Friday, December 30, 2005

Mutual intelligibility across the Finno-Ugric family?

Geoff Pullum at LL:

The Finno-Ugric family of languages contains Finnish, and its close relative Estonian, and Sami (the language of the Lappish people of the far north), and various related languages languages in Russia (Komi, Mari, Udmurt), along with a distant southern relative, Hungarian. It’s actually not that easy to show with clear etymologies and sound changes that Finnish and Hungarian really are cousins. There are maybe 200 solid cognates. (A cognate is a word showing in both its pronunciation and its meaning or grammatical properties that it was ancestrally shared by the relevant languages, and was transmitted in altered phonological form down the centuries rather than being directly borrowed between modern languages.) The Economist (December 24th, page 73) has a very interesting article about the way Finno-Ugric languages are dying in Russia. In connection with the discussion of linguistic relatedness, it cites Estonian philologist Mall Hellam as having come up with a sentence that should be intelligible to Finnish, Estonian, and Hungarian speakers alike:

Finnish: Elävä kala ui veden alla.
Estonian: Elav kala ujub vee all.
Hungarian: Eleven hal úszkál a víz alatt.

The translation is “The living fish swims in water.”  ...

I have already heard from a Finn living in Hungary, Vili Manula, who says no Hungarians understand the Finnish sentence, and certainly no Finn would understand the Hungarian one.

Posted by Nathan Bierma on 12/30 at 02:32 PM
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