Finnish, Estonia, Vepsian, Livonian, Hungarian, Mansi, Sami, Udmurt, Mari, Moksha. How many of these languages have you ever heard of? How about Nenets, Karelian, and Khanty? This is the language tree of the Uralic languages, including Fenno-Ugric languages where Finnish and Estonian belong (the top yellow-and-orange languages in the photo above).
In school I was taught that Finnish is an old language that stems from somewhere deep in Russian territory. It is not Indo-European, meaning Finnish is less related to Swedish than Sanskrit to German. I was also taught that the languages can be trailed backwards in tribes, along migration routes across the Siberian taiga, all the way back to the Ural mountains. Basically, people linguistically related to Finnish, Estonian, and Hungarian are a smattering of fur-trapping and reindeer-hearding tribes between Finland and Mongolia. Sami, or the language of the reindeer-hearding Lapps in the Nordic countries, is on a separate branch even if it is geographically close to Finnish. It has heavy influences from its geographic neighbors but is according to linquists also close to Mongolian. Today this model is challenged. Those who combine ancestry genetics with linguistics say that Finns have a mixed genetic heritage, Finnish came to Finland from Estonia, and as a language it is not really old at all: if you remove all influences of Baltic, Swedish, ancient Germanic, and ancient Russian languages, you are left with just a few words. Surely this is plausible because people adopt each others words when they spend time together.
Which ever way is the truth, it is a curious and often forgotten fact that we EU citizens who feel we belong with Western Europe, Ikea, beer-lovers, and a Christian cultural heritage, actually have close family links with tribes living in very cold climes, either in wooden huts or in yurts, trapping fur animals or herding reindeer for a living. We share the same words and partially the same culture of singing our stories through poetic verse (check out the Finnish national epos, the Kalevala. It was a huge inspiration for J.R.R. Tolkien in his youth). The soul of our ancestry lies in a mythical connection with nature, where everything from bears to trees to rocks have souls, too. We forget this, even when we pick seven kinds of flowers to put under our pillow at midsummer night so we dream of our husband-to-be; or when we retreat to our summer cottages, choosing to enjoy our holidays without power or running water, living and breathing Nature.
When you look at our past as well as the lifestyle of our linguistic relatives, is striking how much the Sami, Finnish, Estonian, and Hungarian “Europeans” have much in common with Native American heritage: hunter-gatherer living, respect for big prey, living in connection with Nature, animism, and shamanism. Sure, this is the backdrop of the stone age human, but we Fenno-Ugric people lived like this still as near as 1000 years ago. And what happened to these two cultures? Today the Sami have their own council, their own languages, their own schools, and a growing respect for their culture, while the Native Americans seem to be downtrodden, century after century. And the Finns and the Estonian keep their heritage alive only through subconscious, not-realized connections to their past, such as big feasts when eating big prey animals, and the summer cottage culture.
Interested to learn more about the mysterious folks of the North-Eastern taigas and steppes? There is an excellent, permanent exhibition on the Uralic peoples at the Estonian National museum in Tartu.
(Eesti Rahva Muuseum, Tartu, Estonia; December 2017)