Uralic and Altaic languages

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Uralic and Altaic languages

Uralic and Altaic languages (yŏŏrăl´Ĭk, ăltā´Ĭk), two groups of related languages thought by many scholars to form a single Ural-Altaic linguistic family. However, other authorities hold that the Uralic and Altaic groups constitute two unconnected and separate language families. The Ural-Altaic tongues are spoken by over 150 million people, who inhabit discontinuously a vast area that reaches from E Europe across Russia and Asia to the Pacific Ocean. The Ural-Altaic family takes its name from the Ural Mts., which separate Europe and Asia, and the Altai, a central Asian mountain range, where the languages of this family are believed to have originated. The speakers of the Ural-Altaic languages apparently began to migrate from this original homeland to their present dwelling areas many centuries ago. If the Ural-Altaic tongues are regarded as forming one family, this family consists of two subfamilies, the Uralic and the Altaic. The Uralic subfamily can be divided into two principal subdivisions, Finno-Ugric (see Finno-Ugric languages) and Samoyedic. Speakers of the languages of the Samoyedic subdivision, over 30,000 in all, reside in NW Siberia and NE Europe. Samoyede is the chief language of this subdivision.

Two important features that characterize the Ural-Altaic languages, with few exceptions, are agglutination and vowel harmony. These two points of similarity have led a number of authorities to accept Ural-Altaic unity. In an agglutinative language, different linguistic elements, each of which exists separately and has a fixed meaning, are often joined to form one word. In these languages multiple suffixes are added to a root while prefixes are almost totally lacking. Vowel harmony refers to the agreement between the vowels in the root of a word and the vowels in the word's suffix or suffixes. Such agreement is illustrated in the Turkish words ev [house] and evde [at the house]; masa [table] and masada [at the table]. Thus, most suffixes have a double form, one with a front vowel (e.g., e, i, ö, ü) to correspond to a root with a front vowel, and one with a back vowel (e.g., a, ı, o, u) to match a root with a back vowel. Grammatical gender (with its distinctions of masculine, feminine, and neuter) is generally lacking in the Ural-Altaic languages. Stress varies in the different tongues. The Ural-Altaic languages also have a small common vocabulary consisting of basic words, among them some personal pronouns, some words indicating kinship (e.g., mother, father), and some words that denote plants and animals, name occupations, and the like. This rudimentary vocabulary is common to all the tongues and is considered by some to be additional evidence for Ural-Altaic unity. At the same time, speakers of the Ural-Altaic languages also borrowed words from the various tongues of other peoples with whom they came in contact.

See N. Poppe, Introduction to Altaic Linguistics (1965); B. Collinder, Survey of the Uralic Languages (2d ed. 1969).

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