Friday, 9 March 2012


The winners of a televised competition to represent Russia in the forthcoming Eurovision Song Contest, it was reported yesterday, are the “Buranovo Grannies”.

Apart from an English-language refrain, they perform their song in their ethnic language Udmurt. This has thrown this little-known language into the spotlight.

There is not a lot of information about Udmurt available. I haven’t had an opportunity to consult that old warhorse, Vinogradov’s Языки народов СССР Yazyki narodov SSSR, ‘Languages of the Peoples of the USSR’ (Moscow: Nauka, 1967), but there is a certain amount of information available in Comrie’s The languages of the Soviet Union (CUP 1981), in Ethnologue, in Omniglot, and in Wikipedia.

All agree that Udmurt (aka Votyak) is a Uralic language, in the Permic or Permian branch of the Finno-Ugric group. Its closest relatives are thus Komi-Permyak and Komi-Zyryan/Zyrian. It is related, but less closely, to Finnish and Estonian, and even more distantly to Hungarian. There’s a family tree of the Uralic languages here.

The number of speakers of Udmurt is reportedly just under half a million.

The Wikipedia account of the language contains just a single gnomic sentence on its phonology:
The language does not distinguish between long and short vowels and does not have vowel harmony.
So what, you might think — it also doesn’t distinguish between aspirated and unaspirated consonants and does not have lexical tone. We need to know what it has, not what it doesn’t have. The vowel harmony point is worth making, though, since most other Uralic languages do have vowel harmony.

Thankfully, Wikipedia does give us a consonant chart, a vowel chart, and information about the writing system and its relationship to pronunciation. The consonant system appears to be pretty unremarkable. Among the consonants Wikipedia lists ɲ (or ) and ɕ ʑ (or sʲ zʲ), though these appear to be just positional co-allophones of n and s z; there are also distinct ʃ ʒ tʃ dʒ. The vowel system is reportedly as follows. I wonder if there’s really a distinction between ə and ʌ — as far as I can see, both are represented by the same letter in spelling.
…which brings us to the writinɡ system. Like other languages of the Russian Federation, Udmurt is written in Cyrillic. As usual for such languages, the Russian alphabet has to be supplemented with various special letters or letters bearing diacritics. Udmurt uses just the diaeresis diacritic, with five extra letters Ӝӝ Ӟӟ Ӥӥ Ӧӧ Ӵӵ. The first two stand for affricates, Ӧӧ for ə ~ ʌ. It is not clear from our meagre sources what the effect of the diaeresis in Ӥӥ is meant to be, given that both it and plain Ии seem to stand for i. The use of Ӵӵ seems to imply that is indeed distinct from , the latter being written plain Чч.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that in the 1930s, when Soviet minority languages were being equipped or re-equipped with alphabets and standardized Cyrillic writing systems, Stalin carefully ensured that no two languages had quite the same set of special letters. That’s why we now have an “Extended Cyrillic” section in Unicode (U+048A Ҋ to U+04FF ӿ), and a “Cyrillic Supplement” (U+0500 Ԁ to U+0527; I can only display them up to U+0513 ԓ).

As well as this provision for the minority languages, Unicode now caters for Old Church Slavonic and Old Cyrillic in “Cyrillic Extended-A” (U+2DE0 to U+2DFF) and “Cyrillic Extended-B” (U+A640 to U+A697), containing characters I can’t display to you but which if you’re interested you can inspect on the Unicode site.

Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to hearing some spoken, or at least sung, Udmurt.


  1. Re literature on Udmurt and its ilk I'd recommend:

    Péter Hajdú, Péter Domokos, _Die uralischen Sprachen und Literaturen_, Buske Verlag, Hamburg 1987.

    I studied it (in a Polish translation from the Hungarian original) when I was a kid, 'in the olde dayes of that Kynge Arthoure' (when Domokos was not yet a co-author).

    You'll be able, I am sure, to get hold of a copy of it in Britain. Worth while trying.


    also interesting, if you understand Russian. 2:11ff. The main feature of Udmurt mentality is non-aggression with respect to nature, neighbours, the people and so on, the lady is saying. Most nations claim something like that of themselves, but in the case of Udmurts it's truer than in most other cases, I suppose.

  3. You can display all of Cyrillic in glorious monowidth if you use Everson Mono, John. See — also all of IPA is supported. Perfect for e-mail.

  4. Here is, I think, a treatment of Udmurt in Udmurt. The phonological chart looks rather different, even allowing for the use of Cyrillic symbols.

  5. I think I have deciphered the relationship between phonology and orthography from the Wikipedia article and from this page of an Udmurt grammar in Russian showing phonological charts. I do not read Russian beyond the alphabet, and the text is an image and so not visible to Google Translate, but a chart is a chart.

