Geographic isolation is a term commonly used in biogeography to explain how a species might diverge into two distinct species. What is often overlooked is how this mechanism serves as a major driving force for many cultural and linguistic differences among different human populations. This article explores one such case: the divergence of Hungarian and Finnish.
Origins of the Finno-Ugrian Language Family
Also known as the Finno-Ugrian language family, the Uralic language family consists of thirty-eight living languages. Today, the number of speakers of each language varies immensely from thirty (Votian) to fourteen million (Hungarian). Linguists unite these diverse tongues with a hypothetical common ancestor called the Proto-Uralic language. This common ancestral language is posited to have originated in the Ural Mountains between 7,000 to 10,000 years ago.
The origin of the modern Hungarian people is theorized to be the Magyars who resided in the dense forests on the Western side of the Ural Mountains. For unknown reasons, they migrated to western Siberia at the beginning of the Christian era. There, they were vulnerable to the onslaught of military attacks by eastern armies such as the Huns.
Later, the Magyars formed an alliance with the Turks and become a formidable military power that raided and fought throughout Europe. From this alliance, many Turkish influences are evident in the Hungarian language even today. After being driven out by the Pechenegs in 889 CE, the Magyar people searched for a new home, eventually settling on the outer slopes of Carpathians. Today, their descendants are the Hungarian people who still inhabit the Danube Valley.
The Finnish people split off from the Proto-Uralic language group approximately 4,500 years ago, traveling west from the Ural Mountains to the south of the Gulf of Finland. There, this group split into two populations; one settled in what is now Estonia and the other moved northward to modern-day Finland. Through differences in region and over thousands of years, these languages diverged into unique languages, Finnish and Estonian. In the middle ages, Finland was under Swedish control, apparent from the significant Swedish influence present in the Finnish language today.
The Divergence of Finnish and Hungarian
The diaspora of the Uralic language family has led to geographic isolation between members. In fact, there is a clear pattern in this language family between distance and language divergence. One of the most obvious examples of this drastic divergence is the relationship between Finnish and Hungarian. These two major branches split approximately 4,500 years ago, compared with Germanic languages, whose divergence commenced an estimated 2,000 years ago.
There are nine independent Uralic languages that form a "language chain" from the Danube valley to the coast of Finland. Hungarian and Finnish exist on the polar opposite ends of this language chain. Hungarian is even more isolated due to its people's history of conquering while traveling across Europe toward Hungary. Excluding Hungarian, the Uralic languages form two geographically continuous language chains along major waterways.
Coupling this vast geographic distance with several thousand years of independent development and vastly differing history, the extent of the language diversion between Finnish and Hungarian is not surprising.
Finnish and Hungarian
At first glance, the differences between Hungarian and Finnish seem overwhelming. In fact, not only are Finnish and Hungarian speakers are mutually unintelligible to each other, but Hungarian and Finnish differ significantly in basic word order, phonology, and vocabulary. For example, although both based on the Latin alphabet, Hungarian has 44 letters while Finnish has only 29 in comparison.
Upon closer inspection of these languages, several patterns reveal their common origin. For example, both languages employ an elaborate case system. This case system uses a word root and then the speaker can add several prefixes and suffixes in order to tailor it for their specific needs.
Such a system at times leads to extremely long words characteristic of many Uralic languages. For example, the Hungarian word "megszentségteleníthetetlenséges" translates to "a thing that is almost impossible to make unholy", originally coming from the root word "szent", meaning holy or sacred.
Perhaps the most significant similarity between these two languages is the relatively large number of Hungarian words with Finnish counterparts and vice versa. These common words generally are not exactly alike but can be traced to a common origin within the Uralic language family. Finnish and Hungarian share approximately 200 of these common words and concepts, most of which concern everyday concepts such as body parts, food, or family members.
In conclusion, despite the mutual unintelligibility of Hungarian and Finnish speakers, both originated from a Proto-Uralic group that resided in the Ural Mountains. Differences in migration patterns and histories led to geographic isolation between language groups that in turn led to the independent evolution of language and culture.