Note: The following article is a contribution to the "discussion" which has raged the past six years on the origin of the Finns, the ontology of the Uralic proto-language and the methodology of Uralic historical linguistics - i.e. the "family tree" discussion. I have written it partially because in my review of Künnap's "Breakthrough in present-day Uralistics" (Tartu 1998) in Linguistica Uralica 1999:4 I did not go into the matter as deeply as I would have liked - it being a book review, after all - and because my own ideas on the subject have developed a little. There are a few reasons why I publish it on the Internet rather than on paper. First of all, I dislike the idea of trees getting killed to print a contribution to a discussion which I believe is unproductive at best. Second, I have very little substantial to add to excellent critical articles of Esa Itkonen, Johanna Laakso and Eberhardt Winkler. Not printing it has also enabled me to go on a bit of "quoting-madness" on my own - this is a word of warning. Those of you who are still interested can read on.

16 Jan. 2002: I added provisional english translations of quotes in Finnish and Estonian. MdS



Merlijn de Smit
april 9, 2001

Mundus dicitur quasi undique motus

est enim in perpetuo motu

Honorius of Autun, Imago Mundi 1:1


In my opinion, the body of ideas proposed in recent years by a number of researchers in different scientific disciplines, most notably by Kalevi Wiik and Ago Künnap, which have lead to the publication of a number of books and to an occasionally sharply polemical discussion in different journals of Uralic linguistics, concern two different hypotheses, which are not interdependent - in fact, I believe it would be imprudent to regard these two are two sides of the same "innovationist" coin. The first of these hypotheses is a new hypothesis on the location of the Uralic proto-language in space and time and on the processes by which it has dispersed. The second is a new view on the nature of the proto-language and the way in which language is transferred through time itself, and acceptance of the latter would bear momentous consequences for the methodology of historical linguistics.

As Esa Itkonen (1999: 88) remarked, it is inaccurate to speak of two camps in present-day Uralistics since the "traditional" camp is not a monolith. It is almost impossible to define "traditionalist" Uralistics except perhaps by its acceptance of the comparative method. As for the question of the location of Proto-Uralic in time and space, traditional comparative linguistics has generally operated with a "bottom line" of some 6,000 years before Christ, since it is generally considered impossible to discern older genetic relationships between languages. Locating the place of origin of a proto-language is riddled with difficulties and pitfalls. Its different purely linguistic methods, like linguistic paleontology and the identification of ancient layers of loanwords are often inconclusive in themselves. Linguistic paleontology bases itself on the semantic reconstruction of lexemes, the interpretation of which (is a 'horse' a wild horse or a domesticated horse? Is it your own horse or the horse of some neighbour population?) is often problematic (Renfrew 1987: 80-86, Beekes 1995: 47-48, Sims-Williams 1998: 509) - which doesn't mean, of course, that hypotheses arrived at by linguistic paleontology should be dismissed out of hand . The identification of ancient layers of loanwords, for example PIE loanwords in Proto-Uralic and Proto-Finno-Ugric, and drawing conclusions from it regarding the location of the proto-language, essentially makes one hypothesis on the location of a proto-language dependent upon another (Sims-Williams 1998: 510).


A massive general problem in sifting the linguistic evidence for a location of a proto-language is that the evidence at hand is probably incomplete - it being based only on the languages which have survived (1).

The location of a proto-language, and its dispersal, in time is often based on the identification between archaeological cultures and languages - based on the principle that archaeological cultural continuity presupposes linguistic continuity (Makkay 1992: 196), and the assumption that, in the words of Christian Carpelan (2000: 8) "[...] there is a strong possibility that an archaeological culture, defined by ceramics, represents also a common vernacular.". As Robert S.P. Beekes (1995: 45) puts it: "Linguistic information offers us no basis for determining the moments of time at which the Indo-European peoples began to inhabit the areas which would later become the areas where they settled. Evidence for this must come from archaeology [...]".

Thus the arrival of Uralic languages in Finland is often equated with the arrival of comb ceramics around 4,000 years B.C. (Carpelan 1996: 14, Kallio 1997: 123), and early Indo-Europeans are seen as the bearers of the Sredny Stog culture in Southern Russia around 4,500-3,500 B.C. (Beekes 1995: 50). This approach is problematic. The assumption of a one-to-one correspondence between an archaeological culture and a reconstructed language - and that the spread of an archaeological culture implies the spread of a language - is dangerous (Renfrew 1987: 86-94, Sims-Williams 1998: 511), since it contains assumptions on the nature of an archaological culture (linguistically homogenous) and its spread (co-occurring with linguistic expansion and possibly expansion of a population) which are not necessarily based on the evidence provided by archaeology. The danger of drawing inferences about the one based on evidence provided by the other was aptly commented by Renfrew (1987: 19): "It is perhaps reasonable that the historical linguistics should be based upon the archaeology, but that the archaeological explanation should simultaneously be based upon the linguistic analysis gives serious cause for concern. Each discipline assumes that the other can offer conclusions based upon sound independent evidence, but in reality one begins where the other ends. They are both relying on each other to prop up their mutual thesis."

The new approach in putting together archaeological, linguistic and now also genetic evidence to attain a big picture of the populations and languages of prehistoric Europe, hailed by the "innovationist" Uralists (Künnap 1998a: 40-49) concerns time-depths generally considered out of reach for historical linguistics. Whereas Milton Nuñez dates the colonization of Finland by Uralic speakers to the end of the last ice age, around 10,000 B.C. (Nuñez 1997: 56), hypotheses of the linguistic situation in Europe have been made using even bigger time-depths, up until 40,000 B.C. (Künnap 1998a: 36). The argument that it is impossible to make any statement of the linguistic situation using these time-depths, and that any hypothesis would almost rely entirely on archaeology, has been made (Larsson 1995: 34, also Winkler 1999: 248).


However, it has also been pointed out, for example by Colin Renfrew (2000: 14-15) that the linguistic "borderline" of 6,000-8,000 years after which genetic linguistic relationships can no longer be discerned is quite arbitrary and not, in fact, based on any linguistic evidence. However, rejecting glottochronology and principally accepting a substantially older timing of the proto-language does not mean that no limits exist. Although the timing of proto-Uralic at about 10,000 B.C. may be acceptable, this does not mean automatically that making statements about "pre-Lapps" around 40,000 B.C., thus long before any imaginable timing of PU, is acceptable.

