Friday, October 2, 2015

Uralic Languages: From Enets to Võro

This summer, we dedicated a few posts to learning a bit more about a few of the world's language families. In May we explored the Romance and Germanic languages, and in June we looked at the Slavic languages. Today we'll be focusing on the Uralic languages, which are not nearly as well known, but are just as fascinating.

The Uralic language family gets its name from the Ural Mountains, a mountain range in western Russia that is considered one of the natural markers that divides Europe from Asia. According to the Ethnologue, there are 38 languages within the Uralic language family, which primarily evolved in the region surrounding the Ural Mountains. The easiest way to learn about these languages is by learning more about their linguistic subgroups, so let's get started!

The Ural Mountains in Yugyd Va National Park, Russia.
The Strictly Uralic Languages

While most of the Uralic languages fit into subgroups with a few of their fellow languages, there are three that each comprise their very own subgroup! These three lonely languages are Hungarian, Khanty, and Mansi.

Hungarian is the most spoken Uralic language in the world, with about 13 million native speakers. It is also the official language of Hungary, and is widely spoken in nearby countries such as Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, and Ukraine. Khanty and Mansi, however, are both spoken in Russia. There are around 10,000 native speakers of the Khanty language in Russia, as well as under 1,000 native speakers of Mansi.

The Finnic Languages

The Finnic languages are the largest subgroup within the Uralic language family. This group includes Finnish and Estonian, which are the second and third most spoken Uralic languages, as well as Ingrian, Karelian, Ludic, Veps, Vod, and Võro.

Finland is home to over 5 million native speakers of Finnish, the country's official language. Moving south into Estonia, you can find speakers of Estonian, the official language, as well as Võro, which boasts nearly 90,000 native speakers in the southeastern part of the country.

The other six Finnic languages we've mentioned are all used in Russia. There are just over 100 native speakers of Ingrian, which is nearly extinct, while there are thought to be over 20,000 native speakers of the Karelian language in Russia. There are also about 3,000 speakers of Ludic, 1,500 speakers of Veps, and under 100 speakers of Vod in Russia, which is also nearly extinct.

The Mari Languages

The Mari languages are two languages used by the Mari ethnic group in Russia. Hill Mari is spoken by approximately 30,000 people on the right bank of the Volga River, while Meadow Mari has over 470,000 native speakers. It is primarily used on the other bank of the river, as well as the nearby plain.

The Mordvin Languages

Russia is also home to the two Mordvin languages, Erzya and Moksha. Erzya is the native language of over 30,000 people in Russia, while Moksha has around 2,000 native speakers according to the Ethnologue.

The Permian Languages

Also known as the Permic languages, these three languages of Russia include Udmurt and the closely related Komi-Permyak and Komi-Zyrian. Udmurt is spoken by over 300,000 members of the Udmurt people. Komi-Permyak and Komi-Zyrian are sometimes considered to be two varieties of the Komi language, which is used by around 200,000 members of the Komi ethnic group.

An adorably fluffy Samoyed.
The Sami Languages

If you read our recent profile of Sweden, you might recall that we mentioned that there are several Sami languages spoken by the Sami people throughout Scandinavia. According to the Ethnologue, there are ten of these languages, which are spoken in Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Russia. However, most have very few speakers and are not often used by younger generations.

The Samoyed Languages

Finally, we've reached the last subgroup, the Samoyed languages! You may have noticed that this group shares its name with an adorably fluffy breed of dog, which was actually named after the people who bred it. However, the name "Samoyed" is no longer applied to the ethnic groups that speak these languages since some linguists have claimed that the term might have been derived from the Russian for "cannibal", which is problematic for obvious reasons.

The Samoyed languages include Nenets, Nganasan, Enets, and Selkup, which are all spoken in Russia. There are about 20,000 native speakers of Nenets, about 100 speakers of Nganasan, and less than 100 speakers of the two Enets languages. Last but not least, there are about 1,000 native speakers of Selkup living in Siberia.