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Sami in Sweden



Sami is spoken by the Sami, a minority people living in the northernmost part of Scandinavia. There are between 70,000 and 100,000 Sami people, but only some of them speak the language. The main bulk of speakers are in Northern Norway (in Finmarken), i.e. some 10,000. There are some 17,000 Sami in Sweden, of whom approximately 7,000 individuals have mastery in Sami. The largest number of Sami live in the northern municipalities of Kiruna (2,500), Gällivare (1,800), Jokkmokk (900) and Arvidsjaur (700). There are some 1,000 Sami living in the surroundings of Stockholm, but most of them do not usually speak the language.

Sami is a Finno-ugric language, most closely related to Balto-finnic languages (like Finnish and Estonian). According to a widely accepted theory, both Sami and Balto-finnic languages were derived from a common protolanguage. From this protolanguage it is thought that proto-Sami developed around 1,000 BC and maintained apparently uniform until around 800 AD; thereafter it developed into the current dialects.

Sami is typically divided into three main language varieties: Eastern Sami, Central Sami and Southern Sami. These main dialects are generally further subdivided into nine language varieties: (1) South Sami, (2) Ume Sami, (3) Pite (or Arjeplog) Sami, (4) Lulea Sami, (5) North Sami, (6) Inari Sami, (7) Skolt Sami, (8) Kildin Sami , and (9) Ter Sami. Within this model, varieties 1-2 correspond to the Southern Sami language variety, varieties 3-5 to Central Sami, and varieties 6-9 to Eastern Sami. While the three main varieties are mutually unintelligible, speakers of some of the nine varieties closer to each other do not usually have difficulty understanding one another. The varieties therefore suggest a continuum, where language successively changes. Five varieties of the Sami language are spoken in Sweden: North Sami, Lulea Sami, South Sami, Ume Sami and Arjeplog Sami.

South Sami, which has borrowed a lot of lexical items from Swedish (probably more than more than other Sami varieties have done), has been adopted as the main language and marker of identity in the South Sami area. Lulea Sami often presents unstable code-switching between Sami and Swedish. North Sami, on the other hand, is a more "pure" Sami variety mixed with some Swedish words, and is used among the Sami in the northest part of Sweden.

Despite the efforts to standardise the language, there are six different orthographies for Sami. Most of these were created by linguists and have a lot of diacritics which is a strong barrier for a lot of Sami-speakers wishing to learn and read the written language. The gap between these language varieties also involves neologisms and terminology. With regard to the speakers of these different varieties, they see other varieties' speakers as a different language group, outside their clique, and they do not tend to learn other varieties.

There is no one Sami identity but different local identities linked to the local language variety and the territory where it is spoken. Other identity markers are kinship and territory.

Regarding the economic activities, one of the main is reindeer herding in certain areas, i.e. reindeer herding districts, traditionally owned and shared in common by Sami families. Inhabitants must carry on reindeer work in order to be a member of such a Sami district. There are some forty Sami districts of this kind in Sweden. Nowadays people are less willing to continue this kind of work because 400/500 reindeers are needed in order to build a viable business. Other traditional activities of Samis are hunting, fishing and handicraft.

Due to the bad economic circumstances, migration has been strong between the Sami. Two migration patterns have been perceived: on the one hand, Sami people emigrated towards the larger centres within the Sami settlement area; on the other hand, there was (and is) also a significant emigration towards the coastal cities in Norrbotten and Vesterbotten and towards the large metropolitan areas in southern Sweden.


The Sami core area (traditionally called Sápmi) consists of a large area stretching from the east coast of the Kola peninsula, across the northernmost districts of Finland, into the coastal and inland parts of northern and central Norway, through the inland region of Sweden.

The first contacts with the Scandinavians were probably established more than one thousand years ago. It was not, however, until the period of industrialisation which began at the end of the nineteenth century and continued well into the twentieth century, that Sami culture began to change in a crucial manner, largely as a result of the migration of new people into Sápmi. This in-migration gradually had a profound impact on traditional living and settlement patterns among the Sami . Today, for example, there are only a few municipalities in Norway where the Sami constitute a majority, e.g., Kautokeino and Karasjok; there is one municipality in Finland as well, Utsjoki. In Sweden, the largest population of Sami lives in Kiruna, where they constitute just 10% of the total population of the municipality. However, despite these seemingly low demographic figures, the northernmost parts of Norway, Finland and Sweden are characterised as the core area of Sápmi.

It has been estimated that more than a half of the Sami live in Norway (approximately 35,000), about 17,000 in Sweden, 6,000 in Finland and roughly 2,000 in Russia. These numbers, however, are not reliable, for there has never been a Sami census. As a result of a population study of the Sami people living in Sweden in the early 1970s, it was found that about 60% of the Sami in that country lived in the area of traditional Sami settlement, i.e. within Sápmi, while 40% outside of this region. Today, as it has been said, the largest numbers of Sami in Sweden live in the municipalities of Kiruna (2,500), Gällivare (1,800), Jokkmokk (900) and Arvidsjaur (700). In 1987, in conjunction with the passing of the Norwegian national Sami Act, a Sami language administrative area was established. This area consists of six municipalities, namely Karasjok, Kautokeino, Nesseby, Porsanger, Tana and Kafjord. The total population in these municipalities (i.e. both Sami and non-Sami) is reported to be 15,000, of whom 3,100 live in Kautokeino, and 2,800 in Karasjok.


In the basic principles of the Swedish Constitution it is stated as follows: "Opportunities should be promoted for ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities to preserve and develop a cultural and social life of their own". This has had some practical consequences, i.e. the constitution of the Sami Parliament, the teaching of Sami at school and legislation concerning the Sami population. However, Sami is not considered to be a fully official language and it is not usually possible for speakers to address the Administration in the language.

Nevertheless, a government committee working in two sections has published (7-1-1998) its proposals concerning Sweden's possibilities to ratify both the European Council's Convention on Regional or Minority languages and the European Council's Frame Convention for the protection of minorities. The social demand in favour of that recognition seems to exist amongst the minority language groups. Sami are proposed to become official minority group (in addition to Tornedalens, Finns, Romani and Jews). The Swedish government has stated that all changes in the current situation will have to be inexpensive: it is out of question to increase the general budget. This also provokes polemics, since these restrictions leave many of the demands from minority organisations without legal backing. However, the report might not be accepted by the Parliament, although this is unlikely.

A Sami Parliament (Sametinget) of 31 elected members was created in 1991. All people claiming to be Sami or having parents or grandparents which are/were Sami speakers can register on the voting census. The main tasks of that Sami Parliament are as follows:

* to foster a living Sami culture

* to monitor the Sami language

* to distribute State funds for Sami culture

* to appoint the board of the Sami schools

* to advise the Swedish authorities on Sami affairs

Members are elected by the votes of registered people (of whom there are still very few). Specific Sami parties take part in the elections to the Sami Parliament (there are eleven different parties) but they do not play any significant role in local elections.



In the compulsory primary schooling there are four types of classes for those pupils claiming a language other than Swedish:

a) Preparatory classes where pupils receive short-term intensive instruction in their own language and in Swedish as second language.

b) Mother tongue class where all pupils have the same non-Swedish first language. Instruction in the first grade is almost entirely in the children's first language and in successive years the proportion of that instruction decreases as the proportion of instruction in Swedish increases.

c) Integrated classes (up to grade 3) where pupils with a particular first language constitute about the half of the class and receive some instruction in that language.

d) Regular Swedish class, plus about two lessons per week in the minority language (the so-called "home language instruction"), often given by a mobile teacher.

Sami children can complete their primary schooling either in the regular State-supported schools in their home districts or at one of the State-run Sami schools where children are taught in both the Sami and the Swedish languages. There are six of such schools (Karesuando, Lannavaara, Kiruna, Gällivare, Jokkmokk and Tärnaby) where Sami is the language of instruction in some of them. The choice of schools is left entirely to the parents. Furthermore, two pre-schools in Kiruna and Jokkmokk are now using Sami.

For those children who do not attend special Sami schools, tuition in their native language is available through the above-mentionned "home language programme". Home language teaching started in the late 70s (earlier there was half an hour a week of Sami teaching in primary schools) and increased up to 6 hours per week even though Swedish was and still is the main language of instruction.