In a recent article, Colin Renfrew summarized the aim of the new approach as follows: "The wider aim, however, must be to establish a number of general principles relating language change to demographic, social and economic change." (Renfrew 2000: 11), "If, however, we take what I would regard as the optimistic view, and accept the proposals made earlier for greater time depths, we then reach the possibility for some correlations or equivalencies between linguistic events and climatic sequences and socio-economic processes" (Renfrew 2000: 24). Thus the expansion of languages are no longer equated with the expansion of archaeological cultures, but rather seen against the background of some of the sweeping demographical and economical changes of prehistoric Europe, the most important being the Neolithic revolution. As for the expansion of the Uralic languages, the recession of the Ice cap covering Scandinavia and Finland and the subsequent movement of big game into the newly uncovered land would be the relevant factors facilitating such an expansion (Julku 2000: 126-127).

Nuñez' model for the expansion of the Uralic languages into Finland, be it right or wrong, does not implicate any consequences for the nature of the Uralic proto-language, for the methodology of historical linguistics or indeed for the status of the language family tree - in fact, Pekka Sammallahti, one of the first Uralists to accept Nuñez' model in his paperLanguage and Roots at the Jyväskylä congress in 1995, did so while defending the "traditional" view on the existence of a Uralic proto-language and its subsequent break-up into daughter languages (Sammallahti 1995: 143-144). It is principally possible to accept the "innovationist" model about the location of Proto-Uralic in time and space while rejecting the "innovationist" conception about what is essentially the way language moves through time. Whereas I believe the new conception about the time and place of Proto-Uralic is interesting, it is beyond my expertise to either accept or reject it. This is not so of the new conception about Proto-Uralic and the Uralic family tree. In my opinion, the new conception is destructive of the methodology of historical linguistics, entails a static and anti-historical view on language and, ultimately, rather than a breakthrough in Uralistics, resembles more a recession of Uralistics to a pre-scientific age. I will elaborate on my objections below.



In his recent article on tree models, Urmas Sutrop (2000: 165) writes: "The belief that both nature and human society develop according to certain laws was characteristic of the intellectual climate of the 19th century. August Schleicher [...] wrote, for example, "What Lyell carried out for the natural history of Earth the same did Darwin for the natural history of life on earth" [...]. Social scientists thought that even human history follows some law of evolution." What Sutrop refers to is, I believe, the defining breakthrough in 19th century science, to which many current scientific disciplines, among them historical linguistics, owe their existence: the breakthrough of the conception that the material world, and thus the object of scientific research, is not a creation of God, static or in decline from an ideal, pristine state, but subject to constant change - and that this change happens according to laws which may be uncovered by the human mind.

As Friedrich Engels wrote in Ludwig Feuerbach und der Ausgang der klassischen deutschen Philosophie, published in the middle of this scientific revolution: "Die alte Metaphysik, die die Dinge als fertige hinnahm, entstand aus einer Naturwissenschaft, die die toten und lebendigen Dinge als fertige untersuchte. Als aber diese Untersuchung so weit gediehen war, daß der entscheidende Fortschritt möglich würde, der Übergang zur systematischen Untersuchung der mit diesen Dingen in der Natur selbst vorgehenden Veränderungen, da schlug auf philosophischem Gebiet die Sterbestunde der alten Metaphysik. Und in der Tat, wenn die Naturwissenschaft bis Ende des letzten Jahrhunderts vorwiegend sammelndeWissenschaft, Wissenschaft von fertigen Dingen war, sie ist sie im unserm Jahrhundert wesentlich ordnende Wissenschaft, Wissenschaft von den Vorgängen, vom Ursprung und der Entwicklung dieser Dinge und vom Zusammenhang, der diese Naturvorgänge zu einem großen Ganzen verknüpft. Die Physiologie, die die Vorgänge im pflanzlichen und tierischen Organismus untersucht, die Embryologie, die die Entwicklung des einzelnen Organismus von Keim bis zur Reife behandelt, die Geologie, die die allmähliche Bildung der Erdoberfläche verfolgt, die alle sind Kinder unseres Jahrhunderts." (Engels 1888: 52). This shift of paradigm had great consequences for biology (Darwin), social theory (Marx) and, of course, historical linguistics. Thus biology moved forward from merely classifying species (Linnaeus) towards researching their historical development (Darwin), instead of regarding them as unchangeable creations of God.

Likewise, linguistics progressed from descriptive grammar towards researching language from a historical perspective - no longer regarding languages merely as the offspring of Babel or the degenerated exponents of the great classical languages, but as objects of birth, constant development and extinction. This dichotomy between a view regarding the world as static and unchanging and a view regarding the world as dynamic and ever-changing was, of course, not entirely new in the 19th century: I would like to mention here the contradictory views of the Ionian natural philosophers like Anaximander and Herakleitos and between the Eleatian school of Parmenides. Whereas the Ionian natural philosophers stressed the dynamic nature of the cosmos and were imbued with a keen interest in uncovering its nature - and thus became the precursors of modern science (Mühlestein 1981: 50-51), Parmenides, a precursor of Plato, believed the moving, changing material world to be illusory, a mere reflection of a static higher world (Mühlestein 1981: 53).


I am convinced that, as Winkler (1999: 248) pointed out, the new conception on proto-languages, the family tree and the comparative method amounts to a recession of linguistics to a pre-19th century level - a reversal of the 19th century scientific breakthrough. The methodological criticisms of the comparative method, i.e. "back-reconstruction" sharply criticized by Künnap (1998a: 113), make any uncovering of past historical developments impossible (Winkler 1999: 245). The new conception of genetic relationships between languages, mainly conflating these with contact relationships, and the criticism of the language family tree based thereupon makes determination of the genetic identity of a language impossible and, in fact, meaningless.

