (sg.Nom/Acc këm/kïï-n “blood,” Kuznecova et al. 1980: 163). When inflected with certain vowel-initial suffixes, many (perhaps over a hundred) Komi nouns show stem-final alternations of j, k, t, or m with zero: compare the sg.Elative forms of rïś “lynx” and rïś “quark (cheese)” rïś-ïś/rïśk-ïś, or the superabundant inflection of kar built to stems kar- vs. karj-, reflecting semantic bifurcation “town; game (Russian gorodki).”

The position of the personal suffixes relative to those of number and case varies considerably from language to language, and though there are patterns, the patterns are complex, and there is no space to go into them here.20 Instead, I shall just mention one less frequently discussed feature of the person suffixes in nominal inflection, namely that of “definiteness.”

The terms definite and definiteness, as they are used in most work on Uralic languages, have at least as much to do with pragmatics, that is, the organization of discourse, as they do with syntax. Both the second- and third-person singular suffixes are used in Mari to mark an NP assumed to be known from the context or preceding discourse (Alhoniemi 1985: 78), and in Selkup celestial bodies and certain other natural givens (e.g., “year”) occur usually with the suffix attached. Like Selkup, Mari has preserved the proto-Uralic accusative suffix *-m unambiguously, and it is certainly no accident that in Mari the twin roles played by person suffixes can be seen to share the same stage, for example, təjə-n erɣə-č́-et “your son,” in which we see the inalienable suffix -č́ followed by the alienable, default, suffix -et functioning as a pragmatic marker.

But it is in the Permic languages that the person suffixes take on the widest range of functions, so we shall look at a few examples here. In Komi, where zero suffix can mark both Nominatives and certain “indefinite” direct objects, the person suffixes play a supplemental, disambiguating syntactic role (since they clearly distinguish S/A from O) but they also give an indication of the pragmatic status of participants in a situation. These two kinds of function, syntactic and pragmatic, often function smoothly together, but they also seem to be at loggerheads, for example, in the Lower Vychegda Komi NP mijan stav kïlïś + pïgïd-ïd “our entire wedding-party” the possessive form of the 1.plur pronoun mijan “our” seems to conflict with the possessive suffix on the head, -ïd—since we do not expect the wedding-party to be both “ours” and “yours.” But the function of -ïd here is not to indicate the possessor. Rather, it is to suggest, on the pragmatic level, the knownness, from the foregoing text, of this particular participant, and, on the syntactic level, to indicate clearly that this NP is not a direct object, since -ïd can only attach to nominatives (the accusative is -të). A somewhat parallel case may be seen in a pair of NPs from a few lines earlier in this text: tenad ïǯïd mog-ïd and tenad mog-ïs, wherein the first NP is something like “your big deal” ( big, while the second NP, with “conflicting” tenad “your” and -ïs, is something more like English “this deal of yours” ( big

We have now touched upon the ways in which person marking on NPs can have effects on both syntax and pragmatics. In the following section, we shall look at some of the ways in which the indexing of person on the verb can have effects on transitivity and aspect.

Verb Inflection

All Uralic languages index their finite verbs for the person of transitive and intransitive subjects, and are in this connection in line with Indo-European and the long east-west belt of languages that includes Turkic, Mongolic, and Tungusic. What stands out about Uralic argument indexing on the verb is the fact that many Uralic languages do, albeit often in an embryonic way, distinguish in the morphology of the verb certain features of the direct object, as well. In the following brief overview of Subject (Agent) and Object indexing, I shall exaggerate this claim slightly because I believe it important to notice that Uralic here aligns better, typologically, with South or Northwest Caucasian and various “Paleoasiatic” languages (Yeniseian, Koryak, Itelmen, Ainu) than it does with languages with which it is often assumed to be genetically related (Turkic, Mongolic, Tungusic, Yukaghir).

