Indo-Uralic languages

Europe, Russia
Linguistic classification: Eurasiatic??
Glottolog: None

Indo-Uralic is a proposed language family consisting of Indo-European and Uralic.

A genetic relationship between Indo-European and Uralic was first proposed by the Danish linguist Vilhelm Thomsen in 1869 (Pedersen 1931:336) but was received with little enthusiasm. Since then, the predominant opinion in the linguistic community has remained that the evidence for such a relationship is insufficient. However, quite a few prominent linguists have always taken the contrary view (e.g. Henry Sweet, Holger Pedersen, Björn Collinder, Warren Cowgill, Jochem Schindler, Eugene Helimski and Gert Klingenschmitt).

There are two distinct questions here (cf. Greenberg 2005:325):

  1. Are Indo-European and Uralic genetically related?
  2. If so, do Indo-European and Uralic constitute a valid genetic node? The Eurasiatic and Nostratic hypotheses both consider Indo-European and Uralic (or Uralic–Yukaghir) to be genetically related. However, the Indo-Uralic hypothesis in the strict sense is distinct from this: it maintains that Indo-European and Uralic have an especially close genetic relationship, and does not necessarily include assertions that Indo-European and Uralic are related to any other language families.

At the same time, most of the supporters of a relationship between Indo-European and Uralic have also supported their relationship to additional language families, leading some to regard Indo-Uralic as a subset of the larger Nostratic hypothesis.

This article focuses on the first question, genetic relationship, and only treats incidentally the second question, possible relation to other language families.

Geography of the proposed Indo-Uralic family

The Dutch linguist Frederik Kortlandt supports a model of Indo-Uralic in which the original Indo-Uralic speakers lived north of the Caspian Sea, and the Proto-Indo-European speakers began as a group that branched off westward from there to come into geographic proximity with the Northwest Caucasian languages, absorbing a Northwest Caucasian lexical blending before moving farther westward to a region north of the Black Sea where their language settled into canonical Proto-Indo-European (2002:1). Allan Bomhard suggests a similar schema in Indo-European and the Nostratic Hypothesis (1996). Alternatively, the common protolanguage may have been located north of the Black Sea, with Proto-Uralic moving northwards with the climatic improvement of post-glacial times.

History of the Indo-Uralic hypothesis

An authoritative if brief and sketchy history of early Indo-Uralic studies can be found in Holger Pedersen’s Linguistic Science in the Nineteenth Century (1931:336-338). Although Vilhelm Thomsen first raised the possibility of a connection between Indo-European and Finno-Ugric in 1869 (336), "he did not pursue the subject very far" (337). The next important statement in this area was that of Nikolai Anderson in 1879. However, Pedersen reports, the value of Anderson’s work was "impaired by its many errors" (337). The great English phonetician Henry Sweet argued for kinship between Indo-European and Finno-Ugric in his semi-popular book The History of Language in 1900 (see especially Sweet 1900:112-121). Sweet’s treatment awakened "[g]reat interest" in the question, but "his space was too limited to permit of actual proof" (Pedersen 1931:337). A somewhat longer study by K.B. Wiklund appeared in 1906 and another by H. Paasonen in 1908 (i.e. 1907) (ib.). Pedersen considered that these two studies sufficed to settle the question and that, after them, "it seems unnecessary to doubt the relationship further" (ib.).

Sweet considered the relationship to be securely established, stating (1900:120; "Aryan" = Indo-European, "Ugrian" = Finno-Ugric):

If all these and many other resemblances that might be adduced do not prove the common origin of Aryan and Ugrian, and if we assume that the Ugrians borrowed not only a great part of their vocabulary, but also many of their derivative syllables, together with at least the personal endings of their verbs from Aryan, then the whole fabric of comparative philology falls to the ground, and we are no longer justified in inferring from the similarity of the inflections in Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit that these languages have a common origin.

Björn Collinder, author of the Comparative Grammar of the Uralic Languages (1960), a standard work in the field of Uralic studies, argued for the kinship of Uralic and Indo-European (1934, 1954, 1965).