On the background of these lies a constant tendency by the "innovationists" to confuse the object of research, language history, with the methods by which it is researched and the eventual diagram depicting it - e.g., Sutrop (2000b: 198) claims that something called "the language family tree theory" (2) denies language contacts contribute to "a language family tree formation" - a notion which was rightly ridiculed by Esa Itkonen (1998a) two years earlier - the genetic identity of a language is seen as merely a "theoretical construct", the more conservative and stable parts of a language are seen by Saukkonen (2000: 373) as determining the genetic identity of a language itself, not merely as serving as a tool in determining these, and so on. This confusion tends to make historical linguistics a meaningless, speculative game in which the actual goal of any historical linguistics - uncovering real past language changes - is no longer attainable.


The language family tree is a perfect model in depicting that, which it is meant to depict: the break-up of proto-languages into "daughter" languages, whether this be envisioned as a gradual disintegration process or as a rather sudden event brought about by the migration of speakers. The language family tree does not depict language contact influences, and it is doubtful whether this would be desirable at all, since language contact and genetic transmission of language are two essentially different processes (Winter 1990: 14), and recent attempts to built tree models encompassing both genetic influence and language contact influence, like for example the model proposed by Raukko and Östman (1995), which I will treat later, are based upon an unjustified conflation of these two. Of course, a family tree model of languages is not the only applicable family tree model in historical linguistics. One can draw a family model depicting the development of a certain proto-phoneme, and here the nodes signify common innovations rather than proto-languages (which are, of course, defined by a number of common innovations distinguishing them from earlier language stages), as was Budenz' early finno-ugric family tree. I mention this since the recent critics of the language family tree model in Uralistics have sometimes criticized language family tree models in a rather eclectic matter rather than the linguistic premises on which these are based (for example Künnap 1998a: 9-10).


The family tree model is also criticized (for example in Häkkinen 1984) for presenting an oversimplified view on the rather murky processes in which dialectal variations of a proto-language emerge as nascent languages, in which isoglosses can easily transcend later language (and language family) boundaries (Hoenigswald 1990: 443) while not indicating discrete intermediate proto-languages, and as such is counterposed to the wave model. The two models however differ radically in a number of important respects: whereas the wave model accounts for cross-language isoglosses in the dimension of space, it has little time-depth, and likewise, the family-tree model which depicts the movement of languages through time has little geographical dimension.

It is hard to compare two models which differ even in their objects of research, and I personally see no way in which they conflict which each other. Although Southworth (1964) tries to reconcile the two models in including cross-branch isoglosses in a family tree diagram, I believe it is unreasonable to demand that the language family tree model accounts for, for example, language contact influence and cross-branch isoglosses, and doubt the necessity of such an all-encompassing model. As Hoenigswald (1990: 442) puts it rather reservedly: "This does not mean that language trees are not useful devices so long as the impossible - a complete depiction of full history - is not asked of them."

It has been mentioned, for example by Ernst Pulgram (1971: 235-236) and Esa Itkonen (1998: 96-97) that the family tree diagram is actually implicit in the comparative method itself. As Itkonen (1998a: 96-97) mentions: "Tietysti sukupuun käsitettä eli kantakielestä lähtevää asteittaista jakautumismallia voidaan käyttää ilman, että piirretään varsinaista sukupuukuviota." ("Of course we can use the concept of the family tree, a model of gradual division departing from a proto-language, without drawing an actual family tree diagram") . The one premise underlying the comparative method (which always means reconstructing a more or less uniform proto-language on the basis of present-day linguistic diversity: the reverse would be absurd) and thus the family tree model is that, while languages often disintegrate into more daughter languages, merger of two (or more) languages into one single language is regarded as very rare or even categorically denied (Dyen 1987: 107, also Itkonen 1998b: 213) - unlike disintegration of a proto-language into daughter languages, gradual merger of genetically unrelated languages lacks empirical evidence, as Laakso (1999b: 60) points out. Thus every serious and relevant critique on the family tree model (and the comparative method) must proceed by attacking this premise and bringing forth the possibility of language merger. The most obvious, though perhaps not the only (3), candidates for language merger are pidgin and creole languages, although these are regarded by for example Thomason and Kaufman (1988: 3, also Thomason 1997: 74) and Dyen (1987: 107) as languages of non-genetic origin, not the product of normal language transmission from generation to generation. Whereas Dyen (1987: 107) regards the emergence of creole languages as a historically specific occasion, happening only after the onset of colonization, Polomé (1982: 246) is rather optimistic about the possibility of discovering ancient creole languages, although he rejects the possible candidates under examination, like Hittite or Proto-Germanic.


Also Kaisa Häkkinen, in her famous article Wäre es schon an der Zeit, den Stammbaum zu fallen? (Häkkinen 1984: 1-2), referred to the possibility of language merger. More recently, Häkkinen expressed her criticism of the language family tree model in the following words: "Sukulaisuudesta todistava samankaltaisuus voidaan selittää monin tavoin, esim. johtamalla nämä kaikki kielet yhteisestä kantakielestä tai olettamalla, että maantieteellisesti läheisesti kielimuodot ovat vaikuttaneet toisiinsa yhtäläistävästi [...] Selitykset eivät sulje pois toisiaan. Mahdollista on sekin, että rakenteeltaan samantyyppiset kielet ovat spontaanisti kehittyneet samaan suuntaan. Kun mahdollisuuksia on monta, on pelkkää mielivaltaa pukea kehityshistoria sukupuun muotoon ratkaisua kielitieteellisesti perustelematta." ("It is possible to explain similarities bearing witness of a genetic relationship in many ways, for example by deriving all these languages from a homogenous proto-language or by assuming, that geographically adjacent language forms have converged by mutual influence [...]. The explanations do not exclude one another. It is also possible, that languages of a structurally similar type have spontaneously developed in the same direction. As there are many possibilities, it would be an arbitrary decision to try and fit developmental history in the shape of a family tree without justifying this decision linguistically.") (Häkkinen 1996: 60). I do not agree with Häkkinen - I do not believe language merger or the possibility of long-term reciprocal contact creating a proto-Sprachbund are valid alternatives for the language family tree model - but the recent barrage of criticism levelled at the language tree model by the "innovationists" is essentially different.

