Sami languages

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Native to Finland, Norway, Russia, and Sweden
Region Sápmi (Lapland)
Ethnicity Sami people
Native speakers
unknown (30,000 cited 1992–2013)[1]
  • Sami
Early forms
Official status
Official language in
Sweden and some parts of Norway; recognized as a minority language in several municipalities of Finland.
Language codes
ISO 639-3 Variously:
sma – Southern
sju – Ume
sje – Pite
smj – Lule
sme – Northern
sjk – Kemi
smn – Inari
sms – Skolt
sia – Akkala
sjd – Kildin
sjt – Ter
Glottolog saam1281[2]
Corrected sami map 4.PNG
Historically verified distribution of the Sami 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.

Sami /ˈsɑːmi/[3] is a group of Uralic languages spoken by the Sami people in Northern Europe (in parts of northern Finland, Norway, Sweden and extreme northwestern Russia). There are, depending on the nature and terms of division, ten or more Sami languages. Several names are used for the Sami languages: Saami, Sámi, Saame, Samic, Saamic, as well as the exonyms Lappish and Lappic. The last two, along with the term Lapp, are now often considered derogatory.[4]


The Sami languages form a branch of the Uralic language family. According to the traditional view, Sami is within the Uralic family most closely related to the Finnic languages (Sammallahti 1998). However, this view has recently been doubted by some scholars, who argue that the traditional view of a common Finno-Sami protolanguage is not as strongly supported as had been earlier assumed,[5] and that the similarities may stem from an areal influence on Sami from Finnic.

In terms of internal relationships, the Sami languages are divided into two groups: western and eastern. The groups may be further divided into various subgroups and ultimately individual languages. (Sammallahti 1998: 6-38.) Parts of the Sami language area form a dialect continuum in which the neighbouring languages may be mutually intelligible to a fair degree, but two more widely separated groups will not understand each other's speech. There are, however, some sharp language boundaries, in particular between Northern Sami, Inari Sami and Skolt Sami, the speakers of which are not able to understand each other without learning or long practice. The evolution of sharp language boundaries seems to suggest a relative isolation of the language speakers from each other and not very intensive contacts between the respective speakers in the past. There is some significance in this, as the geographical barriers between the respective speakers are no different from those in other parts of the Sami area.

Western Sami languages

Eastern Sami languages

Sami languages and settlements in Russia:
  Skolt (Russian Notozersky)
  Akkala (Russian Babinsky)

Note that the above figures are approximate.

Geographic distribution

The Sami languages are spoken in Sápmi in Northern Europe, in a region stretching over the four countries Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, reaching from the southern part of central Scandinavia in the southwest to the tip of the Kola Peninsula in the east. The border between the languages does not follow the political borders.

During the Middle Ages and Early Modern Age now extinct Sami languages were also spoken in the central and southern parts of Finland and Karelia and in a wider area on the Scandinavian peninsula. Historical documents as well as Finnish and Karelian oral tradition contain many mentions of the earlier Sami inhabitation in these areas (Itkonen, 1947). Also, loanwords as well as place-names of Sami origin in the southern dialects of Finnish and Karelian dialects testify of earlier Sami presence in the area (Koponen, 1996; Saarikivi, 2004; Aikio, 2007). These Sami languages, however, became extinct later, under the wave of the Finno-Karelian agricultural expansion.


The Proto-Samic language is believed to have formed in the vicinity of the Gulf of Finland between 1000 BC to 700 AD, deriving from a common Proto-Sami-Finnic language (M. Korhonen 1981).[16] However reconstruction of any basic proto-languages in the Uralic family have reached a level close to or identical to Proto-Uralic (Salminen 1999).[17] According to the comparative linguist Ante Aikio, the Proto-Samic language developed in South Finland or in Karelia around 2000–2500 years ago, spreading then to northern Fennoscandia.[18] 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 (Bergsland 1996).[19] The language assimilated several layers of unknown Paleo-European languages from the early hunter gatherers, first during the Proto-Sami phase and second in the subsequent expansion of the language in the west and the north of Fennoscandia that is part of modern Sami today. (Aikio 2004, Aikio 2006).[18][20]

Written languages and sociolinguistic situation

At present there are nine living Sami languages. The largest six of the languages have independent literary languages; the three others have no written standard, and of them, there are only a few, mainly elderly speakers left. The ISO 639-2 code for all Sami languages without its proper code is "smi". The six written languages are:

The other Sami languages are critically endangered or moribund and have very few speakers left. Pite Sami has about 30–50 speakers,[22] and a dictionary and an official orthography is under way. A descriptive grammar (Wilbur 2014) has been published. Ume Sami likely has under 20 speakers left,[citation needed] and ten speakers of Ter Sami were known to be alive in 2004.[23] The last speaker of Akkala Sami is known to have died in December 2003,[24] and the eleventh attested variety, Kemi Sami, became extinct in the 19th century. An additional Sami language, Kainuu Sami, became extinct in the 18th century, and probably belonged to the Eastern group like Kemi Sami, although the evidence for the language is limited.


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Sami Primer, USSR 1933

The Sami languages use Latin alphabets.

Northern Sami: Áá Čč Đđ Ŋŋ Šš Ŧŧ Žž
Inari Sami: Áá Ââ Ää Čč Đđ Šš Žž
Skolt Sami: Ââ Čč Ʒʒ Ǯǯ Đđ Ǧǧ Ǥǥ Ǩǩ Ŋŋ Õõ Šš Žž Åå Ää (+soft sign ´)
Lule Sami in Sweden: Áá Åå Ńń Ää
Lule Sami in Norway: Áá Åå Ńń Ææ
Southern Sami in Sweden: Ïï Ää Öö Åå
Southern Sami in Norway: Ïï Ææ Øø Åå

Note that the letter Đ is a capital D with a bar across it (Unicode U+0110) also used in Serbo-Croatian etc., and is not the capital eth (Ð; U+00D0) found in Icelandic, Faroese or Old English, to which it is almost identical.

