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1911 Encyclopedia Britannica


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The general term for a hypothetical, unconfirmed group of languages (also called Turanian, Finno-Tatar, &c.) constituting a primary linguistic family of the eastern hemisphere. Its subgroups. are Turkish, Finno-Ugrian, Mongol and Manchu. Philologists have differentiated various forms of the languages into numerous. subdivisions; and considerable obscurity rests on the relationship which such languages as Japanese or ancient Accadian and Etruscan bear to the subgroups already named, which are dealt with in other articles.

In its morphology Ural-Altaic belongs to the agglutinating order of speech, differing from other languages of this order chiefly in the exclusive use of suffixes attached to the unmodified root, and partly blended with it by the principle of progressive vowel harmony, in virtue of which the vowels of all the suffixes. are assimilated to that of the root. Thus the typical formula is R +R+R+R, &c., where R is the root, always placed first, and R, R, R ... the successive postfixed relational elements, whose vowels conform by certain subtle laws of euphony to that of the root, which never changes. These suffixes differ also from the case and verbal endings of true inflecting languages (Aryan, Semitic) in their slighter fusion with the root, with which they are rather mechanically united (agglutinated) than chemically fused into a term in which root and relational element are no longer separable. Hence it is that the roots, which in Aryan are generally obscured, blurred, often even changed past the possibility of identification, inUral-Altaic are always in evidence, unaffected by the addition of any number of formative particles, and controlling the whole formation of the word. For instance, the infinitive element mak of the Osmanli yaz-mak = to write becomes mek in sev-mek = to love (vowel harmony), and shifts. its place in sev-il-mek = to be loved (imperfect fusion with the root), while the root itself remains unchanged as to form and position in sev-ish-il-mek = to be impelled to love, or in any other possible combination with suffixed elements. The facility with which particles are in this way tacked on produces an exuberance, especially of verbal forms, which in Osmanli, Finnish, Magyar, Tungus and Mordvinian may be said to run riot. This is particularly the case when the numerous modal forms become further complicated by incorporating the direct pronominal object, as in the Magyar varjak=they await him, and the Mordvinian palasa = I embrace him. Thus arise endless verbal combinations, reckoned in Turki at nearly 30,000, and past counting in the Ugrian group.

Another marked peculiarity of the Ural-Altaic, at least as. compared with the inflecting orders of speech, is weak subjectivity, the subject or agent being slightly, the object of the action strongly accentuated, so that "it was done by him" becomes "it was done with him, through him, or in his place" (apud eum). From this feature, which seems to be characteristic of all the branches, there follow some important consequences, such as a great preponderance of locative forms in the declension, - the nominative, and often even the possessive, being expressed by no special suffix. Hence also the object normally precedes the subject, while the idea of possession (to have) is almost everywhere replaced by that of being (to be), so that, even in the highly developed Osmanli, "I have no money" becomes. "money-to-me not-is" ( Akchehim yokdiir). In fact the verb is. not clearly differentiated from the noun, so that the conjugation is mainly participial, being effected by agglutinating pronominal, modal, temporal, negative, passive, causative, reciprocal,, reflexive and other suffixes to nominal roots or gerunds: I write= writing-to-me-is. Owing to this confusion of noun and verb, the same suffixes are readily attached indifferently to both, as in the Osmanli jan = soul, jan-ler = souls, and yazar = he will write, ydzar-ler = they will write. So also, by assimilation, the Yakut kotordor katollor = the birds fly (from root kot = flying), where k?tol stands for kator, and dor for lor, the Osmanli ler, or suffix of plurality.

But, notwithstanding this wealth of nominal or verbal forms, there is a great dearth of general relational elements, such as the relative pronoun, grammatical gender, degrees of comparison, conjunctions and even postpositions. Byrne's remark, made in reference to Tungus, that "there is a great scarcity of elements of relation, very few conjunctions, and no true postpositions, except those which are given in the declension of the noun," i is mainly true of the whole family, in which nouns constantly do duty for formative suffixes. Thus nearly all the Ostiak postpositions are nouns which take the possessive suffix and govern other nouns in the genitive, precisely as in the Hindi: admi-ki-taraf (men) gdya= man-of-direction (in) I went = I went towards the man, where the so-called postposition taraf, being a feminine noun = direction, requires the preceding possessive particle to be also feminine ( ki for he). As there are thus only two classes of words - the roots, which always remain roots, and the suffixes, which always remain suffixes - it follows that there can be no true composition or word-building, but only derivation. Even the numerous Magyar nominal and adjectival compounds are not true compounds, but merely two words in juxtaposition, unconnected by vowel harmony and liable to be separated in construction by intervening particles. Thus in aran-sinii = gold-colour = golden, the first part aran receives the particle of comparison, the second remaining unchanged, as if we were to say "Bolder-colour" for "more golden"; and ata-fi = relative becomes ata-m-fi-a = my relative, with intrusion of the pronominal m = my.