Whereas the objections Häkkinen raises could be solved by researching the possibilities of language merger and ancient creoles, the "innovationist" critics - for example Künnap, Raukko and Östman - reject the concept of languages emerging from proto-languages out of hand (and with it the results of two hundred years of comparative research), supplanting it with a methodological sleight of hand in which actual linguistic diversity is projected automatically into past linguistic diversity. The objections they raise against the family tree model cannot be solved by linguistic inquiry.


The manner in which the "innovationists" have raised the issue of language merger is confusing. Ago Künnap's statement that "Any Uralic language, just like other languages, is a mixture of languages" (Künnap 1995: 124) can be interpreted in two mutually irreconcilable ways. According to the first, already mentioned, interpretation, a language is mixed in the conventional, genetic sense: it has - defining "genetic" in the conventional way - two or more genetic ancestors. Such an, ontological, conception of a "mixed" language is not in principle irreconcilable with historical linguistics, but it is probably not this conception which Künnap is aiming at (4). The other, epistemological, conception finds its roots in a 1995 article by Jarno Raukko and Jan-Ola Östman, ,The 'Pragmareal' Challenge to genetic language tree models. In this article, Raukko and Östman argue for a far more holistic interpretation of the genetic identity of a language (Raukko and Östman 1995: 42) taking into account not only the genetic ancestor of a language in the conventional sense, but regarding also languages which have been in contact with the language in question as "genetic ancestors" (Raukko and Östman 1995: 55, 58), in which regard they are supported by Künnap (1998c: 607). Thus two essentially different phenomena - language transmission from generation to generation and language contact influence - are conflated.


The fundamental mistake of Raukko and Östman's is regarding the genetic ancestor of a language as a purely theoretical construct: "In the light of our discussion above, Finnish and Swedish may also be said to have a common ancestor. If we take seriously the all-embracing similarities between Finnish and Swedish, we might even be able to 'reconstruct' some parts of this common ancestor (although in the present paper we will not attempt to do so)" (Raukko and Östman 1995: 46). The raison d'être of historical linguistics is to approach by linguistic reconstruction pas language varieties which have really occurred (Häkkinen 1984: 20), that the reconstruction of a protolanguage is an approximation of a real language variety of the past (Haas 1966: 130). This presupposes that the existence of an objective, external reality - not necessarily the same reality as perceived by our senses - is accepted, and that the aim of science and thus also historical linguistics is to attain a better perception of this objective reality.

This is the sine qua non of historical linguistics, and many of the "innovationists'" mistakes may indeed stem from misunderstanding or even abandoning this principle (5). The notion that languages do indeed emerge from other languages, that the aim of reconstruction is to approach an extinct ancestor language, an approach which is made possible by the comparative, based on the idea that the development of language follows certain laws, the notion that language history and genetic relationships belong to the realm of objective reality - is fundamentally lacking in Raukko and Östman's conception, regarding genetic relatedness as a theoretical construct applicable just as well to Finnish and Mordvin as to Finnish and Swedish.

Also Colin Renfrew, albeit far more cautiously than Künnap et al, entertains the idea of language convergence obliterating older genetic relationships and forming new language families, thereby referring to Trubetzkoy's article Gedanken über das Indogermanenproblem (Renfrew 2000: 13, see also Renfrew 1987: 108-109). Renfrew's view, however, does not seem to be based so much upon a redefinition of the concept of genetic relationship as on a redefinition of the concept of language family: "[...] the convergence effects operating over so long a period of time may produce a linguistic area or Sprachbund effect, with similarities developing between the languages wchich are not the product of genetic relatedness but simply of long-term interaction [...]" (Renfrew 2000: 25). Pauli Saukkonen (2000: 373) also refers to Trubetzkoy while (mis)defining the concept of genetic relatedness: "The terms 'language family' and 'proto-language' have always belonged together. The languages of a language family must have some "common" core, a common ancient structure: grammar and word stock. It is appropriate to ask which the core has to be so that we could speak about the same language family. Trubetzkoy has enumerated a few qualities that languages have to possess to be regarded as Indo-European ones. If a language has changed to much that it no more has these qualities, according to Trubetzkoy it does not belong to the Indo-European language family any longer. This train of thought proves most natural here that language families do not remain the same for ever but they disperse [?]. We cannot claim, e.g. that Finnish belongs to a 100,000 year old African language family."


This quote points to a problem in defining the concept of genetic relatedness, which is done in two ways. The first definition is formulated by Alexander Vovin (1994: 96) in the following way: "[...] two or more languages are genetically related if: 1) they share a significant number of common vocabulary items and basic morphological markers (if there is any morphology) established on the basis of regular phonetic correspondences; 2) lexical comparisons include a significant number of examples with identical semantics.". This definition, thus, requires genetic relationships to be proven (or at least to be provable) in order to exist, as opposed to unproven or unprovable by the comparative method, and is thus methodological. It enables us to say, e.g. that Finnish is genetically related to Hungarian but not genetically related ('relatable') to Haida. The other, precise but also in some situations cumbersome, definition is ontological (presented in, for example, Dyen 1987: 101-102). According to it, two languages are genetically related if they share a common ancestor, irrespective of whether it was spoken 1,000, 10,000 or 100,000 years ago, of whether the genetic relationship can be proven by comparative methodology or not. Thus Finnish is certainly genetically related to Hungarian and perhaps also to Haida, and, if one accepts the hypothesis of the monogenesis of language, probably so. This is a pretty basic distinction, and it is surprising that Saukkonen led himself astray by it. It is not at all unlikely that Finnish, indeed, belongs to a 100,000 year old African language family, or an even older one.

