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The Sámi Language Crisis

By Láilá (Emily Ricco)

The use of the Sámi language today is based on tradition. It plays a central role not only in everyday life but in the culture as well. Despite widespread recognition of the Sámi culture and language and modern political reform in Northern Europe, it is estimated that there are only 25,000 to 35,000 Sámi speakers. Compare this to the population of the Sámi, which lies around 100,000 (Magga and Skutnabb-Kangas 2001). The efforts to preserve the language, by Sámi and non-Sámi alike, are, in part, unsubstantial.

Historically, the changing economy in the Nordic countries that followed colonization affected the Sámi language. Sámi ancestors occupied what is now Scandinavia nearly 10,000 years ago. The Sámi were constantly confronted by hostile outsiders from the Tchudes during the Middle Ages, to missionaries in the Seventeenth Century, to the Norwegians, Swedish, and Russians in the 18th century (the latter groups all claimed Sámi land as their own). Missionaries, though they forced Christianity into the Sámi culture, benefited the Sámi language in some ways. Biblical texts were translated into Sámi (Magga and Skutnabb-Kangas 2001). As Norwegians settled in Sámi communities across Norway, the Sámi were faced with the entrance of a new, capitalist market (Jernsletten 1993, 117). This was in stark contrast with their traditional and externally uncompetitive economy, which included the areas of trade, industry, and reindeer herding. Earlier, the inland Sámi in Finnmark managed to control the language of business mainly because they dominated winter transport systems with their reindeer. In order to do business with these Sámi, an outsider had to know the language (Magga and Skutnabb-Kangas 2001). By to the 20th century reindeer herding, a feature of Sámi cultural identity, became increasingly commercial and run by conglomerates (Jernsletten 1993, 117). The Sámi had to adapt not only in the technical field but also the linguistic, as Norwegian and other majority languages were used almost exclusively in business. Not understanding the language of the new economy proved to be problematic and many Sámi viewed their own language as an obstacle (Jernsletten 1993, 118).

From the mid-1800s up until World War II, the Sámi experienced intense political, social, and cultural repression. In one of the earliest linguistic legislations passed in Norway in 1892, school lessons were to be taught in the child’s mother tongue. In 1898, however, the government revised the earlier legislation to exclude children of Sámi and Kvennish origin (Jernsletten 1993, 116). As a result, the Norwegian government enforced a policy of Norwegianization, an effort to completely assimilate the Sámi into the modern culture. This included the forced adoption of the Norwegian language, as classes were taught strictly in Norwegian, a stipulation of that legislation. Sámi children were forced to learn and use Norwegian by not being given an alternative (i.e. Sámi language) and often continued its use the rest of their lives. Having used the dominant language so much, many would simply teach it to their children thus perpetuating the decline of the Sámi tongue (Magga and Skutnabb-Kangas 2001).

Sámi culture and language were socially unacceptable during this time of Norwegianization and were stifled not only by the government but in Sámi communities as well. Many Sámi speakers today are hesitant about teaching their children the language as a result of experiencing these past social pressures. Some Sámi themselves are not outwardly interested in preserving the language but are more concerned with protecting their children from the stigma of being Sámi. In the 1970 Norwegian census, there was a 42.7% increase in the number of people who counted themselves as Sámi in the coastal regions. This is in contrast with the 59.5% decrease in the number of Sámi in the inner Finnmark region (Jernsletten 1993, 122). Though this may not be the most accurate record of the actual number of Sámi, as some researchers have criticized the census, it does give an idea of what many Sámi thought of being Sámi (Jernsletten 1993, 122-23).

Discrimination against the Sámi comes from all angles. Their clothes are considered strange, they are not usually wealthy (and money is often considered a mark of a higher social status), and they generally do not have higher educations (Magga and Skutnabb-Kangas 2001). The Sámi are looked at as inferior to modern cultures.

There was some support for the use of the Sámi language, mostly from teachers and the church. While government officials tried to ensure that legislation was strictly followed by carefully evaluating and hiring teachers loyal to the government, some teachers did, in fact, teach in the Sámi language, though in secret. Some bishops supported the use of the Sámi language in church, but the majority of clergymen, and the Norwegian Church itself, never advocated it (Jernsletten 1993, 118-19).

