From Finnish to Erzya: Professor Ksenia Shagal studies Uralic languages

19 Jul 2022

A new appointee at LMU, the linguist explores the typology and diversity of this sprawling family of languages.

Professor Ksenia Shagal can trace the extinction of some languages to the day: “The day when the last native speaker dies,” she explains. And she should know: The vast and varied family of Uralic languages – her primary field of research – includes not only major national languages but also smaller ones and some that are already extinct.

Shagal took the Chair of Finno-Ugric/Uralic Studies at LMU in April of this year, her main focus being on linguistic typology and diversity. A native of Russia, she earned her bachelor’s degree (in 2009) and her master’s degree (in 2011) from the Saint Petersburg State University, initially concerning herself with general linguistics – especially the typology of Slavic languages. For her dissertation at the University of Helsinki, she then applied herself to a global typology of participles: adjectival word forms that are derived from verbs, such as “sitting” and “written”. For this work, she received the Greenberg Award from the Association for Linguistic Typology.

“Of the hundreds of languages investigated, though, the Uralic languages stood out, not only because of the participles,” Shagal recalls. Having admittedly originated in the Ural Mountains, this family of languages consists of several separate branches, such as Saami, Permic and Samoyed, and is today used by 25 million people around the world. Alongside national languages, Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian, the family also includes smaller languages in Norway, Sweden, Finland, in the Baltic region and in different parts of Russia including Siberia.

Professor Ksenia Shagal

© Stephan Höck

Linguistic contacts between reindeer herders

Common ground such as a rich system of cases is a notable feature, Shagal says, but so too is the typological diversity of this language family. During her postdoctoral research in Helsinki starting in 2017, she therefore devoted her research to non-finite verb forms – verbs with no personal or tense-related inflections – and complex syntactic structures in Uralic languages.

“One of the most fascinating aspects of this language family is the different way in which complex sentences are formed,” the linguist notes. She explains that the distribution of syntactic structures follows clear spatial patterns that “tell the story of contacts” between different Uralic varieties. “The western Uralic languages in particular share a lot of properties with other European languages,” she says. “By contrast, the languages spoken in the Volga-Kama area are more like the Turkic languages in the region. And the Uralic languages of Siberia are similar to Northern Eurasian languages such as Tungusic and Yeniseian.” Some influences came about in the context of herding reindeer, she notes.

One example of an areal difference is the word order in sentences. “While the ‘subject – object – predicate’ structure of the more eastern Uralic languages still conforms to Proto-Uralic, western varieties such as Finnish and Estonian have assumed the ‘subject – predicate – object’ structure – like English and French, for example.” Another example Shagal quotes is adjectival agreement: “In European languages such as German, adjectives change depending on the case, number and gender of the noun. Some Uralic languages in Europe have assimilated this feature – well, except for the gender, since Uralic languages lack this grammatical category altogether.”

A Nordic in Munich

In the case of dying languages such as Ingrian and Votic spoken close to the Russian–Estonian border, Shagal says the first priority for researchers is to document them. Linguistic fieldwork thus took her to many remote places in Russia where endangered or insufficiently documented languages such as Erzya and Hill Mari are still actively used. “That involves recording language samples from native speakers on location.” Ideally, a researcher needs professional equipment for this kind of work, but these days, even a smartphone can be enough for video and audio files. “The recordings are then transcribed, analyzed, annotated and translated into English.”

Above and beyond such documentation projects, one of Shagal’s goals in Munich is to see her chair grow. “Finno-Ugric/Uralic Studies is a relatively small discipline, with only around ten chairs at European universities.” Above all, she wants to build bridges between Uralic languages and linguistic typology: “From a broader perspective, we want to examine how Uralic languages fit into the big picture of global linguistic diversity.”

Shagal needed time to get used to life in Munich. “I am a Nordic person. Subconsciously, I find myself waiting for the ‘white nights’ of Saint Petersburg and Helsinki as of May.” In the meantime, however, she has fallen in love with the Bavarian capital: “The people are very friendly. And I like the ‘old university’ vibes you get in many of the old LMU buildings.”

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