History and methodology of the contacts and divergence of the Finnic languages

(Vanhempi, suomenkielinen versio kotisivustamme.) This page updated November 2000, minor updates in May 2002.

Background & Aims
Major Questions
Symposium "FACING FINNIC 2000"


"Building with things native and foreign" is a research project at the Helsinki University Department of Finno-Ugrian Studies. The project has been funded with a 3-year grant (1999-2001) from the University of Helsinki and another 3-year grant (2000-2002) from the Academy of Finland.

(For up-to-date information, see also the TUHTI database.)

Keywords: linguistics - morphology - syntax - historical linguistics - language contacts - Uralic languages - Finnic languages

The project has four researchers:

A photo of Riho, Johanna, Anneli, and the kids 

From the right: Riho with his sons Ilmar and Lauri, Johanna with her daughter Helka (in front) and her sons Veikko and Lauri, and Anneli with her daughter Heini and Riho's daughter Alva.


Why Finnic, what for?

The Finnic (a.k.a. Baltic Finnic) languages are a clearly definable subgroup of the Uralic languages. Two of them have a vigorous literary language (Finnish, Estonian), others (Karelian, Ludian, Vepsian, Ingrian, Votian, Livonian) are small, clearly endangered or even almost extinct. The Finnic languages are closely related, and their complicated internal relationships (involving many kinds of internal and interdialectal contacts) are a challenge to traditional, taxonomic descriptions of relatedness.

The earlier research of these languages is extensive but skewed: the two major Finnic languages have a continuous, innovative and versatile research tradition, while the smaller Finnic languages are insufficiently investigated, especially as considers their morphology and syntax, and also their present state as influenced by overwhelmingly strong majority languages and increasing bilingualism.

The research of the smaller Finnic languages, though essential for a better knowledge of Finnish and Estonian language history, has largely been neglected in Finland, where Fennists, after abandoning the old "Neogrammarian" paradigm, now pay relatively little attention to the background and relatives of Finnish. In the former Soviet Union, the present financial crisis also affects the resources previously allocated for the study and maintenance of the minority languages.

In recent times, various linguistic questions connected with the problems of language contact situations have emerged. While loanword research has venerable traditions, the effects of language contact in morphology and syntax are still insufficiently investigated. The controversial questions of contact-induced phenomena vs. language relationship have even caused heated linguistic debates, both in Uralistics and in other fields of linguistic research.

The project Building with things native and foreign  seeks to answer these questions in a methodologically sound and solidly argumented way, by combining the best traditions of Balto-Finnic research with more modern, cross-linguistic approaches. Besides utilising Finnic materials and results of earlier research in a generally interesting way, we also attempt to encourage linguistic studies of Finnic languages in general, to support (post-graduate) students and the cooperation and networking of linguists working with Finnic.

The results of the project will be published in the form of a joint monograph aimed at an international linguistic readership. The project will also produce PhD theses, articles and symposium papers. The first international symposium of the project was organized in 2000 (at CIFU-9 in Tartu), and its proceedings have been published (in English or German) in a special volume in the series Castrenianumin toimitteita. In the near future, we hope to organize an international workshop (with special attention on instruction and international networking) in 2002. Together with some archaeologists, the members of the project are also planning an international interdisciplinary symposium to clarify some central questions of the ethnolinguistic history of present-day Northwest Russia.


Major Questions

What do we know about the Finnic languages? * Native vs. borrowed * Typology - beyond the generalizations * Languages meet and languages die - what happens really? * Literature

What do we know about the Finnic languages?

The minor Finnic languages (i.e. all except Finnish and Estonian) are almost "unwritten". Generally speaking, their literary languages, if any, have started to emerge only after the collapse of the Soviet Union (after short-lived attempts between the two world wars), at a stage where the languages themselves are already facing a threat of attrition.

The materials and research of the smaller Finnic languages are thus dialectological and descriptive. The publications include descriptive grammars, dictionaries or vocabularies, texts (especially folklore) and many monographs and papers on special questions. A great part of the research on these languages was brought forth and inspired by the Finnish Neogrammarian paradigm, and thus the emphasis has been on historical and comparative phonology. There is also a strong tradition of (etymological and ethnographic) research on vocabulary - although there are some systematic gaps that become evident e.g. in the research of derivation (cf. Laakso 1990: 124). The inflectional morphology and derivation have also been investigated, often from a comparative all-Finnic perspective, and the results form a relatively clear picture of Proto-Finnic and post-Proto-Finnic developments (cf. Laanest 1982, Viitso 1998, Laakso, forthcoming).

