Proto-Uralic language
Proto-Uralic is the hypothetical language ancestral to the Uralic
Uralic languages
The Uralic languages constitute a language family of some three dozen languages spoken by approximately 25 million people. The healthiest Uralic languages in terms of the number of native speakers are Hungarian, Finnish, Estonian, Mari and Udmurt...

 language family
Language family
A language family is a group of languages related through descent from a common ancestor, called the proto-language of that family. The term 'family' comes from the tree model of language origination in historical linguistics, which makes use of a metaphor comparing languages to people in a...

. The language was originally spoken in a small area in about 7000-2000 BC (estimates vary), and expanded to give differentiated protolanguages. The exact location of the area or Urheimat
Urheimat is a linguistic term denoting the original homeland of the speakers of a proto-language...

 is not known, but the vicinity of the Ural Mountains
Ural Mountains
The Ural Mountains , or simply the Urals, are a mountain range that runs approximately from north to south through western Russia, from the coast of the Arctic Ocean to the Ural River and northwestern Kazakhstan. Their eastern side is usually considered the natural boundary between Europe and Asia...

 is usually assumed. The available reconstruction may not be a representation of the language itself; instead, it may summarize features common to a dialect continuum
Dialect continuum
A dialect continuum, or dialect area, was defined by Leonard Bloomfield as a range of dialects spoken across some geographical area that differ only slightly between neighboring areas, but as one travels in any direction, these differences accumulate such that speakers from opposite ends of the...

 spanning from an eastern center later producing Samoyedic languages
Samoyedic languages
The Samoyedic languages are spoken on both sides of the Ural mountains, in northernmost Eurasia, by approximately 30,000 speakers altogether....

 to a western center producing Finnic languages
Finnic languages
The term Finnic languages often means the Baltic-Finnic languages, an undisputed branch of the Uralic languages. However, it is also commonly used to mean the Finno-Permic languages, a hypothetical intermediate branch that includes Baltic Finnic, or the more disputed Finno-Volgaic languages....


According to the traditional binary tree model, Proto-Uralic diverged into Proto-Samoyedic and Proto-Finno-Ugric. However, reconstructed Proto-Finno-Ugric differs little from Proto-Uralic, and many apparent differences follow from the methods used. Thus Proto-Finno-Ugric may not be separate from Proto-Uralic. Another reconstruction of the split of Proto-Uralic has three branches (Finno-Permic, Ugric and Samoyedic) from the start. Recently these tree-like models have been challenged by the hypothesis of larger number of protolanguages giving a "comb" rather than a tree. The protolanguages would be Sami, (Baltic-)Finnic, Mordva, Mari, Permic, Magyar, Khanti, Mansi, and Samoyedic. This order is both the order of geographical positions as well as linguistic similarity, with neighboring languages being more similar than distant ones.


Similarly to the situation for Proto-Indo-European
Proto-Indo-European language
The Proto-Indo-European language is the reconstructed common ancestor of the Indo-European languages, spoken by the Proto-Indo-Europeans...

, reconstructions of Proto-Uralic are traditionally not written in IPA
International Phonetic Alphabet
The International Phonetic Alphabet "The acronym 'IPA' strictly refers [...] to the 'International Phonetic Association'. But it is now such a common practice to use the acronym also to refer to the alphabet itself that resistance seems pedantic...

 but in UPA
Uralic Phonetic Alphabet
The Uralic Phonetic Alphabet or Finno-Ugric transcription system is a phonetic transcription or notational system used predominantly for the transcription and reconstruction of Uralic languages...

. UPA is used here, followed by the IPA equivalents between slashes (because it is a phonemic
In a language or dialect, a phoneme is the smallest segmental unit of sound employed to form meaningful contrasts between utterances....