Demographics are an important factor as to why the preservation of the Sámi language has been difficult to attain. The Sámi are a heterogeneous group, contrary to common ideas regarding indigenous peoples around the world. Sámi individuals have occupations in the modern workplace and represent a variety of cultures. The population is spread out in the Northern European countries of Sweden, Finland, Norway and the Kola Peninsula in northernmost Russia. The geographical separation of Sámi communities in Norway has mixed consequences. In Southern Sámi areas where reindeer herding has become a more important cultural tool, there is little competition with Norwegian industry as a whole (Jernsletten 1993, 119). In Northern and coastal areas, the Sámi are more dependent on Norwegian fishing and trading industries and, thus, the Norwegian language itself. Southern Sámi communities are more resistant, in a way, to outside social and economic pressures and the language in these areas can be more easily maintained.

A new mentality of minority rights worldwide arose out of World War II. The new focus on indigenous language rights post-World War II came not only from international sources but also within the Sámi people. A Sámi movement arose with emphasis placed on furthering the Sámi people politically, socially, and culturally (Eidheim 1997). A newfound sense of equality and pride sparked many legislative efforts to gain land and language rights. Since the early 1970s the Sámi language has been increasingly considered a supportive language being used in bilingual masses in churches and, to a lesser extent, schools (Jernsletten 1993, 116). A problem, however, is that, in Norway, Norwegian was then the official language compared to the minority Sámi language. In historical context, upon colonization of the Sámi lands in Norway, the Sámi had to maneuver linguistically in a new economy run in the Norwegian tongue. Today in the Nordic countries it is common for children to learn Sámi solely for its use in the home and/or in the company of family or fellow Sámi. There are resources for native speakers in many national and local institutions, though. The Finnish Sámi Parliament mentions such resources available to Sámi speaking individuals, including a radio station and museum (Finnish Sámi Parliament 1997). However, they call for more resources to be available for Sámi speakers, particularly children, to encourage the continuation of Sámi traditions (The Finnish Sámi Parliament 1997).

The Sámi Language Act, passed in Finland in 1992, gave Sámi people the right “…to use the Sami language before authorities, orally and in writing, and to receive a reply in the same language” (The Finnish Sámi Parliament 1997). The Sámi thus have the right to interact with authorities in their native tongue, meaning it is expected that non-Sámi have sufficient knowledge of the language. The rights, including those of language, the Sámi Act have given in the Finnish constitution are an effort to raise the status of the Sámi language to that of Finnish (Jernsletten 1993, 130). However, these rights are, in actuality, only applicable on the local, municipal level in places designated as Sámi areas. There are some smaller communities that lie outside of these localized Sámi districts. Any services provided by the Sámi Act are revoked in such areas because legislation is not concerned with such small concentrations of Sámi. Language rights in these non-Sámi areas remain at a standstill, as the Sámi face difficulties in using their native tongue in business and social situations (Magga and Skutnabb-Kangas 2001). The Parliament notes that there are three Sámi languages adopted in Finland: Inari, Skolt, and Northern Sámi. However, the lack of government funds to enact this has put it on hold.

The Finnish Sámi Parliament criticizes not the Act but the practice by local governments. The authors argue that while the constitution expressly defines the linguistic rights of the Sámi people, they are not outwardly practiced. The Sámi question whether this is in direct violation of the rights given in the Constitution and ask for a deeper look into the current practices. They then go on to propose adjustments to the current laws and actions of Sámi and non-Sámi. Many critics question the legal protection of Sámi rights, comparing the decline of the language to other disappearing languages of indigenous peoples around the world.

International minority language rights have also proven insufficient in their guarantee:

In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), for instance, the paragraph on education (26) does not refer to language at all; in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966), the educational Article (13) omits reference to language or linguistic groups (which are mentioned in its general Article 2.2)…in the European Charter for Regional or Minority languages [1998], the formulations in the education Article 8 include a range of modifications. Just as in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious, and Linguistic Minorities, the opt-outs and alternatives permit a reluctant state to meet the requirements in a minimalist way. (Magga and Skutnabb-Kangas 2001)

Most fail to establish specific rights and tend to give general provisions or do not include language at all.

