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Language Policy and the Sámi Languages: an Investigation Using the Comparative Perspective

By Láilá (Laura Welch)


Language is considered by many to be an essential element of a culture, in that language creates continuity between generations and acts as a conduit for communication of cultural practices. Thus, language helps support cultural identity and it is the glue that holds a people together. Language is now considered by many as an essential human right, although it has often been treated as less than such. Most indigenous cultures have been historically denied the essential right to speak their own language and many groups continue to feel immense pressures from majority cultures. These pressures have come in many forms, some more obvious than others, such as laws requiring proficiency in a certain language to gain citizenship or the enforced assimilation that was attempted in boarding schools. Modern pressures often come in more insidious forms like pervasive media in dominant languages, economic incentives, or cultural invisibility of minorities within the dominant society. One way to analyze how a majority language group deals with minority language groups is to investigate language policies enacted by the former in reference to the latter. Language policies can be overt or covert in practice, by either being stated in laws or being instantiated in the structures of the dominant society, like the educational system.

One indigenous group that warrants attention in regard to language policy is the Sámi people. The Sámi are an aboriginal group whose traditional land, Sápmi, is crossed by the borders of the modern day countries of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia (Kola Peninsula). The Sámi are descended from Finno-Ugrian peoples who have inhabited and utilized Sápmi continuously since about six thousand years ago. The Sámi are believed to have formed their own ethnic group separate from the Finns by the early Middle Ages (Lehtola 20). Even though they have a long historical pattern of land usage, they have no official land or water rights in these areas today. There are estimated to be approximately 90-100,000 Sámi, although an official census of the Sámi has not been taken (Sara 2002). They have been formerly known as Lapps or Lapplanders in English, but these terms are considered pejorative and Sámi is their preferred self-designation. [“The terms Sámi, Sami and Saami are equal. However, it is now recommended that ‘Sami’ be used as the ‘correct’ spelling” (Sara 2002).]

Like so many other indigenous groups, the Sámi have suffered at the hands of other cultures that wanted to take their lands and/or assimilate them. The Sámi have successfully resisted these attacks to varying degrees. They are now the only aboriginal group recognized by the European Union within Europe. This status gives them a special standing within Europe and across the globe and they have become one of the most studied indigenous groups in the world.

Overview of Sámi languages

The Sámi languages (sámegiellat) are an important element of the Sámi cultures. Sámi is a member of the Uralic language family, which is not an Indo-European language group and also contains languages such as Finnish, Hungarian, and the Samoyedic languages. Within the Uralic family, the Sámi languages are proposed as being most closely related to the Baltic-Finnic languages (Sammallahti 1998). Many mistakenly believe that Sámi is one language but it is actually composed of 10 separate languages of varying mutual-intelligibility. The group can be generally spilt into two branches; Eastern and Western Sámi, which are then divided into the respective languages. These languages are spoken by approximately 20-25,000 speakers in the countries of Finland, Norway, Sweden, and on the Kola Peninsula of Russia (Sammallahti 1998) of which almost all are bilingual. There began in the late seventies a strong language preservation and revitalization movement as an essential outgrowth of the Sámi rights movement across Sápmi. Because the Sámi have no one national homeland “the governments have a greater responsibility for Sámi language rights than they have for such minorities whose language preservation is based on the situation in their mother country” (Lehtola 85). With the strong prevalence of bilingualism there looms the tendency of language shift because, “if the parents are bilingual, the language shift may take the minimum period, two generations” (Aikio 98). Since the Sámi people are situated in four different countries, and have similar positions in each as a minority aboriginal group, one can analyze their respective situation in these countries in order to see how they have fared and what strategies work best to preserve the language of a threatened culture. I will specifically try to find out how language policy can affect an aboriginal people’s chances of cultural and linguistic survival in the Scandinavian countries.

NORWAY – an overview of the Sámi in Norway

The Sámi languages in Norway are North Sámi, Lule Sámi, Pite Sámi and South Sámi, all of which are present in Sweden as well. The largest group is North Sámi with 15,000 speakers and it is divided into four dialects, East, West, Torne (also present in Sweden and Finland), and Sea Sámi. Of these, some speak Sámi as their primary home language whereas others have chosen Norwegian as their home language for fear that their children will be held back and stigmatized by their cultural identity. Historically, there was a “conscious, and persistent, policy of Norwegian assimilation…from the 1840s onward” (Jernsletten 116). The cultural preservation movements in Norway are deeply tied to the emergence of political activism by the Sámi beginning after WWII and culminating in the conflict over the Alta-Kautokeino dam.

Norwegian Language Policy and Effects

There were several laws passed in the height of the period of Norwegianization that targeted the Sámi languages in an attempt to eradicate them and to ensure Sámi assimilation into Norwegian society. Nils Jernsletten most succinctly states the goals of the Norwegian majority when he says that, “ the purpose was to turn the Sami into Norwegians, both culturally and linguistically” (116). The earliest law was passed in 1851 and forced the Sámi schools to use Norwegian (Lehtola 44). This was followed in 1864 and 1895 by laws that favored those with mastery of Norwegian with citizenship and land rights. This further encouraged movement to the north by non-Sámi colonists that came to encroach upon traditional Sámi lands. In 1898 a law was passed that forbade the use of Sámi in schools and it was not allowed even as a secondary language until well into the 1930s.

As a response to the Alta-Kautokeino conflict and the worldwide attention that it garnered, the Norwegian government appointed a Sámi Rights Council and a Sámi Culture Council to examine the situation of the Sámi in more depth and make recommendations for remediation. In 1987 the Storting added Article 110a, also known as the Sámi Act, to the Norwegian Constitution. It states: "It is the responsibility of the authorities of the State to create conditions enabling the Sámi people to preserve and develop its language, culture and way of life." This paved the way for the formation of the first Sámi parliament, the Sámediggi, in 1989. The Sámediggi consists of 43 representatives that are elected from 13 electoral districts in Norway. They help uphold the provisions of the Sámi Act, including enforcing the language provisions. The Sámi Act, last revised in 2003, certified several “Sámi Language Districts,” namely, Karasjok, Kautokeino, Nesseby, Porsanger, Tana and Kåfjord. [The Sámi Act, translated Norwegian Legislation from the University of Oslo, last amended April 2003,]

Internationally, Norway is obligated to protect and assist the Sámi in their efforts to preserve their culture. The Norwegian government has agreed to Article 27 of the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and ILO Convention No. 169 on indigenous and tribal peoples in independent states. The government offers Sámi versions on many of their websites, such as the Domstolen, the Norwegian Courts (, the Government Ministerial site (ODIN - and, of course, the Sámediggi ( The parliament of Norway, the Stortinget ( does not offer a Sámi version on their site, which seems odd since legislation is supposed to be available to the Sámi in their own language.


The long history of enforced Norwegianization had its price, which was a loss of many of the native speakers of Sámi in Norway. Instruction in schools was given in Norwegian except when “absolutely necessary” from the late 1800s on. The Pre-war culture in Norway was such that they pursued “an adamant policy of Norwegianization,” which did not begin to abate until the fifties (Jernsletten 116). Today the Sámi may choose to have their children instructed in Sámi or Norwegian, and to varying degrees. Many parents have chosen the bilingual two-track schools that aim at proficiency in Norwegian and Sámi. In 1999 they also triumphed when they gained the “ individual right” to instruction in Sámi as a subject regardless of place of residence (Lie 281). This means that the Sámi can request instruction in Sámi even in areas that are not traditionally considered Sámi, or where the Sámi population is sparse. Despite this, many argue that due to the fact that this instruction lies within the structure of the Norwegian education system, that “it still could not be considered a “Sámi school” (Lie 281). The authority of the Sámi education department lies in controlling, “the content of the school curriculum, not the organization and layout of the schools system,” (Lie 282). Since North Sámi is by far the language with the most teaching materials, it is the one most often requested and used by parents and students, although the other languages are developing more instruction materials.