Proto-Uralic had vowel harmony
Vowel harmony
Vowel harmony is a type of long-distance assimilatory phonological process involving vowels that occurs in some languages. In languages with vowel harmony, there are constraints on which vowels may be found near each other....

 and a rather large inventory of vowels in initial syllables, much like the modern Finnish or Estonian system:
Front vowel
A front vowel is a type of vowel sound used in some spoken languages. The defining characteristic of a front vowel is that the tongue is positioned as far in front as possible in the mouth without creating a constriction that would be classified as a consonant. Front vowels are sometimes also...

Back vowel
A back vowel is a type of vowel sound used in spoken languages. The defining characteristic of a back vowel is that the tongue is positioned as far back as possible in the mouth without creating a constriction that would be classified as a consonant. Back vowels are sometimes also called dark...

Unrounded Rounded Unrounded Rounded
Close vowel
A close vowel is a type of vowel sound used in many spoken languages. The defining characteristic of a close vowel is that the tongue is positioned as close as possible to the roof of the mouth without creating a constriction that would be classified as a consonant.This term is prescribed by the...

i /i/ ü /y/ ï /ɯ/ u /u/
Mid vowel
A mid vowel is a vowel sound used in some spoken languages. The defining characteristic of a mid vowel is that the tongue is positioned mid-way between an open vowel and a close vowel...

e /e/ o /o/
Open vowel
An open vowel is defined as a vowel sound in which the tongue is positioned as far as possible from the roof of the mouth. Open vowels are sometimes also called low vowels in reference to the low position of the tongue...

ä /æ/ a /ɑ/

Rounded vowels were restricted to initial syllables. Vocalic phonemes in non-initial syllables were restricted to two or three. One view is that there were only two archiphonemic non-initial vowels /a/ and /i/, realized as four allophones as per vowel harmony
Vowel harmony
Vowel harmony is a type of long-distance assimilatory phonological process involving vowels that occurs in some languages. In languages with vowel harmony, there are constraints on which vowels may be found near each other....

. Another view is that there were /a/, /i/ and /ə/. There were no long vowels nor phonemic diphthongs, though sequences of vowel and semivowel within a single syllable (such as *äj) could exist.

In the consonant system, palatalization
In linguistics, palatalization , also palatization, may refer to two different processes by which a sound, usually a consonant, comes to be produced with the tongue in a position in the mouth near the palate....

, or palatal-laminal instead of apical articulation, was a phonemic feature, as it is in many modern Uralic languages. Only one series of stops (unvoiced unaspirated) existed:
Bilabial consonant
In phonetics, a bilabial consonant is a consonant articulated with both lips. The bilabial consonants identified by the International Phonetic Alphabet are:...

Dental Palatal
Palatal consonant
Palatal consonants are consonants articulated with the body of the tongue raised against the hard palate...

In linguistics, palatalization , also palatization, may refer to two different processes by which a sound, usually a consonant, comes to be produced with the tongue in a position in the mouth near the palate....

Postalveolar consonant
Postalveolar consonants are consonants articulated with the tongue near or touching the back of the alveolar ridge, further back in the mouth than the alveolar consonants, which are at the ridge itself, but not as far back as the hard palate...

Velar consonant
Velars are consonants articulated with the back part of the tongue against the soft palate, the back part of the roof of the mouth, known also as the velum)....

Stops and
Affricate consonant
Affricates are consonants that begin as stops but release as a fricative rather than directly into the following vowel.- Samples :...

p /p/ t /t/ (ć /t͡ɕ/) č /t̠͡ʃ/ k /k/
Nasal consonant
A nasal consonant is a type of consonant produced with a lowered velum in the mouth, allowing air to escape freely through the nose. Examples of nasal consonants in English are and , in words such as nose and mouth.- Definition :...

m /m/ n /n/ ń /nʲ/ ŋ /ŋ/
Sibilant consonant
A sibilant is a manner of articulation of fricative and affricate consonants, made by directing a stream of air with the tongue towards the sharp edge of the teeth, which are held close together. Examples of sibilants are the consonants at the beginning of the English words sip, zip, ship, chip,...

