Reading old source literature is often dreary kind of work, but it has its occasional rewards: you might find out that some problem you’ve been dwelling on has actually long since received a solution, or at least a sketch to one. Tonight comes my way an observation by Wolfgang Steinitz; originally from his Geschichte des finnisch-ugrischen Vokalismus (1943: 26–27), but properly brought to my attention by a footnote in his slightly later Geschichte des ostjakischen Vokalismus (1950). I have mostly read the former already, but I guess cursorily enough to have missed things here and there.
The point in question is a small detail on the development of vocalism of the Mordvinic languages. While the history of vocalism in the Uralic languages is complicated enough to fill a couple shelf-meters of literature, original vowel frontness is usually well retained; at least in those branches that show at least some degree of vowel harmony. However, in Mordvinic there are a number of cases where a back vowel /o/ turns up as the reflex of what looks like an original front vowel (*i, *ü, *e, *ä). What Steinitz notes at this point is that, while *i and *ü normally merge in Mordvinic (> *ɪ > /e/), before a velar consonant we instead find *ü merging with *u (> *ʊ > /o/). This would be phonetically reasonable enough, and also indeed seems to check out on closer inspection of the etymological data. Additionally worth remarking is that even Erkki Itkonen seems to accept this rule in his generally anti-Steinitzian megapaper “Zur Frage nach der Entwicklung des Vokalismus der ersten Silbe in den finnisch-ugrische Sprachen, insbesondere im Mordwinischen” (1946: 300–301).
While there are no substantial counterexamples (see below for some comments on some possible cases), we’re still running a bit low on evidence though. Steinitz only gives four examples, of which only two cases are indisputably reconstructible PU roots:
- /śokś/ ‘autumn’, from PU *sükśə (> Fi. syksy, Hu. ősz etc.)
- *poŋə > Erzya /povo/, Moksha /pova/ ‘hazelhen’, from PU *püŋə (> Fi. pyy, Hu. fogoly , etc.)
- Moksha /ćoŋga/ ‘hill’, from PU *ćüŋkV (> e.g. Es. süng, recorded from but one dialect; Northern Khanty /śŭŋk/.)
His fourth example is Moksha /pokəń/ ‘navel’. The reconstruction of *ü seems less certain here — the only other cognates are found in Ob-Ugric, and while Khanty *pö̆kəɳ ~ pö̆kɭəŋ points to *ü clearly enough, Northern Mansi /pukńi/ ~ Southern /püxńi/ perhaps looks the most like PMs *u. On the other hand, I suppose that the unusual correspondence between Mk. /ń/ and Khanty /ɳ/ will be more understandable if we indeed were to reconstruct *pükkVn(V), and date the merger *ü > *u (*ʏ > *ʊ?) as later than the general palatalization of *n, *l, *r in front-vocalic words Mordvinic.
We are going on 2017 however, not the 1940s, and etymology marches on. Would we happen to have discovered any non-low-hanging fruit over the last 75 years, that could in principle support or contradict Steinitz’ mini-rule? The answer is — yes: one promising recently reconstructed word root is PU (or Finno-Permic, if you’re counting) *mükkä ‘mute, muttering’, due to Janne Saarikivi in his 2007 paper “Uusia vanhoja sanoja“; based on Finnic, Samic, Permic and Mari evidence. And firing up next Heikki Paasonen’s dialect materials on Mordvinic: yep, there we have it: Moksha /moknams/ ‘to stutter’. *mükk- > /mok-/, just as predictable from Steinitz’ suggestion and Saarikivi’s new etymology!
(/-na-/ is a derivative suffix used to form onomatopoetic(ish) verbs; compare e.g. Moksha /vakna-/ ‘to quack’; Erzya /pozna-/ ‘to fart’. And in case it’s not clear enough to non-specialist readers from context, /-ms/ is the normal Mordvinic infinitive ending.)