With the exception of Saamic, where it seems never to have developed or left a trace, we may imagine the development of object indexing on the Uralic verb as a process which made a few rudimentary moves in a range of other western languages, summarizable as a bifurcated inflection of (especially singular) third-person Subject/Agent forms. In these languages, there was a nascent development of a distinction between forms with suffix *-sV and forms without; we find such double marking in the sg.3 forms of South Estonian and Udora Komi verbs (Iva 2007: 83; Sorvačeva 1961: 478–482) and in the first and second conjugations of Mari (Galkin 1964: 24–29). At the other extreme of the family, this distinction spread from one that was restricted to third person to one embracing the other singular forms Subject/Agent forms Taz Selkup intransitive il-a-k/il-a-nty/il-a-0 “I/you /(s)he live(s)” versus transitive šün-na-m/šün-na-l/šün-n-ïtï “I/you/(s)he sews(s),” and in Nganasan, Enets, and Nenets, even came to include forms for the indexing of dual and plural Subjects/Agents and Objects, as well. Khanty and Mansi resemble Northern Samoyed in that they encode, with some syncretisms, the number of the “definite” object; Hungarian deviates in that it indexes not the number but rather the person of the object, in a system reminiscent of Algonquian, or, in some ways, Yimas.21 In Mordva the process went even further; although there are systematic syncretisms, the Mordva paradigm indexes both number and person of the object.

In the scenario just outlined, pre-Proto-Uralic would have been a language with no person indexing on the verb, the syntactic functions of the clause being stated solely by the case marking of NPs (and perhaps constituent order). All the languages came eventually to develop person suffixes which index features of the subject but not of an object, but in many instances these were secondary; examples are the third singular -pi of Fennic, the * = wa of Mari, now used in the third person of the second conjugation, and the -wəl of Vach-Vasjugan Khanty.

Case Flagging on Noun Phrases

If we keep in mind the fact that the Uralic verb may index features of direct objects, it will help us to appreciate some of the complexity that arises in the case marking of NPs in the clause. For example, several languages mark direct-object NPs in more than one way, and this variability can be combined with different kinds of object-indexing on the verb, for example, “definite” direct-object marking of the NP can combine with “indefinite” (that is: non-object indexing) morphology on the verb, and so on.

Subject and Agent NPs are usually in the Nominative.22 Direct Object NPs are marked in three basic ways: (1) with zero (i.e., with the Nominative); (2) with the reflexes of the dedicated proto-Uralic Accusative suffix *-m (or with one of its surrogates, such as Hungarian -t, or Udmurt -(j)ez); (3) with portmanteau suffixes originating in the combination of case and person or other deitic morphemes, as in the Mordva and Komi “definite” accusatives -ńt́ and -së. The distribution of these three options may be presented schematically as


  • 1111111111

  • 2222--2-22

  • --3-3-----

but the truth is much more complicated. For example, the use of zero marking on direct objects varies from language to language according to pragmatic, syntactic, and morphological factors (with the imperative in the far west and east, with some indefinites in MCPV, and optionally with objects inflected for in Hungarian).23

All Uralic languages have some kind of case suffix which does the duties of a Dative; in most languages, this suffix preserves at least some concrete spatial, specifically lative, meaning alongside its more abstract, grammatical ones.

The size of local systems varies from two (in varieties of northwest Khanty) to over two dozen (in varieties of Komi-Permiak). The local suffixes are always supplemented by a large set of postpositions (and, occasionally, prepositions). Uralic languages do not tend to use these two techniques simultaneously: if a postposition co-occurs with suffixal case marking, it does not generally fine-tune the NP’s function in the clause, the way adpositions work in Latin or Russian.24 Among each language’s arsenal of postpositions, there are usually at least a few singletons, but postpositions tend to occur in pairs or larger subsets: there are three-way oppositions like Hungarian mög.ött/mög.ül/mög.é and North Estonian taga/tagant/taha, both “at/from/to behind,” four-way oppositions like Tundra Nenets tyaxø.na/tyaxø.do/tyaxø.q/tyaxø.mona “at/from/to/along beyond,” and six in Onkovskij Komi-Permiak saj-ïn/saj-iś/saj-ë/saj-śań/saj-ët́/saj-ëʒ́, all variations on positions and motion behind something. Languages with a “true” genitive, to which we now turn, use it extensively, though not exclusively, with postpositions.

