Contribution of the small Finnic languages to research on areal and general linguistics

Johanna Laakso, University of Vienna1

[Paper presented at the symposium "L'émancipation linguistique et culturelle des minorités nordiques", Paris-Sorbonne, March 2001]
The aim of this paper is to shed light on the importance of the research and knowledge of the small Finnic languages, from the viewpoint of linguistic studies. Among the closely-knit group of Finnic (Baltic-Finnic)2 languages, Finnish and Estonian are well known and extensively investigated languages with vigorous traditions of normative grammar and standard language planning as well as dialectology and even other areas of spoken language research. The smaller Finnic languages – Karelian, Ludian and Vepsian in the east and northeast of the Finnic language area, Votian and Ingrian in the area (roughly) between St. Petersburg and Estonia, and Livonian in Latvia – are not only minority languages almost suffocated by the overwhelming presence of Russian or Latvian and clearly influenced by these majority languages in almost all possible respects. They have also suffered a certain neglect in linguistic research, despite the fact that there are dictionaries and descriptive grammars, abundant dialectological and folklore materials and quite extensive studies in (historical) lexicology and historical phonology. Actually, even Estonian is somewhat underrepresented in Fennistic research, and some Estonian linguists have stated that the research of Estonian, not to speak of language planning (where Finnish was the paragon and source for numerous neologisms and even grammatical innovations), displays a “Finnish bias”. And, to go even further, the model of Standard Finnish may have restricted even the view of Finnish linguists on their native language, as pointed out especially by the researchers of spoken discourse (cf. e.g. Auli Hakulinen 1991, Tainio (ed.) 1997). However, I will not pursue this question any further to the varieties of the Finnish language; let me now confine myself to the problematics of the smaller Finnic languages as such.

In what follows, I will attempt to survey the different aspects of grammar and lexis, where the skewedness of research traditions and materials used is evident, and analyse the consequences.

Phonology, sound history

A great part of the traditional research into the minor Finnic languages has followed the outlines defined by E. N. Setälä (1891); his Neogrammarian study on Finnic sound history provided a practical framework for many dissertations to come. During the following decades, numerous Finnic dialects were described according to the same principles, tracing the individual sounds in various positions, one by one, back to their representations on a Proto-Finnic reconstruction level. Some bones of contention persisted, such as the age of the consonant gradation which is almost all-Finnic but lacking in the most peripheral languages, i.e. Livonian in the far south-west and Vepsian at the eastern outskirts of the Finnic area, or the history of the mid-vowel (Estonian õ) in southern Finnic: was it a later development or a possible reflex of earlier Finno-Ugric mid-vowels, and had the vowel harmony originally included an alternation between a front and a back variant of e in suffixes, as in Southern Estonian up to these days? However, there has been a general consensus on most features of Proto-Finnic. Although the developments leading from Proto-Finnic to the present Finnic languages may be complicated and obscured by later contacts between sister languages, the close relationship between the Finnic languages makes most details of Proto-Finnic phonology and phonotactics clearly reconstructible.

The reconstruction of Proto-Finnic shows a beautifully unified system, as it is inevitably the case with reconstructions, the comparative method being a mechanism which brings present-day variation back to a reconstructed invariant. Interestingly enough, this reconstruction also looks very much like present-day Standard Finnish. There are only a few systematic differences, most notably the diphthongisation of long middle-high vowels (Finnish nuori ‘young’ < PF *noori, Fi. tie ‘road’ < PF *tee), the manifold reflexes of reconstructed spirants reflecting weak-grade stops (Fi. aika ‘time’ : gsg ajan < PF *aigan, Fi. puku ‘dress’ : gsg puvun < PF *pugun, Fi. vako ‘furrow’ : gsg vaon < PF *vagon), and the loss of h (< *s) and spirants (weak-grade reflexes of stops) in suffixal positions (Fi. taloon ‘into the house’ < talohon, a form still appearing in some dialects and in archaic poetic language; Fi. pimeä ‘dark’ < PF *pimedä). The latter development has brought about a new phonotactic feature: long vowels in non-first syllables. But apart from these differences, the reconstructed Proto-Finnic looks very much like (archaizing) Finnish; the innovations have typically been changes of certain phonemes rather than systematic reductive losses of the kind we can see in e.g. Estonian. Of the other Finnic languages, it is mainly Vepsian (together with Ludian, backed up with Estonian in certain cases) that has contributed to the reconstruction by providing the original stops for certain suffixal elements (e.g. Veps. pimed ‘dark’). Southern Finnic, most notably Estonian (standard language and many dialects), has provided the original long vowels for the Proto-Finnic reconstruction (Est. noor ‘young’, tee ‘road’), while Votian, otherwise a vowel harmony language, shows that suffixal ö as the front counterpart for o is a recent innovation (e.g. Vot. tüttärikko ‘girl’ instead of **tüttärikkö). And, last but not least, Estonian proves that the weak-grade reflexes of geminate stops were originally distinct from single stops – although this can be deduced, by way of inner reconstruction, from Finnish suffixes as well (cf. apu ‘help’ -> avuton (: avuttoma-) ‘helpless’).

