On the Homeland of the Uralic Language Family

Per Urales ad Orientem. Iter polyphonicum multilingue. Festskrift tillägnad Juha Janhunen på hans sextioårsdag den 12 februari 2012. Suomalais-Ugrilaisen Seuran Toimituksia = Mémoires de la Société Finno-Ougrienne 264. Pp.  91-101. Helsinki, 2012.

Early Contacts between Uralic and Yukaghir

Jaakko Hakkinen


Finnish linguist Jaako Hakkinen based in at Helsinki University has been making interesting and informative comments on GeoCurrents in conjunction with the discussion around the homeland of Indo-Europeans and the dates of Indo-European divergence. He has also made available on his website a number of articles and handouts in Finnish and English on various aspects of Uralic prehistory. I chose one to comment on the current state of our knowledge of the Uralic homeland from linguistic data.

Although the title of the paper refers to the nitty-gritty details of Uralo-Yukaghir lexical contacts, a bulk of the paper is devoted to a discussion of the reasons behind Häkkinen’s choice of the Lower Kama as Uralic homeland (see circle on the map below, from Hakkinen’s Finnish article “Kantauralin ajoitus ja paikannus: perustelut puntarissa,” Suomalais-Ugrilaisen Seuran Aikakauskirja 92, 2009, 56).

The numbers inside the circle refer to the locations derived from the reconstructed forest vocabulary and from Indo-European loans

Here are some of the highlights from Hakkinen’s research that caught my eye.

1. Yukaghir is not part of Uralic (contra the widely-spread opinion derived from Irina Nikoaleva’s Russian dissertation (Николаева И. А. Проблема урало-юкагирских генетических связей. Автореф. дис. … канд. филол. наук. М., 1988.). Instead, all the lexical parallels (56 by Hakkinen’s count) between the two languages are loans from Uralic into Yukaghir. Interestingly, the relative chronology of these loans as seen in the light of the relative chronology of Altaic to Yukaghir loans require the postulation of two waves of Uralic-Yukaghir contacts, one at the level of Pre-Proto-Uralic, the other on the Samoyedic level.

2. Samoyedic cannot be considered the most divergent among Uralic branches. Hakkinen questions the reliability of language splits derived from lexical innovations. These patterns can result in what he calls “false divergence.” Since phonologically Samoyedic shares many innovations with Ugric, it is unlikely that it split from proto-Uralic earlier than Ugric. This results in a symmetrical west-east pattern of divergence between Uralic languages (see below)

From: Hakkinen, J. “Problems in the method and interpretations of the
computational phylogenetics based on linguistic data An example of wishful thinking: Bouckaert et al. 2012,” September 2012, with data from Hakkinen, J. “Kantauralin murteutuminen vokaalivastaavuuksien valossa,” University of Helsinki, Faculty of Arts, Department of Finno-Ugrian Studies, 2007.

I am very sympathetic to the phonology-only filter for language phylogenies, as “basic vocabulary” arguments and calculations of divergence times on their basis are always unconvincing because words, no matter how “basic” are subject to various forces of change (borrowing, etc.) and deliberate modification by speakers that have nothing to do with population divergence.

3. With the Yukaghir-Uralic genetic link severed and with Samoyedic rolled under “East Uralic,” the conservatism of Finnic and Saami comes to the fore as the primary reason for Hakkinen to seek the Uralic homeland west of the Urals. He is hesitant about shifting the homeland too close to the current area of the distribution of Finnic and Saami because a) Saami place-names attest to the movement of Saami from the Ladoga Lake area within the past 2000 years; b) because there seems to be a foreign substratum in West Uralic pointing to the fact that westernmost territories were at some point occupied by non-Uralic speakers; and c) because there are no borrowed items between proto-Uralic and Early Proto-Indo-European (as there are Late Proto-Indo-European borrowings into proto-Uralic), which one would expect if the Uralic homeland had a more westerly location. The absence of Early Proto-Indo-European loans in proto-Uralic is a key reason for Hakkinen to seek Uralic homeland as far away from the Pontic steppe as possible, provided that the formal conservatism of Finnish and Saami is given credit.

With some help from archaeology, Hakkinen identifies proto-Uralic with Eneolithic Garino-Bor (Turbin) culture 3,000-2,500 YBP located in the Lower Kama Basin.

4. But when Hakkinen extends beyond proto-Uralic, he is is forced to acknowledge, following his mentor, Juha Janhunen, that the structural parallels between Uralic and Altaic are so strong that these two language families had to be in close and prolonged contact with each other at some point.

“Juha Janhunen has repeatedly argued that the Ural-Altaic typological complex is an areally distinct unit with clear-cut boundaries in every direction against languages of different typology, and that the Ural-Altaic typology must have had one original centre of expansion. As the earliest protolanguages of the Al- taic language families (Proto-Turkic, Proto-Mongolic and Proto-Tungusic) can be traced back to Greater Manchuria (up to Mongolia; Janhunen 1996: 216), this view requires that Pre-Proto-Uralic must also have been present somewhere adjacent to them. According to Janhunen there is no significant chance that Pre-Proto-Uralic could have developed a structural typology so similar to the Altaic languages without being in close contact with them.”

So, Hakkinen places Pre-Proto-Uralic in South Siberia in the Sayan Mountains, or again back east of the Urals.

I completely concur with Janhunen and Hakkinen that Uralo-Altaic requires at least a Sprachbund to explain their shared linguistic patterns. A recent global analysis of structural stability between languages reaffirmed the special connection between Uralic, Altaic (Mongolic + Turkic) as well as Indo-European. Kinship studies offers another take on this problem. Most Uralic and Altaic (Tungusic and Turkic) kinship terminologies display a unique and systematic trait called Sliding Generation, or Siberian Generational System (скользящий счет поколений, сибирский генерационный тип, in Russian-language literature). It is not observed in Sino-Tibetan, Paleoasiatic, Indo-European, Nivkh (it may belong with Paleoasiatic, per Michael Fortescue), Japanese, Korean or Dravidian. It was lost from some Southern and Western Turkic languages (Azerbaijani, Nogay, Gagauz, Crimean Tatar, etc.) and borrowed into Ket and, possibly, Yukaghir. However, I do not think that a more northern area as a source for both pre-Proto-Uralic and proto-Altaic can be excluded. It appears that Saami may retain a kin terminological system which is ancestral to Sliding Generation System. It makes a more northerly location closer to the Circumpolar zone a possible source for the Uralic-Altaic Sprachbund. This, in turn, would make perfect sense if the Uralo-Eskimo proposal advanced by Fortescue and Uwe Seefloth turns out to be valid. At this point it is a long-range hypothesis and hence very uncertain. For instance, while Fortescue and Seefloth counted Yukaghir as Uralic, Hakkinen has argued against the genetic nature of the link (see above).