It is believed that “the language provisions of the Sámi Act and educational legislation can arrest the Sámi language’s negative development in Norway” (Jernsletten 131). This is also due to a natural density of the Sámi peoples in Norway that has afforded them some cultural support in the resistance to assimilation. Unlike the situation of the Sámi in other Scandinavian countries, the Sámi hold a majority in certain districts in Norway. There have also been broader ranges of domains – which are usually resistant to being available in minority languages – that have become available in Sámi. Most notable are the media (cf. discussions by Lehtola and Gaski), medicine (cf. Kvernmo) and mental health treatment (cf. Møllersen, Sexton and Holte). This is a true triumph for an indigenous group because very few have been able to harness these domains and have services offered in their native languages. This helps ensure survival of the languages by “ensuring functional contexts for its use,” (Aikio 100) and helps broaden its use in modern contexts so that younger speakers will not feel limited by its use.

SWEDEN – an overview of the Sámi in Sweden

It is estimated that there are approximately 17,000 Sámi in Sweden of which only 7,000 speak Sámi fluently (Svonni 3). It is more difficult to get information on how many passive speakers and adult learners of Sámi there are, but a conservative estimate would be that only a fraction of the remaining 10,000 Sámi in Sweden speak the language. This number is an estimate since hard data is not available because a comprehensive census of the Sámi has never been conducted. All sources that I have come across indicate that there are few speakers of Sámi in Sweden where it is the only language that they know. In Sweden there are five Sámi languages present: Ume, which is nearly extinct with approximately 20 speakers, Pite, also nearly extinct with ca. 20 speakers, Lule with 1,500 and South Sámi with 300. North Sámi is also a strong presence with 4,000 speakers. According to the Sametinget “half of the Sámi population in Sweden no longer speaks Sámi, and those who do are bilingual” which indicates “the ongoing language shift from Sámi to Swedish” (Svonni 17). This is a serious problem for any language group because it only takes one generation of parents not speaking their native language with their children for that language to die. This is why acknowledgment of endangerment status and a response with a strong preservation movement is needed in cases where all speakers are bilingual.

Swedish Language Policy and Effects

In 1993 the Sámi Parliament of Sweden was created. The Sametinget has 31 members and is in charge of monitoring the Sámi language and education, distributing state funds to programs and advising the Swedish Parliament about the Sámi. While this body is popularly elected by Sámi voters to represent them about Sámi concerns, it is not independent and serves in an advisory capacity only and is not noted in the Swedish constitution as are similar bodies in Finland and Norway (Sametingnet). The Minority Language Committee in 1999 officially declared Sámi to be one of the five minority languages of Sweden. Even though there are five major dialects of Sámi spoken in Sweden they are treated as one on paper. This gives Sámi speakers official status and allows them to speak Sámi before the courts and in all public institutions, submit written documents in Sámi, and speak Sámi in retirement homes and preschools. The Swedish municipalities where Sámi is predominately spoken are Arjeplog, Gällivare, Jokkmokk and Kiruna. In these municipalities there has been an alteration of the expected credentials of government officials because proficiency in Sámi is preferred in order to more easily meet these requirements.

The original Sámi schools (Lappfolkskola) in Sweden were established in 1732 and “Sámi was explicitly made the medium of instruction in a decree in 1723” (Winsa 402). This changed with decrees in 1898 to 1925 that specifically mention Swedish as the language of instruction. This trend of Swedish-only language instruction intensified through the post-war period with boarding school and did not abate until the 1970s when home language reform was implemented.

Currently the Swedish government offers a “mother tongue programme” which allows parents to choose one of four multilingual education programs for their children. These programs offer differing levels of instruction in Sámi and Swedish regardless of place of residence. It is also possible to choose Sámi as a mother tongue language (previously called home language) for the nine-year regular program (Svonni 4). This option seems to only be available at the Sámi schools in the districts of Karesuando, Lannavaara, Kiruna, Gällivare, Jokkmokk, and Tärnaby (Svonni 4) which are administrated by the Sámi School Board (Winsa 403). Yet, even these programs are bilingual and offer varying amounts of instruction in Sámi to approximately 171 pupils (1998/99 Winsa 403).

