A slice of Finno-Ugric research interests across time

A tabulation project I’ve assembled a while ago: a topical index of the Finno-Ugrian Society’s by now approaching-300-long monograph series Suomalais-Ugrilaisen Seuran Toimituksia / Mémoires de la Société Finno-Ougrienne. Aside from being handy for looking up what has been done when about what by whom, it is also possible to dig up various interesting statistical observations from here.

Here is a copy of the file in OpenOffice format, in case anyone wants to have a look themselves. (I also considered linking some kind of a Creative Commons licence here, but I am not sure if formatting raw data available elsewhere passes the threshold of originality at all.)

One simple observation is that early on, the series does not seem to have had a specific theme. The first fifteen volumes, released in the 19th century, include a dictionary of Lule Sami; a bibliography of Sami studies; and even a bunch of monographs on Central Asian epigraphy. In the early 20th century though, the Society ended up establishing a few other book series as well: Lexica Societatis Fenno-Ugricae (for dictionaries) and Kansatieteellisiä julkaisuja / Travaux ethnographiques de la Société Finno-Ougrienne (for ethnographic studies). This left SUST mainly for text collections and linguistic monographs, though for some reason a couple of ethnographic studies continue to be released per decade, too.

Let’s next take a look at some further chronological features.

Subjects covered over the years

I have here focused only on the linguistic monographs on the Uralic languages. Text collections have sometimes spent quite some time in edition, and their publication date does not really indicate anything about current research foci. And while a couple of volumes have focused on languages of other families (mostly various Altaic things, e.g. vol. 82 – G. J. Ramsted: A Korean Grammar), they’re sufficiently rare that there are no real patterns to be seen wrt/ these.

Three monographs have a focus that covers several language groups, yet not many enough, or not with a comparative enough approach, for me to have counted them as “general Uralic” works: vol. 170, Raija Bartens: Mordvan, tseremissin ja votjakin konjugaation infiniittisten muotojen syntaksi; vol. 203, Ulla-Maija Kulonen: The Passive in Ob-Ugrian; and vol. 262, Beáta Wagner-Nagy: On the Typology of Negation in Ob-Ugric and Samoyedic Languages.

We can see that the main focus of research released in the series has remained thruout the years on the Finnic and Samic languages. Research on Samoyedic and Mordvinic has been on the rise since the 70s. Hungarian meanwhile seems to remain at a perpetual limbo. To an extent this is understandable: both Finnic and Samic comprise 7-10 languages (depending on how one counts exactly), and Samoyedic half a dozen as well — while Hungarian remains, despite having more speakers than all the other Uralic languages put together, still only a single language from the comparative viewpoint. It’s however also noticable how the Ob-Ugric languages seem to lag behind both their western and their eastern relatives. From this angle it might even seem that the Finno-Ugrian society is, despite the name, not releasing that much work on the Ugric languages at all these days. Of course, already at the language materials side of this series, the Ob-Ugric languages are decently represented, by Matti Liimola’s seven-volume Wogulische Volksdichtung series, and eight volumes total of text collections by Heikki Paasonen and K. F. Karjalainen from Southern Khanty.

Topics covered over the years

Defining “the” topic (subdiscipline) of a monograph is not necessarily obvious. I’ve however made an attempt, this time also including the works centering on non-Uralic languages:

At least some broad outlines of history are evident here.

  • The emphasis on various types of of historical-comparative research is clearly visible.
  • Historical phonology in particular still remains the strongest-represented subfield of linguistics in the series. This is however entirely due to a strong focus in the first half of the 20th century… after which interest in it seems to just die out completely. (And no, it is not due to having run out of topics to cover; plenty of Uralic languages from Skolt Sami to Selkup have never received a detailed study of their historical phonology, and that of many others’ has not been revisited in light of modern research in decades. The investigation of numerous issues of Proto-Uralic reconstruction could easily stretch to monograph size as well.)
  • Around the same time historical phonology takes a nose-dive, there is a peak of interest in historical morphology, although by now this is seemingly trailing off too.
  • Synchronic syntax jumps into sudden prominence around the 60s as well. Historical syntax meanwhile has remained a black sheep topic of sorts, up to the present day (the one entry in this category is also the series’ most recent volume altogether).
  • Semantics has usually been covered in conjunction with syntax, not entirely on its own. Possibly a half-point for semantics could be granted for some of the etymological works as well.
  • A couple of perhaps newly rising research directions are comprehensive language documentation and “synchronic dialectology” (an oxymoron of a concept, if you ask me).
  • Nobody cares about phonetics. Not enough to dedicate an entire monograph to the topic, at least.
  • Ethnographic research seems to have been much less affected by “fashion” — this component of the series has trudged on at a low, slowing pace. Again, I don’t really know though what exactly leads to works in this field being published in this series and not in Kansatieteellisiä julkaisuja. (Editorial work overflow, maybe?)

Language use over the years

Here I cover the entire release series, including the presentation languages of the text collections and Festschriften.

This picture is relatively simple: German maintains a dominant share of about two thirds of the published material, starts going out of fashion at about 1965, and then finally takes a sharp nosedive in the 90s (its last strong-going decades are largely supported by later entries of text collection series). Finnish creeps up in prominence slowly, reaching a peak in the 90s — only to then cede dominance to English around 2002.

All other languages are essentially curiosities. The French volumes focus mostly on the aforementioned wildcard topic of Central Asian epigraphy. The one Russian entry is an ethnographic monograph. In Northern Sami there’s Pekka Sammallahti’s Festschrift, not only edited in, but also most of its articles are written in the language; and in Swedish, an article collection of Otto Donner’s for his 100th anniversary. Nothing in Estonian so far, although I predict that will probably happen sooner or later. More notable is the total absense of Hungarian, though of course also not that big of a surprize from a Helsinki-based scientific society.

More interesting results might be available on this topic by extending the analysis to similar series by other publishers. Many are probably individually still too small for meaningful statistical analysis (take for example Budapesti Finnugor Füzetek, with 22 releases spanning 16 years), but in the aggregate they could reveal further patterns. How’s the transition from German to English as the main language of publication going elsewhere? Does a historical phonology dropoff point exist in general? Are there languages or language groups whose research has been at some point in or out of fashion across Uralic studies in general? Etc.

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