I’ve just been reading about the upcoming Sami Easterfestival in Kautokeino / Guovdageaidnu (Norway) where there will be ice fishing competitions, snowmobile racing and the world lasso throwing and reindeer racing championships. It sounds wonderful, like that song by The Beatles about Mr. Kite’s circus where he promises to trampoline “over men and horses, hoops and garters, lastly through a hogshead of real fire!” It also sounds like there’s a distinct possibility that it could degenerate into absolute chaos if, for example, the snowmobiles try to race the reindeers, or the lassoers take on the ice-fishers (after all, it doesn’t say what the championship lassoers are meant to lasso). If you’re thinking of heading along, please note that: ‘it’s not allowed to bring […] knifes or any other form of weapon to the festival concerts. If you bring any of this items they will be confiscated’. Which reminds me of this recent exhibition (in French).
I realised, while browsing the festival website, that I really don’t know anything about the Sami/Sámi/Saami people. However, I work with two Finns (one of whom will be posting a related article soon), and having heard these people mentioned on more than one occasion I decided to do some research.
The Sami are the arctic indigenous people inhabiting Sápmi, a geographical area which, according to Wikipedia, covers parts of northern Sweden, Norway, Finland and the Kola Peninsula of Russia, but also the border area between south and middle Sweden and Norway. It’s really quite a large area (see map). They are the Nordic countries’ only officially indigenous people and their traditional languages are the Sami languages – apparently there is not one Sami language, but, depending where you look, nine or ten, all of which are endangered. They are classified as part of the Finno-Lappic group of the Uralic language family (you can see the Uralic language family tree illustrated – along with many others – on this nice site: Ethnologue).
The languages use agglutination extensively — that system of combining affixes to the root of a word which allows words like the Finnish epäjärjestelmällistyttämättömyydellänsäkäänköhän to exist (which to you and me means: “I wonder if — even with his/her quality of not having been made unsystematized”). Also, they have an average of 13-14 cases and use an extended (very extended) Latin alphabet. So, for an English speaker, rather complex.
My ‘research’, i.e. poking around the web and bugging my Finnish colleagues, brings me back to that same old question, that is to say, should we allow and accept that languages die off through a process of natural/artificial selection? Or is it the case that they are so inextricably linked with notions like identity and culture that to lose a language is to lose so much more? Or is there a middle ground where accept that not all languages can last for ever, but pledge to do more to see that they are recorded for posterity? I’d welcome your thoughts.
Thanks to Katri Mäenpää and Kirsi Suutarinen for their advice.