Is it really true that Finno-Ugric and Turkic are NOT related?

For those who visited my old Helsinki pages and found my short statement about the more or less crackpot theories relating Finno-Ugric and Turkic too rude, I have prepared some more detailed and, I hope, more polite answers to the persistent questions concerning this relatedness hypothesis that many people still find very hard to part with.

“Why not?!”

The answer is simple: there is not enough material for reconstruction. For Uralic, we can reconstruct an important part of the basic vocabulary, including low numerals, body part nouns, relatedness terms etc., and also many central grammatical items. Between Finno-Ugric and Turkic, there are too few similarities of that kind.

In the first half of the 20th century, there were still some linguists defending the so-called Ural-Altaic hypothesis, which would have implied a relatedness between FU and Turkic. However, there are problems on the “other” side as well: the relatedness within “Altaic”, i.e. between Turkic, Mongolic and Tungusic (not to speak about Korean and even Japanese that have sometimes been associated with the Altaic group) seems to be as thinly founded as that between Finno-Ugric and Turkic.

Of course, we cannot say for sure that these languages are NOT related. It is possible, and some quite serious linguists still flirt with this idea, that many language families of the Old World, including Turkic and Finno-Ugric (and Indo-European, perhaps also Semitic, Kartvelian and Dravidian), are genetically descendants of one proto-form. This idea, the so-called Nostratic hypothesis (see, for instance, a newspaper article by George Johnson) has been subject to a heated debate for many decades already, and there is no consensus in sight.

In fact, we cannot rule out the possibility that all languages of the world are descendants of one human proto-language. We can only say for sure that this relatedness is impossible to prove, at least with the arguments presented so far. As time goes by, all languages change, and it is probable that a certain amount of millennia will change them “beyond recognition”, i.e. eradicate all identifiable traces of original relatedness. We will never be able to reach the earliest proto-language(s) of mankind with the methods of historical-comparative linguistics.

“But I learnt it at school / read in an encyclopedia / heard it from an expert!”

The Ural-Altaic hypothesis was, as said above, popular even during the first half of the 20th century, and as even general linguists or editors of encyclopedias cannot be experts in all exotic language families, outdated information may have survived in textbooks or expert knowledge (at least outside the Uralic core areas) even until our days. Actually -- think of some area where you have special expertise and then try to remember whether you have ever read a newspaper article or a school textbook passage on this subject that was chock-full of errors... I bet many of you can think of an example.

Besides, textbook authors and other experts, as well as all other people, may surrender to temptations of a political or ideological kind (see below), i.e. wanting Finno-Ugric and Turkic to be related...

A further problem is caused by the fact that, due to science-internal reasons, historical linguistics was completely marginalized in many leading schools of linguistics during the 20th century (partly, as a reaction to 19th-century general historicism). As long as linguistics was understood as describing the “language machine” in the speaker’s brain, the functioning of this machine here and now was more important and more interesting than its historical background, and generations of linguists were educated who had little or no knowledge of historical linguistics — in the same way that a medical doctor need not be an expert in human paleontology (and some doctors are creationists, for example...). This explains the sad fact that even some professional linguists have joined the campaign against Finno-Ugric language relatedness. (For one example, read my review of A. Marcantonio’s book – other, at least as critical ones have appeared in Word (Ante Aikio), Journal of Linguistics (Marianne Bakró-Nagy), Virittäjä (Ulla-Maija Kulonen), Linguistica Uralica (Merlijn De Smit)...)

And, in fact, many lay people (the vast majority, I think) are linguistically uneducated -- they don't have the vaguest idea of what linguistics (historical linguistics included) is about. At least partly, we linguists are to blame. Too many of us have neglected the important task of informing taxpayers of what we are doing with their money. For any interested reader, Language Myths ed. by Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill is highly recommended.

“The Finno-Ugric relatedness is just an ideological (for example, Imperialist-Bolshevist) conspiracy against Hungarians.”

This view has been propagated by some Hungarians ever since the Finno-Ugric relatedness was discovered. The motives are simple: We don't want to be related with primitive nomadic Siberian tribes, we want to be related with peoples who have earned themselves fame and glory, or at least have a war-like past.

This view is also motivated by a fundamental misunderstanding deeply rooted in the National Romanticism. This ideology that was central for the national awakening of many European peoples, Hungarians and Finns included, was based on the idea of a unitary nationhood, expressing itself in the history, culture, and language of the people in question. In this thought, language, culture, and race melted together into an indivisible whole, the role of language as the most important characteristic of a nation was vastly exaggerated, and generations after generations were taught never to question the -- largely language-based -- definitions of a nation.

However, language is only one of the criteria of nationhood, and nationhood is not an indivisible whole. All peoples are genetically “mixtures” of different populations (and from the viewpoint of genetics, mixture of genes -- not “purity of race” -- is something very positive!), all cultures are “mixtures” (Kulturgut ist Lehngut), and all nations are products of historical processes. 1500 years ago there were no “Hungarians”, no “Finns”, no “Germans”, no “French”, etc., in the present-day sense.

The mechanisms by which language is transmitted are fundamentally different from those of cultural or genetic transmission, which means that people can be genetically related (have some ancestors in common) or culturally “related” (have a significant amount of elements of a common origin in their cultures) without speaking languages that are related (i.e. descend from a common proto-language), or vice versa. This means that the Finno-Ugric relatedness does not imply a particularly close genetic relatedness between the present-day speakers, and it does not mean that speakers of present-day Finno-Ugric languages would share a “Finno-Ugric culture” deeply different from its neighbours.

This also means that there may be a lot of genetic and cultural relatedness between some Finno-Ugric and Turkic peoples. No serious Finno-Ugrist has ever tried to refute this.

“What’s wrong with being related with the Turks?”

Nothing at all. See above.

“But there are so many similar words!”

Yes, there are. But

“The grammars are so similar!”

Yes, Hungarian (or some other FU languages) and Turkish both have rich suffixal morphologies (endings expressing what English, for example, expresses with prepositions), vowel harmony, possessive suffixes (endings expressing the possessor) etc. etc. But

“But they sound similar! And as a speaker of X, I find Y surprisingly easy to learn.”

These things, regrettably, are very subjective and a matter of taste, just like the aesthetical judgments (“ugly” or “beautiful” languages). Finding familiar-looking patterns in a foreign language may be an exhilarating experience (I have heard about various Hungarian speakers who thought Japanese might be related with Hungarian as it appeared so familiar to them), but it may simply due to the fact that language learners’ preexpectations are so often geared towards the model of the great Indo-European languages.


Updated 29 May 2005