I am certainly not stating that the Finnish-like characteristics of Proto-Finnic reconstructions are mere cultural imperialism. After all, Modern Finnish is a partly artificial construction based on elements drawn from different dialects and also on implicit generalizations and archaizations (for example, word-final vowels which have often worn off in most dialects are always retained in the standard language; cf. Lehikoinen & Kiuru 1989: 161), and its dialectal basis covers, also geographically, a very large part of the Finnic area. Should only one Finnic language be chosen to illustrate Proto-Finnic states of affairs, Finnish, with its prospects for internal reconstruction, could very well be the most obvious candidate, and I seriously doubt whether a Proto-Finnic reconstruction made by native Vepsian or Votian linguists would essentially differ from the present one. However, there are some details where the smaller Finnic languages could challenge the unified picture of canonized Proto-Finnic reconstructions.

The reconstruction methods, as a whole, cannot be questioned; without the comparative method we would be left groping helpless in the dark. However, as it has been admitted already in the 19th century, they only illustrate a part of the pre-historic linguistic reality, while other aspects of the same reality may be illuminated by areal considerations, above all, the idea that language change, however abrupt its projection in the comparative description, is really both geographically and diachronically gradual. Dialect-geographic views of innovations spreading from centres and sparing the peripheries have traditionally been applied in order to explain the form of some exceptional items and to allow for etymological comparisons. A handbook example is the treatment of word-initial affricates: although the standard reconstruction implies that earlier Finno-Ugric affricates were lost by Proto-Finnic (cf. e.g. Fi. hupa ‘thin, short-lived’ ~ Mordvin chova, Fi. setä ‘uncle’ ~ Mordvin chiche), it is sometimes assumed that some word-initial affricates in e.g. Vepsian (chapa- ‘hit, thresh’) could have survived this sound change.

But there are also more wide-ranging cases of dialect-geographic factors in sound change. In most modern handbooks, the old debate concerning the age of the consonant gradation has been solved with an areal-linguistic compromise: if ever there was a phonetic gradation in the whole Proto-Finnic area, it was only phonemicised in the core part of the area and lost without any traces in the two peripheries as represented by Vepsian and Livonian. There might be other cases, too, where the characteristics of peripheral Finnic dialects are no sporadic developments but, rather, survivors from a more archaic stage. In this respect, we could perhaps consider the idea of Toomas Help and Lembit Vaba (Help 1990: 371) that the back variant of i in South Estonian dialects (in words such as syzar ‘sister’ ~ N.Est. sõsar, Fi. sisar) is not, as it is sometimes stated, due to Russian influence but, rather, a reflex of Pre-Finnic back i as reconstructed, in an un-orthodox way, by Mikko Korhonen (1988). Accepting this idea would be a serious challenge to the traditional view, according to which the vowel harmony is an ancient characteristic, as the essence of Korhonen’s hypothesis makes the vowel harmony an early Finnic innovation that would only have developed after the Finnic-Sámi split. We could proceed by asking how much the strong and systematic character of the vowel harmony in Finnish can have influenced the mainstream views on Uralic phonology, and by stating that the remnants of old vowel harmony in Samoyedic and Ob-Ugric do not necessarily disprove Korhonen’s hypothesis, as the vowel harmony may very well have been lost and regenerated during the millennia between Proto-Uralic and Pre-Finnic, connected with the agglutinative character of Uralic as it is. However, knowing that mainstream views are not merely established as such but also supported by the work of generations of linguists, I will not dwell on this subject here; it would deserve a more expert and a much more detailed treatment.


