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Proto-Uralic is the reconstructed language ancestral to the Uralic language family. The language was originally spoken in a small area in about 7000-2000 BC (estimates vary), and expanded to give differentiated protolanguages. The exact location of the area or Urheimat is not known, and various strongly differing proposals have been advocated, but the vicinity of the Ural Mountains is usually assumed.
According to the traditional binary tree model, Proto-Uralic diverged into Proto-Samoyedic and Proto-Finno-Ugric. However, reconstructed Proto-Finno-Ugric differs little from Proto-Uralic, and many apparent differences follow from the methods used. Thus Proto-Finno-Ugric may not be separate from Proto-Uralic. Another reconstruction of the split of Proto-Uralic has three branches (Finno-Permic, Ugric and Samoyedic) from the start. Recently these tree-like models have been challenged by the hypothesis of larger number of protolanguages giving a "comb" rather than a tree. The protolanguages would be Sami, (Baltic-)Finnic, Mordva, Mari, Permic, Magyar, Khanti, Mansi, and Samoyedic. This order is both the order of geographical positions as well as linguistic similarity, with neighboring languages being more similar than distant ones.
Similarly to the situation for Proto-Indo-European, reconstructions of Proto-Uralic are traditionally not written in IPA but in UPA. UPA is used here, followed by the IPA equivalents between slashes (because it is a phonemic reconstruction).
Proto-Uralic had vowel harmony and a rather large inventory of vowels in initial syllables, much like the modern Finnish or Estonian system:
|Close||i /i/||ü /y/||ï /ɯ/||u /u/|
|Mid||e /e/||o /o/|
|Open||ä /æ/||a /ɑ/|
Sometimes a mid vowel *ë /ɤ/ is reconstructed in place of *ï, or a low back rounded *å /ɒ/ in place of *a.
There were no monophonemic long vowels nor diphthongs, though sequences of vowel and semivowel within a single syllable (such as *äj) could exist.
Vowel inventory in non-initial syllables was restricted: only a two-way contrast of open and non-open vowels is safely reconstructible. The actual realization of this contrast is a question of debate: one view considers this two archiphonemic vowels //a// and //i//, realized as four allophones [æ ɑ], [i ɯ] as per vowel harmony. For the non-open vowel(s), most other branches reflect a reduced vowel [ə], while only the (Baltic) Finnic languages uniformly point to a specific vowel value (showing /e/ or /ɤ/ depending on harmony, word-finally /i/). While vowel reduction is a common sound change, Finnic is known to have adstrate influence from language groups that would not have known reduced vowels (namely the Baltic languages and the early Germanic languages), so a value of [ə] already in Proto-Uralic remains a possibility. 
The existence of further non-initial vowels in certain words has been suggested but remains unpopular. These include e.g. kinship terms such as "sister-in-law", found as *kälü in both Proto-Finnic and Proto-Samoyedic. Sammallahti (1988) reconstructs here instead a word-final labial glide: *käliw.
In the consonant system, palatalization, or palatal-laminal instead of apical articulation, was a phonemic feature, as it is in many modern Uralic languages. Only one series of stops (unvoiced unaspirated) existed:
|p /p/||t /t/||(ć /t͡sʲ ~ t͡ɕ/)||č /t̠͡ʃ/||k /k/|
|Nasals||m /m/||n /n/||ń /nʲ ~ ɲ/||ŋ /ŋ/|
|Sibilants||s /s/||ś /sʲ ~ ɕ/||(š /ʃ/)|
|Spirants||δ /ð/||δ´ /ðʲ/|
|Lateral(s?)||l /l/||(ľ /lʲ ~ ʎ/)|
|Semivowels||w /w/||j /j/|
The phonetic nature of the segment symbolized by *x is uncertain, though it is usually considered a back consonant; [x], [ɣ], [ɡ], and [h] have been suggested among others. Janhunen (1981, 2007) takes no explicit stance, leaving open the option for even a vocalic value. The segment has some similarity to the Indo-European laryngeals (to which it can correspond in loanwords): it is reconstructed by certain scholars in syllable-final position in word-stems where a contrastive long vowel later developed, best preserved in the Finnic languages, and where Samoyedic features a vowel sequence such as *åə. The correlation between these two stem classes is however not perfect, and alternate possibilities exist for explaining both vowel length in Finnic and vowel sequences in Samoyedic. *x is also reconstructed word-medially, and in this position it also develops to a Finnic long vowel, but has clear consonantal reflexes elsewhere: *k in Samic, *j in Mordvinic and *ɣ in Ugric. If a consonant, it probably derives from lenition of *k at a pre-Uralic stage; it is only found in words ending in a non-open vowel, while *k is infrequent or nonexistent in similar positions.