In addition to the usual case suffixes (which mark the function of NPs in the clause), there is also the question of the Uralic Genitive, whose original function was to mark certain functions of constituents of the NP.25 There are three basic scenarios:

  • LFMC | P [[HVO]] | NS

  • 1111 2 333 11

namely (1) original NP-internal genitives from proto-Uralic *-n (in the edge languages: Saamic, Fennic, Mordva, Mari, Selkup, Nenets, Enets, Nganasan); (2) the secondary genitives of Permian: Komi -lën, Udmurt -len, which are thought to be from an old locative *-nA added to external-animate local co-affix *lV; and (3) languages with no genitive whatsoever (Khanty, Mansi, Hungarian). For the expression of possession, see the section on internal syntax of the Noun Phrase.


As is to be expected, the deeper levels of syntax in Uralic languages vary less than their phonology or morphology. This section will therefore be brief; but its brevity is also due to a dearth of adequate syntactic description in all but a few, mostly recent, accounts. We look first at NP internal patterns; then various kinds of relative, complement, and support clauses; then copula clauses (and predicative possession).

Noun Phrase Internal Patterns

For agreement, see note 10. As for the order of NP internal constituents, this is overwhelmingly head-final, with the marking of syntactic function usually effected by suffixes or postpositions, or both; preceding the head are determiners, quantifiers, measure words, and qualifiers (including possessors and “embedded” relative clauses, for which, see the next section). In the following examples, morphemes in full or partial agreement are underscored: Komi tajë pïž-së boat “this boat (Acc.),” Hungarian ez-t a csónak-ot this-Acc boat-Acc “this boat (Acc.),” egy csomó régi kérdés “a bunch (of) old question(s),” Finnish no-i-ssa nelj-i-ssä kuv-i-ssa “in those four pictures,” Nganasan ńaaɡə-ki koru-ki good-du.Acc house-du.Acc “two good houses (Acc).” NP internal possessive constructions take on a variety of forms. In what is probably the oldest, the possessor (marked here with superscript R) is either marked with the Genitive (as in Finnish, Mari, or Samoyedic) or a genitive surrogate (e.g., gradation in Estonian and Saamic, or the allative case in Permian), with the possessed (superscript D) going unmarked regarding possession, as in Finnish papi-nR papud “the clergyman’s bean” and Komi sar-lënr nïvd “the Tsar’s daughter.” But Mari and Permian also may mark both possessor and possessed, as in Komi nïl-ïd-lënr kok-ïsd “your daughter’s leg,” and the order may be inverted, as in Komi ki-a-sd mam-ïs-lënr “in the mother’s hand.” The Permian languages are unusual in marking the possessor with a distinct suffix, the ablative (Udmurt -leś, Komi -lïś) if the possessed is the direct object of the clause; this is a strategy that permits zero marking of the direct object even when its referent is definite, as in Komi vok-jas-ïs-lïśr śornid conversation “the brothers’ conversation (Acc.).”

Hungarian, like Mansi and Khanty, has no genitive; in these languages the possession must be marked with a pertensive suffix indicating both the fact of possession and the person and number of the possessor, as in az anyar ház-ád-hoz mother “to the mother’s house,” Sygva Mansi akw nēr ĺāɣal|am-ed one woman “the speech of a woman.”26

Relative Clauses

The original Uralic relative clause (RC) was presumably built with deverbal nominals, that is it was of the kind called “embedded” or “de-ranked,” and this is the form that many of today’s languages use exclusively or for preference. In the more Europeanized languages however these are stylistically restricted and instead European-style finite clauses containing a relativizer which can take case suffixes are used,27 for example, plur.Part marks the subject and inessive -ssa the location in the Finnish kaupunki, [jo-ssa asu-i-0 ulkomaalais-i-a]28 town foreigner-Plur-Part “a town in which foreigners lived,” sg.Accusative -t marking indirect object in the Hungarian a kérdés, [amelye|to felejt|ette|m [fel + ten|ni]o] “the question (that) I forgot to ask,” and sg.Nominative.Definite marking the copula subject in the Erzya Mordva ist́ama čaŕkod́ema, kona|ścs veŋɡra|ń keĺ|se složnoj valcc] such concept| Hungarian-gen language-inessive compound word “(such) a concept, that is in Hungarian a compound word.”