It is interesting how Saukkonen's outlook on the genetic relationships between languages - which are historical, diachronic relations even though genetically related languages are spoken at the same time - is indicated by the current state of affairs in a language: the "common ancient core", not the often irretrievable threads of language transmission throughout history, define genetic relatedness. This is indicated in Saukkonen's speculation of how, in the remote future, the large amounts of Indo-European loanwords will necessitate a reclassification of Finnish and Estonian as "Euro-Languages": "The future Finnish and Estonian will be Euro-languages, more and more influenced by English and other languages. The names Finnish and Estonian will be applied to them also for innumerable years to come, but then, however, they obviously do not belong to the Finno-Ugric language family in any other sense but morphologically. And in a few thousand years comparativists discuss from where the Finnish and Estonian languages of that time, after their common Proto-European, had obtained forms which deviate from other daughter-languages as English and German!" (Saukkonen 2000: 373). Little gems of wisdom like these make me think that, in a far less remote future, the current "breakthrough in present-day Uralistics" will be received with puzzled amusement by students in History of Linguistics courses, rather like the 17th century hypotheses about Dutch as the ancestral language of all mankind nowadays.
In her excellent critique of Raukko and Östman's article, Johanna Laakso (1995: 70) points out the absurd consequences of their redefinition of the concept of genetic relatedness, which is, as apparent in the above, endorsed by Saukkonen as well: "Is a language - as historical linguists obviously claim - a fixed entity, the essence of which never changes? This does not mean that even fundamental things could not change, for reasons internal and external. According to an old saying: a spade is always a spade: sometimes you put in a new shaft, sometimes a new blade, but you still call it "your spade" (and in a structuralist view, it is the same spade all the time).


In Östman and Raukko's view, a spade with a new shaft is a new spade. This leads us to a hopelessly complicated situation: ultimately, we have to consider every person's idiolect (maybe even the different codes s/he uses in different situations) as a seperate language." Or, taking Raukko and Östman's reasoning to the extreme, Finnish has remained Finnish since the dawn of time: since (genetic) language transmission is indistinguishable from contact influence, it is impossible to claim that Finnish did ever emerge from an ancestor language (in the extreme, but logical version of Raukko and Östmans model, it emerges from an ancestor language every day in everybody's idiolect), thus the Finnish language would have remained the Finnish language perhaps since the genesis of language itself, only changing continuously due to language contacts.

In the writings of the "innovationists", genetic relatedness is reduced to a mere play of words: "Concretely, we are thus suggesting that a theoretical construct like 'Baltic Europe' has a similar status to 'Indo-European', 'Germanic', 'Uralic' or 'Baltic Europe'. The status of each of these is highly hypothetical - the main reason for using them at all is methodological - so that they are equally important or unimportant when we start speculating [sic!] about the 'real ontology' of things. There is no qualitative difference between 'genetic' relationship and 'contact' relationship." (Raukko and Östman 1995: 59).

The same totally unjustified widening of the concept of genetic relationship is indicated by Künnap: "Ühtlasi on hakatud kritiseerima keelesuguluse mõistet üldse ja taandama ka seda keelekontaktidele" ("at the same time the concept of language relationship received criticism and began to get applied also to language contacts") (Künnap 1996: 509, see also Künnap 1998b: 420, 1998c: 607). In language, other than biology, acquired traits - the phenotype - are transferred to the genotype, and there is no intrinsic difference between borrowed elements - the all-embracing similarities between Finnish and Swedish - which can indeed be more numerous than the indigenious elements, but this does not justify at all equating the transfer of the genotype - the transmission of language - and the acquirement (possibly but not necessarily due to language contact) of new features in a language.

The great question which inspires my critique of Saukkonen, Raukko and Östman and Künnap is the following: is the aim of historical linguistics the uncovering of real language history, which often, in the absence of written records, can only be researched by examining present-time languages - is the research of language history justified in itself, or is it the aim of historical linguistics to place present-day languages in a more holistic context, providing them with fancy labels like "Baltic-European" or "Super-Euro-Finnish"? From the remarks of Saukkonen, Raukko and Östman I conclude that they totally fail to understand the basic tenets of historical linguistics - first of all, that language history is something which has really happened, not just determined by the eye of the beholder, and that it can be researched by using certain methods, that the aim of these methods is to uncover reality and that its results are no mere "theoretical or methodological constructs".



The issues raised in the preceding section - the " holistic" view on genetic relatedness, which has no basis in reality, the view on proto-languages and the language family tree as mere theoretical constructs - points to the relativism which is central in the "innovationist" conception of historical linguistics, exemplified by Saukkonen's, Raukko's and Östman's regarding of genetic relationships as a mere label, something which changes through time ("finno-ugric" , "euro-languages" ). The ahistoricity central to it becomes clear when the "innovationists" (in this case, Künnap and Pusztay) try to go beyond mere speculation on "alternatives" to the language family tree model, and try to put their views on methodology and historical linguistics into practice. In a number of publications, Ago Künnap (1998a: 113, 2000: 28) rails against what he calls "back-reconstruction".

"Back-reconstruction", apparently, means reconstructing a feature in a proto-language and then explaining its disappearance in one of the daughter languages: "But now a terrible mistake occurs. The traditional Uralists forget that the reconstructed Proto-Uralic is in both cases only a methodological tool and not a real language (6). They fetishize the Proto-Uralic and believe it has linguistic evidence. From the pseudo-evidence they begin to back-reconstruct the features and details of the real living contemporary Uralic languages. The so-called back-reconstruction is the worst they can do. They say: in Proto-Uralic is the evidence of such and such a feature or detail. They say: if so then all the contemporary Uralic languages must have the traces of these Proto-Uralic features or details or they have been deleted later. Why must have, why deleted?!" (Künnap 2000: 28). The same admonishment against what seems to be, essentially, what historical linguists do appears in an almost programmatical statement co-authored by no less than eighteen other researchers (Amon, Audova, Balode, Chamberlin, Klesment, Kroll, Künnap, Kuznecov, Kuprina, Mägi, Matisen, Ojamaa, Sarv, Sarv, Saina, Soosaar, Torn, Toulouze and Verschik 2000: 239). A similar methodological statement is produced by Pusztay (1997: 12): "Elementtejä, jotka esiintyvät vain joissakin uralilaisessa kielissä, ei saisi - nykyisestä käytännöstä poiketen - johtaa yhtenäiseen kantakieleen" ("one should not, contrary to current custom, derive elements present in only some Uralic languages from a homogenous proto-language."). It is thus connected to the new conception the of proto-language: is Proto-Uralic was really a loose Sprachbund of very different languages in contact with each other, common features present in some current Uralic languages indicate earlier alignments of languages within the Uralic Sprachbund (7), but cannot be generalized to Proto-Uralic as a whole.