However, the research of syntax and morphosyntax in Finnic is almost exclusively confined to Finnish and Estonian. This skewedness has many historical and political causes; one important factor has also been that most linguists working with Finnic are Finns or Estonians with no native-speaker intuition of the smaller Finnic languages. (Finnish as the linguist’s native language is a danger in this respect. Standard Finnish is an archaic language form containing even implicitly reconstructive generalizations, and a Finnish linguist is easily tempted to automatically consider the Finnish form or structure as representing the original stage - cf. e.g. Laakso & Sarhimaa 1997: 115.)

In practice, investigations of Finnic morphosyntax have so far mainly consisted of case syntax or studies on some particular construction. These investigations are difficult to utilise and compare, as they represent different theoretical backgrounds; they are partly speculative or outdated and should be re-evaluated on the basis of more modern research. The relatively weak traditions of syntactic or pragmatic research on Finnic are also reflected in historical phonology and morphology. Although these are relatively well investigated, the comparative and the deep phonological method have one deficiency in common: a method inherently looking for one invariant cannot account for cases, where a morphological innovation is only one of competing variants (Laakso 1998a, 2000b).

Even the data and materials available are problematic from the (morpho)syntactic point of view. The traditional text publications mainly consist of stories and folklore and thus fail to shed light on many currently emerging problems of everyday spoken language in its different functions, pragmatics etc. that are of vital interest for the research of Finnic syntax. Traditional text collections obviously leave a great part of real-life morphosyntactic or phonological variation unaccounted for; they may even have been edited in a way that hides or deletes variation or constructions typical of spoken-language syntax. (For the effects of traditional fieldwork methods and the narrativity of texts cf. Luutonen 1985, Karhu 1995).


Native vs. borrowed

The Finnic languages are closely related, some neighbours (like Finnish and White Sea Karelian) even mutually intelligible. They can be seen as descendants of a common proto-language, Proto-Finnic, spoken ca. 2000 years ago. However, the development from Proto-Finnic to present-day Finnic languages cannot be explained only in terms of traditional family trees (or bushes) and innovations brought forth independently in different branches. Recent research (Sammallahti 1977, Terho Itkonen 1983, Viitso 1985, 2000 etc., Koponen 1991, Salminen 1998 etc.) operates with three or more hypothetical Proto-Finnic proto-dialects and considers the evolution of present-day Finnic languages (partly) as a result of interference and amalgation of (proto-)dialects. At least some Finnic languages are indubitably "fused": Olonets Karelian and Ludian are transitional dialects between Karelian proper and Vepsian, and Modern Standard Finnish and Modern Standard Estonian contain elements from many original dialects (which, in turn, may even represent different Proto-Finnic protodialects).

Basically, the Finnic language area can be seen as a wide field or network of dialect continua, only relatively recently fragmented by historical, political and demographic developments (cf. e.g. Sarhimaa 1998). Some developments are most naturally seen as innovations brought forth in some part of this area; they would have spread over dialect (and even nascent language) borders. Some phenomena are probably a result of contacts between Finnic languages or dialects, the effects of which are still insufficiently investigated (even the historical contacts between the dialects of the two major Finnic languages, Finnish and Estonian, have received surprisingly little attention, cf. Grünthal 1998). Inside Finnic, there are areas of particularly dense contacts or Sprachbund phenomena (most notably the Southeast Finnish - Ingrian - Votian - Northeast Estonian area, cf. e.g. Alvre 1990). A particularly interesting case is the Votian language, which shares many features with its Western neighbour Estonian but also displays characteristics that are typical of Eastern Finnic languages, as well as certain individual developments. On the other hand, external contacts with Indo-European languages have played an extremely important part in the formation of Finnic. The Indo-European loanwords and also phonetic or phonological influences in Finnic have been (and are still) extensively investigated, but outside these subsystems of language, there is very little systematic research done so far.

The effect of contacts in the evolution of language varieties is an ever-recurring problem which is intimately connected with deep philosophical questions of explaining language change. These questions have lately emerged both in international contexts (e.g. the role of Norman French and Scandinavian influences in the development of English - Thomason & Kaufman 1988: 263-302, Lass 1997: 201-208) and in Uralistics, where the heated discussion has shown that contact explanations are sometimes used on methodologically dubious grounds (cf. e.g. Laakso 1996b, 1997b, 1998b, 1999; Mikone 1996, Esa Itkonen 1998, Hasselblatt 1998), especially outside the strong traditional foundations of loanword research. As shown by Harris and Campbell (1995: 120), no trustworthy universals for morphosyntactic contact phenomena have been shown so far, and the diagnostics for contact-induced change in morphosyntax are still to be developed (Filppula & Sarhimaa 1994).