RCs in Mordva and Mansi folklore texts were frequently built with participles, for example, this appositional construction from Erzya: alo + pe-se son eŕ-iĺ-0 [rod́a-ń śed́ej pid́i|ze] lower + part.( Rodya-Gen heart heat.up|ptcpl “in the lower part of town she lived, the one who heated Rodya’s heart”; notice also Sygva Mansi [āɣi|kwe-ts/a jōm|ne] xara ńol girl|dimin-plur.nom go|ptcpl sparsely.forested promontory “a sparsely forested promontory frequented by young girls,” [ruś-ən mas|ne] māśtər mas|nut Russian-inst wear|ptcpl masterful clothing “masterful clothing worn by Russians.” In Mansi if the common argument is stated only in the RC, then finite verbs are used: [ama manəro wār-ēɣ-əm]o woj-el-n what make-pres-sg.1 “look what I’m doing!” The Permian languages use similar constructions; in this Udmurt example the participle is premodified by a gerund: <[as-la-m> uža|sa šet|t|em] <vańbur-e--gïne> work|gerund come.about|causative|ptcpl—only “only my things that are acquired (by) working.” In Taz Selkup, a deverbal nominal form in = pïĺ is used to build RCs in which the Object is marked with the Accusative, as in [ɔ̄tä-po qët|pïĺ] qorqï reindeer-Acc kill|ptcpl bear “a bear that has killed a reindeer” or the Agent with the Genitive, as in [qorqï-ta qët|pïĺ] ɔ̄tä “a reindeer that a bear has killed.” In some languages, non-core arguments can be relativized without being explicitly stated in the RC, for example, Vasjugan Khanty [t́ū mūstəm nīs wăl|tə] wāč + kōr-nə that beautiful woman live|ptcpl street-locative “in the street (where) that beautiful woman lives/d.”29 In Tundra Nenets, many forms translated in European languages with simple adjectives are morphologically participles of stative verbs, for example, syado|0-ta nye face|poss-ptcpl woman “beautiful woman (i.e., a woman who has a face).” If such constructions are seen as a kind of relative clause, it is interesting to notice that it is numerals that take the case suffix in such constructions, as in tyeto-mʔ ŋebto|0|ta four-Acc hair|poss|ptcpl “having hair braided into four tresses”; compare the cliticization of the copula to the attribute in Mordva, mentioned in the next section.

Copula, Copular Clauses, and Predicative Possession

There are three basic kinds of copula construction, with considerable subvariation in different details in different languages: (1) the simplest (found, e.g., in Finnish) uses a copula verb which, apart from a few formal abnormalities, behaves like any other intransitive verb: sinäcs ole-0-t (kaunis nainen)cc beautiful woman “you are a beautiful woman”; (2) a mixed type (e.g., as in Permian or Hungarian), in which the copula is zero for all persons (or just the third person) in the affirmative present indicative, but takes on various overt forms under certain other circumstances, as in Udmurt socs dïšet|iścc teacher “(s)he is a teacher” but, with the uninflectible negative copula, moncs dïšet|iścc ëvël teacher neg.cop “I am not a teacher,” or Hungarian szép nő “she is a beautiful woman,” with zero copula, but szép nő lesz “she will be a beautiful woman” and szép nő vagy “you are a beautiful woman”;30 and (3) a construction in which the copula inflects fully for polarity, person, number, and modality but is phonologically a bound form enclitic to the copula complement, for example, Nganasan mənəcs d́ed́i—mcc father— “I am a father,” Tundra Nenets nye-no “you are a woman.” In the past and future tenses, Nganasan indexes the copula subject twice, once on the copula complement and once on the unbound, tense-bearing form of the verb “to be”: mïŋ basutuə—mïʔ i-śüə—mïʔ hunter—pl.1.p be-pret—1.plur.pred “we were hunters.” Surprisingly, in Erzya Mordva the copula encliticizes to the attribute of the NP rather than to its head: toncs (vad́ra—t ava-ś)cc beautiful— woman-sg.Nom.def “you are a beautiful woman” (Bartens 1999: 90).