The phonetical identity of the consonant *δ´ is also subject to some doubt. It is traditionally analyzed as the palatalized counterpart of the voiced dental fricative *δ, that is, as [ðʲ]; however, this a typologically rare sound value for which no direct evidence is found in any Uralic language, and a pure palatal fricative [ʝ] is another option; a third option is a palatal liquid like, e. g., Czech ř. Ugricist László Honti has advanced a reconstruction with lateral fricatives: [ɬ], [ɬʲ] for *δ, *δ´.
The phonemes in parentheses — *ć, *š, *ĺ — are supported by only limited evidence, and are not assumed by all scholars. Sammallahti (1988) notes that while instances of *ć are found in all three of Permic, Hungarian and Ob-Ugric, there are "very few satisfactory etymologies" showing any correlation between the branches in whether *ć or *ś appears. In the other languages, no consistent distinction between these consonants is found. The evidence for the postalveolar sibilant *š however is "scarce but probably conclusive" (ibid): it is treated distinctly from *s only in the more western (Finno-Permic) languages, but certain loans from as far back as the Proto-Indo-European language have reflexes traceable to a postalveolar fricative (including *piši- or *peši- "to cook"). The possibility of *ĺ is not considered by him at all. In contrast, Janhunen, who considers Samoyedic evidence necessary for conclusions about Proto-Uralic, doubts that *š can be reconstructed, preferring to consider it a secondary, post-Proto-Uralic innovation (p. 210). He agrees with Sammallahti in omitting *ĺ and in only considering a single palatal obstruent as necessary to reconstruct; for the latter he suggests the sound value of a palatal stop, [c] (p. 211).
No initial or final consonant clusters were allowed, so words could begin and end with a maximum of one consonant only. The single consonants *δ *r *x *ŋ also could not occur word-initially, though at least for the first of these this may be an coincidental omission in the data. A reconstruction *δäpδä "spleen" exists, but is not found in Samoyedic and the most stringent criteria for a Proto-Uralic root thus exclude it. A similar case is *repä "fox", a loanword from Indo-Iranian. Inside word roots only clusters of two consonants were permitted. While voicing was not a phonemic feature, double (i.e. geminate) stops probably existed (*ïppi "father-in-law", *witti "five", *lükkä- "to push"), and the singleton–geminate contrast in most descendant languages developed into a voiced–voiceless distinction (Finnic is a notable exception, e.g. Finnish appi, lykkää).
Proto-Uralic did not have tones, which contrasts with Yeniseian and some Siberian languages. Neither was there contrastive stress as in Indo-European; in Proto-Uralic the first syllable was invariably stressed.
Consonant gradation may have occurred already in Proto-Uralic: if it did, it was probably a phonetical alternation involving allophonic voicing of the stop consonants: [p] ~ [b], [t] ~ [d], [k] ~ [g].
Grammatically Proto-Uralic was an agglutinative language with at least six noun cases and verbs inflected for number, person, mood and tense. There were three numbers, singular, dual and plural. Proto-Uralic was a nominative–accusative language. Verbs may have had a separate subjective and objective conjugation, the latter of which was used in connection with a definite object.
Grammatical gender was not recognized and no Uralic language does so even today. Noun articles were unknown. The plural marker of nouns was *-t in final position and *-j- in non-final position, as seen in Finnish. The dual marker has been reconstructed as *-k-, but the dual number has been lost in many of the contemporary Uralic languages. The nouns also had possessive suffixes; possessive pronouns were not found.
The cases had only one three-way locative contrast of entering, residing and exiting. This is the origin of the three-way systems as the three different ones in Karelian Finnish (illative/inessive/elative, allative/adessive/ablative, translative/essive/exessive). The partitive case, developed from the ablative, was a later innovation by Fennic languages.
The cases were:
- nominative (no suffix)
- accusative *-m
- genitive *-n
- locative *-na / *-nä
- ablative *-ta / *-tä
- lative *-ŋ
Verbs were conjugated at least according to number, person and tense. The reconstructions of mood markers are controversial. Some scholars argue that there were separate subjective and objective conjugations, but this is disputed; clear reflexes of the objective conjugation are only found in the easternmost branches, and hence it may also represent an areal innovation. Negation was expressed with the means of a negative verb *e-, found as such in e.g. Finnish e+mme "we don't".
