A change from SOV to SVO has been pointed out in the history of many languages, among them several members of the Indo-European family. However, none of these changes are documented sufficiently for us to understand how such a change is initiated, and how, through what intermediate stages, if any, it proceeds. The present-day Uralic languages of Russia enable us to formulate answers to these questions on the basis of empirical evidence.

What is more, we can obtain parallel answers from more than a dozen languages, which increases the chance of identifying general, non-accidental phenomena. Preliminary studies of three Uralic languages (Udmurt, Khanty, and Nenets), and sporadic reports on others show similar syntactic processes taking place in all of them, whether they are spoken in the European part of Russia (e.g. Komi and Mari), in West Siberia (Khanty and Mansi), or in North Siberia (the Samoyedic languages), and whether they are spoken by several hundred thousand persons (e.g. Udmurt and Mordvin), or by only a few dozen people (e.g. Enets and Nganasan).

Research questions:

1. The change of basic word order.

We plan to study the breaking up of the strict SOV Uralic word order. We want to find out how strong the correlation is (i) between the loosening of SOV and the extension of differential object marking or object–verb agreement to all objects, and (ii) between the loosening of SOV and the dissociation of grammatical functions and discourse roles.

2. Non-finite subordination giving way to finite subordination.

The performance theory of Hawkins (2001) predicts a correlation between SOV and non-finite subordination, and SVO and finite subordination introduced by a complementizer. The SOV Uralic languages strongly prefer sentences with a single finite verb, and their subordinate clauses feature a variety of non-finite verb forms.

3. Clause-final complementizers being replaced by clause-initial ones.

The non-finite subordinate clauses typical of the Uralic languages, inherited from the Uralic proto-language (see Collinder 1960), have no complementizers. However, the European Uralic languages have also developed finite subordinate clauses with a clause-final complementizer. For instance, Udmurt has that-clauses involving the complementizer shuysa, which grammaticalized from a participle, the equivalent of ’saying’, and adverbial subordinate clauses involving complementizers grammaticalized from postpositions.

4. The diversification of indefinite pronouns; the appearance of negative pronouns.

In the Uralic languages (as is common universally), the derivational base of all indefinite pronouns is the interrogative pronoun. In early Old Hungarian, this pronoun was used in interrogative, non-negative, negative, and free choice contexts alike. In existential, negative, and free choice contexts, the indefinite pronoun merged with the element most typically preceding it in the given context; that is how the indefinite pronoun diversified into existential, negative, and free choice pronouns.

In the Uralic languages of Russia, the diversification of all-purpose indefinite pronouns into interrogatives, indefinites, negative pronouns and free choice items has mostly taken place by borrowing Russian morphemes (see Alvre 2002: 163, Alsenoy & van den Auwera 2014). In Old Hungarian, the inner division of the semantic field of indefiniteness by different types of indefinite pronouns was fixed after much variation and uncertainty (see Bende-Farkas 2014). It will be interesting to examine whether the indefinite pronouns of Russian origin have brought along a fixed set of semantic features from the source language.