s /s/ ś /ɕ/ (š /ʃ/)
Spirants δ /ð/ δ´ /ðʲ/
Lateral consonant
A lateral is an el-like consonant, in which airstream proceeds along the sides of the tongue, but is blocked by the tongue from going through the middle of the mouth....

l /l/ (ľ /lʲ/)
Trill consonant
In phonetics, a trill is a consonantal sound produced by vibrations between the articulator and the place of articulation. Standard Spanish <rr> as in perro is an alveolar trill, while in Parisian French it is almost always uvular....

r /r/
In phonetics and phonology, a semivowel is a sound, such as English or , that is phonetically similar to a vowel sound but functions as the syllable boundary rather than as the nucleus of a syllable.-Classification:...

w /w/ j /j/
unknown x?

The phonemes in parentheses are supported by only limited evidence, and are not assumed by all scholars. The postalveolar sibilant *š is scarcely attested and is treated distinctly from *s only in the Finno-Permic languages
Finno-Permic languages
The Finno-Permic languages are a traditional but disputed ,group of the Uralic languages that comprises the Baltic-Finnic languages, Sami languages, Mordvinic languages, Mari language, Permic languages, and likely a number of extinct languages...

, but certain loans from as far back as the Proto-Indo-European language
Proto-Indo-European language
The Proto-Indo-European language is the reconstructed common ancestor of the Indo-European languages, spoken by the Proto-Indo-Europeans...

 have reflexes traceable to a postalveolar fricative.

The phonetic nature of the segment symbolized by *x is uncertain, though it is usually considered a back consonant; [x], [ɣ], [ɡ], and [h] have been suggested among others. Janhunen (1981), upon first proposing this reconstruction, takes no explicit stance, leaving open the option for even a vocalic value. Its behavior is similar to the Indo-European laryngeals
Laryngeal theory
The laryngeal theory is a generally accepted theory of historical linguistics which proposes the existence of one, or a set of three , consonant sounds termed "laryngeals" that appear in most current reconstructions of the Proto-Indo-European language...

: it is reconstructed by certain scholars in syllable-final position in word-stems where a contrastive long vowel later developed, best preserved in the Finnic languages, and where Samoyedic features a vowel sequence such as *åə. *x is also reconstructed word-medially, and in this position it also develops to a Finnic long vowel, but is reflected as *k in Samic, *j in Mordvinic and *ɣ in Ugric. If a consonant, it probably derives from lenition of *k at a pre-Uralic stage; it is only found in words ending in *i, while *k is infrequent or nonexistent in similar positions.

The phonetical identity of the consonant *δ´ is also subject to some doubt. It is traditionally analyzed as the palatalized counterpart of the voiced dental fricative
Voiced dental fricative
The voiced dental non-sibilant fricative is a type of consonantal sound, used in some spoken languages. The symbol in the International Phonetic Alphabet that represents this sound, eth, is . The symbol was taken from the Old English letter eth, which could stand for either a voiced or unvoiced...

 *δ, that is, as [ðʲ]; however, a pure palatal fricative [ʝ] is another option.

The consonants *ð *r *x *ŋ could not occur word-initially. No initial or final consonant cluster
Consonant cluster
In linguistics, a consonant cluster is a group of consonants which have no intervening vowel. In English, for example, the groups and are consonant clusters in the word splits....

s were allowed, so words could begin and end with a maximum of one consonant only. Inside word roots only clusters of two consonants were permitted. There may have also been double (i.e. geminate) stops (ïppa "father-in-law"). Voicing was not a phonemic feature.

Proto-Uralic did not have tones, which contrasts with Yeniseian and some Siberian languages. Neither was there contrastive stress as in Indo-European; in Proto-Uralic the first syllable was invariably stressed.