Language relatedness, itself a basic concept of historical linguistics, is largely based on etymology, which makes lexicological research, alongside historical phonology, one of the strongest areas of traditional Fennistics and Finno-Ugristics. The vocabulary of most Finnic dialects has been systematically collected and published in form of many dictionaries. However, the differences in their sizes and goals make all-Finnic comparisons the more risky, the farther we proceed from traditional etymology.

The goals of traditional lexicological research in the Finnic area are beautifully illustrated by the fact that there is only one great etymological dictionary for Finnic, that is, the Finnish etymological dictionary SKES together with its synchronised and modernised successor, the SSA. The Estonian etymological dictionary by Mägiste (1982–83), however valuable, is just a posthumously published facsimile edition of an unfinished and by now partly outdated manuscript, while the small Finnic languages only have an assisting role in etymological dictionaries; other etymological research on these languages is only represented by scattered papers and some monographs. These, in turn, often concentrate on the most obviously un-Finnish aspects of these languages, that is, on relatively recent loanwords from Russian (like Ojanen 1985) or Latvian (Suhonen 1973). Systematic etymological research on the vocabulary of the smaller Finnic languages, where the point of departure would not be Finnish, Estonian or the Proto-Finnic reconstruction level, is virtually non-existent. Koponen’s (1998) investigation on the vocabulary of South Estonian, one of the few exceptions, is also a vivid illustration of what a gigantic work such research would really require and what deep and extremely controversial questions of theory and methodology must be faced.

To give just one example where lexicological research in Eastern Finnic would be highly desirable: nobody has, to my knowledge, systematically searched the vocabulary of Karelian and Vepsian to find evidence of the Finnic-Permic contacts that certainly persisted until the expansion of Russian to present-day northernmost Russia. Thus, we know that there are dozens of Finnic loanwords in Komi (even if we leave out chance similarities, genetically related vocabulary and loanwords mediated by Russian, cf. Hausenberg 1983, 1985), but the possibility of borrowing in the opposite direction is still practically uninvestigated. Here, even a negative result would be of importance. If it can be stated that there are no (or very few) Permic loanwords in the easternmost Finnic languages, it is more likely that the ancestors of the Komi had no direct contacts with the ancestors of present-day Karelians or Vepsians but, rather, with a Finnic speaker community that has disappeared (most probably, by assimilation). This would be further evidence of the existence of a prehistoric Finnic-speaking population east of the present Finnic area.

But, again, the minor Finnic languages are not only useful as additional illustrators of linguistic and, perhaps, ethnic prehistory. There are lexical and morpholexical phenomena that cannot be sufficiently illuminated because of the lack of materials and investigations in the smaller Finnic languages. Again, just one example: Heikki Leskinen, in his ground-breaking study (1993), where he investigates the structure and development of the expressive lexicon as a distinct subsystem within the Finnic word stock, was forced to leave out the smallest Finnic languages (i.e. all except Finnish, Karelian, Vepsian and Estonian), because the dictionary materials available of Ingrian, Votian and Livonian are simply not compatible with the others. Comparative and contrastive studies of Finnic word formation know the same problem: it is impossible to know whether the lack of a certain derivative in a smaller dictionary is due to mere chance, a systematic decision of the lexicographer (“the base is here, and everybody knows we can form this word out of it if we want, so I'll leave it out here”) or a restriction in productivity.

