Finnic-Type Pronunciation in the Germanic Languages

By Wiik, Kalevi | Mankind Quarterly, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Finnic-Type Pronunciation in the Germanic Languages


Wiik, Kalevi, Mankind Quarterly


In this paper a distinguished Estonian Scholar suggests that the Neolithic population of hunter-gatherers who occupied northern Europe during the Mesolithic spoke a Proto-Uralic language. He suggests that this population was probably not displaced by incoming Proto-Germanic-speaking Neolithic farmers, but that it acquired both farming techniques and the Proto-Germanic language by a process of cultural and linguistic diffusion over generations. If that were the case these early hunter-gatherers would be ancestral to the contemporary Nordic, Proto-Germanic-speaking peoples of Scandinavia and Northern Germany. On linguistic grounds this revolutionary thesis has been widely rejected by mainstream linguists on the grounds that if a Proto-Uralic-speaking population had accepted a Proto-Germanic language some Proto-Uralic words would have been absorbed into Proto-Germanic, whereas Proto-Germanic contains no loanwords from Proto-Uralic. It is rendered further questionable by genetic evidence (as summarized by Cavelli-Sforza et al. in The History and Geography of Human Genes, p.273) which reveals a major disparity between the genotype of the Uralic-speaking peoples of today and that of the Norwegians, Swedes, Danes and North Germans who would have to be descended from these early Proto-Uralic speakers if Wiik's hypothesis were true. The genetics of the Scandinavians and North Germans contrast too sharply with those of the main body of contemporary Uralic speakers to support Wiik's hypothesis. Only the Finns present us with a conundrum. They are genetically 90% European and only 10% Uralic; and it is believed that the 10% Uralic component primarily reflects relatively recent Finnish-Saame hybridization. However, Wiik's hypothesis is based on what he sees to be phonetic evidence, and his paper is presented here because of the novelty of his approach and its relevance to the still unsolved problem of the ethnicity of the pre-Neolithic occupants of northern Europe. It remains for linguists with a competent understanding of the evolutionary history of both the Germanic and Uralic languages to evaluate the phonetic arguments on which he builds his hypothesis.

Key Words: Northern Europe; hunters-gatherers; farmers; Proto-Uralic; Proto-Gennanic; Indo-European; Finno-Uralic; cultural and linguistic diffusion; demic diffusion.

The Starting Point

During the sixth millenium BC, Europe was divided into two broad subsistence zones:2 the populations of the northern hall of Europe were food gatherers, or more correctly, hunter-fisher-gatherers; the population of much of the southern half of Europe was food producing. In addition, the zone of the food producers was divided into western and eastern halves, because the populations of the loess region of Central Europe practiced farming and animal husbandry, while the populations of the steppe region north of the Black Sea practiced animal husbandry. The boundary between the northern and southern subsistence zones cut across Europe from the modern Netherlands through Central Europe to the Black Sea and to the southern parts of the Urals. The Uralic (U) protolanguage of the hunters became the lingua franca, or common means of communication, of the hunting populations of the northern half of Europe, while the lingua franca of the farmers, the Indo-European protolanguage, became its equivalent in the southern half of Europe. There must have been several dialects of both the Uralic- and the Indo-European protolanguages.

The Boundary Shift

After 5500 BC, the boundary separating the two subsistence zones started to shift toward the north. This occurred in two ways: through cultural and linguistic diffusion without population movements; and through migrations of southern food producers to the northern zone bringing their subsistence practices and languages (demic diffusion). My assumption is that the shift of the subsistence and linguistic boundary took place more often through the former than the latter method.

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