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Will the Sami Languages Disappear?

(The following post is by Taru Spiegel, Reference Specialist, European Division)

The General Assembly of the United Nations proclaimed 2019 to be the International Year of Indigenous Languages. These languages are being lost at a rapid rate, together with the cultures they represent. According to a UN assessment, about 40 percent of the estimated 6,700 languages spoken in 2016 are in danger of disappearing very soon. With this threat in mind, the Sami (formerly known as Lapp) speakers of northern Europe have sought, especially in the last 80 years, the necessary political influence to preserve their native languages and way of life. The Sami Council is a voluntary, non-governmental organization with members from all the Sami areas, including those in Russia. Founded in 1956, the Council is one of the oldest organization of its kind. Gradually, the Sami have been able to get legislation passed to protect Sami language and cultural rights. In the Nordic countries, Sami language instruction is now available from elementary schools all the way to university courses. Preschoolers can attend “language nests” where they are immersed in the language, instructed by proficient speakers.

An area populated by the Sami. Lyngen, also known as Lyngenfjorden (Norwegian) and Ivgovuotna (Northern Sami), Norway.

Sami languages may also be referred to as Sámi, Saami, Same, Saame, Sabme, Sámic, Samic, or Saamic, depending on the speaker’s location within the Sami lands. Most Sami are bilingual, and many no longer speak their ancestral language. They inhabit an area mostly within the Arctic Circle, from northern Norway, Sweden, and Finland to Russia’s Kola Peninsula. Outsiders formerly referred to this region as Lapland, but today the preferred terms for the Sami lands are Sápmi, Sábme/Sámeednam, Saepmie, Sábmie, Säämi, Sääʹmjânnam, again depending on the region. The Sami inhabited large areas of northern Europe for thousands of years, but were gradually forced northward by later-arriving populations, such as the present-day Norwegians, Swedes, and Finns. Estimates vary, but the current Sami population is circa 75,000-100,000, with the majority living in Norway.

Image details of traditional Sami dress from various works. Clockwise from upper left:
Finland: the Land of Lakes” p. 115; “Poromiehet” (Reindeer men), front page; “Saamelaista kansantaidetta” (Sami folk art), picture 1; “The Sámi, Saamelaiset, les Sames” p. 17.

The Sami culture was closely tied to traditional occupations such as reindeer herding, fishing, or farming, and as those livelihoods change or disappear, so does the culture, unless it is supported by other means. Reindeer herding is now conducted largely by using ski-mobiles and helicopters. Those Sami who herd reindeer have the right to move freely through Nordic Sami lands from one country to another.

The southern neighbors of the Sami found them intriguing, and began documenting their lifestyle and pre-Christian religious observances. Such early authors include the Swedes Olaus Magnus (1555) and Johannes Scheffer, a professor at Uppsala University (1673), as well as the Norwegian priest and linguist, Knud Leem (1767). The 1800s saw an impressive increase in the number of writings about “Lapland” by European and American authors, some more scholarly than others.

Olaus Magnus (1490-1557). “Historia delle genti et della natvra delle cose settentrionali …” (A Description of the Northern Peoples). Vinegia: Givnti, 1565. Sami hunters (Book 4, Chapter 12); Woman milking reindeer (Book 17, Chapter 27).

Knud Leem. “Knud Leems … Beskrivelse over Finmarkens Lapper.” Kiøbenhavn: G. G. Salikath, 1767. Sledding in the snow, (Image xcvii); reading session (Image xcv).

Unlike the Indo-European languages spoken in most of Europe, the Sami languages belong to the Uralic language family, and are most closely related to the Baltic-Finnic branch, which includes Finnish and Estonian, although opinions vary as to the closeness of the relationship. Opinions also differ as to whether the different versions of Sami are languages or dialects, and how to designate their speakers. For purposes of this post, the Sami languages will be divided into the South-, Ume-, Pite-, Lule-, North-, Inari, Skolt, Akkala, Kildin (or East) and Ter Sami. The more distant the groups are from each other geographically, the less they can understand one another. The number of Sami speakers is estimated between 25,000 and 35,000. North Sami speakers—in the far North of Norway, Sweden, and Finland—are the most numerous, about 20,000 people. The few remaining South Sami speakers live in central Norway and north-central Sweden. The Ume, Pite, and Lule languages in Sweden are in serious danger of disappearing. On the Russian Kola Peninsula, the Akkala and Ter Sami have virtually died out. Kildin Sami is spoken by a few hundred people. In Finland, only a few hundred speak Inari Sami and fewer than 2,000 use Skolt Sami.

A map showing the approximate distribution of the various Sami language groups. (Compiled from multiple sources.)

A map showing the approximate distribution of the various Sami language groups. (Compiled from multiple sources.)

“The Song of the Sami Family” is the official Sami anthem. To demonstrate the differences among the Sami languages, here is how the Sami anthem titles look in Northern Sami: “Sámi Soga Lávlla,” in Inari Sami: “Säämi suuvâ laavlâ,” and in Skolt Sami: “Sää´msooǥǥ laull.” In Finnish, the title would be the somewhat similar “Saamen suvun laulu.” The words were written by Isak Saba, the first Sami Member of Parliament in Norway, and the music is by the Norwegian composer Arne Sørlie. The Sami Flag was designed by the Sami artist Astrid Båhl. Its design derives from the poem “Sons of the Sun” (Páiven párneh) by the South Sami Anders Fjellner, describing the Sami as sons and daughters of the sun. The circles represent the sun (red) and the moon (blue). The Sami National Day is celebrated on February 6.

The Sami Flag.

The Library of Congress has several thousand books by or about the Sami, which may also be found under the older terms of “Lapps,” or “Lapland,” and more currently under “Sami (European people),” “Sami language,” etc. To find these materials, check the Library’s online catalog, or use the “Ask a Librarian” online inquiry form.

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