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LINGUIST List 18.3397

Fri Nov 16 2007

Disc: Cultural Sensitivity & Endangered Languages: Saami

Editor for this issue: Ann Sawyer <sawyerlinguistlist.org>

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        1.    Bruce Moren, Cultural Sensitivity & Endangered Languages: Saami

Message 1: Cultural Sensitivity & Endangered Languages: Saami
Date: 15-Nov-2007
From: Bruce Moren <bruce.morenhum.uit.no>
Subject: Cultural Sensitivity & Endangered Languages: Saami
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An issue and two questions 

Background: Many people (including some linguists) do not realize that
there have been two distinct cultures and two distinct language groups on
the Scandinavian Peninsula since prehistoric times - the North Germanic and
the Sami. A part of this lack of awareness is due to the longstanding power
imbalance in Scandinavia that has left the Sami virtually invisible. The
North Germanic peoples are the majority (particularly in the south) and
have held control over the entire peninsula for centuries. This control was
reinforced during the past 150 years by official policies aimed at
assimilating the Sami into the North Germanic cultures (called
Swedishisation and Norwegianisation). Similar programs for Sami
assimilation were also found in Finland and Russia. The purpose and nature
of these assimilation attempts are comparable to those found in other parts
of the world, such as New Zealand, Australia, and Canada. Although both
Sweden and Norway have now abandoned their assimilation policies and have
allowed for the formation of Sami Parliaments to support Sami language and
cultural issues, there are still several lingering scars that will take
many years to overcome. In the words of Beate Hårstad Jensen, "If it has
taken 100 years to norwegianise the Coast Samis, then it will perhaps take
another 100 years to make us Samis again?" (Dagbladet 28 July 2001 - quoted
in Minde 2005). It is also important to mention that the general
impression given in the media, history books, travel books, etc. that the
Sami are a small, primitive and exotic group of semi-nomadic reindeer
herders is a lingering misrepresentation from the assimilation policy days.
They are a rather large population, they come from all walks of life and
have all sorts of professions, and only about 10% have been actively
involved in reindeer herding in the past several centuries.

Why is this relevant to linguists? There are at least three reasons.
First, one of the ways in which the marginalization of the Sami is
continued and reinforced today is in the use of the term "Scandinavian" to
refer only to the North Germanic languages. Despite having inhabited the
Scandinavian Peninsula for several thousand years, the Sami essentially
disappear (almost as effectively as if the assimilation policies of the
19th and 20th centuries had been successful) when one thinks of
"Scandinavian" and associates that with only North Germanic. One way that
we, as linguists, can help support the Sami community is to ensure that
they are not made invisible by our own language use. This means using the
term "North Germanic", not "Scandinavian", when we mean the North Germanic
languages of Scandinavia.

The second reason why recognition and support of the Sami is relevant to
linguists is the fact that the current situation for all the Sami languages
is dire according to the UNESCO list of endangered languages. Most people
do not realize that Sami is arguably the most endangered language family in
Europe. (I call it a “family” because it is a group of usually mutually
unintelligible languages that separated from its nearest relatives, the
Balto-Finnic languages (e.g. Finnish and Estonian), at least 3,000 years
ago.) Akkala Sami died in 2003. Three out of seven nearly extinct European
languages are Sami - Ter (<10 speakers), Pite (<20) and Ume (<20). Five
out of 27 seriously endangered European languages are Sami - Skolt (<400),
Inari (<500), South (<500), Kildin (<650) and Lule (<1,500). One way that
we, as linguists, can help support these languages is to ensure that they
are not made invisible by our use of "Scandinavian" when we really mean
"North Germanic".

The third reason linguists should do what they can to support the Sami is
the uniquely complex grammar of the Sami languages. In the words of one of
the foremost researchers on these languages, "Sámi phonetics, phonology and
morphophonology are amongst the most complicated in Europe if not in the
whole world" (Sammallahti 1990:441). This includes what looks like a
preference for simple onsets and complex codas, three linguistically
significant degrees of consonant duration, quasi-harmonizing "glide
vowels", laryngeal contrasts only in post-stressed medial position, an
extensive and pervasive consonant gradation system, productive
morphological paradigms including literally hundreds of forms, etc. Each
one of these phenomena is interesting and perhaps problematic for some
linguistic theories, but taken in concert, they are astoundingly complex
and form a perfect testing ground for many theoretical claims. These
languages are important sources of unique linguistic data, and they should
not be allowed to simply vanish. One way to help them is awareness of their
fragility and sensitive use of the term "Scandinavian".

To summarize the issue and extend it slightly, there are at least four
reasons to question the use of "Scandinavian" to refer exclusively to the
North Germanic languages. First, from a geographical perspective, there
are two language groups spoken on the Scandinavian Peninsula since
prehistoric times - North Germanic and Sami. In fact, the traditional Sami
areas of Scandinavia make up the majority of the peninsula. Thus, it is
misleading and biased to refer to only the North Germanic languages as
"Scandinavian". Second, the power imbalance and assimilation pressures in
Scandinavia are reinforced today by the use of “Scandinavian” to refer only
to North Germanic languages. Third, the Sami languages are interesting from
a linguistic perspective and are extremely endangered. Therefore, they
require every support they can get from linguists. Cultural and historical
sensitivity regarding "Scandinavian" is needed in order not to further
marginalize the Sami and render them invisible as a people or as a language
group. Fourth, from a traditional language-family classification
perspective, there is Germanic, North Germanic, and the East-Scandinavian
and West-Scandinavian branches of North Germanic. The latter two are
sometimes bundled differently as the Continental Scandinavian and Insular
Scandinavian branches of North Germanic. Importantly, there is no single
language or language-group called "Scandinavian". Since "North Germanic" is
well established and unbiased, it should be the preferred term for
referring to the North Germanic languages. "Scandinavian" is neither
accurate nor neutral.

Finally, I have a couple of questions that I hope will elicit some
discussion among linguists on the LinguistList.

1) Other than individuals choosing not to refer to the North Germanic
languages as “Scandinavian” and/or choosing to report on the
socio-political problems with using the term “Scandinavian”, does anyone
have suggestions for how linguists might help to bring about awareness of
this important word-use issue in the non-linguist community?

2) Is there something that we can do as a group (e.g. via the LSA, MLA and
other such organizations) to help reduce the continuation of historical
injustices experienced by minority/indigenous groups - perhaps by adopting
policies against biased labels for languages and language groups?

I am sure there are many different opinions with regard to both the use of
“Scandinavian” and how the linguistics community should or should not play
a role in language-politics. I hope that some of these opinions make their
way to the LinguistList.

Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics

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