Regarding the figures of pupils involved in Sami courses from the 1st to 9th grades in general schools, the number decreased from 600 in the early 40s to 150 in the late 70s, and recovered up to 300 in 1993. Absolute figures seem to be on the decline but children still learn Sami as their first language. Those attending Sami schools (less than 10% of all Sami children, i.e. about 150) still speak the language later on while those attending non-Sami schools generally stop speaking it after leaving school. It is worth noting that each school uses the local standard variety of Sami, and the language used between Samis speaking different language varieties is Swedish.

The majority of parents want their children go to the Swedish school in order to get more job opportunities in the future, and despite the Sami courses in schools, the social use of language is not increasing significantly.

There is no specific teacher-training for Sami teachers (they have only studied Sami as a subject at the university). The efforts made in order to set up teachers training in Sami failed at the University of Lulea.

There are some twenty students of Sami in secondary schools and there are also some 20 students at the University of Umea where a chair in the Sami language was established in 1975. This university offers undergraduate courses in North, Lulea and South Sami and introductory courses in Sami culture.

Regarding adult education, there are also a few Sami courses in the special residential folk colleges (called Folkhögskola) in compensation for the previous inadequate schooling. The length of the courses varies from a couple of days up to more than a year.

Finally, there is a Sami School Board (Sameskolstyrelsen) which has at its disposal certain funds to arrange for integrated Sami education at ordinary primary or secondary schools in co-operation with local authorities.


Interpretation services are not available for Swedish citizens, although they are available for foreigners: thus, for example, Finnish Tornedalen are allowed to request this service, but not Swedish Tornedalen nor Swedish Sami people.


The language is rarely used for administrative purposes even in the core of the Sami area, where the language transmission is still taking place. There is no widespread official use of Sami in administration and even the Sami Parliament uses Swedish as its main language, although many of its members also use Sami and the meetings are interpreted. The proceedings or the minutes of the meetings are usually written in Swedish and North Sami. A considerable number of documents are translated into North Sami as well. Moreover, Sami is often used by the employees at the secretary of the Sami Parliament when communicating with Sami speaking people. Communications in Sami are seldom written.

Other authorities, including local councils, do not use Sami, even if they are dealing with Sami affairs. In the local councils Sami is used informally, but not officially.


There is a half-hour daily Sami-language radio programme from Monday to Friday, devoted to Sami affairs and 1 hour/month on TV also linked with Sami matters. As for radio programmes, they are offered in the three main Sami language varieties and although they usually cover the traditional Sami territories, some are broadcasted in the national network insofar as many Sami have settled in other parts of Sweden.

Regarding press and magazines, there is a monthly magazine, Samefolket, which uses mainly Swedish and edits only a few pages in North Sami, although it is edited by a foundation supported by two Sami associations. There is a project to set up a magazine in Sami in 1998. Sami youth organisations use Swedish in their activities and publications.


Sami literature has an important oral tradition which is still alive. Yoik chants, talas, sagas and stories form the basis of this tradition. With regard to written literature, Sami was first used in the 17th century. The first short story in Sami was published in 1912. In the early 1980s there was a "breakthrough" in Sami written literature, when an increasing number of books, from poetry to novels, began to be published. Although men were the pioneers in written literature, now it is women who are in the vanguard. Most of Sami books are intended for children and young people.

Since 1977, the Swedish state budget includes a separate vote for support to Sami culture (the Sami Fund). The financial resources are distributed by a special grants committee with a Sami majority among its members. There is also funding for Sami artists from the National Arts Council.

The Sami Language Board is trying to modernise and standardise the different Sami languages and is now carrying out works on Sami terminology and neologisms. According to our informants, the Board is very conservative, purist and tradition-oriented regarding language questions. The Sami Language Boards of Norway, Sweden and Finland are carrying on the main activities related to Sami language and culture, even though, according to our sources, their goals do not seem to be clear and well-defined.


The Sami language is only used in reindeer oriented activities (hunting and grazing), fishing and handicraft. The language is never valued by local employers when employing new workers, although this does not mean than Sami cannot be heard in stores and exchanges. This happens often, despite the business world does not encourage these interactive situations. However, the use of Sami decreases the more formal situations are.

