The Sami Languages (3)


On Monday 31 July I headed Utsjoelta Nuorgamiin. That translates to “From Utsjoki to Nuorgam”. My bicycle trip did not begin however until I had checked out a couple shops in town. They were closed on the weekend and I had not had a chance to visit either of them.

The first place was a craft shop, run by a Sami who made all the souvenirs himself in his own workshop. While I could admire the reindeer hide and fur mementos, reindeer antler trinkets and Sami hats, I left with only four postcards. I was the only one in the store and we had quite a lively conversation. You never know who you will run into and it turns out this man was the former Guinness World Record holder for running backwards. He even showed me his Guinness certification (in English) to prove it. His record was set over twenty years ago however and the record has long ago been broken. With the current regrettable state of the now tabloid-trash Guinness Book of World Records, I can imagine that this record has been purged from the Human Achievements. I do have a few old GBofWR at home in Canada and I will look for his name. He told me he was crestfallen when Guinness published only his first and second given names, lopping off his surname.

I stepped into a second craft store and was more interested in the Sami books for sale than anything else. There are nine Sami dialects [1] and three of them are spoken in Finland. The number of Sami speakers in Finland totals no more than two thousand, all three dialects combined. The most prevalent Sami dialect is Tunturi Sami, known in English as Fell, Mountain or Northern Sami. Tunturi Sami is considered the standard form of the language and the Sami books that I saw for sale were all written in this dialect. My four Sami language-learning texts, the only ones of their kind (all part of the same series), teach Tunturi Sami for Finnish speakers.

Sami is related to Finnish and thus belongs to the family of Finno-Ugrian languages. Before I embarked on my Finnish language study programme I could make out only a few similarities between the two (and in this case my minimal knowledge of Sami centres only on Tunturi). It was easy to pick out common words that resembled one another (which were not loanwords) however any other similarities were few.

My past two Finnish courses dealt briefly with the history and evolution of the language and from this introduction I could see how similar Finnish and Sami once were, and currently are. Where Finnish has only one sibilant, /s/, Sami has the full linguistic complement. I cannot configure this keyboard to type the phonetic symbols for the sounds represented by -ch- -sh- -zh- /z/, plus others. Finnish did feature more sibilance at one time. Aspiration is another characteristic of Sami which Finnish lacks.

Tunturi Sami is a very recent written language, and the letters of its alphabet do not represent the same sounds we are used to pronouncing them as in English or even Finnish. Written B’s, D’s and G’s are all unvoiced and aspiration (a prominent part of Sami pronunciation) is not written, so you have to know when it occurs by looking at the word structure. The Tunturi word for “Finland” is Suopma and I made the error of releasing the P when I said it (double entendres re: the previous sentence are most welcome). When pronouncing Suopma one has to purse one’s lips as if to release the /p/ but then cut the voiceless stop short and go right to the nasal instead. Try saying Suopma (the Suo- is pronounced like the swa- in “swan”) as “Suomma”, then as Suopma, and hear the difference. My error in orthoepy was that I stuck an aspirated [ph] in there when there is only a hint of one, yet unaspirated. Tunturi quite commonly features three consonants all strung together when words take on different roles (sort of like consonant-tripling as a form of infixing, hence Juvva, a masculine name, becomes Juvvva when Juvva is speaking). The hacek is a common accent in Tunturi Sami and it does hit the eye quite dramatically when you see three haceked S’s in a row. Since the written language is so new, many elder Sami are illiterate in their own language.

While my experience this whole time in Finland has been one where, to be perfectly honest, I have charmed the locals with my attempts to speak Finnish to them, mistakes and all, it cannot compare to the reaction I received in Saami Lääni when I attempted to speak Tunturi to the citizens of Utsjoki. I have two Tunturi dictionaries, one of which includes a brief phrase book. Certain phrases I memorized on the long trip up here. Each time I uttered something in Tunturi I got the pronunciation wickedly way off, but the people appreciated the effort. Not too many Canadians pass by Utsjoki wanting to learn and speak Tunturi Sami.

Inari Sami is the only Sami dialect spoken entirely within Finnish borders. It is the least-spoken of all the Sami dialects. One dictionary has been published documenting Inari Sami, but I neither saw any Inari books nor met anyone who spoke Inari Sami while I was in northern Lapin Lääni.

Skolt Sami territory occupies just a slice of land south of Utsjoki and Nuorgam, but it amounts to some six hundred speakers. The Skolts are originally from the Petsamo region, which used to be part of Finland before it was ceded to the Soviet Union. Skolt Sami is heavily influenced by Russian loanwords. This is the most heavily accented language I have ever seen, and the typist who compiled the one Skolt-Finnish dictionary must have worn out his or her pinky finger from having to hit the shift key so often. I wonder why any newly written language would feature so many accents; surely there must be other ways to facilitate correct pronunciation at the same time making it easy on typists and writers. Two other Sami dialects are spoken in Russia as you continue east on the Kola Peninsula.

At this second craft store I left with a patch of the Sami flag to sew onto my backpack, and a 2000 catalogue of Sami imprints. The first Tunturi-English dictionary is scheduled to appear in December 2001.

My bike trip adventure to Nuorgam and Norway to follow in instalment four.

Tell me all about the Scrabble Nationals taking place right now in Providence, Rhode Island. I wish I could be there.

[1] The Anthropology section at Helsinki’s National Museum has a room devoted to Sami history and that is
where I got this figure. However my Sami language study texts all make reference to only six dialects.

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