Saami, Finnish, Inuktitut: ancient cousins, once removed

Wouldn’t it be great if everyone in the circumpolar region could understand each other without translators or interpreters? At least one linguist thinks that may have been the case about 20,000 years ago.

Michael Fortescue, a linguist and expert in Eskimo–Aleut and Chukotko-Kamchatkan, believes that a group of people, all speaking a common language that he’s dubbed “Uralo-Siberian,” then lived by hunting, fishing and gathering in south-central Siberia (an area located roughly between the upper Yenisei river and Lake Baikal in today’s Russia, as shown in the map).

The area between the Yenisei River and Lake Baikal in central Siberia where early residents are thought to have spoken a common language that gave rise to Saami, Finnish and Inuit languages.

The area between the Yenisei River and Lake Baikal in central Siberia where early residents are thought to have spoken a common language called Uralo-Siberian that gave rise to Saami, Finnish and Inuit languages.

There, families whose migrations were ruled by the coming and going of glaciers during the Ice Age moved northward out of this area in successive waves until about 4,000 BC.

Some headed west along the northern coasts and others went east, eventually crossing the Bering Strait to North America.

They would end up living across the circumpolar region, with Inuit living from Alaska through to Canada and Greenland, Saami in Sápmi (northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and northern Russia) and Finns in Finland (or Suomi in Finnish.)

During those long-ago migrations, travelers took their common language, Uralo-Siberian, Fortescue suggests.

You can still hear today’s version of that language in Nunavut — where Uralo-Siberian developed into Inuktitut — and in Finland — where that language survived as Saami and as Finnish.

To me, someone who has lived in both regions and speaks Finnish (fairly fluently) and Inuktitut (not nearly as well) and can understand when people speak Saami (usually), the idea that there was once a united Uralo-Siberian family of languages makes sense.

That’s because the grammars of the three languages feel so similar (not to mention many shared cultural elements).

Map of the Uralo-Siberian languages.

A family tree of the Uralo-Siberian and related languages which shows the various Inuit languages as well as Saami and Finnish and how they are related.

Indeed, on this family tree of Uralo-Siberian languages, Inuktitut and Finnish look like fairly close cousins.

This map shows the spread of the genetic marker Haplo group N "Y", which goes from the northern coast of Scandinavia through Siberia towards North America.

This map shows the spread of the genetic marker Haplogroup N “Y”, which goes from the northern coast of Scandinavia through Siberia towards North America.

This language family was first proposed in 1998 by Fortescue in his book Language Relations across Bering Strait . But some linguists still don’t embrace his proposal, because it looks at the spread of languages and people in a new way.

More recent genetic tests do show Saami and Finns share more genetic markers linked with Asian populations in the Bering Strait and beyond than do any other European populations.

As for this early language, Uralo-Siberian, Fortescue argues that some common grammatical marker features are recognizable in the Inuit languages, Saami and Finnish, namely:

*-t   — plural

*-k  — dual

*m — 1st person

*t  —  2nd person

*ka  —interrogative pronoun

*-n —  genitive case

And you can still find verb roots in the Inuit languages of Canada and in Saami or Finnish as well as words in all three that appear to stem from that ancient common language:

Proto-Uralo-Siberianaj (aɣ) — ‘push forward’

Proto-Eskimo–Aleut ajaɣ —‘push, thrust at with pole’

In today’s Finnish —  ajaa, ‘drive’

Or you can hear similarities in other words used today, such as:

• kina (who) in Inuktitut, ken in Finnish;

• mannik (egg) in Inukitut, monne in Saami, muna in Finnish; and,

• kamek (boot) in Inuktitut, gama in Saami, kenka in Finnish.

The spoken languages also sound similar because they’re spoken with a word-initial stress (that is with the first syllable being emphasized — i.e. Nu-navut, Su-omi.)

As well, words (both nouns and verbs) get their meaning from many added-on chunks that tell you, among other things, who did what and when and to whom. This allows for a precision that  you don’t find in English.

For example, in Inuktitut and Finnish, even the notion of saying “there” must be precise — you need to say exactly where something is, whether it’s at a certain point nearby, here or there or further away.