From the 1990s, the Swedish government promotes the importance of the concept of "perfect Swedish", which is indispensable to find a job everywhere. Proficiency in other languages is not required.


Although non-Samis consider that the whole land is owned by Samis, in fact this is only the case in the above-mentioned villages. Actually, and despite the image of Sami people as the dominant group in the area, their position is weak. With regard to the language, for example, it is only used within Sami communities and, outside these communities, it is only used in the family. Up to the 1940s men were not allowed to work in activities other than the traditional ones. This issue forces many to leave the traditional Sami areas and to move to other regions. Today there are mainly women that leave the Sami areas to municipalities like Umea and Stockholm because of the changes in the economic activities (changes in the corral system). Sami women are replaced by Swedish-speaking women that move to Norrbotten. Some Sami communities (mainly the Russian Samis) have strong internal endogamy; the other groups usually marry with members of the various Sami groups, but due to the migration pattern there are quite a lot of mixed marriages between Sami and non-Sami people. Bearing in mind that the father is often absent from home with his herd of reindeers, the main language spoken in the household is the mother's language.

As the possibilities of using Sami outside certain restricted contexts are very limited, many parents choose to use Swedish in raising their children (despite the fact, in some cases, that both speak Sami). However, in the last years it seems that parents promote bilingualism more than in the past (even though their goal is to merge into the mainstream society).

The use of Sami tongue has decreased especially during the past five to six decades within several different areas. South Sami, and to a certain extent Lulea Sami, have an uncertain future both in Sweden and Norway, where the native speakers of these varieties are few and elderly. North Sami, spoken in Sweden, Finland, and Norway, is the most used dialect throughout the Sápmi, constituting 80 to 90% of the people who speak Sami. The use of North Sami by school children also is undergoing change. In many Sami families Swedish is the dominant conversational language at home, and the use of Sami among peers is decreasing as well. The results also indicate that the children of elementary school age have not achieved adult people's level of proficiency concerning noun and verb morphologies. At the same time, language change advances within certain speech communities, and important development in the use of Sami has occurred in certain domains since the 1970s. Since then, many older Sami have obtained reading and writing knowledge of Sami in formal educational courses.

There is a noticeable linguistic gap between old speakers and new ones (who learned the language in schools) insofar as the language spoken is a bit different.

The experts consulted consider that there is a certain amount of hostility between Sami people and the other groups. Conflicts arouse, for example, around legislation concerning hunting and fishing: previous legislation claimed Sami sovereignty over the land and from this followed rights of using it for reindeer herding, hunting and fishing. This was regarded as illegitimate among the non-Sami settlers in the area. Recently, though, legislation changed and as an effect of that the definition of who had the right of using the land. This kind of situations, together with the fact that Sami people live relatively separated from other social groups, provoke several tensions.


As a result of the seventh Nordic Sami Conference (held in Gällivare, 1971), a Sami Language Committee was established as a tool of co-operation between Sami living in Norway, Sweden and Finland. Each country is represented by three members on the Language Committee. Since the Sami Conference of 1992, it has been further expanded to include Russian representatives.

The Sami language Committee is elected by the Sami Conference that assembles every three years. The committee initially concerned itself with orthographic issues, but recently has also worked with matters concerning standardisation, language preservation and language laws. Observers claim that since two years ago some countries go their own way and are apparently quite reluctant to keep co-operating with the other countries.


The Sami identity seems to be linked to group interests more than to language. Tensions are stronger between Samis and Finns than between Samis and Swedes (the threat to their respective identity increases the virulence of attitudes).

There is a strong disenchantment regarding political activity even though a lot of young people are involved in environmental issues (although not from a political point of view).

As it has been said previously, the use of Sami tongue has decreased especially during the past five to six decades. Due to migration, there has been a certain amount of dissemination of the Sami population, which has weakened the position of the language. In many Sami families Swedish is the language parents use with their children, and the use of Sami among peers is decreasing as well. Sami children speak less the language and are less fluent than the previous generations. Having no social prestige, Sami is being swept away.

Parallel to this difficult situation, in the last decades Sami language has won legitimacy and now is institutionally protected and promoted. Sami people, today, have more means to reproduce their own language, although the survival of Sami does not depend on institutional help but on its speakers' attitudes and life conditions.

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