    Udmurt appears to have a phonemic palatalized/non-palatalized opposition only in the dental consonants /d t s z n l/. As usual in Cyrillic, the palatalization is marked by ь if no vowel follows, and by separate iotated vowels otherwise. However, Udmurt needs to be able to represent the un-Russian sequence of a non-palatalized dental followed by /i/. Since the letter ы represents Udmurt's high central vowel phoneme (the schwa is either marginal or non-phonemic, says the vowel chart), it is not available for the purpose, and the letter ӥ is used instead.

    The consonant chart says that there is also a marginal opposition in the labials /b p v f m/, but apparently the orthography does not account for this.

    I asked Ivan Derzhanski (a Bulgarian linguist with near-native Russian) about the diversity of Soviet alphabets once, and he opined that it was merely the natural consequence of independent committees working quickly in different places without coordination of any sort, rather than any centrally mandated plan.

  6. I've attempted an analysis of the Udmurtian Wikipedia tables to see how the compare to English Wikipedia and John Cowan's Russian tables.

    Only seven vowel phonemes represented by
    HIGH..и..........ы.............. у

    The table recognises four sorts of articulation. From from to back:
    1. labial and labiodental
    2. dental and alveolar
    3. two sorts of palatal
    4. velar

    The dental consonants have counterparts in the first sort of palatals. How closely this resembles Russian hard-soft pairs is an open question. The table represents them as

    (In Russian, these symbols have the values n/nʲ, l/lʲ, t/tʲ, d/dʲ, s/sʲ, z/zʲ.)

    There's another dental consonant represented as ц. Or maybe not. Watch this space.

    The dental fricative consonants also have alveolar equivalents. This is shown in the table as a three-way opposition:

    [This doesn't imply that the palatalised is closer to the dental than to the alveolar. It's just that the letters ш and ж are regarded as always 'hard' i.e. non-palatalised in Russian.

    [The Russian values of the symbols are s/ʃ/sʲ, z/ʒ/zʲ.]

    The affricates are classed as alveolar and have equivalents in the first sort of palatals
    ӵ....................ч (orthographic ч is 'soft' i.e. palatalised in Russian)

    [The Russian value of ч and the convention of ¨ suggests values of tʃ/tʃʲ, dʒ/dʒʲ.]

    The table shows a dental equivalent to voiceless ӵ......ч — namely ц — but wraps it in brackets. This means, I think, that it's a marginal sound — maybe confined to loan words. Thus:


    [Going by Russian values, equivalent to ts/tʃ/tʃʲ]

    There's only one PALATAL TYPE 2 consonant represented by й — which in Russian has the value j. It's presented in the table in a way that might imply a four-way opposition
    [Russian values equivalent to z/ʒ/zʲ/j]

    Like John Cowan's diagram, this one has labial п, б (Russian equivalent p/b) and labiodental ф, в (Russian equivalent f/v). Unlike John's diagram, it lacks palatalised partners for the four. Indeed, it seems to indicate that even non-palatalised ф [f] is marginal.

    The velar consonants are к, г, (х). [Russian values equivalent to k/g x]. The brackets presumably mark х as marginal.

    There is only one р [Russian value equivalent to r]

    I asked my wife to translate the notes to John Cowan's table. It seems to describe б, в, г, д, ж, з, л, м. н, р, с, т, ш in native words and ф, х, ц in exotic borrowing as equivalent to Russian 'hard' (i.e. non-palatalised) consonants represented by this letters, namely b, v, g, d, ʒ, z, l, m, n, r, t, ʃ and f, x, ts.

    However it clearly differentiates the PALATAL TYPE 1 consonants from Russian 'soft' (i.e. palatalised) consonants. Udmurt palatalisation involves raising the back of the tongue and placing the tip on the lower teeth. It seems to say that this is a difference of primary rather than secondary articulation — or perhaps it's just stressing that it's a different sort of secondary palatalisation.

    Another note confirms what John W reports — that the diacritic ¨ is used to mark affricates.

    1. David,

      the Russian paper John Cowan pointed to says (section 7 last paragraph) that such and such consonants, amongst them f, occur only in Russian loanwords.

  7. Letter ӥ has a name which translates into English as 'dotted i' — along with letter й whose name translates as 'short i'. This suggests that the Urdmurt names are themselves translations of Russian и с точкой and и краткий. The former existed in the Russian alphabet with the shape i until 1918, and still persists in the alphabets of Ukrainian and some other languages.

    It was dropped from Russian because it was identical in value to и and to another dropped letter: ѵ.

  8. Hi John, I really feel informed by your post topic. I shall enjoy visiting again to hear more words for the first time like some here.

  9. Vowel chart for standard Udmurt (ʌ is not present): (from Вахрушев В. М., Денисов В. Н. "Современный удмуртский язык: Фонетика. Графика и орфография. Орфоэпия").

    ʌ is present, for example, in those Udmurt dialects, where /ɨ/ is marginal phoneme (for example in Beserman). Vowel chart of Beserman: (from Идрисов Р. "Вокализм бесермянского диалекта удмуртского языка").