Alwin Kloekhorst, author of the Etymological Dictionary of the Hittite Inherited Lexicon, endorses the Indo-Uralic grouping (2008b). He argues that, when features differ between the Anatolian languages (including Hittite) and the other Indo-European languages, comparisons with Uralic can help to establish which group has the more archaic forms (2008b: 88) and that, conversely, the success of such comparisons helps to establish the Indo-Uralic thesis (2008b: 94). For example, in Anatolian the nominative singular of the second person pronoun comes from *ti(H), whereas in the non-Anatolian languages it comes from *tu(H); in Proto-Uralic it was *ti, which agrees with evidence from internal reconstruction that Anatolian has the more archaic form (2008b: 93).

The most extensive attempt to establish sound correspondences between Indo-European and Uralic to date is that of the late Slovenian linguist Bojan Čop. It was published as a series of articles in various academic journals from 1970 to 1989 under the collective title Indouralica. The topics to be covered by each article were sketched out at the beginning of "Indouralica II". Of the projected 18 articles only 11 appeared. These articles have not been collected into a single volume and thereby remain difficult to access.

Sound correspondences

Among the sound correspondences which Čop did assert were (1972:162):

Uralic m n l r = Indo-European m n l r.

Uralic j w = Indo-European i̯ u̯.

Uralic sibilants (presumably s š ś) = Indo-European s.

Uralic word-initial voiceless stops (presumably p t č ć k) = Indo-European word-initial voiceless stops (presumably p t k ), also Indo-European s followed by one of these stops.

Uralic word-initial voiceless stops (presumably p t č ć k) = Indo-European word-initial voiced aspirates (presumably ǵʰ gʷʰ).

Uralic ŋ = Indo-European g and ng.

History of opposition to the Indo-Uralic hypothesis

The history of early opposition to the Indo-Uralic hypothesis does not appear to have been written. It is clear from the statements of supporters such as Sweet that they were facing considerable opposition and that the general climate of opinion was against them, except perhaps in Scandinavia.

Károly Rédei, editor of the standard etymological dictionary of the Uralic languages (1986a), rejected the idea of a genetic relationship between Uralic and Indo-European, arguing that the lexical items shared by Uralic and Indo-European were due to borrowing from Indo-European into Proto-Uralic (1986b).

Perhaps the best-known critique of recent times is that of Jorma Koivulehto, issued in a series of carefully formulated articles. Koivulehto’s central contention, agreeing with Rédei's views, is that all of the lexical items claimed to be Indo-Uralic can be explained as loans from Indo-European into Uralic (see below for examples).

Arguments for relationship between Indo-European and Uralic


The most common arguments in favour of a relationship between Indo-European and Uralic are based on seemingly common elements of morphology, such as the pronominal roots (*m- for first person; *t- for second person; *i- for third person), case markings (accusative *-m; ablative/partitive *-ta), interrogative/relative pronouns (*kʷ- 'who?, which?'; *y- 'who, which' to signal relative clauses) and a common SOV word order. Other, less obvious correspondences are suggested, such as the Indo-European plural marker *-es (or *-s in the accusative plural *-m̥-s) and its Uralic counterpart *-t. This same word-final assibilation of *-t to *-s may also be present in Indo-European second-person singular *-s in comparison with Uralic second-person singular *-t. Compare, within Indo-European itself, *-s second-person singular injunctive, *-si second-person singular present indicative, *-tHa second-person singular perfect, *-te second-person plural present indicative, *tu 'you' (singular) nominative, *tei 'to you' (singular) enclitic pronoun. These forms suggest that the underlying second-person marker in Indo-European may be *t and that the *u found in forms such as *tu was originally an affixal particle.

Similarities have long been noted between the verb conjugation systems of Uralic languages (e.g. that of Finnish) and Indo-European languages (e.g. those of Latin, Russian, and Lithuanian). Although it would not be uncommon for a language to borrow heavily from the vocabulary of another language (as in the cases of English from French, Persian from Arabic, and Korean from Chinese), it would be extremely unusual for a language to borrow its basic system of verb conjugation from another. Supporters of the existence of Indo-Uralic have thus used morphological arguments to support the Indo-Uralic thesis by, for example, arguing that Finnish verb conjugations and pronouns are much more closely related to Indo-European than they would be expected to be by chance; and since borrowing basic grammar is rare, that this would suggest a common origin with Indo-European. (Finnish is preferred for this argument over Saami or Hungarian because it seems to be more conservative, i.e. to have diverged less than the others have from Proto-Uralic.)


