What is Finnougristics?


The world’s languages are usually divided into language families, that is, they are grouped together on the basis of their linguistic relatedness. In Europe, the largest language family is Indo-European, which includes the Germanic, Romance, Slavic, Baltic, and Celtic languages, as well as Greek and Albanian. In second place, with considerably fewer speakers, is the Finno-Ugric language family, which is composed of Hungarian, Finnish, and Estonian, as well as twelve smaller languages spoken primarily in Russia. These languages, along with the cultures associated with them, are the subject of Finno-Ugric philology (or Finnougristics).

What makes these languages special? And why study these languages and people groups? One aspect of these languages that makes them stand out is their agglutinative, that is to say, “adhesive” or “concatenative” structure. More precisely, these languages have a separate suffix for each grammatical category or function – unlike English, where in the case of the phrase, “of the houses,” the genitive is expressed by the preposition “of” and the plural by the ending -s; in Finnish this would be talojen, where -j- expresses the plural and -en the genitive. Such languages can form words with a multitude of suffixes, which in English would require several words or even a whole sentence for translation. An example is “talo-i-ssa-ni-ko-s” (the hyphens separate the individual suffixes), which would be translated into English as "in my houses?".

Of course, Finno-Ugric languages also differ radically in vocabulary from English as well as other languages typically taught in school, making them seem very exotic. While this aspect may pose a challenge for the learner, there are also many upsides to these languages, such as the fact that they are always spoken as they are written (in contrast to English, with words like “colonel” and “Wednesday”) or that they are generally very regular, i.e., there are not many exceptions to memorize (unlike English, which has “go,” “went,” “gone,” and “child” and “children”).

The Finno-Ugric languages are also in a unique position in Europe due to their having only about 20 million speakers: they are always surrounded by Indo-European languages—they are always in the minority (e.g., in the EU). Most Finno-Ugric peoples do not have their own sovereign territory (e.g., the Sami), and, with the exception of Hungary, they mostly live in the periphery of Europe. This is accompanied by significant differences in culture, literature, mentality, and customs.

Finnougristics deals not only with these questions, but also with the history of these peoples: Where did the Finno-Ugric peoples come from? How did the Finns come to live in Scandinavia and the Hungarians in Central Europe? Determining linguistic connections that are often not readily apparent (e.g., between Finnish and Hungarian) is also a key area of research. This unique blend of fields of research, combined with the exotic nature of the languages, is what makes the study of Finnougristics so exciting.