Predicative possession in most languages is either of the locational type, as in Finnish ruhtinaa-lla ol-i-0 (suuri kirjakokoelma)s “the prince had a large book collection,” where ruhtinas “prince” is in the adessive case (here -lla) and configured with the copula verb ole- mentioned earlier, or it employs a person (possessive) suffix on the possession, usually with the obligatory use of a verb of location/existence, as in Hungarian (négy macská-m)s van four “I have four cats”; if the possessor is expressed by a separate word (an NP or an emphatic pronominal), then the Dative is also required: (a herceg-nek)r (négy macská-ja)d vol-t-0 duke-Dative four “the duke had four cats.” Mansi, Khanty, and Nganasan have separately evolved transitive verbs of possessing, for example, Nganasan ńüə-jo ho-ŋï-ŋ child-plur.Acc “do you have children?”31

Complement clauses built with finite verb forms are roughly more frequent in the more western languages; they are often introduced with conjunctions made from native materials, as in Tromagan Khanty kö̆t-nat pamiʌ-təɣ [mü̆w ʌŏwat jəɣ-0-0]o hand-inst how big “(s)he showed (it) with (her/his) hand how big (he/she/it) had become,” but there is also some use of borrowed conjunctions (usually from Russian). With indirect quotations and verbs of saying and thinking Mari and Udmurt use forms of the verb “say” (man-eš, šuj|sa); asyndetic linking is also common, as in Erzya Mordva van-0-i [miŕd́e-zes čatmon-0-i]o “she sees her husband is silent.”

An older kind of complement clause, built from non-finite verb forms, is fairly widely attested; it occurs most commonly in Object or Subject function, as in Erzya Mordva karm-i-t́ [čavo|mo-t]o begin-pres-3.plur kill| “they’re going to kill you” (note the object marking on the non-finite complement), aǯ́ǯ́-i-s [vok-ïs-lïśs lokt|ëm-së]o come| “he saw his brother come,” [kol|šə̂-m] kola-t die| “you will hear (that someone) has died.” The following Mari proverb derives much of its succinctness from the combined use of an RC with a complement clause in subject function: [[oš-eš woč́|mə̂-m]) (towar—δen) ru-aš]s o-k li-0 white-Lative fall|ptcpl-Acc axe—Inst cut.down-inf become-conneg “to destroy what has fallen on white (= paper, i.e. writing) with an axe is not possible.”

Finally, finite-verb support clauses with varying semantics occur widely across the family, although they are absent from Tundra Nenets; conjunctions, where they exist, may be clause initial or occur elsewhere (in Mari they are enclitics). The following purpose clauses may serve to illustrate some of the variety on show: Komi pukś-i-s [kurit-ni] “(s)he sat down to smoke,” Nganasan bukurə-0o kürütə-tu-mi [kolï-j kəmüδü-niaɡə-ni] net-Acc weave-imperfective-1.Du fish-plur.Acc catch-supine-1.Du “we (two) are weaving a net so that we can catch fish,” Finnish [maksa|a-kse-si lasku-sio] pay| “in order for you to pay your bill.”

We may end on a brief note concerning the lexicon. All Uralic languages have large sets of derivational suffixes, and vocabulary can be expanded almost at will. Deverbal verb derivation is especially rich in Northern Samoyedic, but derived words constitute by far the greater part of the entries in a Finnish, Estonian, Hungarian, Mari, or Khanty dictionary. Derivational suffixes—which not only change word class and valency but also create diminutives, augmentatives, pejoratives, and imitative-affective vocabulary—deserve more study than they have so far received; now that much of Samoyedic morphology has been clarified, we desperately need a new synchronic and diachronic survey of the entire family.