A second type of evidence advanced in favor of an Indo-Uralic family is lexical. Numerous words in Indo-European and Uralic resemble each other (see list below). The problem is to weed out cognates due to borrowing. Uralic languages have been in contact with a succession of Indo-European languages for millennia. As a result, many words have been borrowed between them, most often from Indo-European languages into Uralic ones.

An example of a Uralic word that cannot be original is Finno-Ugric *śata 'hundred'. The Proto-Indo-European form of this word was *ḱm̥tóm (compare Latin centum), which became *ćatám in early Indo-Iranian (reanalyzed as the neuter nominative–accusative singular of an a stem > Sanskrit śatá-, Avestan sata-). This is evidence that the word was borrowed into Finno-Ugric from Indo-Iranian or Indo-Aryan. This borrowing may have occurred in the region north of the Pontic-Caspian steppes around 2100–1800 BC, the approximate floruit of Indo-Iranian (Anthony 2007:371–411). It provides linguistic evidence for the geographical location of these languages around that time, agreeing with archeological evidence that Indo-European speakers were present in the Pontic-Caspian steppes by around 4500 BCE (the Kurgan hypothesis) and that Uralic speakers may have been established in the Pit-Comb Ware culture to their north in the fifth millennium BCE (Carpelan & Parpola 2001:79).

Another ancient borrowing is Finno-Ugric *porćas ‘piglet’. This word corresponds closely in form to the Proto-Indo-European word reconstructed as *porḱos, attested by such forms as Latin porcus 'hog', Old English fearh (> English farrow 'young pig'), Lithuanian par̃šas ’piglet, castrated boar’, Kurdish purs 'pig', and Saka pāsa (< *pārsa) 'pig'. In the Indo-European word, *-os (> Finno-Ugric *-as) is a masculine nominative singular ending, but it is quite meaningless in Uralic languages. This shows that the whole word was borrowed as a unit and is not part of the original Uralic vocabulary. (Further details on *porćas are given in the Appendix.)

One of the most famous borrowings is the Finnish word kuningas "king" (< Proto-Finnic *kuningas), which was borrowed from Proto-Germanic *kuningaz. Finnish has been very conservative in retaining the basic structure of the borrowed word, nearly preserving the nominative singular case marker reconstructed for Proto-Germanic masculine 'a'-stems. Furthermore, the Proto-Germanic *-az ending corresponds exactly to the *-os ending reconstructable for Proto-Indo-European masculine o-stems.

Thus, *śata cannot be Indo-Uralic on account of its phonology, while *porćas and *kuningas cannot be Indo-Uralic on account of their morphology.

Such words as those for 'hundred', 'pig', and 'king' have something in common: they represent "cultural vocabulary" as opposed to "basic vocabulary." They are likely to have been acquired along with a more complex number system and the domestic pig from the more advanced Indo-Europeans to the south. Similarly, the Indo-Europeans themselves had acquired such words and cultural items from peoples to their south or west, including possibly their words for 'ox', *gʷou- (compare English cow) and 'grain', *bʰars- (compare English barley). In contrast, basic vocabulary – words such as 'me', 'hand', 'water', and 'be' – is much less readily borrowed between languages. If Indo-European and Uralic are genetically related, they should show agreements in basic vocabulary, with more agreements if they are closely related, fewer if they are less closely related.

Advocates of a genetic relation between Indo-European and Uralic maintain that the borrowings can be filtered out by application of phonological and morphological analysis and that a core of vocabulary common to Indo-European and Uralic remains. As examples they advance such comparisons as Proto-Uralic *weti- (or *wete-) : Proto-Indo-European *wodr̥, oblique stem *wedn-, both meaning 'water', and Proto-Uralic *nimi- (or *nime-) : Proto-Indo-European *h₁nōmn̥, both meaning 'name'. In contrast to *śata and *kuningas, the phonology of these words shows no sound changes from Indo-European daughter languages such as Indo-Iranian. In contrast to *kuningas and *porćas, they show no morphological affixes from Indo-European that are absent in Uralic. According to advocates of the Indo-Uralic hypothesis, the resulting core of common vocabulary can only be explained by the hypothesis of common origin.