Consonant gradation
Consonant gradation
Consonant gradation is a type of consonant mutation, in which consonants alternate between various "grades". It is found in some Uralic languages such as Finnish, Estonian, Northern Sámi, and the Samoyed language Nganasan. In addition, it has been reconstructed for Proto-Germanic, the parent...

 may have occurred already in Proto-Uralic: if it did, it was probably a phonetical alternation involving allophonic voicing of the stop consonants: [p] ~ [b], [t] ~ [d], [k] ~ [g].


Grammatically Proto-Uralic was an agglutinative language
Agglutinative language
An agglutinative language is a language that uses agglutination extensively: most words are formed by joining morphemes together. This term was introduced by Wilhelm von Humboldt in 1836 to classify languages from a morphological point of view...

 with at least six noun cases and verbs inflected for number, person, mood and tense. There were three numbers, singular, dual and plural. Proto-Uralic was a nominative–accusative language. Verbs may have had a separate subjective and objective conjugation, the latter of which was used in connection with a definite
In grammatical theory, definiteness is a feature of noun phrases, distinguishing between entities which are specific and identifiable in a given context and entities which are not ....


Grammatical gender was not recognized and no Uralic language does so even today. Noun articles were unknown. The plural marker of nouns was *-t in final position and *-j- in non-final position, as seen in Finnish. The dual
Dual may refer to:* Dual , a notion of paired concepts that mirror one another** Dual , a formalization of mathematical duality** . . ...

 marker has been reconstructed as *-k-, but the dual number has been lost in many of the contemporary Uralic languages. The nouns also had possessive suffix
Possessive suffix
In linguistics, a possessive affix is a suffix or prefix attached to a noun to indicate its possessor, much in the manner of possessive adjectives. Possessive suffixes are found in some Uralic, Altaic, Semitic, and Indo-European languages...

es; possessive pronoun
Possessive pronoun
A possessive pronoun is a part of speech that substitutes for a noun phrase that begins with a possessive determiner . For example, in the sentence These glasses are mine, not yours, the words mine and yours are possessive pronouns and stand for my glasses and your glasses, respectively...

s were not found.

The cases had only one three-way locative contrast of entering, residing and exiting. This is the origin of the three-way systems as the three different ones in Karelian Finnish
Finnish language
Finnish is the language spoken by the majority of the population in Finland Primarily for use by restaurant menus and by ethnic Finns outside Finland. It is one of the two official languages of Finland and an official minority language in Sweden. In Sweden, both standard Finnish and Meänkieli, a...

 (illative/inessive/elative, allative/adessive/ablative, translative/essive/exessive). The partitive case
Partitive case
The partitive case is a grammatical case which denotes "partialness", "without result", or "without specific identity". It is also used in contexts where a subgroup is selected from a larger group, or with numbers....

, developed from the ablative, was a later innovation by Fennic languages.

The cases were:
  • nominative
    Nominative case
    The nominative case is one of the grammatical cases of a noun or other part of speech, which generally marks the subject of a verb or the predicate noun or predicate adjective, as opposed to its object or other verb arguments...

     (no suffix)
  • accusative
    Accusative case
    The accusative case of a noun is the grammatical case used to mark the direct object of a transitive verb. The same case is used in many languages for the objects of prepositions...

  • genitive
    Genitive case
    In grammar, genitive is the grammatical case that marks a noun as modifying another noun...

  • locative
    Locative case
    Locative is a grammatical case which indicates a location. It corresponds vaguely to the English prepositions "in", "on", "at", and "by"...

     *-na / *-nä
  • ablative
    Ablative case
    In linguistics, ablative case is a name given to cases in various languages whose common characteristic is that they mark motion away from something, though the details in each language may differ...

     *-ta / *-tä
  • lative
    Lative case
    Lative is a case which indicates motion to a location. It corresponds to the English prepositions "to" and "into". The lative case belongs to the group of the general local cases together with the locative and separative case...


