May 25, 2010 by

In yesterday’s posting I started discussing the languages of Sweden. Today, we’ll look at another (group of) language(s) spoken in Sweden — Saami languages. They are members of the Finno-Ugric language family and as such are more closely related to Finnish than to Swedish. Ethnologue lists 10 distinct varieties of Saami. Sometimes Saami are referred to as dialects of a single language, but mutual intelligibility criterion defines them as distinct languages. For example, speakers of Northern Saami, Inari Saami and Skolt Saami are not able to understand each other without learning or long practice, despite geographical proximity (see map below).

Saami is spoken by Saami people (also known as Laps, although many consider this a derogatory term). There are about 80,000 ethnic Saami, living in what became four different countries: Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia. Of them, about 20,000 live in Sweden, but of those 20,000 only less than 6,000 speak the language. The main dialects of Saami spoken in Sweden are Northern Saami (4,000 speakers/5,000 ethnic population), Lule Saami (1,500 speakers/2,000 ethnic population) and Southern Saami (300 speakers/600 ethnic population). Other Saami languages in Sweden are Ume Saami and Pite Saami, but out of about 3,000 ethnic population, only some 40 people speak those two languages. No wonder that all Saami languages are included in the UN list of endangered languages.

The Saami people have been in the center of a heated political debate in Sweden, Norway and Finland (although not so much in Russia!) since the late 1980’s, especially after they’ve suffered a great deal in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster: much of the radioactive cloud blew north into Scandinavia, affecting the Saami reindeer herders and making it difficult for them to maintain their traditional lifestyle. The Norwegian Constitution (adopted in April 1988) states:

“It is the responsibility of the authorities of the State to create conditions enabling the Saami people to preserve and develop its language, culture and way of life.”

Likewise, in Finland the Saami language act of 1991 granted Saami people the right to use their languages for all government services, and Sweden recognized Saami as one of five minority languages on 1 April 2002.

In Russia, Saami people and their languages are largely ignored by politicians and the public alike (although as a child in Russia I had a beautifully illustrated book of Saami folk tales). The ethnic Saami population in Russia is fairly small and the number of Saami speakers is even smaller and dwindling. For example, of about 100 Akkala Saami none speak the language anymore (the last speaker, Marja Sergina, died in December 2003). Of about 1,000 ethnic Kildin Saami, only 500 speak the language; of 400 Skolt Saami only 20 speak the language; and of 100 Ter Saami only 10 speak the language. More importantly, these languages are practically not passed on to children, who learn Russian instead.

The following map shows the historic distribution of Saami languages:

(1. Southern Sami, 2. Ume Sami, 3. Pite Sami, 4. Lule Sami, 5. Northern Sami, 6. Skolt Sami, 7. Inari Sami, 8. Kildin Sami, 9. Ter Sami. Darkened area represents municipalities that recognize Sami as an official language.)

And this map shows today’s distribution of languages in Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden.

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