For some experts, the enduring similarities in these languages, spoken by a majority of people who live within the jurisdictions of Nunavut, Greenland and Finland, reflect the amazing survival of that early  Uralo-Siberian grammar and lexicon of words.

But its isolation in the North in may also have had something to do with the Uralo-Siberian language’s endurance.

The Origin and Genetic Background of the Sámi suggests that Saami and, to a lesser extent, Finns were able to maintain their separate language identities over the centuries due to their geographic isolation in the Arctic while other peoples were losing their languages to Indo-European speakers from the South.

We now see different situations between the Inuit languages, Saami and Finnish — the largest of the three languages, which is spoken by more than five million people in Finland.

In Like an iceberg. I talk about learning Inuktitut.

In a future post in A Date with Siku girl, I will talk about what it was like for me to learn Finnish as a young girl and what this experience reveals — at least to me — about language learning and preservation.

Rock art in northern Norway from the earliest inhabitants of the region. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

Rock art in northern Norway from the earliest inhabitants of the region. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

(For this post, I consulted so many sources online that I have not provided links to them all, but if you’re curious about the relationships between the ancient Uralo-Siberian languages, I urge you to do your own online searches and see what turns up. There appears to be many disputes over all the genetics and linguistics about which I could write a book, not simply a blog post. As for me, I’d be interested in receiving feedback from those more knowledgeable than I am in this area. Since publishing this blog in 2014, I received this very interesting list of words in Inuktitut, Finnish and Estonian:

 

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Like an iceberg … the end

Like an iceberg…the end

And so, in 2000, a new millennium started.

With it, huge changes in how I worked: No longer did I have the luxury of getting weathered in for days at a time or even travelling to those small communities where I spent much of the 1990s.

Koksoak river near Kuujjuaq in early June. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

Koksoak river near Kuujjuaq in early June. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

Now, it was all about cost reduction and productivity.

I was still able to travel — but it was cheaper  and more efficient to go to larger Canadian Arctic hubs like Kuujjuaq, Iqaluit, Rankin Inlet or Cambridge Bay than to Puvirnituq or Pond Inlet.

Europe often seemed closer when you could travel there for less than it cost to travel from Iqaluit to the South. I ended up covering conferences and meetings in Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Finland, and Greenland.

But a lot of my time was spent at legislative sessions, meetings or conferences in Nunavik or Nunavut —at the Kativik Regional Government, the Nunavut legislature, Inuit associations or science conferences where, as a journalist, I could get more stories.

The sun sets near Cambridge Bay in late September. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

The sun sets near Cambridge Bay in late September. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

I seemed to be able to sit in these meetings for hours with interest, to listen (often to the Inuktitut with one ear and English translation in the other.)

Knowing what had been going on for 10 years helped: I could see the news in what was discussed — that was a gift and also a curse, as I spent days glued to chairs instead of out in the communities.

As the years progressed at the Nunatsiaq News, we were no longer filing for a weekly deadline. We moved to near real-time filing that would see me posting stories and photos as events took place.

The newspaper’s news-hungry online audience also became global, with readers from around the world, and our focus at the same time became broader and more political.

A topic that I never tired of writing about after my visit to Axel Heiberg’s fossil forest in 1999, climate change, grew in importance. And, along the way, I learned a lot about polar bears, belugas, seabirdscontaminants and mining — all of which became economic as well as environmental issues.

For a couple of weeks, I even read the entire environmental impact statement for the Mary River iron mine project in north Baffin, and then sat down to write a series of stories designed to help people understand this huge project.

I also continued to write about violence, crime,  suicide, other social upheavals and disasters — drawing on those experiences from the 1990s, which form the basis of Like an iceberg.

Meanwhile, the same people moved from position to position in the North and, similarly, projects developed then fade away, only to crop up again years later. Yet some things, such as the arrival of high speed internet, changed northern life forever.

in 2006, I first visited Nunavut’s Kitikmeot region for the first time and end up returning every year until finally I carved out longer stays in Cambridge Bay, a place where people hug you when you arrive and then hug you again when you leave. I made friends, I relished the land around the community with its endless horizon and softly-curved Mount Pelly, and I tried to write stories from the community that have some heart — about Cambridge Bay’s people, culture,  history and elders.