However, with the methodological critique outlined above, Künnap and Pusztay make itimpossible to distinguish between features remnant from earlier areal alignments in a rather loose Sprachbund and features which have really disappeared from some languages and remained in others. In other words, the thesis of a non-unitary proto-Sprachbund is impossible to either prove or falsify since the alternative thesis - a more or less unitary proto-language, which has not automatically transferred all of its features to every present-day descendant language, is rejected out of hand. There is thus a circular element in this reasoning: the non-unitary nature of Proto-Uralic is supported by exactly the linguistic evidence not present in all current Uralic languages, which is reintepreted in an ad hocfashion to fit a non-unitary view on the protolanguage.

The method named "back-reconstruction" by Künnap is, far from a closet skeleton of the comparative method, part and parcel of it. As Honti (1975: 125-135) points out (in an article which, like Itkonen 1966, deals with very similar criticism towards the comparative method), the aim of linguistic reconstruction is not only to clarify the genetic distance between related languages, but also research which way the proto-language has developed (and diverged) until the present day. A beautiful example of "back-reconstruction" which would horrify Künnap but which actually demonstrates the power of the comparative method is mentioned by Haas (1966: 133) (8): the final vowel of some reconstructed proto-Muskogean etyma, for example *NaNi/u 'fish' and *ixwani/u 'squirrel' is not exactly determined. Comparison with and reconstruction of an earlier language stage on the basis of related proto-Algonkian, which has * 'fish' and *anikw 'squirrel', make it possible to amend the proto-Muskogean reconstructions to *NaNiku and *ixwaniku. As Haas (1966: 133) remarks, this is "shown as an example in which a new insight in regard to the reconstruction in one protolanguage may be gained through comparison with another protolanguage."

This seems like the ABC of historical linguistics, and of course it is. Künnap's methodology, however, actually denies the possibility of features disappearing from languages - the absence of a certain feature in a certain language automatically indicates a restricted areal spread of that feature in an earlier proto-Sprachbund (or lingua franca, or whatever), and an earlier alignment of the current languages which retain the feature. Ultimately, the "tree diagram" emerging using such a methodology would ascribe to Finnish a large number of "genetic ancestors" all sharing a certain feature which would pass on unchanged to the current Finnish language, an utterly absurd view. As Winkler (1999: 245) pointed out, Künnap's methodology ultimately leads to the reconstruction of linguistic change becoming impossible - only features already present in a language may be reconstructed to an earlier phase, even if the case for disappearance of other features is perfectly supportable, but also leads to an utterly absurd view of the reconstructed proto-language as complete, i.e. exhibiting all features the "real" proto-language indeed had.


Both misconceptions occur in Künnap's work. In a number of recent publications (Künnap 1998a: 90-94, 2000b), Ago Künnap tries to make a case for the new conception of the protolanguage as a loose Sprachbund by trying to enumerate morphological features supposedly connecting Saami, Balto-Finnic and Samoyed, these features having arisen from a contact zone at the rim of the White Sea: "At present the zones of occurrence of Nenets and Lapp are quite near to each other. Why should it have been different thousands of years ago? Why could there not have been, for instance, in the parts of the White Sea, a contact zone of Lapp, Finnic and Samoyed language forms? " (Künnap 1998a: 90). As it is, Künnap's areal features are not convincing since the linguistic area they cover is far too wide - feature 3, the genetive antecedent, for example, totally lacking only in the Ugric languages (Künnap 1998a: 91), feature 4 - the k-imperative - appearing, according to Künnap, also in Mordvin (in addition to Finnic, Saami and Samoyed), feature 8 likewise. Aside from this, there are also areal features connecting Samoyed to Ob-Ugric (Künnap 1998a: 71-77).

Apparently only the Permic languages are more or less consistently excluded. Then again, rediscovering the principle of lateral areas is also an achievement (9). Of course, it is theoretically possible that striking common features demand that Saami, Finnic and Samoyed be classified as a distinct genetic subgrouping within the Uralic language family, that is, that a common proto-language would be reconstructed, not a "contact zone" (loan transfer of bound morphemes is extremely rare). The evidence for such a subgrouping would need to outweigh the evidence connecting Saami and Finnic to the Volgaic and Permic languages. Simply ignoring the results of comparative research so far and reinterpreting the spread of features in a language family as remnants of earlier areal alignment will not do.

Interestingly though, Künnap seems to have no problems with "back-reconstruction" if the innovationists can use its results. One of the putative Uralic substratum features in the Germanic languages, proposed by Wiik and hailed by Künnap (1998a: 104) is the shifting of the accent to the first syllable in the Germanic languages. Now, how do we know that the earlier accent in the Germanic languages was free? Of course, from comparative evidence of other Indo-European languages a free accent is reconstructed in proto-Indo-European, which is thought to have become a fixed accent during the seperate life of the Germanic languages. If the researchers of Indo-European languages had only listened better to Ago Künnap's warnings against "back-reconstruction", surely they would be of the opinion that the Germanic languages had always had a fixed accent and moreover, that they had always been Germanic languages who merely came into prolonged contact with other languages in an "Indo-European" contact zone, proto-Indo-European of course being a figment of the imagination.


Another contradiction lies in Ago Künnap's attitude towards proto-Uralic. On the one hand, Künnap accuses "traditionalist" researchers of the following: "They fetishize the Proto-Uralic and believe it has linguistic evidence." (Künnap 2000: 28). On the other hand, Künnap succeeds in confusing the reconstruction of Proto-Uralic with the actual Proto-Uralic which the reconstruction is to approach in the following way: "On my part, I have emphasized that if Wiik is right then the traditional Uralists are reconstructing this very lingua franca as Proto-Uralic because, first of all, in the lingua franca and through it appeared the common features characteristic of all or at least of the majority of the present-day Uralic languages. At the same time, there were not so many common features in that lingua franca under observation since it was made best of as an inadequate auxiliary language. It can be proved by both lexical (according to Juha Janhunen only about 140 word stems which correspondent to strict phonological criteria, see Janhunen 1981) and grammatical (see Janhunen 1982) insufficiency in the "Proto-Uralic" under reconstruction." (Künnap 1999: 142).

