The Western Contact Field of the Uralic Languages

By Künnap, Ago | Mankind Quarterly, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

The Western Contact Field of the Uralic Languages


Künnap, Ago, Mankind Quarterly


This paper, published in English for the first time only now, seeks to enquire into the problem of the origin of the Finns and Estonians, who on the basis of the biological evidence are clearly of European origin, but who speak languages that are classified as belonging to the Uralic family of languages spoken primarily in Asia by persons who are biologically very different. His proposals have received little support from linguists who specialize in the Uralic languages, other than those scholars he mentions in his text, but the genetic similarity between the Finns and Estonians, and their North European neighbors who speak Indo-European (Germanic) languages, requires some explanation, and the author hopes that the publication of an English translation of his paper will attract research by scholars in fields other than Uralistics.

Key Words: Uralic languages; Indo-European languages; Finns; Estonians; Saami; Samoyeds; Karelians; Mitochondrial DNA; Y-Chromosomes; Demic diffusion; Cultural diffusion.

There is no doubt that the field of Uralistics is undergoing revolutionary changes. In my opinion, this upheaval is not caused by Uralists themselves, nor does it originate from the realm of the field of the Uralic languages. Reasons for this upheaval come from outside and originate from major advances in fields studying humankind in general. Changes taking place in these fields are so fast and large-scale that there is hardly a person who has a sufficient overview of them right now. 1 will, however, provide a short summary of those changes having a direct effect on the field of Uralistics.

Current Revolutions in Fields Studying Humankind

The stormy field of genetics should be discussed first. This field feeds us a new piece of information once a week and offers a new hypothesis approximately every sixth month on an average. It is impossible to predict the speed with which this field will develop in the future. We should therefore naturally accept the research results of genetics with caution.

But do we have any choice? Must we close our eyes to the results of genetics and wait for a day when we can say: good, now they are useable. And, on the other hand: on how many informants is the Uralists' knowledge of some distantly related language based? On what percentage of the entire Uralic linguistic material are traditional reconstructions of the Uralic protolanguage and minor protolanguage and the family tree model based? If we shelve the results of genetic research, shouldn't we do the same with the results of Uralistic research and wait for better times with additional and more detailed linguistic facts, more effective methods, and more believable theories?

In my opinion, there are clear signs today that the traditional views of the Uralic protolanguage and the Uralic family tree are based on faith equally strong as are the interpretations of the results of genetic research.

Another change is that, while it was believed previously, especially during the 1970s and 1980s, that the appearance of a new archeological culture was a sign of a significant population migration, it is now considered possible that new cultural artifacts and behavioral models can also spread without large scale population movements; in other words, through cultural diffusion versus demie diffusion.

The third change deals with language shift. While it was previously assumed that a smaller population always adopted the language of the larger population, it is now emphasized that prestige plays an especially large role in language shift. This prestige factor allows the language of the numerical minority to be adopted by the numerical majority.

As the fourth point, I emphasize the role of contacts in the process of linguistic change. These changes are above all caused by contacts with other languages and not just the time factor and geographic divergences of a language from its related languages. …

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