But, while these salient features are common, or nearly common, to all, it is not to be supposed that the various groups otherwise present any very close uniformity of structure or vocabulary. Excluding the doubtful members, the relationship between the several branches is far less intimate than between the various divisions of the Semitic and even of the Aryan family, so that, great as is, for instance, the gap between English and Sanskrit, that between Lapp and Manchu is still greater.

After the labours of Castren, Csink, Gabelentz, Schmidt, Bohtlingk, Zenker, Almqvist, Radlov, Munkacsi-Berat and especially Winkler, their genetic affinity can no longer be seriously doubted. But the order of their genetic descent from a presumed common organic Ural-Altaic language is a question presenting even greater difficulties than the analogous Aryan problem. The reason is, not only because these groups are spread over a far wider range, but because the dispersion from a common centre took place at a time when the organic speech was still in a very low state of development. Hence the various groups, starting with little more than a common first germ, sufficient, however, to give a uniform direction to their subsequent evolution, have largely diverged from each other during their independent development since the remotest prehistoric times. Hence also, while the Aryan as now known to us represents a descending line of evolution from the synthetic to the analytic state, the Ural-Altaic represents on the contrary an upward growth, ranging from the crudest syntactical arrangements in Manchu to a highly agglutinating but not true inflecting state in Finnish.' No doubt Manchu also, like its congeners, had formerly possessive affixes and personal elements, lost probably through Chinese influences; but it can never have possessed the surprisingly rich and even superabundant relational forms so characteristic of ' Gen. Prin. of Struct. of Lang. i. 391 (London, 1885).

' "Meine Ansichten werden sich im Fortgange ergeben, so namentlich dass ich nicht entfernt die finnischen Sprachen far flexivische halten kann" (H. Winkler, Uralaltaische Volker, 188 4, i. p. 54). Yet even true inflexion can scarcely be denied at least to some of the so-called Yenisei Ostiak dialects, such as Kotta and others still surviving about the middle Yenisei and on its affluents, the Agul and Kan (Castren, Yen., Ostjak and Kort. Sprachlehre, 1858, Preface, pp. v-viii). These, however, may be regarded as aberrant members of the family, and on the whole it is true that the Ural-Altaic system nowhere quite reaches the stage of true inflexion.

Magyar, Finn, Osmanli and other western branches. As regards the mutual relations of all the groups, little more can now be said than that they fall naturally into two main divisions - MongoloTurkic and Finno-Ugro-Samoyedo-Tungusic - according to the several methods of employing the auxiliary elements. Certainly Turkic lies much closer to Mongolic than it does to Samoyedic -and Tungusic, while Finno-Ugric seems to occupy an intermediate position between Turkic and Samoyedic, agreeing chiefly in its roots with the former, in its suffixes with the latter. Finno-Ugric must have separated much earlier, Mongolic much later, from the common connexion, and the latter, which has still more than half its roots and numerous forms in common with Turkic, appears on the whole to be the most typical member of the family. Hence many Turkic forms and words can be explained only by reference to Mongolic, which has at the same time - numerous relations to FinnoUgric and Samoyedic that have been lost in Turkic and Tungusic. It may therefore be concluded that the Finno-Ugric migrations to the north and west and the Tungusic to the east had been completed while the Turkic and Mongolic tribes were still dwelling side by side on the Altai steppes, the probable cradle of the Ural-Altaic peoples.