Datamining a bit from my native language, from Finnish we could actually find some grounds for skepticism at this point, namely precedents for word roots of the shape √mVk- being used to signify unclear speech, or not speaking: e.g. mokeltaa ‘to splutter’, mukista ‘to whinge’, mököttää ‘to sulk’. This could be taken to weaken the etymology we have just found, as suggesting that perhaps some number of the alleged cognates are actually independently formed onomatopoetic words. On the other hand, we could just as well ask if this group of Finnish verbs might not have simply been built on the example of the primary root *mükkä itself; since this √mVk- quite clearly seems to be a phonaestheme, not strictly speaking onomatopoetic. And these examples indeed all seem to find connections to other descriptive vocabulary: e.g. jokeltaa ‘to babble (of a baby)’, mutista ‘to mutter’ ~ ulista ‘to wail’, kököttää ‘to sit in one place’ — providing the possibility to explain them as kind of contaminations, along the lines of mykkä × kököttää → mököttää ‘to sit while mute = to sulk’.
I mentioned a few possible complications, though. There are still a few cases where a possible sequence *-üK- would seem to come out as /e/ and not /o/ in Mordvinic. But a closer examination shows that there is no need for worry.
- *ükə- ‘1’. This yields Erzya /vejke/, Moksha /fkä/ (PMo. approx. *veçkə, apparently from earlier *vej-kkä ). The word, though, shows the Mordvinic breaking of word-initial *ü- to *wi- (>> *ve-) — itself another “small” sound change not supported by too much material to begin with. Regardless, this must have been earlier than the general merger of *ü with *i, and thus probably also earlier than the merger of *ü(K) with *u(K). — Another possibility is that *-k- > *-g- > *-ɣ- > *-j- was also early enough in its entirety, and that there therefore was no velar consonant here anymore at the time of *ü-backing.
- *müŋä ‘backside, by’. The reconstruction of *ü is not actually warranted in this root, despite a large number of false leads! Finnic has *möö- < *müwä-, but this can be regularly secondary from earlier *miwä- (compare e.g. *hüvä ‘good’ < *šiwä, from Indo-Iranian). Mari *mü̆ŋgə ‘at’ with *ü̆ does not provide evidence either, for reasons I’ve covered before. Komi /mɨj/ ‘after’ may involve a similar development as in *šiŋərə > /šɨr/ ‘mouse’ (where we most definitely have original *i), i.e. retraction before *ŋ. And Hungarian, while having mögött ‘behind’, also shows meg ‘and’, megint ‘again’. I suspect (though cannot crack open in full detail) some degree of dialect mixture, possibly starting from a dialect where unstressed *-ə- > ö rather than ë, followed by an umlaut of sorts: Old Hu. *mɪgət > *mëgött > mögött. — Altogether, it seems feasible to reconstruct rather *miŋä.
 With a similar exception development *ü > /o/. Steinitz has a proposal for this as well, describing it as *i, *ü >> /o/ in the environment *p_K (contrast *piŋə ‘tooth’ > Hu. fog, versus Mo. > *peŋ > standard Erzya and Moksha both /pej/). This again looks regular enough, but I am a bit more skeptical yet on assigning overly specific consonant environments like this for sound changes. I’d prefer to break this down to one labialization process (by the preceding *p-) and one backing process (by the following velar consonant), but suspiciously, they do not seem to exist independently of each other.
 Just about all Uralic languages have various kinds of unmotivatedly suffixed descendants for ‘one’. Finnic *ükci, Samic *ëktë and Mari *ĭktə all suggets roughly *ük-tə; Mansi *äkʷ suggests *ük-kV. This seems to be a fairly common phenomenon, as the same trend continues e.g. with Samoyedic *o- (Nganasan /ŋuʔəj/, Selkup *okər…) or with Proto-Indo-European (*oi-nos ~ *oi-wos ~ *oi-kos ~ …). Or at least we think it’s suffixation. Sometimes something even weirder comes along, e.g. Udmurt /odɨg ~ odig ~ odik/, Komi /ətɨk ~ əťɨk ~ əťik ~ əťi/: while these are usually also counted among reflexes of *ükə- or even *üktə-, I really have no idea what’s going on with them, and honestly I don’t think anyone does (they really look the most like some kind of late mutant fusions of the Uralic root with Russian один).