Nils Jernsletten (1993) details a particularly successful example of Sámi language preservation in Southern Sámi communities in Norway. Despite having been immersed in Norwegian culture for decades the Southern communities have remained fixed in their traditions. Language and business are merged in the Sámi culture. Southern Sámi cultures rely almost exclusively on reindeer herding as an identity (Jernsletten 1993, 115). Competition with local Norwegian herders has led to the further isolation of Southern Sámi communities. This isolation, and the fact that these communities are geographically separated from each other, has placed increased importance on establishing and maintaining strong internal bonds within the communities through the consistent use of the language in everyday life. The Southern Sámi, though they represent the lowest concentration of Sámi in the Nordic countries, are the most represented politically and socially in Sámi-interest groups. They have established two Sámi schools and cultural centers (Jernsletten 1993, 121). Courses in the Southern Sámi dialect are offered each year in Norway and Sweden. With small concentrations of Sámi in the south, you would not expect the language to survive, but Southern Sámi have preserved it by maintaining a contextual connection between reindeer herding and language, that is, language as a cultural marker much like herding is (Jernsletten 1993, 126).

For the inland Sámi in Finnmark, the establishment of Norwegian schools produced the same effect (Jernsletten 1993, 119). The Sámi rejected any outside practice taught in schools labeling it unimportant to their traditions such as herding. In fact, many Sámi parents thought that things their children learned in Norwegian schools were not only unimportant but also damaging to their traditional knowledge. It distracted their children from learning what was important (Jernsletten 1993, 118). As the Norwegian language became favored for teaching, the inland Sámi communities further isolated themselves from the surrounding Norwegians. This helped in preserving the language to some extent.

Jernsletten sees the Norwegian Sámi Act of 1990 as an effective method for counteracting the Norwegianizing policy of the past.

As part of the ‘Sami law’, a new language law was also approved, which equated Sami and Norwegian as official languages in six communes in the Northern part of Norway. According to the Norwegian Sami Act, ‘Sami’ is defined on the basis of a combination of linguistic and subjective criteria. The Act states that all persons who provide a declaration to the effect that they consider themselves to be Sami, and who either have Sami as the language of the home, or have or have had a parent or grandparent with Sami as the language of the home, are entitled to be included in the register of Sami electors in their municipality of residence, and are entitled to stand for election to the Sami Assembly. (Strømsnes 2004)

Variations in Sámi language rights are most likely seen from country to country in the Nordic region. The younger generations of Sámi are showing an increased interest in their cultural heritage. However, limited resources remain a problem for those wishing to learn the language (Jernsletten 1993, 131).

While laws are in place to establish and support Sámi language rights, more efforts must be taken to ensure those rights are implemented and protected. With such a small percentage of native speakers, education about Sámi culture and language is important in maintaining use of the language. Current laws have seen much criticism in recent years, as indigenous rights are becoming an increasingly important topic. Maintaining the Sámi language demands participation of and attention from both fronts. The majority governments must not only be willing to listen, but to take action instead of burying Sámi activists in legislative paperwork. International acknowledgment and enactment of laws pertaining to language rights of the Sámi and other minorities would decrease the chance of those languages dying out. The Sámi as a whole must also continue in their use of language as a cultural identity marker. Centuries of oppression have put shame in the minds of the people and a sense of powerlessness. The revitalization of and pride in the culture give a new sense of power to today’s Sámi. A power needed to push for language rights and preservation.


Eidheim, Harald. "Ethno-Political Development among the Sami after World War II." In Sami Culture in a New Era: The Norwegian Sami Experience, ed. Harald Gaski. Karasjok: Davvi Girji OS, 1997.

The Finnish Sami Parliament. “Land Rights, Linguistic Rights, and Cultural Autonomy for the Finnish Sami People.” Indigenous Affairs, no. 33/4 (July-December, 1997), (accessed March 2, 2008).

Jernsletten, Nils. “Sami language communities and the conflict between Sami and Norwegian.” In Language Conflict and Language Planning, ed. Ernst Håkon Jahr, 115-132. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1993.

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