LINGUIST List 18.3397

Fri Nov 16 2007

Disc: Cultural Sensitivity & Endangered Languages: Saami

Editor for this issue: Ann Sawyer <>

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

Message 1: Cultural Sensitivity & Endangered Languages: Saami
Date: 15-Nov-2007
From: Bruce Moren <>
Subject: Cultural Sensitivity & Endangered Languages: Saami
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An issue and two questions

Background: Many people (including some linguists) do not realize thatthere have been two distinct cultures and two distinct language groups onthe Scandinavian Peninsula since prehistoric times - the North Germanic andthe Sami. A part of this lack of awareness is due to the longstanding powerimbalance in Scandinavia that has left the Sami virtually invisible. TheNorth Germanic peoples are the majority (particularly in the south) andhave held control over the entire peninsula for centuries. This control wasreinforced during the past 150 years by official policies aimed atassimilating the Sami into the North Germanic cultures (calledSwedishisation and Norwegianisation). Similar programs for Samiassimilation were also found in Finland and Russia. The purpose and natureof these assimilation attempts are comparable to those found in other partsof the world, such as New Zealand, Australia, and Canada. Although bothSweden and Norway have now abandoned their assimilation policies and haveallowed for the formation of Sami Parliaments to support Sami language andcultural issues, there are still several lingering scars that will takemany years to overcome. In the words of Beate Hårstad Jensen, "If it hastaken 100 years to norwegianise the Coast Samis, then it will perhaps takeanother 100 years to make us Samis again?" (Dagbladet 28 July 2001 - quotedin Minde 2005). It is also important to mention that the generalimpression given in the media, history books, travel books, etc. that theSami are a small, primitive and exotic group of semi-nomadic reindeerherders is a lingering misrepresentation from the assimilation policy days. They are a rather large population, they come from all walks of life andhave all sorts of professions, and only about 10% have been activelyinvolved 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 iscontinued and reinforced today is in the use of the term "Scandinavian" torefer only to the North Germanic languages. Despite having inhabited theScandinavian Peninsula for several thousand years, the Sami essentiallydisappear (almost as effectively as if the assimilation policies of the19th and 20th centuries had been successful) when one thinks of"Scandinavian" and associates that with only North Germanic. One way thatwe, as linguists, can help support the Sami community is to ensure thatthey are not made invisible by our own language use. This means using theterm "North Germanic", not "Scandinavian", when we mean the North Germaniclanguages of Scandinavia.

The second reason why recognition and support of the Sami is relevant tolinguists is the fact that the current situation for all the Sami languagesis dire according to the UNESCO list of endangered languages. Most peopledo not realize that Sami is arguably the most endangered language family inEurope. (I call it a “family” because it is a group of usually mutuallyunintelligible languages that separated from its nearest relatives, theBalto-Finnic languages (e.g. Finnish and Estonian), at least 3,000 yearsago.) Akkala Sami died in 2003. Three out of seven nearly extinct Europeanlanguages are Sami - Ter (<10 speakers), Pite (<20) and Ume (<20). Fiveout of 27 seriously endangered European languages are Sami - Skolt (<400),Inari (<500), South (<500), Kildin (<650) and Lule (<1,500). One way thatwe, as linguists, can help support these languages is to ensure that theyare 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 isthe uniquely complex grammar of the Sami languages. In the words of one ofthe foremost researchers on these languages, "Sámi phonetics, phonology andmorphophonology are amongst the most complicated in Europe if not in thewhole world" (Sammallahti 1990:441). This includes what looks like apreference for simple onsets and complex codas, three linguisticallysignificant degrees of consonant duration, quasi-harmonizing "glidevowels", laryngeal contrasts only in post-stressed medial position, anextensive and pervasive consonant gradation system, productivemorphological paradigms including literally hundreds of forms, etc. Eachone of these phenomena is interesting and perhaps problematic for somelinguistic theories, but taken in concert, they are astoundingly complexand form a perfect testing ground for many theoretical claims. Theselanguages are important sources of unique linguistic data, and they shouldnot be allowed to simply vanish. One way to help them is awareness of theirfragility and sensitive use of the term "Scandinavian".

To summarize the issue and extend it slightly, there are at least fourreasons to question the use of "Scandinavian" to refer exclusively to theNorth Germanic languages. First, from a geographical perspective, thereare two language groups spoken on the Scandinavian Peninsula sinceprehistoric times - North Germanic and Sami. In fact, the traditional Samiareas of Scandinavia make up the majority of the peninsula. Thus, it ismisleading and biased to refer to only the North Germanic languages as"Scandinavian". Second, the power imbalance and assimilation pressures inScandinavia are reinforced today by the use of “Scandinavian” to refer onlyto North Germanic languages. Third, the Sami languages are interesting froma linguistic perspective and are extremely endangered. Therefore, theyrequire every support they can get from linguists. Cultural and historicalsensitivity regarding "Scandinavian" is needed in order not to furthermarginalize the Sami and render them invisible as a people or as a languagegroup. Fourth, from a traditional language-family classificationperspective, there is Germanic, North Germanic, and the East-Scandinavianand West-Scandinavian branches of North Germanic. The latter two aresometimes bundled differently as the Continental Scandinavian and InsularScandinavian branches of North Germanic. Importantly, there is no singlelanguage or language-group called "Scandinavian". Since "North Germanic" iswell established and unbiased, it should be the preferred term forreferring to the North Germanic languages. "Scandinavian" is neitheraccurate nor neutral.

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

1) Other than individuals choosing not to refer to the North Germaniclanguages as “Scandinavian” and/or choosing to report on thesocio-political problems with using the term “Scandinavian”, does anyonehave suggestions for how linguists might help to bring about awareness ofthis 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 andother such organizations) to help reduce the continuation of historicalinjustices experienced by minority/indigenous groups - perhaps by adoptingpolicies 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 playa role in language-politics. I hope that some of these opinions make theirway to the LinguistList.

Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics