The nine remaining Sámi languages are spoken here in the north of Europe (see map and gallery below) in a cross-border region which includes Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Kola Peninsula of Russia. This region is generally called Sápmi – mostly by sámis, and is sometimes referred to as Lapland. Laponia in swedish Lapland is the World’s largest unmodified UNESCO nature area still cultured by natives.
Sámi languages speakers estimate:
Southern Sámi 300 – 500 speakers
Ume Sámi – less than 20 speakers
Lule Sámi 2 000 – 3 000 speakers
Pite Sámi – less than 20 speakers
Northern Sámi – 20-30 000 speakers. There are three main North Sámi dialects. Northern Sámi is the most accessible language, both in terms of literature, news broadcasts, and other material for those who want to learn a Sámi language as a foreign language.*
Kemi Sámi – extinct
Inari Sámi 300 – 500 speakers
Akkala Sámi – considered mostly extinct since 2003*
Kildin Sámi 300 – 700 speakers
Skolt Sámi 300 – 500 speakers in Finland, fewer than 20 speakers in Russia
Ter Sámi – less than 5 speakers left, all elderly
Out of the 11 historically attested Sámi languages, 9 are still spoken/used.
Today we are around 90 000 Sámis, but as you can see from the numbers they do not match up to speakers of Sámi languages. Roughly 4/10 Sámis speak and use Sámi today.
Why is this so?
To avoid humiliation and to give their children “better chances in life”, indigenous and minority parents often decide to speak a dominant or official language with their children. Sámi parents have not been an exception to this rule, especially in the very near past.
For the sake of how long this post would be in order to include all four countries’ history with the Sámi people, I will mainly focus on Norway.
Up to the 17th century, Sámi society lived pretty much its own life, with little interference from the outside. But with the new borders of the Nordic countries, interference was inevitable. Historically, the language situation can be divided into three distinct periods: a missionary phase; a harsh assimilation phase; and the present phase, with potential for integration and revitalisation.
The 17th and 18th centuries characterise the beginning of missionary activities, with some very positive projects for the benefit of the Sámi languages: teaching was conducted through the medium of Sámi and religious texts were translated into Sámi. From the middle of the 19th century however, a new policy based on national romanticism and ‘vulgar Darwinist ideas’ led to a harsh suppression of Sámi and the languages. The Norwegian Parliament and government pursued overtly a policy aiming at assimilating the whole Sámi population in Norway in the course of one generation.
The “dark century,” 1870 to 1970 ca, had detrimental effects which can still be felt on both the languages themselves and on their status and speakers. In the coastal areas of Norway (and elsewhere), negative attitudes were transmitted by the Sámi themselves as a result of the policies, and inter-generational transfer of the language ceased in only a few generations.
New efforts in maintaining the languages were revived in the 1970s and still continues to this day. However, one of the most striking failures of the Sámi strategies is that the smaller Sámi languages (in numbers of speakers as listed above) have not seen success in improving their situation or even in defending their previous position. This failure is partly due to the fact that most speakers live apart from the larger Sámi groups. Dispersed among Norwegians, Swedes, Finns, and Russians, they do not have the demographic concentration that would enable them to use their language in the workplace and in official situations, including schools.
A language’s development, aging, and dying was considered “natural,” out of human reach. Languages were not killed, they “died of old age.” This agentless “model” for the prediction of the future of languages is still found among politicians, and legitimates their way of treating minority languages.
In Norway, many municipalities with a Sámi population had developed procedures to give the Sámi some local linguistic rights. Yet, when the Sámi language law (in force since 1992) designated certain areas as belonging to the Sámi administrative districts, many of the municipalities left outside these official districts – often municipalities where the speakers of the smaller Sámi languages lived – withdrew services in Sámi, claiming that the law did not require them. Even today, there is strong resilience towards using official Sámi names in for example Norwegian towns and municipalities.
*Currently, education, official documents and the media use Northern Sámi almost exclusively. This variant is used as a de facto “official language” and the most significant efforts have gone into the development of this particular language, to the detriment of other Sámi languages.
Opinions also differ on whether the different versions of Sámi are actual languages or dialects, and how to designate their speakers. “The Song of the Sámi Family” is the official Sámi anthem. To demonstrate the differences among the Sámi languages, here is how the Sámi anthem titles look in Northern Sámi: “Sámi Soga Lávlla,” in Inari Sámi: “Säämi suuvâ laavlâ,” and in Skolt Sámi: “Sää´msooǥǥ laull.” In Finnish, the title would be the somewhat similar; “Saamen suvun laulu.”
Most Sámis today speak either Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, Russian, or even English as their everyday tongue (some migrated to the USA). Many are bilingual as well. Another factor is that some Sámis do not identify as Sámi or even know that they are due to the assimilation in the past. They do not have any relationship with the language(s).