We may also ask, to what extent the size of the vocabulary depends on the size of the language community. Of course, there must be both upper and lower limits to the size of the lexicon in a language, set by the demands of learnability and functionality, respectively, but can we assume (as it seems feasible) that within these limits a larger speaker community is able to sustain a larger vocabulary, with more lexical (stylistic, social, regional etc.) variation, than a smaller one? This question is further complicated by the rich means for word-formation in the Finnic languages. Nevertheless, the lack of compatible materials from all Finnic languages prevents us from looking for a reliable answer. And, conversely, without a reliable answer for this question, we cannot really evaluate the compatibility of dictionary materials on the minor Finnic languages.

Morphology and syntax

We can go on listing the problems of the Finnish bias in the domain of Finnic morphology and syntax, or, rather, morphosyntax, as there is practically no syntax without morphology in Finnic. Here, a further skewing of the data is caused by the fact that the small Finnic languages are used and transmitted almost exclusively in oral form: the literary languages, as far as they exist, are very young, and their use is more or less marginal. As already mentioned, researchers of spoken language have often pointed at a written-language bias in linguistics, and there might be systematic differences in language structure that are due to the existence or lack of written use.

A further problem in this respect – not a serious problem for traditional lexical and phonological research but a real obstacle for syntacticians – is that the traditional Finnic text collections do not represent natural spoken language. They are almost exclusively folklore items (stories, fairy tales, folk poetry) or narratives (reminiscences of olden times), where the supposedly naïve and freely-producing speaker is actually very conscious of her/his task and the expectations of the interviewer (Karhu 1995: 92–93, with further references). Moreover, the practices of writing down, “editing” and “checking” the text may have distorted or deleted actual spoken-language forms or constructions (Luutonen 1985; Sarhimaa 2000: 201–202). This means, in practice, that many viewpoints now crucial in the research of spoken discourse are unapplicable to the smaller Finnic languages. All this actually goes back to the traditional theoretical frameworks which priorised the historical-comparative approaches and the role of sound history. For example, the traditional dialect and language taxonomies within Finnic are mostly based on certain (sometimes very few) phonological criteria, while more detailed research on dialectal morphosyntax might challenge the traditional classifications (as for the Eastern Middle Vepsian dialects; Zajceva 2000).

As it can be expected, considering the lack of native linguists or reliable materials, research into the syntax of the minor Finnic languages is virtually non-existent, with the exception of the recent work of perhaps less than a handful of linguists, mostly descriptive studies of special questions, above all, case syntax. In the field of morphology, there are some grammars and special studies, sometimes little more than lists of extracted, edited and unified paradigms (Virtaranta 1986 being the most extreme example). Many of these share one shortcoming, which, actually, belongs to a fallacy which is common to both traditional Neogrammarian and more modern, structuralist or generative studies: they neglect the reality of variation.

Traditional Fennistic research, in looking for the most original state of affairs, ignored the existing variation in “pure” folk dialects as irrelevant for its own goals, that is: sound history and etymology. This “historical reductionism” is part of the so-called classical fallacy, as it has later been pointed out (cf. e.g. Milroy 1987: 9 with further references). But there is a tendency even in more recent sociolinguistic research to reduce variation to a transitional phenomenon, a mere indicator of on-going change between two idealised homogenous stages (this is very sharply criticised by Hurtta 1999). However, the role of variation in the diachrony of morphosyntax is more crucial than in lexicology or phonology. In morphosyntax, diachronic change is typically manifest as a statistic change in the relative frequencies or possible uses of one of many possible constructions, rather than as a “replacement change”, where item A (say, a certain sound) more or less abruptly ousts item B. Statistic changes in morphosyntactic variation and the division of labour between different constructions, in turn, cannot be reliably described with what dialectological materials we now have.

Theoretical backgrounds together with the greater uniformity (standardisation) and availability of Finnish (and Estonian) data, in turn, have contributed to a Finnish bias in Finnic historical morphosyntax as well. It is notoriously easy for a Finnish linguist to consider the Standard Finnish state-of-affairs as the more original one. Again, one example will suffice, viz. the allative(-adessive) case in certain constructions. Finnish typically employs the genitive (so-called dative-genitive) in certain unipersonal constructions denoting necessity (minun täytyy/pitää I-GEN must/keep-3SG ‘I must’) or experiencing a feeling (minun (~ minulla) on kylmä I-GEN (~ I-ALL) be.3SG cold ‘I am cold’), while Karelian and Vepsian use the allative, the “onto” local case (which in Karelian has merged with the adessive, the “on, at” case): Kar. miula pidäy I-ADE/ALL keep-3SG ‘I must’, although dative-genitives in necessitative constructions have also been attested at least in Karelian (Sarhimaa 1999: 284). The obvious conclusion that traditional Finnic linguists (Ojajärvi 1950) have jumped at is that the Karelo-Vepsian construction with the adessive-allative reflects the influence of the corresponding construction with Russian, where the dative case (semantically corresponding to the Finnic allative) is used: mne nado I-DAT need ‘I must’. However, as long as the history of the Finnic dative-genitive and its possible connections with the Livonian dative and the local case (lative) endings in –n have not been sufficiently cleared, it is impossible to say which of the two constructions is more original. In principle, the use of the genitive in these constructions, old as it seems on the basis of Old Literary Finnish (cf. also Inaba 2000), could also reflect a West Finnic innovation.

Contact explanations and the “perspective effect”

In the research of morphology and syntax in particular, the question of verifying contact-induced developments becomes crucial. While phonological developments, based on a small, closed and seemingly independent system as they are, can easily be approached in terms of internal comparison, morphological and syntactic innovations are often explained as foreign influence. In the realm of morphosyntax we have less “internal”, system-conditioned mechanisms to rely upon. Instead, there is often a striking likeness with a neighbouring language, as in the above-mentioned case of the experiencer in necessitative constructions. As there is extremely little research on Finnic historical syntax that could enable us to evaluate the relative age or “originality” of different constructions, and as there is very little known of the general tendencies to stability or change in morphosyntax, the contact explanation very often seems the most obvious choice.

But there is also another, more general factor influencing linguistic research and, possibly, contributing to the “Finnish bias”. It is an observable tendency in all comparative, contrastive and typological research that areal or contact explanations are applied the more readily, the less we know about the internal mechanisms of the language. In general, distance obliterates details. It is very easy to spot similarities between languages we know very little about (the Proto-World etymologies probably being the saddest example of this kind). There are, as it happens, many cases of competing explanations in Uralistics where opinions seem to be divided very simply on the basis of comparative-historical expertise. For example, the Hungarian verb prefixes, thanks to their syntactic similarities with German and Slavic, repeatedly figure in typological surveys as an areally conditioned phenomenon, while László Honti, an expert in the history of the Ugric languages, has vehemently defended their “native” character and emphasized their relatedness with similar elements in the Ob-Ugric languages (cf. e.g. Honti 1997: 52–56; 1999). Or, to give another example from phonology: Bechert (1990: 128), consciously ignoring the genetic relationships, connects the Hungarian vowel harmony with other features marking the word boundary (such as the devoicing of word-final consonants); all these, according to him, serve to “mark the unity of the word”, which is, as he states, a Central and East European characteristic. No attention is paid to the vowel harmony (or its traces) in Turkic, in Ob-Ugric and Samoyed or in Finnish, nor to the loss of the vowel harmony in Estonian and Livonian (precisely those languages that sometimes figure in typological surveys as the most typical bearers of “Circum-Baltic” characteristics).

In a smaller scale, similar “perspective effects” can be observed in Finnic, where linguists – most often, as it happens, native speakers of Finnish (or Estonian) – readily attribute characteristics of the smaller Finnic languages to foreign (Russian or Latvian) influence, while developments within the Finnish language are more often given internal explanations. In this light, it is interesting to contrast two views on morphosyntactic developments in Eastern Finnic. Lehtinen (1990) points out many characteristics of Vepsian that have obvious structural counterparts in Russian verb morphology, such as the use of momentane verbs in –AhtA- to convey diminutive meanings (e.g. kazvahtada ‘to grow a little’ <- kazda ‘to grow’, cf. Russian podrasti <- rasti) or the suffix –ske-, originally a suffix for frequentative verbs, in negative past-tense forms (en rikoske ‘I did not kill (him)’), which seems to reflect the use of imperfective aspect in negated past-tense forms in Russian. Quoting Larjavaara (1986: 327), Lehtinen concludes that imitating Russian structures has actually been a survival strategy for the Vepsian language in a situation where the other alternative would have been resorting to completely Russian elements, that is, a language shift. In her comment to Lehtinen’s paper, Markianova (1990), one of the few native Karelian linguists, although acknowledging the role of Russian influences, emphasizes the inherent potential of Finnic word-formation and refers to B. A. Serebrennikov’s (true, somewhat hazy) hypothesis of Proto-Finno-Ugric having many aspectual classes.

It may sound a little odd to use Lehtinen’s paper as evidence for a contact bias in Finnic studies, as he actually states the opposite: “Vepsian morphology in particular has until recently been dealt with as if this [i.e. Russian] influence did not exist” (op.cit. 59, my translation). This may hold, at least partly, for earlier research in morphosyntax, simply because many Fennists outside Russia do not have a sufficient command of Russian to spot structural similarities. However, in phonology and lexicology similarities to Russian are easier to notice (Lehtinen l.cit. gives many references to studies showing Russian interference in Vepsian), and phenomena like the back i in some Eastern Finnic dialects or the voicing of word-internal stops in southern Karelian and Vepsian have duly been ascribed to Russian influence. (Only recently has Viitso (1999: 104) pointed out that the Karelo-Vepsian voicing of stops, connected with the developments of the consonant gradation as it is, cannot be regarded simply as a recent result of Russian contacts.) Or, to give an example of contrary tendencies: although lexicology and etymology belong to the traditionally strongest areas in Finnish dialect research, the possibility of loanwords in Finnish proper may have been neglected. Nikkilä (2000) has found many quite obvious and relatively recent Swedish loanwords in Finnish dialects and even in the standard language that have traditionally been interpreted as native “descriptive” words.

A further problem, of course, is caused by the fact that the influx of foreign elements and structures to the minor Finnic languages has by no means been steady and uniform. Now, as these languages are spoken exclusively by bilingual people and used only in a few domains, the influence of the majority language is unmistakably overwhelming. Actually, these languages as they are spoken now, or at least some of the varieties that modern speakers use (for a more detailed analysis of the alternation between varieties of present-day Karelian cf. Sarhimaa 1999), are characterised by abundant loanwords, structural borrowings and code-switches (the extreme case, perhaps, being the almost extinct Votian – Turunen 1997) to such an extent that they might almost be called “mixed languages”. However, this present-day situation cannot be extrapolated to the more distant past (beyond the 19th century, perhaps), when the interaction between Finnic and Russian (or Latvian) speakers was less one-sided (considering the indubitable Finnic influences in Northwest Russian and in Latvian) and its mechanisms were probably much more complicated than in later times. In the framework of this kind of language interaction, where Sprachbund-like features can be observed, no similarity between a Finnic dialect and its IE neighbour can be straightforwardly written off as a “borrowing”.

To sum up: Both the research traditions and the “perspective effect” contributing, there is a danger of seeing Finnish as the most direct reflection of Proto-Finnic or even older stages and mechanisms, while the minor Finnic languages are confined to illustrating contact-induced changes to this “original” state of affairs. Within Finnic, this may lead to some noticeable, albeit minor, distortions in some details of language history and development. The real problem, however, concerns the relationship of Finnic studies and the rest of the world. This, finally, leads to the title and the main point of my paper.

The importance of minor Finnic languages to linguistic studies

The points of my paper presented so far can be summarised as follows:

The influence of the Standard Finnish bias becomes the more pernicious, the farther linguistic research proceeds from the traditional, largely Neogrammarian research, in the direction of contrastive, typological and other synchronic fields of study. For example: typologists may compare the marking of possession in different languages of Europe or the world and pay special attention to the somewhat exceptional double-marking as in Standard Finnish (minu-n kirja-ni I-GEN book-PX1SG ‘my book’, with both genitive attribute and possessive suffix). In a more deep-going study, it may be mentioned that Estonian (together with some other Finnic languages) has lost the possessive suffixes altogether and that many spoken varieties of Finnish at least seem to be losing them – although the rumours of the death of Finnish possessive suffixes are greatly exaggerated (Hurtta 1999: 88–91). An even deeper investigation will show that possession marking, as in the classical handbook example ‘my book’, actually does not represent the most frequent and most typical uses of Finnish possessive suffixes (as shown by Makkonen-Craig 1996, referred to in Hurtta l.cit.). We also have some dialectological and spoken-language research to suggest that obligatory suffixal possessive marking as in Standard Finnish does not necessarily reflect an earlier state but, rather, is a result of language planners’ generalisations, as the use of possessive suffixes in actual spoken language seems to depend on factors like reflexivity (Paunonen 1995), perhaps even definiteness as in other Finno-Ugric languages.3

It may very well be that the use of possessive suffixes in Proto-Finnic was subject to constraints more complicated than the generalised simple rules of Standard Finnish. However, as long as we do not have up-to-date and in-depth research of possessive marking and the loss of possessive suffixes in the smaller Finnic languages, we cannot safely present any morphosyntactic or pragmasyntactic reconstructions. Neither will we have anything more substantial to present in answer to typologists who, like Manzelli (1990), offer us simple generalisations of possessive suffixes and their disappearance in the whole Finnish-Karelian area – converging, as it seems, with the Standard Average European tendency to prenominal possession marking.

This example of possessive suffixes shows how in-depth studies in Finnic could shed light on the various problematic points of modern typological research and even, to some extent, question the validity of the results achieved by comparing grammars of standard languages. Particularly when focusing on the characteristics of the European languages, as in the recent EUROTYP project, typologists may fail to question the compatibility of their parameters. For example, in morphological research the points of departure are determined on the basis of West European languages where the role of morphology is either lexical (as in the research of certain derivational subsystems) or otherwise clearly definable (as in, say, the person endings in verb inflection). Consequently, the role of morphosyntactic connections may be neglected, although it may be far more essential to the Finnic languages with their rich morphology and complicated morphology-syntax interface. In this example case, it will be grossly misleading to portray the (alleged) developments in Finnic possessive marking as part of all-European areal mechanisms, disregarding their connections with, say, the marking of definiteness or subject marking in non-finite verb constructions.

Research on the small Finnic languages, published in internationally accessible forms, is thus urgently needed, in order to correct the Standard Finnish bias present in all too many typological and other contrastive investigations. In particular, we need morphosyntactic research that could take the different kinds of variation into account (which means that we need more reliable and more diverse data), and, ultimately, reveal some problems of certain approaches in linguistic research. My final point is thus the following: Not only is research of the minor Finnic languages needed for their own sake, to help them survive and maybe even grow, if possible, to full-scale use in more and more domains. Nor is it only important to Fennistic studies, where the great paradigm shift from the 1960s on has severed the natural connections between the studies of Finnish and its sister languages. It is of great importance to linguistics worldwide and to those linguists who do not have the necessary competence to scrutinise the scanty information presented in handbooks of Standard Finnish (and Estonian) in a wider perspective.


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1 This paper, although written as part of my research duties in Vienna, is also essentially connected with the research project Building with Things Native and Borrowed (, funded by the University of Helsinki and the Academy of Finland, which also made it possible to participate in the Paris colloquium.

2 In this paper, as throughout the research project, I use the term Finnic for what has previously (and somewhat misleadingly) been called “Baltic-Finnic”, that is, Finnish, Estonian and their sister languages. The use of “Finnic” in its older meaning(s), that is, denoting a smaller or larger subpart of the Finno-Ugric language family, is genetically misleading, as it over-emphasizes the dichotomy between Ugric and “Finnic” (i.e. non-Ugric), instead of portraying Ugric (like Permic, Finnic or Sámi) as one branch of the language family.

3 Here, it may be worth noting that the use of possessive suffixes in Hungarian cannot be directly compared with Finnic, being largely conditioned by different factors: as Hungarian lacks a genitive case, possessive suffixes are practically obligatory in possession marking.