According to the Swedish Bureau for Lesser-Used Languages there has been an overall decline in the number of pupils enrolled in Sámi programs of all types (Sweblul). They cite that the programs enrolled “600 in the early 40s to 150 in the late 70s, and recovered up to 300 in 1993” and that only 10% of Sámi children speak Sámi regularly after they leave school, (Sweblul). This directly conflicts with information that states that the number of students in Sámi programs is “slowly increasing” (Winsa 404). The success of teaching Sámi to the pupils in these programs is another issue of concern. Apparently most students in these programs were only able to achieve a moderate level of proficiency in Sámi after six years of instruction. According to Birger Winsa, this indicates that “the present form of MTI (Mother Tongue Instruction) is not sufficient for those Sámi who have Swedish as the dominant home language” (404).


The Sámi languages in Sweden are “seriously endangered,” despite government legislation, MTI programs, and an increase in self-governance by the Sámi (Winsa 460). The Sámi languages in Sweden have suffered from a history of pressure from the Swedish speaking majority in the forms of cultural encroachment, Swedish only education, and a lack of population density. Some of this may be due to different priorities in the Sámi parliament in Sweden, where the language issue is perhaps less important except symbolically. Winsa states it very strongly when he writes that Sámi is “moving towards becoming a relic with strong symbolic value for Sámi culture” (461). Hopefully the language shift in Sweden will abate and Sámi will return with more Sámi choosing to use Sámi as their home language and more parents utilizing the benefits of the Swedish MTI system.

FINLAND – An Overview of the Sámi in Finland

There are three Sámi language groups present in Finland today, North, Skolt and Inari Sámi. Originally there was Kemi Sámi as well but it has been extinct since the 19th century. North Sámi is the strongest group with 2,000 speakers, while Inari and Skolt are estimated to have between 250-500 speakers each. [Although the 2002 census suggests that this number is lower, with 1,720 speakers of Sami languages total (Virtual Finland).] Unfortunately, there is a little more hope for these languages today than in 1991 when Marjut Aikio wrote that the Sámi languages in Finland were “sliding towards extinction” (94). The little hope there is relies on the stasis of the language shift from Sámi to Finnish, rather than the complete independence of Sámi. Like other Scandinavian countries the Finns attempted to assimilate the Sámi. This cultural contact was exacerbated by “the prejudices and nationalistic attitudes of the Finnish” (Lehtola 64). Strong forms of modern racism towards the Sámi are perpetuated by many Finns today as evidenced by reactions to Sámi rights and portrayals of Sámi in media. In general the Sámi in Finland have suffered severe pressures and disruptions from the Finnish majority and catastrophic world events such as World War II. An example that specifically illustrates this is the case of the Skolt Sámi.

The Skolt Sámi are a unique group within the Sámi due to their strikingly different culture and history. Most were originally settled in the Petsamo district, but when Finland lost this area to Russia most of the Sámi moved to Finland and were eventually settled in the Lake Aanaar area. Other Skolts stayed in Russia or Norway where they have dwindled or been assimilated. The Skolts in Finland have been forced to move several times, which disrupted their original settlements and consequently their livelihoods. Lehtola writes that, “World War II completely devastated the Skolts’ lives” because they were evacuated further into Finland only to be made to return to two different areas in the Aanaar region (64). The fact that their culture has survived at all is a testament to their strength and cohesiveness. And yet, with less than 500 speakers the Skolt language holds endangered status. There has been a preservation and revitalization movement, which began in the early 1970s. The original goal was to create a Skolt Sámi orthography and thereby improve the chances of a Skolt Sámi literary language. This was an important development for the Skolt Sámi in that it helped revive interest in their culture. This broadening of their cultural domain also helped strengthen their cultural identity and pride and helped them demand rights from the Finnish government.