In the light of our own previous research, it has proved essential to relate contact explanations with the inherited structures and their development; a mere listing of common characteristics is not enough, but it should be shown how widely spread the similar structures are within the relevant subsystem, how the possibly contact-induced change can be related to internal development tendencies and what has been the concrete path of development in each concrete case (Bátori 1980; Sarhimaa 1995, 1997; Laakso 1999).

One concrete case where hypotheses of native and contact-induced developments within a linguistic subsystem can be tested is the Votian language, the subject of Jarmo Elomaa's research. Votian, like most Finnic languages, displays a characteristic consonant gradation (alternation of "strong" and "weak" stem-internal stops, depending on whether the following syllable was originally open or closed). The Votian gradation shares some features with both its Eastern and Western neighbours, Estonian and Ingrian (e.g. the alternation of the consonant sequence sk), but some unique characteristics of the Votian gradation (most notably, systematic utilisation of the voiced/voiceless distinction for stops and sibilants, e.g. k : g, s : z) could perhaps be attributed to ancient Russian influence. In this case, too, a contact explanation requires that the concrete mechanism of the developments proposed be reconstructed and the process related with what is known about the history of the Votian speaker community.

The central aim of our project will be to test and develop methods for investigating contact-induced phenomena (especially in the field of morphosyntax) in the evolution of closely related language varieties.


Typology - beyond the generalizations

Typological criteria play an important role in the historical morphosyntax. Distinguishing native and borrowed constructions is often based on typological (in)compatibility with the inherited structure of the language in question, typology is used in order to find connections between individual historical developments and thus to sketch larger "drifts" in the history of a language, and the morphosyntactic characteristics of reconstructed protolanguages are built and evaluated using typological criteria. One of the key questions is the relationship between the typology of different subsystems of language (cf. Plank 1998) and the role of changes triggering changes in other subsystems. This leads on to questions concerning conservativity (resisting changes) vs. innovativeness in language history.

Within Finnic, it is repeatedly stated that sound changes deleting or obscuring original suffixes have moved Estonian and Livonian further along the classical typological cycle, from the original Uralic agglutinative type towards a (more) fusional type (cf. e.g. Viitso 1990). However, the truth is not so simple: there are cross-currents creating agglutinativity (Rätsep 1981) and strong analytical tendencies, making the role of the fusional phenomena still somewhat peripheral or superficial (Grünthal 2000).

One central problem will be investigated in Riho Grünthal’s PhD thesis on the typology of the NP in Finnic. The innovations in the case system (case syncretism and new case endings agglutinated from postpositions especially in Karelian and Vepsian) and the increasing use of analytical constructions (especially in Estonian and Livonian) open new perspectives for research. The constant and flexible interplay between different means of expressing grammatical relations can also be regarded from the point of view of grammaticalization. It seems probable that simplistic ideas of unidirectional change and strict hierarchies will have to be abandoned. Besides giving new insights into language change, the relationship between noun inflection and the system of adpositions will also help to analyse and classify the adpositions in a more fruitful way.

In a more general framework, the questions of typology and grammaticalization can be seen as a bundle of problems concerning the interface of morphology and syntax. This interface can also be approached from the point of view of derivation, where the role of variation and interplay between different grammatical means becomes evident. Derivation, where endless change and amazing stability meet (cf. Laakso 1997a, 2000a), provides another way to investigate questions of conservativity and innovativeness in typological change, too. The Finnic derivation systems share many elements and features (Markianova 1987, Laakso 1989), but there are also clearly areal characteristics. These are connected with foreign influences (e.g. the possible role of Russian in the development of reflexive and inchoative verbs in Eastern Finnic, cf. Lehtinen 1985, 1990, Koivisto 1995) but also with typological factors, as becomes evident in the comparison between Finnish and Estonian (Kasik 1989, Ojutkangas 1997).


Languages meet and languages die - what happens really?

