Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Linguistic Relations

In a recent post Brandon at Siris expressed his delight in the sound of the Finnish language and, to prove it, presented Jenni Vartiainen singing in that tongue sublime (link). For me this brought the language to the fore, Finland itself, and memories of my Army years.

I grew up speaking Hungarian. Both languages belong to the Uralic family, traced by scholars to regions to each side of the Urals. That range runs south-north dividing Russia between a western and eastern part. One of two subdivisions of Uralic is Finno-Ugric, and both Finnish and Hungarian are members of it; the other branch is Samoyedic spoken only by about 30,000 people. Now a question. Are such classifications based on tracing peoples? Or are there linguistic similarities the ear itself, the ear on the street, can readily detect? I would say Yes. Let me tell you a story.

Once as a young man I was visiting Heidelberg and, specifically, a single address there, a four story building. As I approached this structure by means of a narrow street, I saw three people in the street. They had their heads craned back. They were yelling up at somebody in a top-floor window. I heard Hungarian. Surprised! Here? In Heidelberg? Just a rare coincidence? I gave my astonishment expression by yelling to the three down there. I yelled in Hungarian—even as I continued on toward them. They faced toward me with looks of pleased surprise and shouted back. It sounded so very familiar—but I didn’t understand the words. At last we stood face to face. And now we realized that althought the words had very odd echoes of meanings, they did not convey them. Well. Reach for a common language. In a moment, speaking German now, we understood. And both sides started nodding. They’d been speaking Finnish, I Hungarian…. However far back Finno-Ugric might go in time, the relationship is deceivingly close even in the current now.

In the Army the colonel I worked for was a Finn with an appropriately Finnish-sounding name: Alpo Kullervo Martinnen. An American colonel now, he was an oddity. He’d also been a colonel in Finnish army and had participated in the Finno-Russian Winter War (1939-1945). The odd thing about Alpo was that he was an avid, passionate student of the Finnish language. He was forever studying it, even during field exercises. At the time I took this to be a personal interest in language, especially his own. Well, I was too young to know then—but that last name of his, Martinnen, should have been a warning. I found out the truth later. Let me tell that story next.

Many years later one of my business trips took me to Finland. Here I encountered a similar puzzle. Every person I visited on business—and all the people in the offices—spoke Swedish, not Finnish. I heard a lot of Finnish spoken, but not in these places. And when I asked my first host about this, he acted embarrassed. “Well, at home. At home we speak Swedish. Lots of people do. But I am learning Finnish.” And the index finger was out to give this emphasis. In due course I learned that Finland’s upper elites are decidedly Swedish. The root of this is that Finland was under Swedish rule through most of its history, from the twelfth century until its independence in 1917. The elites were Swedish. But they, like Colonel Martinnen, were learning Finnish.


  1. I hadn't realized Hungarian was Finno-Ugric as well! For some reason I had thought that Finnish and Estonian were the only widely spoken languages in the family, but of course Hungarian is spoken by a much larger population than either. Hungarian's family resemblance doesn't show up as obviously in writing as that of Estonian and Finnish does -- all those z's and j's! Different writing conventions, I suppose.

    Wiktionary has a nice list comparing the basic vocabulary of major Finno-Ugric languages.

  2. Brandon: A good half of Hungary was occupied by the Ottomans for more than a century and a half beginning in 1526, and this left the languag "enriched" by Turkish vocabulary. Meanwhile Finnish similarly "gained" from its domination by Sweden.

    Indeed, Hungarian does not have the sweet sound of Finnish at all, but many of the sounds Hungarians make are mesmerizingly like sounds that abound in Finnish...

    Nice comparative vocabulary.

  3. @Arsen Darnay actually 95% of the words of Turkish origin in Hungarian date back to times before the Hungarian Conquest. Hungarians lived and mingled with Turkic tribes.
    The Turkish words are present in Hungarian also because some the tribes of the Hungarian union were turkic themselves like the three Kabar tribes. And of course we should not forget the turkic Cumanians (Kunok) who settled in Hungary in the middle ages receiving authonomy in the Kunság region.

    Indeed on can recount many simmilarities in Hungarian and Turkish.

    Cebimde çok küçük sarı elma var.
    Zsebemben sok kicsi sárga alma van.
    There are many little yellow apples in my pocket.

  4. Thanks for that Erik. Very interesting. I correct my understanding herewith. Particularly interesting is the side-by-side example you give -- something I could not produce because I don't speak a word of Turkish!