Finnish Language Policy and Effects

In 1973, “The Delegation for Sámi Affairs” was founded to act as an advisory committee to the Finnish government for Sámi issues. This body, the Finnish Sámi Parliament, was strengthened in1996 with the founding of. The Finnish Sámi Parliament is more independent than the one in Sweden since it is not dependent on government funds and has more legislative power. It is independent from the central government of Finland in order to create cultural autonomy. The Sámi Language Act of 1991 allows them to use municipal and public services in their home district in any of the three Sámi languages present in Finland. It also recognizes that the Sámi are an aboriginal people and guarantees their right to cultural autonomy constitutionally. Most involved in this legislation felt that official recognition would slow “the decline of the indigenous language in the face of the spread and use of Finnish especially in the speech of the young” (McRobbie-Utasi 2).

The Sámi in Finland have a choice of having their children instructed with Sámi as the language of instruction or they can select Sámi as a language course. Of special note are the 'language nest' programs that offer daycare in Sámi that have continued to receive funding by the government. They are even being considered for expansion into areas outside of the districts that are considered “Sámi.” Despite the appearance of an “explosion of activity” in Sámi instruction Marjut Aikio found that “instruction in the mother tongue decreases rapidly at the upper stage of the comprehensive and upper secondary school,” (98 ). Also of note is the dearth of subjects that are taught in Sámi, which is due to a combination of a shortage of teachers and materials. Fortunately the Basic Education Act of 1999, legislates that “Sámi children who live in the Sámi Homeland and speak Sámi are entitled to receive the main part of their education in classes 1-9 (i.e. the comprehensive school phase) in the Sámi language” (Horn Virtual Finland). This reform also mandates that all Sámi municipalities receive funding for all costs for Sámi language programs from the national budget, which has allowed Sámi language instruction and materials to increase.


The Sámi languages in Finland are endangered but some hope remains that they will persist and strengthen. The Finnish government and the Finnish Sámi Parliament have increased their efforts to preserve Sámi culture and languages in recent years. This is striking since other Scandinavian countries have not strengthened most of their legislation since the mid-nineties at the peak of the Sámi rights movement. This is partly due to Finland having a lot to make up for with regard to their treatment of the Sámi and the weakness of the initial legislation.


Marjut Aikio calls the effort of preservation in Finland a “joint Nordic task touching upon Norway and Sweden as well,” (102). Sámi language revitalization efforts and preservation efforts have fared better in countries where there is a larger population of the Sámi, with Norway being the forerunner. One area that desperately needs improvement is in the realm of adult literacy and education, since many are functionally illiterate in their languages, which of course will take desire and money. With all of the data pointing to such huge cultural losses for the Sámi “it is appropriate to ask whether it is too late to heal the wounds of prior policies” (Jernsletten 130). The most hope for the survival of the Sámi language lies in the combined efforts of the non-Sámi majority with their legislative efforts and the persistence of the Sámi that they have a right to cultural autonomy. With these efforts already underway in all three countries to varying degrees there remains a glimmer of hope for the Sámi languages and their cultural survival.


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Web sources

Domstol - Norway’s Judicial System -

Ethnologue -

The European Bureau for Lesser-Used Languages - option=com_wrapper&Itemid=43&lang=en

Natlex -

ODIN - Equal education in practice! Author: "Information from the Government and the Ministries" -

Online Legal Information in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden - Updated, By Suzanne Thorpe

The Sámi Act, translated Norwegian Legislation courtesy of the Law faculty at the University of Oslo, amended April 2003-

Sámi history and policy -

Sami in Sweden -

Sámediggi - the Finnish Sámi Parliament -

Sámediggi - the Norwegian Sámi Parliament -

Sametinget - the Swedish Sámi Parliament -

Stortinget - Norway’s Parliament -

Sweblul - The Swedish Bureau for Lesser-Used Languages option=com_content&task=view&id=36&Itemid=40&lang=en

Virtual Finland - page on the Sámi, author: Frank Horn, professor The Northern Institute for Environmental and Minority Law University of Lappland.