Note also that the different characters used on the different sides of the Swedish/Norwegian border merely are orthographic standards based on the Swedish and Norwegian alphabet, respectively, and don't denote different pronunciations.

Kildin Sami now uses an extended version of Cyrillic (in three slightly different variants): Аа А̄а̄ Ӓӓ Бб Вв Гг Дд Ее Е̄е̄ Ёё Ё̄ё̄ Жж Зз Һһ/ʼ Ии Ӣӣ Йй Јј/Ҋҋ Кк Лл Ӆӆ Мм Ӎӎ Нн Ӊӊ Ӈӈ Оо О̄о̄ Пп Рр Ҏҏ Сс Тт Уу Ӯӯ Фф Хх Цц Чч Шш (Щщ) Ьъ Ыы Ьь Ҍҍ Ээ Э̄э̄ Ӭӭ Юю Ю̄ю̄ Яя Я̄я̄

Skolt Sami uses ˊ (U+02CA) as a soft sign; due to technical restrictions, it is often replaced by ´ (U+00B4).

Official status


Adopted in April 1988, Article 110a of the Norwegian Constitution states: "It is the responsibility of the authorities of the State to create conditions enabling the Sami people to preserve and develop its language, culture and way of life". The Sami Language Act went into effect in the 1990s. Sami is an official language of the municipalities of Kautokeino, Karasjok, Gáivuotna (Kåfjord), Nesseby, Porsanger, Tana, Tysfjord, Lavangen and Snåsa.


A bilingual street sign in Enontekiö in both Finnish (top) and Northern Sami
Sami speakers in Finland 1980-2011.

In Finland, the Sami language act of 1991 granted Sami people the right to use the Sami languages for all government services. Three Sami languages are recognized: Northern, Skolt and Inari Sami. The Sami language act of 2003 made Sami an official language in Enontekiö, Inari, Sodankylä and Utsjoki municipalities.


On 1 April 2002, Sami became one of five recognized minority languages in Sweden. It can be used in dealing with public authorities in the municipalities of Arjeplog, Gällivare, Jokkmokk, and Kiruna. In 2011, this list was enlarged considerably. In Sweden the Umeå and Uppsala Universities have courses in North Sami, and Umeå University also teaches Ume Sami and South Sami.


In Russia, Sami has no official status. Sami has been taught at the Murmansk University since 2012; before then, Sami was taught at the Institutе of Peoples of the North (Институт народов севера) in Saint Petersburg (Leningrad).

See also


  1. Southern at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
    Ume at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
    Pite at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
    Lule at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
    Northern at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
    Kemi at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
    (Additional references under 'Language codes' in the information box)
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  3. Laurie Bauer, 2007, The Linguistics Student’s Handbook, Edinburgh
  4. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  5. T. Salminen: Problems in the taxonomy of the Uralic languages in the light of modern comparative studies. — Лингвистический беспредел: сборник статей к 70-летию А. И. Кузнецовой. Москва: Издательство Московского университета, 2002. 44–55. AND [1]
  6. Ethnologue report for Southern Sami
  7. Ethnologue report for Ume Sami
  8. Ethnologue report for Pite Sami
  9. Ethnologue report for Lule Sami
  10. Ethnologue report for Northern Sami
  11. Ethnologue report for Inari Sami
  12. Ethnologue report for Skolt Sami
  13. Ethnologue report for Kildin Sami
  14. Pravda - The 5 Smallest Languages of the World
  15. Ethnologue report for Ter Sami
  16. Korhonen, Mikko 1981: Johdatus lapin kielen historiaan. Suomalaisen kirjallisuuden seuran toimituksia ; 370. Helsinki, 1981
  17. : Problems in the taxonomy of the Uralic languages in the light of modern comparative studies. — Лингвистический беспредел: сборник статей к 70-летию А. И. Кузнецовой. Москва: Издательство Московского университета, 2002. 44–55.
  18. 18.0 18.1 Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  19. Knut Bergsland: Bidrag til sydsamenes historie, Senter for Samiske Studier Universitet i Tromsø 1996
  20. Aikio, A. (2006). On Germanic-Saami contacts and Saami prehistory. Journal de la Société Finno-Ougrienne 91: 9–55.
  21. Russian Census (2002). Data from
  22. According to researcher Joshua Wilbur and Pite Sami dictionary committee leader Nils Henrik Bengtsson, March 2010.
  23. Tiuraniemi Olli: "Anatoli Zaharov on maapallon ainoa turjansaamea puhuva mies", Kide 6 / 2004.
  24. Microsoft Word - Nordisk samekonvensjon hele dokumentet 14112005.doc
  • Fernandez, J. 1997. Parlons lapon. - Paris.
  • Itkonen, T. I. 1947. Lapparnas förekomst i Finland. - Ymer: 43–57. Stockholm.
  • Koponen, Eino 1996. Lappische Lehnwörter im Finnischen und Karelischen. - Lars Gunnar Larsson (ed.), Lapponica et Uralica. 100 Jahre finnisch-ugrischer Unterricht an der Universität Uppsala. Studia Uralica Uppsaliensia 26: 83-98.
  • Saarikivi, Janne 2004. Über das saamische Substratnamengut in Nordrußland und Finnland. - Finnisch-ugrische Forschungen 58: 162–234. Helsinki: Société Finno-Ougrienne.
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  • Wilbur, Joshua. 2014. A grammar of Pite Saami. Berlin: Language Science Press. (Open access)

External links