Reviewed by Katrin Hiietam, Manchester, UK
Gyula Décsy’s The common Finno-Ugric language is a follow-up to his 1990 The Uralic protolanguage. The idea for such a reference book emerged in 1970s Germany when the Finno-Ugric Department at the University of Hamburg decided to release a series of publications covering the origin of the Uralic languages. By comparing the phonology of about twenty Finno-Ugric languages still spoken in Eastern Europe and Western Siberia, D has reconstructed around 1200 words of Common Finno-Ugric (CFU). This work presents these words along with a reconstructed grammar of CFU, enhancing our knowledge of the origin of Finno-Ugric languages.
An amazingly comprehensive reference book for Finno-Ugrists, this volume covers the period of 4000 B.C.–3000 B.C. For someone with only a hazy idea of the origin of the Finno-Ugric languages it may prove a daunting reading at first glance, as only the first twenty pages provide a general overview and a discussion of the phonetics/phonology, syntax, and morphology of the ancestor of the present day Finno-Ugric languages. The rest of the book consists of word lists (e.g. CFU-English and English-CFU, which include 500 Proto-Uralic and 660 Proto-Finno-Ugric words) and appendices: ‘Detailed phoneme frequency data for the first syllable’, ‘List of intersyllabic consonant clusters’, ‘Common Finno-Ugric lexical innovation’, ‘Indo-European and Indo-Iranian lexical loans’, and ‘List of possible Proto-Uralic and CFU words’.
The introduction of the book discusses the relationship between Proto-Uralic and CFU. An improved version of the data chart published in The Uralic protolanguage is also presented. The main differences between these two languages are connected to several vocabulary-dependent phenomena such as phoneme frequency, syllable type frequency, building suffix inventory, and vocabulary semantics. However, D does not register any substantial differences between these two languages in the area of phonetics/phonology apart from frequencies. One of the most fascinating phenomena in Finno-Ugric languages is vowel harmony (i.e. the character of the vowel in the first syllable determines the vowel character in subsequent syllables). The author claims that vowel harmony was applied in 98% of cases in CFU.
According to D, the phonetics/phonology, morphology, and syntax of both CFU and Proto-Uralic are fairly similar and thus deserve a brief mention only; thus these topics receive only eleven, five, and two and a half pages respectively.
An interesting section in this book is the concept corpus that divides Proto-Uralic concepts into twenty-eight semantic groups (e.g. color, animals, anatomy, and social life). Furthermore, CFU concepts are divided into a larger number of categories under a slightly different classification system.
Although the introduction of this book states that this work is accessible for the general reader, I believe its full potential is unleashed only when read by a linguist who has specialized in this area.