Objections to this interpretation

It has been countered that nothing prevents this common vocabulary from having been borrowed from Proto-Indo-European into Proto-Uralic.

For the old loans, as well as uncontroversial ones from Proto-Baltic and Proto-Germanic, it is more the rule than the exception that only the stem is borrowed, without any case-endings. Proto-Uralic *nimi- has been explained according to sound laws governing substitutions in borrowings (Koivulehto 1999), on the assumption that the original was a zero-grade oblique stem PIE *(H)nmen- as attested in later Balto-Slavic *inmen- and Proto-Celtic *anmen-. Proto-Uralic *weti- could be a loan from the PIE oblique e-grade form for 'water' or from an indirectly attested cognate root noun *wed-. Proto-Uralic *toHį- 'give' and PFU *wetä- 'lead' also make perfect phonologic sense as borrowings.

The number systems of Indo-European and Uralic show no commonalities. Moreover, while the numbers in all Indo-European languages can be traced back to reconstructed Proto-Indo-European numbers, this cannot be done for the Uralic numbers, where only "two" and "five" are common to all of the family (roots for 3-6 are common to all subgroups other than Samoyedic, and slightly less widespread roots are known for 1 and 10). This would appear to show that if Proto-Indo-European and Proto-Uralic are to be related, the connection must lie so far back that the families developed their number systems independently and did not inherit them from their purported common ancestor.

It is also objected that some or all of the common vocabulary items claimed are false cognates – words whose resemblance is merely coincidental, like English bad and Persian bad.

Some possible cognates

first person singular *-m 1 *-m 2
first person plural *-me 3 *-me 4
second person singular *-s (active),5 *-tHa (perfect) 6 *-t 7
second person plural *-te 8 *-te 9
accusative *-m 10 *-m 11
ablative *-od 12 *-ta 13
nominative–accusative plural *-es (nominative plural) 14
*-n̥s (accusative plural) 15 < *-m̥ ( + *-(e)s (pl.)
*-t 16
oblique plural *-i (pronominal plural, as in *we-i- 'we', *to-i-
'those') 17
*-i 18
dual *-H₁ 19 *-k 20
'and' (postposed conjunction) *-kʷe 21 *-ka ~ *-kä 22
negative particle 'not' *ne 23 *ne 24
'I, me' *me 'me' (accusative) 25
*mene 'my' (genitive) 26
*mun, *mina 'I' 27
'you' (singular) *tu (nominative) 28
*twe (accusative) 29
*tewe 'your' (genitive) 30
*tun, *tina 31
demonstrative pronoun *so 'this, he/she' (animate nominative singular) 32 *sä 'he/she, it' 33
demonstrative pronoun *to- 'this, that' 34 *tä 'this', *to 'that' 35
'who?' (interrogative pronoun) *kʷi- ~ *kʷe- ~ *kʷo- 'who?, what?' 36
*kʷi/e/o- + -ne 'who?, what?' 37
*ki ~ *ke ~ *ku ~ *ko 'who?, what?' 38
*ken 'who?' 39
'to give' *deH₃- 40 *toHi- 41
'to go' *kʷelH- *kulki-
'to wash' *mozg- *mośki-
'pot' *pot- *pata
'to moisten',
*wed- 'to wet', 42
*woder- 'water' 43
*weti 'water' 44
'name' *nomen- 'name' 45 *nimi 'name' 46
'fish' *kʷalo- 'large fish' 47 *kala 'fish' 48
'sister-in-law' *galou- 'husband's sister' 49 *kälɜ 'sister-in-law' 50
'much' *pḷlu- 'much' 51 *paljɜ 'thick, much' 52

