All In The Language Family: The Uralic Languages

The Uralic Language family might not be as well known as some of its neighbors, but it does boast some interesting linguistic features.
June 2, 2020
All In The Language Family: The Uralic Languages

The Uralic family of languages are spoken across northern regions of Norway and Sweden, throughout Finland, Estonia, Hungary and parts of Russia. Here, we’ll take a look at which modern languages are part of this family, how many people speak them and how similar they are. Let’s get started.

What Are The Uralic Languages?

For a language family that isn’t as well known as the Romance languages or Germanic languages, the Uralic family is quite prolific: There are 38 Uralic languages still spoken today. Of these, Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian probably the most well known. 

These are official languages of Finland, Estonia and Hungary (respectively), and all three are also spoken by minority communities in other Eastern European countries like Latvia, Slovakia and Ukraine. While these three get top billing, the next most widely spoken Uralic languages are all spoken by communities in Russia. These are Erzya, Moksha, Mari, Udmurt and Komi, but these languages aren’t very well known beyond Russia.

The Sami languages, spoken in the northern regions of Norway, Sweden and Finland, are probably the best known after the big three. Sami dialects hold official status in several European countries, and consist of approximately 10 distinct languages.

How Many People Speak Uralic Languages?

In contrast with other major language families, the Uralic family has relatively few speakers: approximately 22 million native speakers in total, with 60% of those being speakers of Hungarian. Finnish has 5.4 million native speakers and Estonian has 1.1 million, while the Uralic languages spoken in Russia have less than half a million native speakers each, and the 10 Sami languages have only 30,000 native speakers in total.

Comparing this family to, say, the Indo-European language family, Uralic languages have relatively few native speakers. If you were determined to learn one, Hungarian would probably be the most useful, just going by the number of speakers. It’s also the Uralic language with the largest diaspora: There are large communities of Hungarian speakers in the United States, Canada and Israel, in addition to those scattered throughout Europe. However, Hungarian is significantly different from its sister languages because of its earlier separation in time and geography from the Uralic family. Speaking of, what are the similarities and differences between languages of this family?

How Similar Are The Uralic Languages?

Linguists hypothesize that all of these languages descended from a shared language that they now refer to as Proto-Uralic. They believe it was originally spoken around the Ural mountains (now in present-day Russia) somewhere between 7,000 and 2,000 BCE. From there, these languages slowly split off from each other and developed into the separate languages we know today.

Writing System

One simple difference between the modern day languages is that they use two distinct writing systems: the Roman and Cyrillic alphabets, though this split is pretty straightforward. Uralic languages spoken in Russia use Cyrillic, while those spoken in Europe’s Nordic region, the Baltics and Hungary use the Roman alphabet — with some modifications. 

Grammar

But despite their differences in writing systems, these languages have many important similarities, such as their grammar. Most Uralic languages are agglutinative, meaning speakers can construct new, super long words by adding suffixes. While other languages, like English, only allow one suffix to be added to a word, Uralic languages don’t hold back! And these new words pack in a lot of meaning.

Take Finnish, for example. The word epäjärjestelmällistyttämättömyydellänsäkäänköhän carries the meaning of a whole sentence in many other languages. In English, it means: “I wonder if – even with his or her quality of not having been made unsystematized.”

Uralic languages use case extensively. Some Indo-European languages use multiple cases as well, though this is quite rare for modern languages (for instance, we don’t have an obvious case system in English). German is famous for its four cases: nominative, accusative, dative and genitive. But if you thought that was confusing, Uralic languages have many more cases than German: North Sami has 6, Erzya has 12, Finnish has 15, Hungarian has 18, and Komi has as many as 27 cases!

One feature that all Uralic languages share is a lack of gender distinctions, both in terms of grammatical gender and pronouns. As a result, all of these modern languages only have one third person singular pronoun, used to mean “he,” “she” and “they.”

Phonology

When it comes to the phonology (or what the languages sound like) of Uralic languages, there are some common features too. Vowel harmony is common in many of these languages, meaning that every word’s vowels must be in “harmony” with each other. How they are considered harmonic differs from language to language, but in the case of Finnish, when a suffix is added to a word, the vowel of the suffix must match the vowel in the root word.

Word stress is often fixed in Uralic languages, meaning it is predictable regardless of the word. By contrast, languages like English have a variable stress which is an intrinsic part of each word’s meaning — and so the stress must be learned for each new word. Uralic languages often put the main stress on the first syllable of every word. This is true in Hungarian and Finnish, making it easy as a foreign learner to know how to correctly pronounce a word you’ve never seen before!

Shared Vocabulary

And of course, the most obvious similarity between Uralic languages is their shared words. Many basic words have the same origin, so the relation between them is easy to see. Take the word for “bone,” for example, which is luu in Estonian and lu in Mari. The word “liver” is maksa in Finnish, and makso in Erzya. The word “blood” is a good example of the wider similarity across several Uralic languages, as it’s veri in Finnish and Estonian, vïrre in South Sami, vir in Udmut, and vér in Hungarian.

All In The Family

Taking this journey through the different branches of the Uralic family tree just goes to show how many different languages are historically connected, which we also saw with the Semitic and Indo-European families. That said, we’re far from finished with all the different language families, so stay tuned!

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Author Headshot
Sam Wood
Sam is a vegan travel blogger, freelance writer, social media manager, former English teacher, linguist and occasional guest university lecturer from London, now living in Berlin. He is fascinated with the phonetics of the many varieties of English from all over the world, both from a pedagogical and historical point of view and as well speaks German, Spanish and French plus smatterings of Swedish, Mandarin, Arabic and Japanese. In his free time he enjoys watching Star Trek, doing yoga, baking delicious vegan cakes and performing as a drag queen.
Sam is a vegan travel blogger, freelance writer, social media manager, former English teacher, linguist and occasional guest university lecturer from London, now living in Berlin. He is fascinated with the phonetics of the many varieties of English from all over the world, both from a pedagogical and historical point of view and as well speaks German, Spanish and French plus smatterings of Swedish, Mandarin, Arabic and Japanese. In his free time he enjoys watching Star Trek, doing yoga, baking delicious vegan cakes and performing as a drag queen.

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