Probably Ago Künnap is the only Uralist who believes that the fact only 100-something lexical items can with absolute certainty be reconstructed to Proto-Uralic indicates that Proto-Uralic was indeed a language consisting of only 100-something words (as Janhunen himself recently pointed out, by the way, the small size of the reconstructed lexicon is due to the structure of the Uralic family tree: any PU lexeme must necessarily be present in Samoyed as well. A "comb model" would significantly enlarge the number of acceptable PU etymologies (Janhunen 2000: 64)). Among the mistakes of confusing methods of language-historical research and metaphorical representations of their results with actual language history, this one certainly deserves first prize. Let's however, for the sake of argument, take the idea of proto-Uralic as a pidgin language (10) seriously. Janhunen's reconstruction of proto-Uralic morphology hardly corresponds to the radical morphological loss one would expect in a pidgin language (Mühlhäusler 1986: 152-153), proto-Uralo-Pidgin exhibiting two different plural markers, a dual marker, at least six noun cases and an elaborate possessive conjugation (Janhunen 1982: 30-32).

The most interesting thing is, however, that Künnap mentions lexical and grammatical insufficiency in proto-Uralo-Pidgin as a proof of its status, but does not concern itself with phonology, since a simplified phoneme inventory with few marked features is typical of a pidgin language (11) (Mühlhäusler 1986: 148-151). The phonology of proto-Uralo-Pidgin is, while far from being a horrorshow like the phoneme inventory of proto-Indo-European, not simple, with eight vowel phonemes and at least sixteen consonant phonemes (not counting marginal consonants) (Janhunen 1982: 23-24). Interestingly, Mühlhäusler (1986: 150) mentions lack of obstruent clusters as a feature typical of pidgin languages.


Proto-Uralo-Pidgin, however, is extremely fond of obstruent clusters - more than ten percent of the proto-Uralic reconstructions listed in Sammallahti's (1988) list exhibit them. Now why would such an inadequate, auxiliary language exhibit a rather complex set of phonemes? The answer is, of course, that phonology is the most closed and semantically neutral system of a language. Therefore it is easier to reconstruct than morphology - the latter system being more exposed to loss, expansion, analogical levelling, etc. - and morphemes, other than phonemes, having a semantic dimension which can provide problems in reconstruction (Haas 1966: 134). So proto-Uralo-Pidgin is off the list and we're back where we started.

The methods by which often superficial (Winkler 1999: 244-245) structural resemblances between some but not all of related languages are regarded as proof of earlier areal alignments within such a Sprachbund can be regarded as stillborn, as even Künnap seems unable to use it consistently. The actual applications of these methods to real languages, for example in the case of the *m-accusative in Balto-Finnic, are quite horrifying. The way Künnap confuses the, necessarily incomplete, reconstructed Proto-Uralic and the very real language it is intended to approach is absurd in itself, not paying attention to the obvious inconsistency of using a linguistic reconstruction attained by the very methods which are now frowned upon by the "innovationists". Worse still however, these results are the nearest the "innovationists" (taking exception to Wiik's substratum theories, which may or may not be valid but the thrust of which is not incompatible with "traditionalist" Uralistics) have come in applying the new paradigm to actual linguistics.

Summing up, Künnap (supported by Amon et al.) and Pusztay seem to have made the point that nothing really disappears in languages. Languages which share a certain feature must be set apart from related languages not sharing this feature in different areal alignments during a proto-Sprachbund contact zone. This, pure and simply, means that it is impossible to research language change: the lack of possessive markers in Estonian would be impossible to explain in any other way than proclaiming Estonian never had any possessive markers - since the presence of possessive markers in an early precursor of Estonian would necessarily be based on back-reconstruction, similarly, the presence of grade alternation in Balto-Finnic could not be explained as an innovation since the absence of grade alternation in an earlier language stage can only be based on the fact that much of the present-day Uralic languages show no trace of grade alternation - thus back-reconstructing the absence of grade alternation.

These examples are not meant to point out the absurdity of Künnap and Pusztay's reasoning, but to point out in which manner their conception and "method" is ahistorical - history of course being based on the fact (or theoretical construct?) that yesterday was a little bit different from today (12).



Taking part in the "discussion" on the tree model and the comparative method which has raged in Uralistics the last few years is something of which the merit is not entirely clear. The critical articles by, for example, Johanna Laakso, Cornelius Hasselblatt, Esa Itkonen and Eberhard Winkler have not, apparently, dampened the enthousiasm of the "innovationists" in presenting hypotheses that are almost invariably confused, superficial (13) or totally unhindered by any grasp of historical linguistics. "The Roots of Peoples and Languages of Northern Eurasia II and III" is the fifth book (and the third collection of articles) to have appeared in the "innovationist" paradigm and, in my opinion, little progress can be discerned from Pusztay's 1995 monograph, rather the contrary.

It is, then, not suprising that some of the critics of the "innovationists" have participated in the "discussion" rather reluctantly. In his recent article Winkler (1999: 245) announced that this would remain his only contribution to the discussion, since so many Uralists had already criticized the ideas of Künnap et al "ohne dass auch nur ein Stück wit Erkenntnis hätte vermittelt werden konnen". Recently Künnap (2000b: 313) chided Laakso for using a "vulgar and rash style" (14), presumably referring to an article in which Laakso (1999a: 639) mourned the amount of paper wasted on printing Künnap's articles. In the same article Künnap, nothing if not imaginitive, compares criticism from the "traditionalist" side with a patient who is "in a towering rage of pain and hysterical as if being slaughtered by a murderer" (Künnap 2000b: 313). The more prosaic truth is that the sharp tone of some of the recent criticisms (apart from Laakso 1999a also Häkkinen's scathing review of "Itämerensuomi - Eurooppalainen maa" (Häkkinen 1999)) may result of being tired of explaining the elementary principles of comparative linguistics without any discernible result (see also Laakso 1998).