Verbs were conjugated at least according to number, person and tense. The reconstructions of mood markers are controversial. Some scholars argue that there were separate subjective and objective conjugations, but this is disputed; clear reflexes of the objective conjugation are only found in the easternmost branches, and hence it may also represent an areal innovation. Negation was expressed with the means of a negative verb
Negative verb
A negative verb is a type of auxiliary that is used to form the negative of a main verb. The main verb itself has no personal endings, while the negative verb takes the inflection...

 *e-, found as such in e.g. Finnish e+mme "we don't".


Only some 200 words can be reconstructed for Proto-Uralic, if it is required that every word reconstructed for the proto-language should be present in Samoyed languages. With a laxer criterion of reconstructing words which are attested in most branches of the language family, a number in the range of 300-400 words can be reached.

The following examples of reconstructed items are considered to fulfill the strictest criteria and are thus accepted as Proto-Uralic words by practically all scholars in the field:
  • Body parts and bodily functions: *ïpti hair on the head, *ojwa head, *śilmä eye, *poski cheek, *käxli tongue, *elä- to live, *kaxli- to die, *wajŋi breath, *kosi cough, *kunśi urine, *küńili tear, *sexji pus.
  • Kinship terms: *emä mother, *čečä uncle, *koska aunt, *mińä daughter-in-law, *wäŋiw son-in-law.
  • Verbs for universally known actions: *meni- to go, *toli- to come, *aśkili- to step, *imi- to suck, *soski- to chew, *pala- to eat up, *uji- to swim, *sala- to steal, *kupsa- to extinguish.
  • Basic objects and concepts of the natural world: *juka river, *toxi lake, *weti water, *päjwä sun, warmth, *suŋi summer, *śala- lightning, *wanča root, *koxji birch
    Birch is a tree or shrub of the genus Betula , in the family Betulaceae, closely related to the beech/oak family, Fagaceae. The Betula genus contains 30–60 known taxa...

    , *kaxsi spruce
    A spruce is a tree of the genus Picea , a genus of about 35 species of coniferous evergreen trees in the Family Pinaceae, found in the northern temperate and boreal regions of the earth. Spruces are large trees, from tall when mature, and can be distinguished by their whorled branches and conical...

    , *sïksi Siberian pine
    Siberian Pine
    The Siberian Pine, Pinus sibirica, in the family Pinaceae is a species of pine tree that occurs in Siberia from 58°E in the Ural Mountains east to 126°E in the Stanovoy Range in southern Sakha Republic, and from Igarka at 68°N in the lower Yenisei valley, south to 45°N in central...

    , *δ'ïxmi bird cherry
    Bird cherry
    The bird cherries are a subgenus of the genus Prunus, characterised by having deciduous leaves, flowers 12-30 together on slender racemes produced in late spring well after leaf emergence, and small, sour fruit usually only palatable to birds, hence the name...

  • Elementary technology: *tuli fire, *äjmä needle, *pura drill, *jïŋsi bow, *jänti bow string, *ńïxli arrow, *δ'ümä glue, *lïpśi cradle, *piksi rope, *suksi ski, *woča fence.
  • Basic spatial concepts: *ïla below, *üli above, *wasa left, *pälä side.
  • Pronouns: *mun I, *tun you, *ke- who, *mi- what.

A reconstruction of a word *wäśkä, meaning 'metal', has also been proposed. However, this word shows irregularities in sound correspondence, and some scholars believe it to be a Wanderwort
A Wanderwort is a word that was spread among numerous languages and cultures, usually in connection with trade, so that it has become very difficult to establish its original etymology, or even its original language...