Abbreviations and Typographic Conventions

  • Subscript S, A, and O mark (intransitive) Subject, “Agent” (= transitive Subject), and Object, as in English animalss run and micea eat everythingo

  • Superscript R and D mark possessoR and possesseD, as in the King’sr Englishd

  • Acc(usative)

  • Conneg(ative)

  • Def.Art = Definite article

  • Du(al)

  • Gen(itive)

  • Inf(initive)

  • Inst(rumental)

  • Neg(ative)

  • Nom(inative)

  • Part(itive)

  • Plur(al), e.g. 1.Plur = first-person plural

  • Poss(essive)

  • Pred(icative)

  • Pres(ent)

  • Pret(erit)

  • Pro(noun)

  • Ptcpl = participle

  • sg = Singular, e.g., = third-person singular

  • = third-person singular Agent

  • sgO = index of singular direct object on verb

  • Inflectional suffixes are preceded by hyphen (as in Hungarian könyve-ke-t)

  • Derivational suffixes by equals or solidus (as in reconstructed * = wa, Mansi participle mas|ne)

  • Enclitics by double hyphen (as in Mari towarδen)

  • Members of a compound are joined by plus (as in Khanty wāč + kōr)

  • Where relevant, NPs are enclosed in (parentheses)

  • Relative clauses, complement clauses, and support clauses are put in [square brackets]


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(1) The term “Finno-Ugric” is widely used to refer to two quite different concepts: (1) all Uralic languages save Samoyedic (regardless of whether one believes in a primary binary split), and (2) the entire Uralic family on the other. In this chapter Uralic is used only in this second sense.

(2) R. Bartens, Mordvalaiskielten rakenne ja kehitys (Structure and development of the Mordva languages), Mémoires de la Société finno-ougrienne 232 (Helsinki: Suomalais-Ugrilainen Seura, 1999), 9.

(3) Limits of space preclude discussion or even mention of many important and interesting features: a partial list includes intonation, suffix order, tense-aspect-modality, evidentials, negation, and adverbs. The reader is invited to consult the References for suggestions for further enquiry. As should become clear, the linguistic diversity attested by the Uralic languages is of a significant degree. It verges on the grotesque to suggest that its testimony as a “stock” would be “safe” were only Hungarian to survive. Cf. D. H. Whalen and Gary F. Simons, “Endangered Language Families,” Language 88:1 (2012): 168.

(4) Fennic and Samoyedic still pose challenges in this regard: for Fennic, see T. R. Viitso, “The History of Finnic õ in the First Syllable,” Sovetskoe finno-ugrovedenie 14:2 (1978): 86–106; and, for Samoyedic, J. Janhunen, “Samoyedic,” in The Uralic Languages, ed. D. Abondolo (London: Routledge, 1998), 457–479. There is also still work to be done sorting out the history of the ObUgrian (Mansi + Khanty) vowels.

(5) The development of rounded vowels in the second syllable is traditionally seen as an innovation of Saamic and Fennic, but it is also reconstructable for proto-Samoyedic; see E. Helimski, Die Matorische Sprache, Studia uralo-altaica 41 (Department of Altaic Studies, University of Szeged, 1997), 68–70, with literature. J. Janhunen seems overly abstemious about morpheme structure constraints in his “On the Structure of Proto-Uralic,” Finnisch-ugrische Forschungen 44 (1982): 23–42, especially 26–27.

(6) There are numerous minor or highly specialized exceptions to this distribution, including partial agreement (Saamic, Estonian), agreement on demonstratives (Hungarian), and case agreement in construction like Udmurt ta-ja-z šur-ïn river-inessive “in that river.” The presence or absence of NP-internal agreement can signal alienable vs. inalienable possession in Nenets, see I. Nikolaeva, “The Structure of the Tundra Nenets Noun Phrase,” in Ünnepi kötet Honti László tiszteletére (Festschrift in honor of L. Honti), ed. M. Bakró-Nagy and K. Rédei (Budapest: Linguistics Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, 2003), 315–327.