Based on the foregoing, I believe no fruitful "discussion" between "traditionalists" and "innovationists" on the comparative method - not necessarily the new hypotheses on the place and time of the proto-language - let alone a merger of the two paradigms or the incorporation of "innovationists" ideas within the traditional paradigm of Uralistics is possible, since the basic "innovationist" conception of language history is confused and erroneous, the methodology based thereon manifestly unusable even to the "innovationists" himself.


The "innovationists" confuse models used to represent research of historical reality with historical reality itself - the language family tree and the reconstructed proto-Uralic - they conflate linguistic concepts - language contacts and genetic language relationships - which should not be conflated, they regard established genetic language families as nice labels which can be applied at convenience while disregarding - or failing to comprehend - the meaning of the concept of genetic relatedness. In short, the "new" conception of the Uralic protolanguage and the language family tree is rooted in misunderstanding the relationships between the object of research, the researcher and the results of research. As the sometimes rather embarassing examples above show, no fruitful results can come from a historical linguistics without historical dimension and from an essentially relativist conception of genetic language relationships. What the critics of the "innovationist" conception have done, rather than "discussing" it, is defending historical linguistics as a scientific discipline.


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1. This is of course true of linguistic reconstruction as well (Haas 1966: 132) and does not disqualify it, nor does it disqualify linguistic paleontology. It constitutes a problem, though, if the location of an ancient homeland is determined on the basis of the geographical location of its present-day daughter languages, e.g. the "centre of gravity" approach (Sims-Williams 1998: 510).

2. There is no such thing as a " family tree theory", i.e. there is no theory which demands that the genetic relationships of languages must be depicted by little black lines on a piece of paper. There are, of course, observations on the evolution of languages and generalizations based thereupon, which can validate or invalidate the language family tree as a useful model in depicting the evolution of languages.

3. Other cases concern languages in which grammar or lexicon has been replaced due to tremendous contact influence, for example Ma'a, a Bantu/Cushitic 'mixed' language. Rédei (2000: 117) recently denied that it would be impossible to genetically classify such languages.

4. It should be granted, though, that this traditional view on the possibility of mixed languages is implicated by Wiik, when he comments on genetic mixing of languages: "Ise ei ole ma niisugust keelupuud leidnud" ("I have not found such a language tree myself")(Wiik 1997: 847). In the same article, Wiik (1997: 846) stresses the fact that protolanguages are real, and not mere theoretical concepts.

5. Compare for example Raukko and Östman's (1995: 59) use of the word "ontology", quoted later.

6. The only one suffering from confusion on this subject is, as I will show later in this chapter, Ago Künnap himself.

7. In this regard it is prudent to remember Erkki Itkonen's warning against this in the case of the putative lexical evidence for hypothetical early connections between the Saami and the Obugrians and Samoyeds: "Metodiselta kannalta on mielivaltaista selittää sellaiset lapin sanat, joilla on sukulaisia vain obinugrilaisissa tai samojedikielissä, rudimenteiksi kaudelta, jolloin lappalaiset eivät muka olleet vielä täysin omaksuneet kantasuomalaisten tai esim. suomalais-volgalaisen kantakansan kieltä. On nim. mahdollista, että kyseiset sanat, jotka kuuluvat ensi sijassa arktisen luonnon sekä peuranpyynnin tai alkeellisen poronhoidon käsitepiireihin, ovat olleet aikoinaan tunnettuja myös lappalaisten lähimpien kielisukulaisten keskuudessa, mutta jääneet pois käytännöstä, kun viimeksimainitut ovat vaihtaneet vanhan metsästyskulttuurin ja siihen kuuluvan kiertelevän elintavan yhä suuremmassa määrin maanviljelykseen ja karjanhoitoon." ("From a methodological perspective it would be arbitrary to regard such Lapp words, which have cognates only in Ob-Ugric and Samoyes languages, as relics from a time when the Lapps would not have totally adoptes the language of the Proto-Finns or, for example, the Finno-Volgaic proto-population. It is namely possible, that the words in question, which belong in the first place to the sphere of arctic nature and reindeer-hunting or of primitive reindeer-raising, were known also among the closer linguistic relatives of the Lapps, but fell into disuse when the latter gradually replaced their old hunting ways and the nomadic life accompanying those with agriculture and cattle-raising." (Erkki Itkonen 1966: 96).

8. I mention this example not only because it is good, but also because the discussion on the language family tree model is not Uralic-specific, but concerns issues universal to historical linguistics.

9. Künnap also lists "Finnic-Lapp-Samoyed supposed common vocabulary" (Künnap 1998a: 93-94). Taking the mean occurrences from a number of etymological dictionaries including those of the Finnish and Hungarian language is a methodological error in itself: not surprisingly, the Finnish etymological dictionary lists 219 Finnish-Samoyed items and 83 Hungarian-Samoyed items (presupposing presence in Finnish), the Hungarian etymological dictionary 182 Hungarian-Samoyed items and 104 Finnish-Samoyed items (presupposing presence in Hungarian). The only way this line of research could be fruitful is basing it on a single, language-neutral source and also researching every other possible combination of languages. I do not want to mention the fact that -by using an etymological dictionary - Künnap uses the results of methods which he specifically denounces.

10. This is the closest approximation to Künnap's idea of an " inadequate auxiliary language" I can think of, a creole language being neither inadequate nor auxiliary. Of course, using traditional linguistic terminology in the right context is something the "innovationists" seem to loathe, regarding their molestation of terms likeSprachbund and lingua franca.

11. To be fair, Thomason (1997: 76-80) provides counterarguments against the general idea of pidgins radically simplified in morphology and phonology, citing Chinook Jargon as a language which has retained some very marked features from its substrate languages.

12. I mentioned them also in the hope the eighteen researchers (in Amon et al 2000) may change their minds. I am not sure whether Künnap will.

13. Eberhard Winkler (1999: 241-242) illustrated the superficiality of Pusztay's and Künnap's search for earlier areal alignments by enumerating some "strikingly similar" features of Mordvin and Swedish. He should be more careful lest these comparisons will be approvingly cited by Künnap in the near future.

14. It seems indeed that Hasselblatt "dumb", "pathetic" and Laakso and Mikone "vulgar and rash style" (Künnap 2000b: 312-313) are no longer eligible for "first aid from the northeast".