A Finnic Family Tree

I was recently asked on Twitter about the history and subclassification of Finnic. [1] Whipping up a full-length discussion paper or even a polished nice-looking family tree would be more work than I can produce on short notice or on free time (and probably something that might warrant wider publication still), but since I actually do have several opinions about this, that are probably either scattered in several places or that I haven’t mentioned anywhere yet, here is a summary of my current thinking.

I’ve given datings of proto-languages and extinction dates only where I can pretend to have any sense of accuracy to them. Error ranges are at least ±100 years for the former, at least ±10 for most of the latter.

┐ Proto-Finnic (ca. 500 BCE, ? middle Daugava)
├─┐ Proto-South Estonian (ca. 500 CE, ? upper Gauja)
│ ├── † Leivu (northern Latvia; extinct 1988)
│ └─┐ Mainline South Estonian
│   ╞══ Mulgi South Estonian
│   ╞══ Tarto South Estonian
│   │   [basis of Old Literary South Estonian]
│   └── East South Estonian (Võro–Seto)
├───┐ Proto-Livonian (ca. 1000 CE, lower Daugava)
│   ├── † Salaca Livonian (northwest Latvia; extinct ca. 1870)
│   ├── † Riga Livonian (unattested, extinct in the 13th C?)
│   └─┐ Courland Livonian
│     ├── † Eastern Livonian
│     ├── † Central Livonian
│     └── (†) West Livonian
└─┐ Proto-Core Finnic (location?)
  ├─┐ Proto-Central Finnic (location?)
  │ ├─┐ Estonian proper
  │ │ ╞══ Insular Estonian
  │ │ ╞══ East Estonian dialects
  │ │ ╞══ West Estonian dialects
  │ │ ╞══ Central Estonian dialects
  │ │ ╘══ North Estonian proper
  │ │     [basis of Modern Standard Estonian]
  │ └─┐ Proto-Votic (inland Ingria)
  │   ├── † Eastern Votic (extinct 1976)
  │   ╞══ † Central Votic (extinct > 1950)
  │   ╞══ Lower Luga Votic
  │   └── † Krevinian (Southern Latvia; extinct ca. 1850)
  └─┐ Proto-North Finnic (ca. 0 BCE, ? coastal Estonia)
    ├─┐ Proto-Northwest Finnic (? coastal Estonia?)
    │ ├── Northeast Coastal Estonian
    │ ╞══ Taivassalo / Very Southwestern Finnish
    │ ├─┐ Southwesternish Finnish
    │ │ │ [main basis of Old Literary Finnish]
    │ │ ╞══ North SW dialects
    │ │ ╞══ South SW dialects
    │ │ ╞══ Western Uusimaa dialects
    │ │ ╘══ probably other dialects in the SW transitional zone
    │ └─┐ Mainline Finnish (ca. 200 CE, Kumo River)
    │   │ [main basis of Modern Standard Finnish]
    │   ╞══ Lower Satakunta dialects
    │   ╞═╤ West Upper Satakunta dialects
    │   │ └── Austrobothnian Finnish
    │   ╞══ Ostrobothnian dialect chain
    │   ├── Kemi Finnish
    │   ├─┐ Torne Valley Finnish
    │   │ ╞══ Lower Torne Valley dialects
    │   │ ╘══ Upper Torne Valley dialects
    │   │     [incl. Meänkieli & Kven]
    │   ├─┐ Kalix Valley Finnish
    │   │ ├── † Lower Kalix Valley Finnish (unattested)
    │   │ └── Jällivaara Finnish
    │   └─┐ Core Tavastian (ca. 300 CE)
    │     ╞══ East Upper Satakunta dialects
    │     ╞══ Heartland Tavastian dialects
    │     ╞═╤ South Tavastian dialects
    │     │ └── colloquial Helsinki Finnish
    │     └─┐ East Tavastian
    │       ╞══ Southeast Tavastian dialects
    │       └─┐ Northeast Tavastian
    │         ╞══ Päijät-Häme dialects
    │         └─┐ Karelid Finnic
    │           ╞══ Savo dialects
    │           ╞══ Karelian Isthmus / Southeast Finnish dialects
    │           ╞══ Ingrian
    │           └─┐ Old Karelian (ca. 700 CE, NW Ladoga)
    │             ╞══ Olonets Karelian
    │             ├── † Sortavala Karelian (unattested)
    │             │   [substratal to Sortavala Finnish]
    │             └─┐ Karelian proper
    │               ╞══ Viena / Northern dialects
    │               ╘═╦ Southern dialects
    │                 ╚══ Central Russian dialects
    │                     (Tver, Tikhvin, Valdai)
    └─┐ Ludian–Veps (ca. 600 CE, SE of Ladoga)
      ├── † Olonets Ludian (unattested)
      │     [substratal to Olonets Karelian]
      ╞══ North Ludian dialects
      ╞══ Central Ludian dialects
      ╞══ South Ludian dialects
      ╞═╗ North-Central Veps
      │ ╠══ Northern Veps dialects
      │ ╚══ Central Veps dialects
      ╞══ Southern Veps dialects
      └── † North Chudian (unattested)
          [substratal to some Northern Russian,
           in contact with Proto-Komi]

The South Estonian sub-tree here is the part that has been published the most recently, basically from Kallio (2021, 2018); though I’d like to see more detail on the suggested Tarto–VS group still.