Notes for the table

1 Sanskrit -m, Old Persian -m, Latin -m, Oscan -m.

2 Finnish -n (-n < -m), Cheremis -m, Mansi -m, Udmurt -m; Yurak -m, Tavgi -m.

3 Lithuanian -me, Sanskrit -ma, Greek -men.

4 Finnish -me, Saami -mek (preterite); Tavgi -mu’, Kamassian -bɛ’.

5 Sanskrit -s, Greek -s, Latin -s, Gothic -s, Hittite -s.

6 Greek -tʰa, Sanskrit -tʰa.

7 Finnish -t, Mordvin -t, Cheremis -t.

8 Greek -te, Old Church Slavic -te.

9 Finnish -te, Saami -dek (preterite), Cheremis -dä, Hungarian -tek; Yenisei -δa’.

10 Sanskrit -m, Old Persian -m, Latin -m, Oscan -m.

11 Finnish -n (-n < -m), Cheremis -m, Mansi -m; Yurak -m, Kamassian -m, Ket -m.

12 Sanskrit asmād 'from this', Old Latin meritōd 'deservedly'.

13 Finnish -ta ~ -tä, Mordvin -do ~ -de, Veps -d.

14 Greek -es, Sanskrit -as.

15 Greek trí-ns, Gothic sunu-ns.

16 Finnish -t, Mordvin -t, Udmurt -t; Selkup -t.

17 Gothic wei-s, Sanskrit vay-ám; Greek toí, Avestan tōi.

18 Saami -i, Finnish -i; Hungarian -i- (e.g. hajó 'ship', hajó-m 'my ship', hajó-i-m 'my ships').

19 A lost consonant has lengthened the final vowel, as in Sanskrit tā́ nominative–accusative dual versus tá-m accusative singular.

20 Mansi , Selkup -qy.

21 Latin -que, Greek te, Sanskrit -ca, etc.

22 Finnish -kä in ei ... eikä 'neither ... nor', Saami -ge, Mordvin (Moksha) -ka, Votyak -ke, Komi / Zyrian -kȯ, etc.

23 Latin ne-, Greek ne-, Sanskrit , Old High German and Old English ne ~ ni, etc.

24 Hungarian ne/nem, Cheremis / Mari nõ-, ni-, Votyak / Udmurt ni-, etc.

25 Greek me (enclitic).

26 Old Persian mana, Old Church Slavic mene, Welsh men, etc.

27 Finnish minä, Estonian mina, Nenets /mønʲə/. Uralic reconstruction *mun.

28 Latin , Greek (Attic), tu (Dorian), Lithuanian , Old English þu > archaic English thou, etc.

29 Greek , Sanskrit tvā (enclitic), Avestan θwā (enclitic), Old Church Slavic tebe, etc.

30 Sanskrit táva, Avestan tava, Proto-Celtic *towe (< PIE *tewe, with complex developments in the individual languages, Lewis and Pedersen 1989:193-217).

31 Finnish sinä (< *tinä), Saami ton, tú-, Mordvin ton, Votyak ton, Zyrian te, accusative tenõ, Hungarian 'you' (singular), ti 'you' (plural), etc. Samoyed: Tavgi tannaŋ, Yeniseian Samoyed tod'i, Selkup tan, tat, Kamassian tan.

32 Gothic sa, Sanskrit , etc.

33 Finnish hän (< *sä-n), Saami son, Udmurt so. Samoyed: Nganasan syty.

34 Greek , Sanskrit tá-, Old Church Slavic to, etc.

35 Finnish tämä 'this' and tuo 'that (one)', Cheremis ti 'this', Mordvin te 'this', etc.; Udmurt tu 'that', Mordvin to 'that', etc. Cf. Hungarian tétova 'hesitant' (i.e. reluctant to choose between this and that).

36 *kʷi-: Hittite kuis (animate nominative singular), kuit (inanimate nominative–accusative singular), Latin quis, quid, Greek tís, , etc.

*kʷe-: Greek téo (Homeric), Avestan čahmāi (dative singular; ča < PIE *kʷe), etc.

*kʷo-: Latin quod, Old Latin quoius > Latin cuius (genitive singular), Old English hwæt > English what, etc.