(7) See most recently the contribution to Permian linguistic prehistory by S. Csúcs, Die Rekonstruktion der permischen Grundsprache, Bibliotheca uralica 13 (Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 2005). While this book offers the clearest and most plausible exposition of the development of Udmurt and the various varieties of Komi from a reconstructed pro-Permian, no attempt is made to reconcile this protolanguage with its supposed predecessor, Finno-Permic—not to mention more remote ancestors.

(8) See J. Lehtiranta, Yhteissaamelainen sanasto (Vocabulary of common Saamic), Mémoires de la Société finno-ougrienne 200 (Helsinki: Suomalais-Ugrilainen Seura, 1989), 142–143. The first clear account of the differential role of I-stems versus A-stems in the reconstruction of the proto-Uralic vowels may be followed in E. Tálos, “Kép szöveg nélkül,” in Urálisztikai tanulmányok, Hajdú Péter 60. születésnapja tiszteletére, ed. G. Bereczki and P. Domokos (Budapest: Eötvös Loránd University, 1983), 409–420; E. Tálos, “On the Vowels of Proto-Uralic,” in Studien zur Phonologie und Morphonologie der uralischen Sprachen, Akten der dritten Tagung für uralische Phonologie, Eisenstadt, 28. Juni–1. Juli 1984, Studia uralica 4, ed. K. Rédei (Vienna: Verband der wissenschaftlichen Gesellschaften Österreichs, 1987), 70–80; and E. Tálos, “Máskép(p) (Kép szöveg nélkül II.),” in Hajdú Péter 70 éves, Linguistica series A: studia et dissertationes 15, ed. M. Sz. Bakró-Nagy and E. Szíj (Budapest: MTA Nyelvtudományi Intézet, 1993), 391–394.

(9) The open-minded reader will benefit from G. Doerfer, “The Conditions for Proving the Genetic Relationship of Languages,” Bulletin of the International Institute for Linguistic Sciences, Kyoto Sangyo University 2:4 (September 1981): 39–58.

(10) For the latter, see K.-M. Lee and S. Robert Ramsey, A History of the Korean Language (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 68.

(11) Syllabic gradation is often called “radical gradation,” but this is misleading, as it occurs not only in roots but in derivational and inflectional suffixes, as well.

(12) E. Helimski, “Proto-Uralic Grad[i]ation: Continuation and Traces,” in Congressus Octavus Internationalis Fenno-Ugristarum 10.–15.1995, Vol. 1 (Jyväskylä: Gummerus, 1995), 17–51.

(13) See A. Laanest, Einführung in die ostseefinnischen Sprachen (Hamburg: Buske, 1975), 121–122.

(14) The alternation of strong kk with weak k in the Finnish form sets sg.Nom/Gen rakko/rako-n “bladder sg.Nom/Gen” and rakas/rakkaa-n “dear sg.Nom/Gen” operates under identical morphonological conditions; it is merely the forms’ distribution in the paradigm that differs.

(15) And not “suffixal” gradation, since it occurs in roots, as well.

(16) Helimski, “Proto-Uralic Grad[i]ation: Continuation and Traces,” 17–51. For details, see in Zs. Várnai, “Hangtan (Phonology),” in Chrestomathia nganasanica (Nganasan Chrestomathy), Studia uralo-altaica Supplement 10, ed. B. Wagner-Nagy (Szeged: University of Szeged, 2002), 61–63.

(17) For an exhaustive yet inconclusive treatment of this medial consonantism in predecessors of Hungarian, Mansi, and Khanty, see M. Bakró-Nagy, “Egy inetimológikus hangról,” in Ünnepi kötet Honti László tiszteletére (Festschrift in honor of L. Honti), ed. M. Bakró-Nagy and K. Rédei (Budapest: Linguistics Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, 2003), 27–45. For the Uralic picture, see D. Abondolo, “Traces of Pre-proto-Uralic Nasals and Nasal Prosodies,” Finnisch-Ugrische Mitteilungen 18/19 (1994/1995): 9–18, with literature.

