FUTURE SÁMI SPEAKERS: This Southern Sámi kindergarten hopes that the children there will be able to use Southern Sámi in their daily lives.
Photo: Leif Arne Holme

Threatened language

Only several hundred people currently speak Southern Sámi. But the language refuses to die.

There are roughly 1000 southern Sámis living in Norway, and perhaps the same number in Sweden. They are widely spread and many make their living from traditional reindeer husbandry and live a half-nomadic life. Their main language for many years has been Norwegian or Swedish, and no one really knows how many now speak Southern Sámi. Estimates put the number of speakers somewhere around 500.

A language this small has the odds against it. Several Sámi languages have already died out, and Southern Sámi is high on the United Nations “red list” of endangered languages. But against all odds, the Southern Sámi language is rising from its deathbed.

The taboos are falling

“I am an optimist,” says Inger Johansen, a PhD candidate who works at NTNU. She is researching the Southern Sámi language community, including how Southern Sámi is being revitalized. That is exactly what researchers are witnessing: a revitalization of the language. This is occurring on several levels, including an official level.

Last year, the mid-Norwegian municipality of Snåsa was bilingual. Southern Sámi was used for the first time as an administrative language along with Norwegian. That meant that all public services and information must be offered in both languages. The commitment also obligates the municipality to protect, strengthen and advance the use of Southern Sámi.

Snåsa is one of the places where Southern Sámi is strongest – even though only about 5 per cent of the population uses it. The community is also home to a Southern Sámi cultural centre, a Southern Sámi boarding school and a kindergarten.

“But right up until very recently you would scarcely hear Sámi spoken on the streets in Snåsa,” Johansen says. “It was kind of taboo. But the taboo has fallen, and more and more Southern Sámi speakers speak Southern Sámi when they meet.”

A sense of pride

Not everyone wants to call attention to their Sámi background, however, even though the active stigmatization and victimization of Sámis more or less ended in the 1960s.

But steadily more are taking back their Sámi identity.

“A whole new generation is growing up now with a completely different relationship to language, pride and identity. Many who didn’t learn Southern Sámi as a mother tongue when they were children have now decided to use it as their home language, and make certain that it is passed on to their children,” Johansen says.

She also believes that the unbelievably strong ties among Sámis, and their willingness to often travel long distances to meet friends and family is important in maintaining Sámi identity and the language.

By Lisa Olstad