The history of Finnic and Finnic studies has been the history of (studies of) language contacts. Both the evolution of Finnic as a separate branch of Uralic and the later divergence of the Finnic languages have been explained, at least partly, as resulting from contacts. Of these contacts, loanwords have been extensively investigated, and there are some studies connecting phonological change with external contacts, most notably Posti’s (1953) famous and hitherto practically unchallenged hypothesis of IE (Baltic and Germanic) influence as the ultimate cause of most typically Pre-Proto-Finnic phonological innovations (but cf. Kallio 2000). However, despite the sometimes quite detailed assumptions operating with (socio)linguistic concepts like "prestige" or "bilingualism", very few attempts have been made to systematically connect these research results and historical hypotheses with modern (socio)linguistic research on the effects of language contacts. Explanations based on "bilingualism" or "characteristics of a dying language" are notoriously easy to use, as some phenomena connected with language attrition are also typical of spoken language in general (Laakso 1996a).

The Finnic languages in their present state show many stages of language contact, external and internal. For the smallest Finnic languages, the 19th and 20th century have meant a constant assimilation and language shift, in favour of another Finnic language (e.g. from Votian to Ingrian), Russian or (for Livonians) Latvian. After centuries of mutual influences with dialects of Russian resulting in Sprachbund-like phenomena, the Eastern Finnic languages are now penetrated by the overwhelming and omnipresent Russian language to such an extent that the normal transmission of language to younger generations is almost broken by now; younger speakers of Karelian show signs of shifting their matrix grammar to Russian (Sarhimaa 1999). This development and its background have been known for a long time already, but there is very little serious linguistic research on it. This is partly due to different goals: both the earlier paradigms emphasizing historical search of more archaic stages and present-day attempts to (re)vitalise the language have their natural reasons to concentrate on the "purest" language as spoken by most fluent older speakers, and thus the "pidginized" or "defective" language of younger and less fluent speakers has been ignored (Sarhimaa 2000).

The real challenge lies in describing contact-induced changes in a reliable and methodologically interesting way. Anneli Sarhimaa’s PhD thesis on syntactic transfer in Karelian-Russian language contacts (Sarhimaa 1999, 2000) seeks to tackle these questions utilising the results of modern research on bilingualism and codeswitching. The aim is to contribute to the international research on language shift and mixed languages, which is still largely dominated by the research of pidgins and creoles with West-European lexifier languages. At the same time, this study represents pioneer work in Uralistics, as many Uralic (and other) languages of the former Soviet Union are in a state comparable with Karelian and a similar investigation of their present-day situation is highly desirable.

In a wider framework, the study of this contact situation will also give important insights into hypotheses concerning earlier stages of (Proto-)Finnic and the relationship of (Proto-)Finnic dialects. Most notably, the situation of Proto-Finnic as the receiver of extremely strong influences from Germanic and Baltic is perhaps analogous to that of Eastern Finnic languages in relation with Russian and could be reconsidered from this point of view.

Literature references



The planning of this project began in late 1998. From the beginning of 1999 on, we have enjoyed a 3-year grant of the University of Helsinki, covering the work of one of us for max. 10 months a year. In 1999, the funding was used for Anneli Sarhimaa, then finishing her PhD thesis, and other expenses like symposium costs, while Johanna Laakso and Riho Grünthal worked in the project as part of their regular duties. From January 2000 on, the new research grant made a full-time research work possible for all of us, until Anneli Sarhimaa began her work as Lecturer of Finnish at the University of Groningen and Johanna Laakso as Professor of Finno-Ugristics at the University of Vienna. From October 2000 on, the funds thus set free were re-allocated to Jarmo Elomaa, for finishing his PhD thesis.

In 2000, the project organised a symposium at the 9th International Congress of Finno-Ugrists in Tartu, Estonia. A dozen linguists, most of them representing younger generations, were invited to re-evaluate some central questions of Finnic studies (e.g. the taxonomic relationship of Finnic dialects and languages, the contacts and their effects etc.). The papers of the symposium were published in English or German in a separate volume (Facing Finnic), in the series Castrenianumin toimitteita.

In 2001, Riho Grünthal and Jarmo Elomaa have worked on their PhD theses. The researchers of the project have written several articles and visited congresses and symposia.

In 2002, we are planning to organise an international workshop - RECONNECTING FINNIC - on the key problems of our project as related with Finnic and other languages. Together with the workshop, a network of linguists working with Finnic will be organized to encourage research and facilitate cooperation in years to come, as our project itself comes to an end and the results are published in a joint monograph.



Publications of the project include

Other papers by the project can also be sought from the JULKI database.

Lists of all our publications:


Last updated November 2000, minor updates in May 2002 by