**Akkala Sámi is the most endangered Eastern Sámi language. On December 29, 2003, Maria Sergina – the last remaining fluent native speaker of Akkala Sámi – died. However, as of 2011 there were at least two people, both aged 70, with some minor knowledge of Akkala Sámi.
Norway, Sweden and Finland was in 2019 urged by the UN to increase public funding of Sámi parliaments as a response to the dire state of the disappearing languages. But even if the situation seems dire for many languages, it is still possible to revitalise them and start using them more often. Which languages survive and which do not ultimately seems to be a question of human will, not of any rules of nature.
I know that languages and cultures come and go, but I do feel it a great loss to lose what has been native for Sápmi and Lapland for literally thousands of years, in only a few generations, when it can be perserved. I am happy that some schools and institutions are giving sámi language courses to anyone who wishes to learn it (although this is mostly in Northern sámi), and I do also secretly wish that my children will learn it, which I never did due to the Norwegianization process in Finnmark. Language is a huge part of culture and when it’s taken away, people get confused about their own community and sense of belonging, and even turn on each other as a result of feeling alienated.
“The first study on the DNA of the ancient inhabitants of Finland has been published, with results indicating that an abundance of genes reached Finland all the way from Siberia.
The genetic samples compared in the study were collected from human bones found in a 3,500-year-old burial place in the Kola Peninsula and the 1,500-year-old lake burial site at Levänluhta in South Ostrobothnia, Finland. All of the samples contained identical Siberian genes.
Siberian origin remains perceptible
The ancient DNA has also been compared to modern populations. Siberian origins are still visible in the Sámi, Finns and other populations of the Finno-Ugric language family.
“However, it has been mixed up with the European genome. Of all European populations, modern Sámi are the most evident representatives of the Siberian genome. As for the title of the modern people with the largest Siberian genetic component, that privilege goes to the Nganasan people living in northern Siberia,” says Päivi Onkamo, head of the SUGRIGE project at the Universities of Helsinki and Turku.
The project succeeded in mapping out the entire genome from the bones of eleven individuals. From the Kola Peninsula, the bones of six individuals were collected from a 3,500-year-old burial place, while those of two individuals were found from another location dating back to the 18th and 19th century. In the case of the bones found in the Levänluhta site in South Ostrobothnia, the entire genome was mapped for three individuals.”
These findings are quite interesting to me, as I am very much into geneaology and learning about my family history. Different cultures and people fascinate me in general, and although this is just trivial information, it does shed light on why we look so different from other Europeans, for example 🙂
Some other uralic/finno-ugric peoples with roots/from Siberia are the Nenets (previously called the Samoyeds), the Khanty, the Mansi, the Selkup and the Mari people. We also have very similar traditional costumes and of course traditionally being nomadic, following the reindeers. Maybe I will write a post on our traditional dresses.
Are you into geneaology and/or anthropology? What is your favourite subject? 🙏🏼
Some things I truly believe are yours to keep, that no one can take from you:
Your spiritual practice. In my case, it is vajrayana buddhism. It has saved my life in many ways – both in dealing with chronic illness, but also the normal existential stuff like finding purpose and joy 🙂🙏🏼📿
Your ambitions and dreams (if they come from a place of pure motivation and love). In my case now, it has been starting a little family with children 💜🤱
Your ethnicity and ancestry, no matter how lost or scattered it is in this modern world. In my case from my personal experience, I feel very connected to my home in the Arctic and being uralic/finno-ugric (sámi). I didn’t as a kid and teenager, at all, but now as I am older, I feel like I can “own” it more. I don’t speak any of the uralic languages, and feel a sadness about this. A disconnection from my own culture. And a feeling of not belonging to a community, when they can’t speak to me. I hope my son will not feel as disconnected. But I have found other ways to express this – primarily through art and duodji. Not all languages are of verbal nature, but are equally important, I think. 🎨
Your creativity. Not necessarily arts, but anything you find a solution to that involves stepping out of the habitual intellectual mind and into a state of spontaneity and flow.🌊
Your struggles. This sounds negative, but for me I mean that my struggles are valid. I have a body that has its big share of physical problems, and I don’t mean to whine. At all! 🙂 Just to express that this is my reality, and that chronic (perhaps invisible to others) illness can happen to anyone, any time in life.💙
Your love. This one sounds cheesy but I think we all can feel love and that we have love as a basic human need. To receive it and give it. And we all have different ways of showing it. I like giving gifts for example.. but am not so good verbally expressing how I feel. I like receiving kind loving deeds, but not to be smothered. So understanding how we show it differently is important too. I also believe that as humans we have the capacity to love many at the same time. Whether it is friends or partners, plural. Romantic, familial or platonic.❤