The reconstructed vocabulary is compatible with a Mesolithic
The Mesolithic is an archaeological concept used to refer to certain groups of archaeological cultures defined as falling between the Paleolithic and the Neolithic....

 culture (bow, arrow, needle, sinew, but also rope, fence, cradle, ski), a north Eurasian landscape (spruce, birch, Siberian pine), and contains interesting hints on kinship structure
Kinship terminology
Kinship terminology refers to the various systems used in languages to refer to the persons to whom an individual is related through kinship. Different societies classify kinship relations differently and therefore use different systems of kinship terminology - for example some languages...


Examples of vocabulary correspondences between the modern Uralic languages are provided in the list of comparisons at the Finnish Wikipedia.

Uralic Continuity Theory

The Uralic Continuity Theory is a theory about the Uralic languages developed by a group of archaeologists and linguists starting in the 1970s. It suggests that the Uralic speaking populations have an uninterrupted history of settlement in their present locations since the Mesolithic
The Mesolithic is an archaeological concept used to refer to certain groups of archaeological cultures defined as falling between the Paleolithic and the Neolithic....

Their precursor populations would have occupied mid-eastern Europe in the last glacial maximum
Last Glacial Maximum
The Last Glacial Maximum refers to a period in the Earth's climate history when ice sheets were at their maximum extension, between 26,500 and 19,000–20,000 years ago, marking the peak of the last glacial period. During this time, vast ice sheets covered much of North America, northern Europe and...

 and in the Mesolithic would have followed the retreating ice, eventually settling in their present territories.

However, linguistic evidence is seen to clearly disagree with such a conclusion: the expansion of Uralic language from the Volga-Ural region have been recently dated to only about 4 000 years ago. Furthermore, it has been stressed that archaeological or genetic continuity cannot testify for linguistic continuity: in the case of expansive language families, archaeological continuity corresponds with linguistic discontinuity.

Mario Alinei
Mario Alinei
Mario Alinei is Professor Emeritus at the University of Utrecht, where he taught from 1959 to 1987, currently living in Impruneta, Italy. He is founder and editor of Quaderni di semantica, a journal of theoretical and applied semantics...

 has built on this theory for the purposes of his "Paleolithic Continuity Theory
Paleolithic Continuity Theory
The Paleolithic Continuity Theory , since 2010 relabelled as the Paleolithic Continuity Paradigm , is a hypothesis suggesting that the Proto-Indo-European language can be traced back to the Upper Paleolithic, several millennia earlier than the Chalcolithic or at the most Neolithic estimates in other...

" of Indo-European origins. The same kind of critique has been focused on the Indo-European continuity theories. It has been noted that the method can't be right if scholars get different results with it: while Alinei claims for Paleolithic continuity for Indo-European in Europe, Colin Renfrew claims only for Neolithic continuity with the very same method. And both of these continuity theories ignore the linguistic results, which again - like in the Uralic studies - point to more recent times.

Further reading

  • Janhunen, Juha. 1981a. "On the structure of Proto-Uralic." Finnisch-ugrische Forschungen 44, 23–42. Helsinki: Société finno-ougrienne
    Société Finno-Ougrienne
    Finno-Ugrian Society is a Finnish learned society, dedicated to the study of Finno-Ugric languages. It was founded in Helsinki in 1883 by the proposal of professor Otto Donner.The society publishes several academic journals, including:...


  • Janhunen, Juha. 1981b. "Uralilaisen kantakielen sanastosta ('On the vocabulary of the Uralic proto-language')." Journal de la Société Finno-Ougrienne 77, 219–274. Helsinki: Société finno-ougrienne.

  • Sammallahti, Pekka
    Pekka Sammallahti
    Pekka Lars Kalervo Sammallahti is a professor of Sámi languages at the Giellagas Institute at the University of Oulu. A prolific writer, he has published more than 100 books and articles related to Sápmi and the various Sámi languages...

    . 1988. "Historical phonology of the Uralic languages, with special reference to Samoyed, Ugric, and Permic." In The Uralic Languages: Description, History and Foreign Influences, edited by Denis Sinor, 478–554. Leiden: Brill.
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