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Encyclopedia > Uralic
Geographical distribution of Finnic, Ugric, Samoyed and Yukaghir languages

The Uralic languages form a language family of about 30 languages spoken by approximately 20 million people. The name of the language family references the location of the family's suggested Urheimat, which is often placed close to the Ural mountains. Countries that are home to a significant number of speakers of Uralic languages include: Estonia, Finland, Hungary, Norway, Romania, Russia, the Serbian province of Vojvodina, and Sweden. The healthiest Uralic languages, in terms of the number of native speakers and national identity, are Estonian, Finnish, and Hungarian.


Family Tree

While the internal structure of the Uralic family has been under debate since the family was originally proposed, two subfamilies, Finno-Ugric and Samoyedic, are consistently recognized as being distinct from one another.

Many efforts have been made to identify the relationship between the Uralic languages and languages generally thought to belong to the world's other major language families. Probably the least controversial — though all such proposals currently remain controversial — is the relationship between the Uralic languages and Yukaghir; theories proposing a special relationship with the Altaic languages were formerly very popular, but have fallen out of favor in more recent decades.

Theories that include the Uralic family as a node in a proposed superfamily include the following:

  • Ural-Altaic
  • Eurasiatic
  • Uralo-Dravidian
  • Uralo-Indo-European
  • Uralo-Yukaghir
  • Nostratic
  • Proto-World

Classification of Languages

The traditional classification of the Uralic languages is as follows. Obsolete names are displayed in italics.


  • Northern Samoyedic
  • Southern Samoyedic
    • Kamassian (Kamas)
    • Mator (Motor)
    • Selkup (Ostyak-Samoyed)


  • Ugric (Ugrian)
    • Hungarian
    • Ob Ugric (Ob Ugrian)
      • Khanty (Ostyak)
      • Mansi (Vogul)
  • Finno-Permic (Permian-Finnic)
    • Permic (Permian)
      • Komi (Komi-Zyrian, Zyrian)
      • Komi-Permyak
      • Udmurt (Votyak)
    • Finno-Cheremisic (Finno-Mari, Finno-Volgaic, Volga-Finnic)
      • Cheremisic (Mari)
        • Mari (Cheremis)
          • Meadow Mari (Low Mari, Eastern Mari)
          • Hill Mari (High Mari, Western Mari)
      • Finno-Mordvinic
        • Mordvinic (Mordvin, Mordovian)
        • Merya (position uncertain, extinct)
        • Muromian (position uncertain, extinct)
        • Finno-Lappic (Finno-Saamic, Finno-Samic)
          • Sami (Samic, Saamic, Lappic, Lappish)
            • Western Sami (Western Samic)
              • Southern Sami (Southern Samic)
                • Lule Sami
                • Pite Sami — Nearly extinct
                • Southern Sami
                • Ume Sami — Nearly extinct
              • Northern Sami (Northern Samic)
            • Central-Eastern Sami (Central-Eastern Samic)
          • Baltic-Finnic (Balto-Finnic, Finnic, Fennic)

The term Volgaic, used to denote a branch previously believed to include Mari and Mordvinic, has now become obsolete. Modern linguistic research has shown that it was a geographic classification rather than a linguistic one. The Mordvinic languages are more closely related to the Finno-Lappic languages than they are to the Mari languages.


Structural characteristics generally said to be typical of Uralic languages include:

  • extensive use of independent suffixes, a.k.a. agglutination.
  • a large set of grammatical cases (13–14 cases on average), e.g.:
    • Erzya: 12 cases
    • Estonian: 14 cases
    • Finnish: 15 cases (or more)
    • Hungarian: 24 cases (or more)
    • Inari Sami: 9 cases
    • Komi: 18 cases
    • Moksha: 13 cases
    • Nenets: 7 cases
    • North Sami: 7 cases
    • Udmurt: 16 cases
    • Veps: 24 cases
  • unique Uralic case system, from which all modern Uralic languages derive their case systems.
    • nominative singular has no case suffix.
    • accusative and genitive suffixes are nasal sounds.
    • three-way distinction in the local case system, with each set of local cases being divided into forms corresponding roughly to "from", "to", and "in/at"; especially evident, e.g., in Hungarian, Finnish and Estonian, which have several sets of local cases.
    • Uralic locative suffix exists in all Uralic languages in various cases, e.g., Hungarian superessive, Finnish essive, North Sami essive, Erzyan inessive, and Nenets locative.
    • Uralic lative suffix exists in various cases in many Uralic languages, e.g., Hungarian illative, Finnish lative, Erzyan illative, Komi approximative, and Northern Sami locative.
  • vowel harmony (recently lost in standard Estonian, but exists in dialects).
  • a lack of grammatical gender.
  • negative verb, which exists almost in all Uralic languages, e.g., Nganasan, Enets, Nenets, Kamassian, Komi, Meadow Mari, North Sami (and other Samic languages), Finnish, Estonian (In dialects only, standard Estonian has lost it) Karelian, etc. (Some innovative languages have lost personal suffixes, e.g., Hungarian.)
  • palatalization.
  • lack of tonality.
  • lots of postpositions (prepositions are very rare).
  • basic vocabulary of about 200 words, including body parts (e.g., eye, heart, head, foot, mouth), family members (e.g., father, mother-in-law), animals (e.g., viper, partridge, fish), nature objects (e.g., tree, stone, nest, water), basic verbs (e.g., live, fall, run, suck, go, die, swim, know), basic pronouns (e.g., who, what, we, you, I), numerals (e.g., two, five); derivatives increase the number of common words.
  • possessive suffixes.
  • no possessive pronouns.
  • dual, which exists, e.g., in Samoyedic, Ob Ugrian and Samic languages.
  • plural markers -j (i) and -t have a common origin (e.g., in Finnish, Estonian, Erzya, Samic languages, Samoyedic languages). Hungarian, however, has -i- before the possessive suffixes and -k elsewhere. In the old orthographies, the plural marker -k was also used in the Samic languages.
  • no verb for "have". Note that all Uralic languages have verbs with the meaning of "own" or "possess", but these words are not used in the same way as English "have". Instead, the concept of "have" is indicated with alternative syntatic structures.
  • expressions that include a numeral are singular if they refer to things which form a single group, e.g., "négy csomó" in Hungarian, "njeallje čuolmma" in Northern Sami, "neli sõlme" in Estonian, and "neljä solmua" in Finnish, each of which means "four knots" (literally, "four knot").
  • the stress is always on the first syllable, except for the Mari languages.

