The Nenets people are Asian (Mongoloid), while most of the speakers of Finno-Ugric (Uralic) languages are European: Finns, Hungarians, Estonians.

Clearly, at some point, their ancestors lived far away from each other, then they came into contact, and the ancestors of modern Nenets people gave up their language to speak a Finno-Ugric language, yet they managed to remain a separate people.

That hasn't been too unusual since the age of empires, but I think it was very uncommon before that, which is why this seems interesting.

Note: According to Wikipedia, Finno-Ugric is an acceptable synonym for Uralic:

The term Finno-Ugric, which originally referred to the entire family, is sometimes used as a synonym for the term Uralic, which includes the Samoyedic languages

  • 2
    According to Wikipedia they don't, because Nenets is a Samoyedic language and Finno-Ugric excludes the Samoyedic languages. Did you mean to ask how they spoke a Uralic_language? Why do you think it is unusual for Asian peoples to speak either Uralic or Finno-Ugric languages?
    – curiousdannii
    Feb 10 '17 at 4:44
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    Apart from the answers you already got and to which I align as well, you could ask yourself: "How come people in Iran speak an Indo-European language" or "How come people in south American speak Spanish" and so on. Languages and biological ancestry do not correlate necessarily. In the case of Nenets, they do live in a region very relevant to Uralic languages spread.
    – Midas
    Feb 10 '17 at 8:01
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    "How come people in south American speak Spanish" The Spanish Empire... Have you heard of it?
    – MWB
    Feb 10 '17 at 9:59
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    Languages and biological ancestry do not correlate necessarily You may want to look up "correlate" in an encyclopedia (Saying this as someone with a math background)
    – MWB
    Feb 10 '17 at 10:00
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    @MaxB What do you mean? What is wrong with it? There is a relevant paper by L. Cambell dealing with this specific issue, using the same word. researchgate.net/publication/…
    – Midas
    Feb 11 '17 at 23:00

If you distinguish Finno-Ugric from Uralic, Samoyedic isn't Finno-Ugric, and is often considered a sister of Finno-Ugric. In referring to the Nenets as being Asian people, it's not clear if you're making a geographic statement or a racial one. The geographical interpretation is easy to dispose of. The Nenets live on both sides of the Ural mountains, the traditional defining line of Europe versus Asia, so your assumption is simply untrue. As a genetic claim, based on facial features, it's not a particular revealing diagnostic of historical events, since you find similar facial characteristics among the Saami, Mansi and Mari, among others. A more productive but non-linguistic approach would be to look at objective genetic facts such as haplogroup distribution.

  • A more productive but non-linguistic approach would be to look at objective genetic facts such as haplogroup distribution -- What would that tell you about whether they lived in some Finno-Ugric state w/o intermarrying? /r
    – MWB
    Feb 10 '17 at 23:00
  • I don't understand what you mean by "Finno-Ugric state". What it would tell you is whether on genetic grounds it means anything to claim that they are an Asian people. Suppose you can show there is a particular correlation between language and genetics within Uralic: there are many explanations possible. I don't see how a Finno-Ugric state enters into the question. You may need to reveal other assumptions.
    – user6726
    Feb 10 '17 at 23:08
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    Languages often spread without people moving very much. I.e, the ancestors of the same folks who are speaking Uralic today might well have been speaking Proto-Mongolian or PIE in more or less the same place several thousand years ago.
    – jlawler
    Feb 11 '17 at 15:14
  • But you're buying into his presupposition, since language shift without substantial population movement is indeed through "empire".
    – user6726
    Feb 11 '17 at 15:58
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    @jlawler That's what I think too. The Nenets, etc. acquired the language from Finns, etc., who then migrated West. I was hoping to find some insights about that on this site. Boy, were my hopes misplaced.
    – MWB
    Feb 12 '17 at 3:03

There were definitely empires in the area where the ancestors of the speakers of the Uralic languages lived after the formation of the Uralic language family.

Such empires most likely facilitated the transfer of languages between different peoples.

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