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Indigenous Language Series 5: Sami languages of Northern Europe

Indigenous languages are important for social, economic and political development, peaceful coexistence and particularly for reconciliation in our societies. Yet many of them are in danger of disappearing. It is for this reason that the United Nations declared 2019 the Year of Indigenous Languages to encourage urgent action to promote, revitalise and preserve endangered languages as part of the world’s cultural diversity.

This year, as part of our Indigenous language series, each month we will present one of the many Indigenous languages of the world.

The Sami languages of Northern Europe

The Sami languages are a group of Uralic languages spoken by the Sami people in Scandinavian countries such as Finland, Sweden and Norway as well as some northwestern parts of Russia. We count, depending on the nature and terms of division, 10 or more Sami languages. The Sami languages form a branch of the Uralic language family which is composed of 38 languages spoken by about 25 million speakers most of them being Finnish, Hungarian and Estonian.

Sami languages map

The Sami languages are divided into 2 groups, western and eastern. Depending on how widely the sublanguage groups are separated speakers can either be mutually intelligible to each other or not understand each other at all.

History

The Sami languages family is believed to have formed in the Gulf of Finland between 1000 BC to 700 AD, deriving from a common Proto-Sami-Finnic language. The Proto-Samic language developed in South Finland around 2000–2500 years ago, spreading then to northern Fennoscandia (a region composed of the Scandinavian countries and the Russian Kola peninsula). The language is believed to have expanded west and north into Fennoscandia during the Nordic Iron Age, reaching central Scandinavia during the Proto-Scandinavian period ca. 500 AD.

Sami languages speaking family

Sami family – early 20th century

In the early 90s, the Sami languages started to gain official recognition as minority languages and even becoming an official language in Finland and Norway. Only Russia, to this day, has yet not recognised the Sami languages spoken in its Kola Peninsula.

Written Sami

The Sami languages use Latin alphabet with their own additional letters such as Áá Čč Đđ Ŋŋ Šš Ŧŧ Žž for Northern Sami, the most widely spoken Sami language with about 15 000 speakers.

Do you speak English?Humatgo Eaŋgalasgiela?
What is your name?Mii du namma lea?
Thank youGiitu
PleaseLeage buorre
I'm sorryÁndagassii
GoodbyeBáze dearvan (to one person)
GoodbyeBáhcci dearvan (to two people)
GoodbyeBáhcet dearvan (to more than two people)

Present situation and future

After a lack of recognition and an overall decline in the 20th century, the Sami languages gained official recognition at the end of the 20th century. During the 1990s, legislation aimed at securing for Saami speakers certain limited rights within administration, police, courts, and other sectors of society was introduced in all three Nordic countries with a Saami population (Finland, Norway, Sweden). It is too early to evaluate the effect of these policies but in certain parts of Norway, the resistance from the Norwegian-speaking majority against any form of Saami cultural rights has been very strong.

Modern economic development, including the exploitation of natural resources in Saami areas, does not further Sami development. Usually, the companies push the use of official languages such as Norwegian, Swedish or Finnish to Sami workers. Mainstream media is also a threat to the daily use and revival of Sami.