Only some 200 word roots can be reconstructed for Proto-Uralic, if it is required that every word reconstructed for the proto-language should be present in Samoyedic languages (related to the hypothesis that Samoyedic was the first group to split off: see discussion at Finno-Ugric languages). With a laxer criterion of reconstructing words which are attested in most branches of the language family, a number in the range of 300-400 roots can be reached.
The following examples of reconstructed items are considered to fulfill the strictest criteria and are thus accepted as Proto-Uralic words by practically all scholars in the field:
- Body parts and bodily functions: *ïpti hair on the head, *ojwa head, *śilmä eye, *poski cheek, *kä(x)li tongue, *mïksa liver, *elä- to live, *ka(x)li- to die, *wajŋi breath, *kosi cough, *kunśi urine, *küńili tear, *se(x)ji pus.
- Kinship terms: *emä mother, *čečä uncle, *koska aunt, *mińä daughter-in-law, *wäŋiw son-in-law.
- Verbs for universally known actions: *meni- to go, *toli- to come, *aśkili- to step, *imi- to suck, *soski- to chew, *pala- to eat up, *uji- to swim, *sala- to steal, *kupsa- to extinguish.
- Basic objects and concepts of the natural world: *juka river, *toxi lake, *weti water, *päjwä sun, warmth, *suŋi summer, *śala- lightning, *wanča root, *ko(x)ji birch, *ka(x)si spruce, *sïksi Siberian pine, *δ'ï(x)mi bird cherry
- Elementary technology: *tuli fire, *śüδi coal, *äjmä needle, *pura drill, *jïŋsi bow, *jänti bow string, *ńï(x)li arrow, *δ'ümä glue, *lïpśi cradle, *piksi rope, *suksi ski, *woča fence.
- Basic spatial concepts: *ïla below, *üli above, *wasa left, *pälä side.
- Pronouns: *mun I, *tun you, *ke- who, *mi- what.
A reconstruction of a word *wäśkä, meaning 'reddish metal' (copper, bronze or iron), has also been proposed. However, this word shows irregularities in sound correspondence, and some scholars believe it to be a Wanderwort instead.
The reconstructed vocabulary is compatible with a Mesolithic culture (bow, arrow, needle, sinew, but also rope, fence, cradle, ski), a north Eurasian landscape (spruce, birch, Siberian pine), and contains interesting hints on kinship structure.
Examples of vocabulary correspondences between the modern Uralic languages are provided in the list of comparisons at the Finnish Wikipedia.
- Janhunen 1981a pp. 24-25
- Petri, Kallio (2012), "The non-initial-syllable vowel reductions from Proto-Uralic to Proto-Finnic", Suomalais-Ugrilaisen Seuran toimituksia 264, ISSN 0355-0230
- Janhunen, Juha (2007), "The primary laryngeal in Uralic and beyond" (pdf), Suomalais-Ugrilaisen Seuran toimituksia 253, ISSN 0355-0230, retrieved 2010-05-05
- Aikio, Ante (2012), "On Finnic long vowels, Samoyed vowel sequences, and Proto-Uralic *x", Suomalais-Ugrilaisen Seuran toimituksia 264, ISSN 0355-0230
- László, Honti (2013), "Comments on Uralic historical phonology" (pdf), Acta Linguistica Hungarica 60: 1–68, doi:10.1556/ALing.60.2013.1.1, ISSN 1588-2624, retrieved 2013-04-10
- Helimski, Eugene. Proto-Uralic gradation: Continuation and traces - In: Congressus Octavus Internationalis Fenno-Ugristarum. Pars I: Orationes plenariae et conspectus quinquennales. Jyväskylä, 1995. 
- Janhunen, Juha. 1981a. "On the structure of Proto-Uralic." Finnisch-ugrische Forschungen 44, 23–42. Helsinki: Société finno-ougrienne.
- Janhunen, Juha. 1981b. "Uralilaisen kantakielen sanastosta ('On the vocabulary of the Uralic proto-language')." Journal de la Société Finno-Ougrienne 77, 219–274. Helsinki: Société finno-ougrienne.
- Sammallahti, Pekka. 1988. "Historical phonology of the Uralic languages, with special reference to Samoyed, Ugric, and Permic." In The Uralic Languages: Description, History and Foreign Influences, edited by Denis Sinor, 478–554. Leiden: Brill.