What Brings the Udmurt Material of Fenno-Ugrica for Linguists?

From time to time, we have invited the researchers of Uralic languages to share their views on the material that is made available at our Fenno-Ugrica collection. This time, Mrs.Sirkka Saarinen, the professor of Finno-Ugric languages at the University of Turku is giving her outlook to the recently published books in Udmurt language.


The Udmurts, also known as the Votyaks, live in the Republic of Udmurtia within the Russian Federation, between the rivers Vyatka and Kama, the tributaries of the Volga. Two-thirds of the Udmurts live in their titular republic while the remainder dwells to the south, southwest and southeast in a vast area stretching up to the Ural mountains. According to the 2010 census there are ca. 550 000 Udmurts, of whom 320 000 speak the Udmurt language.

Compared with the smallest Finno-Ugric peoples the amount of Udmurts seems to be fairly high. In the turn of the 21st century the decline of the population and the native speakers especially has, however, been rapid. Udmurt is a minority language, and it is not used in all domains of the society. Among the younger generations the language shift from Udmurt to Russian is an accelerating process, and therefore Udmurt can be considered an endangered language.  Any language which does not provide its speakers with an opportunity for the social ascent is more or less doomed to perish. Nowadays there are, on the other hand, also positive signs to be seen: Udmurt is actively used by young people in the social media.

The year 1775 when the first Udmurt grammar was published is considered as the starting-point of the Udmurt written language. However, only about 100 books or leaflets appeared during the 19th century. They were mostly religious and represented different dialects. The literary language of Udmurt was established only after the October Revolution.

Now researchers and everybody interested in the history and development of Udmurt written language can get acquainted with old Udmurt texts: the Digitization Project of Kindred Languages at the National Library of Finland has digitized 50 monographs in Udmurt language and made them easily accessible to the public in the Fenno-Ugrica collection. Most of them fall within the range of thirty years and they date back to the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, but some of them have been originally published in the late 19th century or in the early 20th century.

The oldest texts of the digitized collection are the ABC-book meant for the children of the Sarapul region from 1882 and three religious teachings from the 1890s including a translation of the Wisdom of Sirach. They are all written in Cyrillic with some special signs for the sounds not found in Russian. The present rules of orthography were established only in 1936 and published as a booklet, which can also be found in the digitized collection.

It is interesting to compare the many ABC-books found in the collection. One can clearly see the change in the ideology of the surrounding society even in primaries. Maybe the most striking example is the primary called “New life” from 1925, where the first six pages are built solely on repeating the words Soviet, power and master in different sentences (e.g., “masters had the power”, “the Soviets have the power”, “our Soviets are our power”). Most spellers and readers include practical instructions for agriculture and farming.

For linguists, who are studying the Udmurt, many digitized grammars are of special interest. The Yakovlev grammar from 1927 gives some special structural features not found in standard presentations (e.g., how one should pronounce Russian sounds in proper Udmurt) and declares “Don’t use Russian words instead of Udmurt ones!” The grammar of 1934 by Skobolev and Ponomarev presents the basic structure of the language, the orthography and gives models for credentials, receipts, petitions, minutes, etc. in Udmurt.

A wide linguistic terminology in Udmurt was elaborated in the grammars of the 1920s and of the early 1930s, and often a list of the terms with their Russian translations was given at the end of the book. In the middle of the 1930s Stalin’s purges started, and all the neologisms created in the minority languages of the Soviet Union were forbidden as nationalistic. Instead of neologisms, one had to use Russian loanwords as a token of “true internationalism”. This can be seen also in the Udmurt grammars of the late 1930s: only Russian terms are used, and in many sentences all the words are Russian.

The Udmurt monographs in a digitized format are a valuable source for us linguists. We can use them when studying, e.g., the development of morphology, syntax or lexicology. They give excellent historical material also for those interested in code-switching or in different sociolinguistic aspects like pedagogical or political discourse. Enticing texts!

Sirkka Saarinen
Professor of Finno-Ugric languages
University of Turku

16 thoughts on “What Brings the Udmurt Material of Fenno-Ugrica for Linguists?

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