"Finno-Ugric", part one: Introduction

For starters, an illustration on what I mean by “dead authorities, old truisms and received knowledge”.

The term Finno-Ugric refers to the original core of the Uralic family: a relationship between Hungarian and its closest relativs (Ugric) on one hand, and Finnish and its closest relativs (Finnic) on the other. It is to this day also used simply as a synonym for the entire family.

These two senses differ once the Samoyedic languages are brought into the discussion. These are the easternmost Uralic languages, spoken as far as the Taimyr peninsula (Nganasan) and the Sayan mountains east of the Altai (the now-extinct Kamass and Mator). Unsurprizingly, they also were the last Uralic languages to be brought into Western consciousness, the last languages to be recognized as Uralic, and they remain the least-studied languages of the family.

Now here’s the thing: Samoyedic was for various reasons assigned as a primary branch of the Uralic languages, considered to be a sister group to all others, which would form the Finno-Ugric group. I have not studied the original 19th century arguments for this assignment (and I gess it might be possible to crank out an entire thesis on the topic), but I gather from later references that ethnographical motivations played a part. Research in the 20th century has emphasized the lexical distinctness of Samoyedic, although in the last few decades improov’d quality and availability of Samoyedic data has led to a considerable increase in Uralic etymologies for Smy material (see in particular Aikio 2002 and 2006; references at the last post of this series). However, as those who understand the cladistic principles used in “family tree” models know, to really show a bifurcation into Samoyedic and Finno-Ugric, what is needed are Finno-Ugric innovations. I will over the next few posts go over how this has never quite been successfully shown.

The Samoyed is a breed of dog that originates in Siberia, first bred by the Samoyedic people. They pulled sleds and herded reindeer along with many other tasks but today are popular family dogs due to their gentle but relatively playful nature. (image source)

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