Some other divergences of note from earlier Finnic family trees include:

  • No Coastal Finnic (Livonian + Core), contra Kallio. I will be arguing for this in detail in a future paper. Among the early branches, Core Finnic and Central Finnic seem to hold up better so far, though I’m open to the possibility that some North Estonian dialects may eventually prove to have some fairly deep archaisms to them too. North Finnic I have several suspicions about, but Ludian–Veps still has nowhere better to go in the tree than with my “Northwest Finnic”.
  • No East Central Finnic (East Estonian + Votic), contra Viitso. These are united only by some cases of õ, which I however consider to be archaisms already from common Central Finnic. [2] This also allows for (re)introducting a non-paraphyletic Estonian sensu stricto.
  • Paraphyletic Western Votic, directly following Kuznetsova, Muslimov & Markus (2015).
  • Paraphyletic Western Finnish and Tavastian Finnish, generalizing further from Kallio (2013). Purely by linguistic evidence, the traditional “Western Finnish” grouping would be about as well-supported as my “Mainline Finnish”, but settlement history to me seems to strongly favor the latter: the Karelid group can’t just drop out of nowhere, it needs to be derived from somewhere at the time in the early 1st millennium when there simply wasn’t any Finnic presence yet in eastern Finland (but parts of western Finland had already been Finnic-speaking for some centuries, with presumable incipient diversification). Archeology so far does not favor an independent expansion from the south; the river Kymi would look like a good route candidate for that at first, but it might have been simply too non-navigable with its several major rapids. Hence, Karelid Finnic must be nested not just within “Finnish”, as has been known already for long, but indeed within “Western Finnish”.
  • Polyphyletic Ostrobothnian Finnish. Some of these lineages may eventually prove to be offshoots of specific Western dialect groups further south, but current research really hasn’t even started that line of investigation (though see next item).
  • Austrobothnian (= my term for South Ostrobothnian) as a West Upper Satakunta offshoot specifically. This is a well-known fact of settlement history, but has some implications for analyzing what is areal and what is old inheritance across the Western Finnish dialect continuum that I don’t think have been fully appreciated in the past.
  • No Karelian–Veps group. This seems like a no-brainer to me: there are practically zero common innovations (some lexical evidence has been claimed but without ruling out common archaisms or loanwords) vs. quite abundant Finnish–Karelian = Northwest Finnic innovations, even beyond the Karelid group. Some more narrowly distributed, e.g. Ludian–Karelian, innovations exist, but their absense from Veps or eastern Finnish I think immediately shows them to be areal rather than genealogical.
  • Paraphyletic Ludian and perhaps Veps. The latter above all due to the fact that most innovations in Veps could be attributed to Russian influence or at least are downstream of changes due to this. Not tying down the assumption that Veps must be monophyletic seems like the safer bet so far.

I take no stance here on the still gradually ongoing debate on if the Kukkuzi dialect is Votic-with-Ingrian-superstratum or Ingrian-with-Votic-substratum or a mixed variety entirely. [3]

Last, don’t take the rather fine detail of Finnish dialects as meaning that they’re actually more different from each other than what we find within other groups — they’re just a) more numerous (even 100 years ago Finnish had 2× the speakers of Estonian, 60× the speakers of Karelian, 200× the speakers of Veps…) and b) better known to me. If I had been looking into e.g. Estonian dialectology in as much detail, I would probably have some opinions also on how to re-tool things around there.

[1] Yes, I am on Twitter as of the start of this year. Not explicitly announced on the blog before, though you may have noticed if you’ve checked my About page recently.
[2] One intriguing example is PF *kota : *koda- ‘house’, giving in my view early PCF *këta : *këða- > later PCF *këta : *kë.a-, whence Vt. kõta : kõa-; EEst. kõda : kõja-; NEst. koda : koja-. What is telling here is that Estonian -j- as a hiatus filler only seems to be regular after illabial vowels, thus showing that NEst. koda does not retain PF *o; it has instead undergone the development *kë-a > ko-a that also appears in cases like *këldajnën > *këllainë(n) > kollane ‘yellow’ (which has “primary” *ë < *e, not “secondary” *ë < *o; cf. Finnish keltainen).
[3] For general historical Fennistics purposes it’s in any case sufficient to know that any attestations in Kukkuzi but not in “normal” Votic can be always from Ingrian, be it by loaning or descent, i.e. not requiring reconstructing anything all the way to Core Finnic.

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Posted in Commentary, Reconstruction
6 comments on “A Finnic Family Tree
  1. David Marjanović says:



    • David Marjanović says:

      Trying again with &nbsp;:


      • sansdomino says:

        I think I’m getting a hint… yes, the tree could be formatted better, I’ll get back to that in a jiffy.

      • David Marjanović says:

        That’s better! It’s the way I’m used to writing trees.

        Why are there two > in front of Livonian?

        • B. Blasebalg says:

          “Why are there two > in front of Livonian?”

          That would be my question as well:
          Does that mean that South-Estonian, Livonian, and Core-Finnic are branches on one level?
          Or is Livonian further below?
          If so, under which branch?

          • sansdomino says:

            A former attempt at indicating branch length. Most groupings here are relatively loose and might be in part dialect continua / “linkages”. Livonian, however, is a valid clade beyond all doubt with massive numbers of common innovations.

            I’ve added now Unicode double-lining to indicate this issue elsewhere too. The only other synchronic dialect groups within Finnic that are decently sized and that I am entirely comfortable calling valid clades on linguistic grounds are Võro-Seto and Austrobothnian. (Also e.g. Eastern Votic is clearly valid but is known only from like three villages.) The Kemi and Torne Valley groups are probably valid clades too but this again requires reference to settlement history, identifying any Proto-Kemi or Proto-Torne innovations is more challenging.

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