37 E.g. Latin quidne.

38 Saami gi ~ 'who?, which?, what sort of?' and gutti 'who?', Mordvin ki 'who?', Cheremis and Mari ke, , 'who?', Hungarian ki 'who?', Finnish kuka 'who?', Komi / Zyrian kod 'which?', Ostyak koji 'who?', kŏti 'what?', etc.

39 Finnish ken ~ kene 'who?', Votyak kin 'who?', Udmurt kin 'who?', Komi / Zyrian kin 'who?'. Samoyed: Yurak Samoyed kin 'who?', Southern Nenets kin 'who?'.

40 Hittite tā-, Latin , Greek dídōmi, Sanskrit dā-, etc.

41 Finnish tuo 'bring', Estonian too- 'bring', Saami duokə- 'sell', Mordvin tuje- 'bring'. Samoyed: Tundra Yurak taš 'give, bring', Enets ta- 'bring', Tavgi tətud'a 'give, bring', etc.

42 Sanskrit ud-.

43 Hittite wātar (instrumental wēdanda), Umbrian utur (ablative une < *udne), Greek húdōr (genitive húdatos < *hudn̥tos), Sanskrit ud-án- (oblique cases only, nominative–accusative defective), Old Church Slavic voda, Gothic watō (n-stem, dative plural watnam), Old Norse vatn, Old English wæter > English water, etc.

This word belongs to the r / n stems, a small group of neuter nouns, from an archaic stratum of Indo-European, that alternate -er (or -or) in the nominative and accusative with -en in the other cases. Some languages have leveled the paradigm to one or the other, e.g. English to the r, Old Norse to the n form.

44 Finnish vesi / vete-, Estonian vesi, Mordvin wət, Udmurt vu, Komi / Zyrian va, Vogul wit, Hungarian víz. Samoyed: Forest Yurak wit, Selkup üt, Kamassian , etc.

45 Latin nōmen, Greek ónoma, Sanskrit nā́man-, Old English nama > English name, etc.

Indo-Europeanists are divided on whether to reconstruct this word as *nom(e)n- or as *H₁nom(e)n-, with a preceding "laryngeal". See Delamarre 2003:50 for a summary of views, with references. The o timbre of the root is assured by, among others, Greek ónoma and Latin nōmen (with secondary vowel lengthening). As roots with inherent o are uncommon in Indo-European, most roots having e as their vowel, the underlying root is probably *nem-. The -(e)n is an affixal particle. Whether the e placed in parentheses is inherently part of the word is disputed but probable.

46 Finnish nimi, Saami nama ~ namma, Mordvin lem, Cheremis lüm, Votyak and Zyrian ńim, Vogul näm, Ostyak nem, Hungarian név. Among the Samoyed languages: Yurak nim, Tavgi ńim, Yenisei Samoyed ńii’, Selkup nim, nem. Compare, in Yukaghir, Kolyma niu and Chuvan nyva.

47 Latin squalus (with s-mobile) 'large sea fish', Old Prussian kalis 'sheatfish', Old English hwæl 'whale' > English whale, etc.

48 Finnish kala, Estonian kala, Saami kuollē, Mordvin kal, Cheremis kol, Ostyak kul, Hungarian hal; Enets kare, Koibal kola, etc.

49 Latin glōs (genitive glōris), Greek gálōs, Old Church Slavic zŭlŭva, all meaning 'husband's sister'.

50 Finnish käly 'sister-in-law', Estonian kälī 'husband's brother, wife of husband's brother', Saami kāloji 'sister-in-law', Mordvin kel 'sister-in-law', etc.

51 Greek polú-, Sanskrit purú-, Avestan pouru-, Gothic filu, Old High German filu > German viel, all meaning 'much'.

The in Indo-European *pḷlu- represents a vocalic l, a sound found in English in for instance little, where it corresponds to the -le, and metal, where it corresponds to the -al. An earlier form of the Indo-European word was probably *pelu-.

52 Finnish paljon 'much', Cheremis pülä 'rather a lot', Vogul pāľ 'thick', Yurak palɁ 'thick'. Cp. Tundra Yukaghir pojuoŋ 'many'.

An asterisk (*) indicates reconstructed forms.

A tilde (~) means 'alternating with'.


Works cited

Further reading

See also

External links

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