How profoundly the several groups differ one from the other even in their structure is evident from the fact that such assumed universal features as unchangeable roots and vowel harmony are subject to numerous exceptions, often spread over wide areas. Not only is assimilation of final consonants very common, as in the Osmanli bulun-mak for the Uighur bulul-mak, but the root vowel itself is frequently subject to umlaut through the influence of suffixed vowels, as in the Aryan family. Thus in the Surgut dialect of Ostiak the long vowels of nominal stems become modified before the possessive suffix, a and e to i and o to u (Castren). It is still more remarkable to find that the eastern (Yenisei) Ostiak has even developed verbal forms analogous to the Teutonic strong conjugation, the presents tabaq`, abbatag`an and datpaq` becoming in the past tobaq`, abbatog`an and datpiyaq` respectively; so also taig, torg and targ, present, past and imperative, are highly suggestive of Teutonic inflexion, but more probably are due to Tibetan influences. In the same dialects many nouns form their plurals either by modifying the root vowel, in combination with a suffixed element, or by modification alone, the suffix having disappeared, as in the English foot feet, goose - geese. So also vowel harmony, highly developed in Finnish, Magyar and Osmanli, and of which two distinct forms occur in Yakutic, scarcely exists at all in Cheremissian, Votyak and the Revel dialect of Esthonian,;while in Mordvinian and Syryenian, not the whole word, but the final vowels alone are harmonized. The unassimilated Uighuric kilur-im answers to the Osmanli kilur-um, while in Manchu the concordance is neglected, especially when two consonants intervene between the root and the suffixed vowels. But too much weight should not be attached to the phenomenon of vowel harmony, which is of comparatively recent origin, as shown in the oldest Magyar texts of the 12th century, which abound in such discordances as halal-nek, tiszta-seg, for the modern halal-nak, tiszta-sag. It clearly did not exist in the organic Ural-Altaic speech, but was independently developed by the different branches on different lines after the dispersion, its origin being due to the natural tendency to merge root and suffix in one harmonious whole.




Finnish. .. .

u, o, a

ii, o, a

e, i

Magyar. .. .

u, o, a

ii, o

e, i

Mordvinian.. .

u, o, a

a, i


Syryenian. .. .

o, a

a, i, e

. .

Osmanli. .. .

u, o, a, e

ii, o, e, i


Mongolian. .. .

u, o, a

ii, o, a


Buriat. .

u, o, a

ti, o, a

e, i

Manchu. .. .

o, o, a


u, i

This progressive vocalic harmony has been compared to a sort of progressive umlaut, in which the suffixed vowels are brought by assimilation into harmony with those of the root. All vowels are broadly divided into two categories, the guttural or hard and the palatal or weak, the principle requiring that, if the root vowel be hard, the suffixed must also be hard, and vice versa. But in some of the groups there is an intermediate class of "neutral" vowels, which do not require to be harmonized, being indifferent to either category. In accordance with these general principles the vowels in some of the leading members of the Altaic family are thus classified by L. Adam :' - A close analogy to this law is presented by the Irish rule of "broad to broad" and "slender to slender," according to which under certain conditions a broad ( a, o, u) must be followed in the next syllable by a broad, and a slender ( e, i ) by a slender. Obvious parallelisms are also such forms in Latin as annus, perennis, ars, iners, lego, diligo, where, however, the root vowel is modified by the affix, not the affix by the root. But such instances suffice to show De l'harmonie des voyelles dans les langues Ouralo - Altdiques (Paris, 1 874)

that the harmonic principle is not peculiar to the Ural-Altaic, but only more systematically developed in that than in most other linguistic families.


Besides the references given above, the chief general treatises on Ural-Altaic philology are: Winkler, Das Uralaltaische and seine Gruppen (Berlin, 1885); Kellgren, Die Grundziige der finnischen Sprachen mit Riicksicht auf die Uralaltaischen Sprachstamme (Berlin, 1847); Castren, Ueber die Ursitze des finnischen Volkes (Helsingfors, 1849); ibid., Syrjaen. Gram., Samojed. Gram., and numerous other comparative grammars, dictionaries and general treatises, chiefly on the Finno-Ugric and Samoyedic groups; W. Thomsen, Ueber den Einfluss der germanischen Sprachen auf die Finnisch-Lappischen (Germ. trans. by Sievers, Halle, 1870 - a classical work); Abel Remusat, Recherches sur les langues Tartares (Paris, 1820); L. Adam, Gram. de la langue Mandchoue (Paris, 1872), and Gram. de la langue Tongouse (Paris,1874) Bohtlingk, Die Sprache der Jakuten (St Petersburg, 1851); Radloff, Volksliteratur der turkischen Stdmme Siid-Sibiriens (St Petersburg, 1872), and "Remarks on the Codex Comanicus," Bull. St Petersb. Acad. Sc. xxxi. No. i; Zenker, Gram. der turkischen-tatarischen Sprachen; Schmidt, Mongol. Gram.; Gabelentz, Gram. Mandchoue (Altenburg, 1833); Csink, Hung. Gram. (London, 1853); and Vambery, Das Tiirkenvolk (Leipzig, 1885), and Uigurische SprachMonumente u. das Kudatku Bilik (Innsbruck, 1870). (A. H. K.)

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Bibliography Information
Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Ural-Altaic'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. 1910.

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