Selected cognates

The following is a very brief selection of cognates in basic vocabulary across the Uralic family, which may serve to give an idea of the sound changes involved.

English Finnish Estonian Võro North Sami Inari Sami Mari Komi Khanty Hungarian Nenets
heart sydän, sydäm- süda, südam- süä, süäm- čotta, čoddaga - šüm- śələm səm szív sēw
lap syli süli salla, sala solla šəl syl jöl öl -
vein suoni soon suuń, soonõ- suotna, suona suona šön sən jan ín 'sinew, tendon' tēn
go mennä, men- minna, min- minnäq, min- mannat moonnađ mija- mun- mən- menni, megy min-
fish kala kala kala guolli, guoli kyeli kol - kul hal xal'ä
hand käsi, käte-
gen. käden, part. kättä
käsi, kät-
gen. käe, part. kätt
käsi, kät-
gen. käe, part. kätt
giehta, gieđa kieta ki köt kéz -
eye silmä silm, silma- silm, silmä- čalbmi, čalmmi čalme, šalme šinča śin sem szem sew
leg jalka jalg jalg juolgi, juolggi jyel´gi jol gyalog 'on foot'
leg láb laamp(a) (Selkup)
father isä isa esä áhčči, áhči eeči ős 'ancestor' niiśe
fire tuli tuli, tule- tuli, tulõ- dolla tulla tul ti̮l tűz tuu
tooth pii bátni * pääni * püj piń pöŋk, peŋk fog

*) May not be etymologically of the same origin.


  • Abandolo, Daniel (ed., 1998), The Uralic Languages, London and New York, ISBN 0-415-08198-X.
  • Collinder, Björn (1960), An Etymological Dictionary of the Uralic Languages, Stockholm.
  • Décsy, Gyula (1990), The Uralic Protolanguage: A Comprehensive Reconstruction, Bloomington, Indiana.
  • Laakso, Johanna (1992), Uralilaiset kansat (Uralic Peoples), Porvoo - Helsinki - Juva, ISBN 951-0-16485-2.
  • Rédei, Károly (ed.) (1986-88), Uralisches Etymologisches Worterbuch (Uralic Etymological Dictionary), Budapest.
  • Sammallahti, Pekka, Matti Morottaja (1983): Säämi - suoma - säämi škovlasänikirje (Inari Sami - Finnish - Inari Sami School Dictionary). Helsset/Helsinki: Ruovttueatnan gielaid dutkanguovddaš/Kotimaisten kielten tutkimuskeskus, ISBN 951-9475-36-2.
  • Sammallahti, Pekka (1993): Sámi - suoma - sámi sátnegirji (Northern Sami - Finnish - Northern Sami Dictionary). Ohcejohka/Utsjoki: Girjegiisá, ISBN 951-8939-28-4.
  • Sauvageot, Aurelien (1930), Recherches sur le vocabulaire des langues ouralo-altaiques (Researches on the Vocabulary of the Uralo-Altaic Languages), Paris.

External links

  • Ethnologue's Uralic Family Tree (http://www.ethnologue.com/show_family.asp?subid=713)
  • The Untenability of the Finno-Ugrian Theory from a Linguistic Point of View (http://www.acronet.net/~magyar/english/1997-3/JRNL97B.htm) by Dr. László Marácz, a minority opinion on the language family.
  • "The Ugric-Turkic Battle": A Critical Review (http://www.kirj.ee/esi-l-lu/l37-2-1.pdf) (PDF) by Angela Marcantonio (Rome), Pirjo Nummenaho (Naples) and Michela Salvagni (Rome)
  • Linguistic Shadow-Boxing (http://homepage.univie.ac.at/Johanna.Laakso/am_rev.html) by Johanna Laakso - A book review of Angela Marcantonio's "The Uralic language family. Facts, myths and statistics"



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