Mt. Pelly near Cambridge Bay, dusted with snow in September. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

Mt. Pelly near Cambridge Bay, dusted with snow in late September. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

As the future home of the Canadian High Arctic Research Station, Cambridge Bay also is now home to my large collection of mostly second-hand Arctic books, which I donated in 2011 to the May Hakongak Library.

From 2000 on, most of my stories can be found on line on Nunatsiaqonline.ca, which is why the story of Like an iceberg more or less wraps up here.

I have talked about what I needed to write about and the events that challenged or formed me as a journalist — and would perhaps be forgotten if I didn’t shake them off and talk about them here.

“The iceberg needs to be broken. Even if it’s big, it will break. The only way it can get fixed is if you talk. We have to break the iceberg into pieces,” said healer Meeka Arnakaq of Pangnirtung in 1995.

Her words stuck with me. In breaking my own iceberg about those years spent around the Arctic, I’ve left out most of my personal life, trips back to Finland and Norway and many news stories to concentrate on what affected me as a journalist.

Feel free to comment here on what I did write about: Your feedback is welcome.

My thanks to Nunatsiaq News editor and friend Jim Bell who took the time to check these Like an iceberg posts to keep them free of errors and defamatory statements.

Some day this — and more — may become a book. Meanwhile, I’ve boxed up all the files from my three metal cabinets (A to Z,) as well as my photos, slides, notebooks, interview cassettes and back editions of the Nunatsiaq News. I will send them to the Arctic Institute of North America in Calgary, which has offered to add my archives to their collections. There perhaps, an eager researcher will comb through these materials and learn more about what took place and whatever I may have overlooked.

Watch out here for upcoming dates with Siku girl.

The sun sets in Iqaluit in November. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

The sun sets in Iqaluit in October, 2012. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

Did you miss Like an iceberg? You can read it all here:

Like an iceberg: on being a journalist in the Arctic

Like an iceberg, 1991…cont.

Like an iceberg, 1991…more

Like an iceberg, 1992, “Shots in the dark” 

Like an iceberg, 1992, “Sad stories”

Like an iceberg, 1993, “Learning the language of the snows”

Like an iceberg, 1993 cont., “Spring”

Like an iceberg, 1993 cont., “Chesterfield Inlet”

Like an iceberg, 1993 cont., more “Chesterfield Inlet”

Like an iceberg, 1994: “Seals and more”

Like an iceberg, 1994, cont., “No news is good news”

Like an iceberg, 1994 cont., more “No news is good news”

Like an iceberg, 1994 cont., “A place with four names”

Like an iceberg, 1995, “More sad stories”

Like an iceberg, 1995 cont., “No place like Nome”

Like an iceberg, 1995 cont., “Greenland”

Like an iceberg, 1995, cont. “Secrets”

Like an iceberg, 1996, “Hard Lessons”

Like an iceberg, 1996 cont., “Working together”

Like an iceberg, 1996 cont., “At the edge of the world”

Like an iceberg, 1996, more “At the edge of the world”

Like an iceberg, 1996, cont. “Choices” 

Like an iceberg, 1997, “Qaggiq”

Like an iceberg, 1997, more “Qaggiq”

Like an iceberg, 1997, “Qaggiq” cont.

Like an iceberg, 1997 cont., “Qaggiq and hockey”

Like an iceberg, 1997 cont., “Brain surgery in POV”

Like an iceberg, 1997 cont.: “Masks on an island”

Like an iceberg, 1997 cont., “Abusers on the pulpit”

Like an iceberg, 1998, “Bearing gifts”

Like an iceberg, 1998 cont., “At the top of the world”

Like an iceberg, 1998 cont., “A bad week” 

Like an iceberg, 1998 cont.: more from “A bad week”

Like an iceberg, 1998 cont., “Memories”

Like an iceberg, 1999, “The avalanche”

Like an iceberg, 1999 cont., “An exorcism, followed by a penis cutting”

Like an iceberg, 1999 cont., more on “the Avalanche”

Like an iceberg, 1999 cont., “Robins in the Arctic”

Like an iceberg, 1999 cont., “Fossil hunting”

Like an iceberg, 1999 cont., “Where forests grew” 

Like an iceberg, 1999 cont.,”And then there was Nunavut”