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No tribe left behind: Estonia celebrates its Finno-Ugrian roots

Over time, Estonia has become such an integral part of the Indo-European cultural sphere that many tend to forget how much it differs from its neigbors to the west, south, and east. Although grouped with the Baltic states for geopolitical and historical reasons, it serves well to remember that linguistically and ethnically, Estonians are very different from their Baltic brethren. On Saturday, October 17, Estonia is celebrating its own – the Finno-Ugric tribes, their culture and languages.

In March 2011, the Estonian Parliament decided to make Finno-Ugrian Day – the third Saturday of October – a flag day and a day of national importance.

The day is a culmination of Finno-Ugrian Days, a week-long festival in Estonia, that was first established in the interwar period. Interrupted during the Soviet era, the tradition was revived in 1988.

This year's Finno-Ugrian Days take place from October 12-18 and, as usual, include a series of concerts, workshops, conferences, film screenings, literature evenings, exhibitions, and parties. Click here for a full program in Estonian.

Through putting people in direct contact with the kindred peoples and their culture, the festival aims to raise awareness of Estonians' ethnic heritage and their part in the Finno-Ugric family.

Who are Finno-Ugric peoples?

The Finno-Ugric family consists of about 24 different peoples. Only three largest (in terms of population) have their own nation state: Hungarians (15 million), Finnish (5 million) and Estonians (1 million). The rest, majority of whom live in Russia, are recognized as national minorities, although there are exceptions.

Finno-Ugric languages spoken by these tribes belong to the Uralic language family and have about 25 million speakers in total.

Several of the Finno-Ugric cultures and languages are on the verge of extinction. The last native speaker of Livonian, once spoken in southern Estonia and northern Latvia, died in 2013. Nevertheless, efforts continue to keep the language from disappearing completely. In addition to philologists and linguists, Livonian is of interest to many others, who feel connected to its cultural heritage. There are a few hundred people in Latvia of direct Livonian descent. A Facebook community for learning Livonian (Līvõ Kēļ) currently has over 500 members.

Votic too, which is the closest relative of the Estonian language, is nowadays only spoken in a few villages in Kingiseppsky District, Russia. However, Professor Heinike Heinsoo from the University of Tartu recently published the first ever Votic textbook to help keep the language alive.

How similar or different are the languages?

Here are some examples. Finnic languages, even if not all mutually intelligible, share a lot of vocabulary. Ugric languages, on the other hand, broke off from the common ancestor (Proto-Uralic) so long ago, that apart from some shared characteristics like agglutination, a large set of cases, and a lack of grammatical gender, and a limited number of shared roots, they are very different indeed. Finns and Estonians are very unlikely to understand a word of spoken Hungarian and vice versa.

To liveelamajelāmelääél
To gominemalǟ’dõmennämenni


Fun facts about all things Finno-Ugric

  • Genetically, Estonians are closer to Latvians and Russians than Finns and other Baltic Finnic subgroups. Researchers believe that the reason for this lies in Estonia's difficult geopolitical history. Nevertheless, Estonians are still the closest genetic relatives that the Finns have. Those most distantly related to Estonians in Europe were the Italians, French, Spanish, and Finns in northern Kuusamo region.
  • It is believed that Udmurts are the most red-headed people in the world. According to data collected by late anthropologist Karin Mark, more than 4 percent of Udmurts have ginger hair.
  • In 2012, Buranovskiye Babushki (Buranovo Grannies), an Udmurtian ethno-pop band containing eight elderly women, represented Russia in Eurovision, where they finished a surprise second. They were wearing traditional Udmutian folk customs on stage and sand most of the song, "Party for Everybody", in the Udmurt language.
  • The Sami people are the only one in the world to have three parliaments. They were founded in Finland in 1973, in Norway in 1989, and in Sweden in 1993. Altogether they have 91 representatives.There is also an unofficial Sami Parliament of Russia.
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