(18) See now A. Spencer, “Does Hungarian Have a Case System?,” in Case and Grammatical Relations: Studies in Honor of Bernard Comrie, ed. G. Corbett and M. Noonan (Amsterdam: Benjamins, 2008), 35–56. Spencer here takes the view that Hungarian suffixes such as -tól ~ -től are not case suffixes but rather “fused postpositions”; see also P. M. Arkadiev’s objections in the review article “Case and Grammatical Relations: Studies in Honor of Bernard Comrie,” Language 86:2 2010): 416–428, especially 417–418.

(19) Productive metaphonic alternations are rare in the present-day languages, but Surgut and other Eastern Khanty abounds in them, for example, Surgut mɔ̄ńt́ mï̄ńt́-a tale “tell a tale!” and ārəɣ īrɣ-a song “sing a song!,” in M. Csepregi, Szurgut Osztják Chrestomathia (Szeged: Finno-Ugrian Department, Attila József University, 1998), 17–18 and 48.

(20) For a recent account of the situation in Mari, see J. Luutonen, The Variation of Morpheme Order in Mari Declension, Mémoires de la Société finno-ougrienne 226 (Helsinki: Finno-Ugric Society, 1997).

(21) D. Abondolo, Hungarian Inflectional Morphology (Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1988), 88–93.

(22) But Finnish uses its Partitive case for less “definite” Subjects, Objects, and even, exceptionally, Agents; and Eastern Khanty has an ergative construction.

(23) The Khanty use of zero marking on objects aligns well with its lack of any grammatical suffixation on nouns and its split-ergative syntax.

(24) There are, of course, exceptions. For example, one might think of the Partitive form of the Finnish word for “road,” tie-tä, as being tweaked by the addition of the postposition pitkin in tie-tä pitkin “along the road.”

(25) It is also possible that what we call the Uralic Genitive was originally more of an all-purpose premodifier, serving to mark the possessor when modifying (possessed) nouns but functioning as an adverb (or instrumental, or instructive) when modifying verbs; see T. Itkonen, “Välikatsaus suomen kielen juuriin (Mid-term review of the roots of the Finnish language),” Virittäjä 1983:190–229 and 349–386, specifically page 363. One extension of this line of thinking would lead to the conclusion that the phonetic material of the Uralic Genitive did in fact survive in Permian and Hungarian, but retained only its adverbial uses.

(26) Hungarian also has a dative suffix -nak/-nek, but this is neither necessary nor sufficient to make a possessive construction. On the other hand, it permits multiple (nested), inverted, and discontinuous possessive constructions.

(27) For a view of all three (or four) kinds of subordinate clause in Hungarian, see Simoncsics 2006:34–41.

(28) In this and the following sections on syntax, I use the following abbreviations and typographic conventions: Subject, “Agent” (= transitive subject), and Object are marked with upper-case subscript, verbs are given wiggly underscore, and NPs are sometimes placed within parentheses to avoid ambiguity. Complement, relative, and support clauses are placed within square brackets unless they are discontinuous, in which case angle brackets are used.

(29) For an early account of the relativizability of constituents in Mari, see K. Matsumura, “Mari (Cheremis) Relative Clauses,” in Working Papers in Linguistics (Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 1981), 45–55.

(30) Both Permian and Hungarian have number agreement in copular clauses; the Permian plural suffix (Udmurt -eś, Komi -ëś) is used only with adjectives in copula complement function: Komi lun-jas-0cs ǯenïd-ëścc day-plur-nom short-plur.pred “the days are short”; contrast a Hungarian translation of this clause, in which there is agreement with plural -k on both constituents: rövid-ekcc (a nap-ok)cc

(31) Eight different Tundra Nenets predicative possession constructions are listed in P. Hajdú, Chrestomathia Samoiedica (Budapest: Tankönyvkiadó, 1968), 73–74.