Saami vowel swaps

Those who think the interchange of mid and high vowels in Kazan Tatar is amusing might enjoy these examples from North Saami. In this language, low and high vowels (*a and *ä at one end and *i at the other) swapped places in secondary syllables sometime in the past.

  • *nimi ‘name’ > namma.
  • *sompa ‘ring’ > soabbi.
  • *kunta ‘community’ > goddi.
  • *širvi ‘elk’ > sarva.
  • *melä ‘paddle’ > mealli.
  • *kåxli ‘tongue’ > giella.

From comparing North Saami and the other Saami languages, we know that this development was made possible by an intermediary shift of both high and low vowels to slightly different mid vowels. For *nimi > namma, we can reconstruct the stage ne̮me̮. For *melä > mealli, on the other hand, one must reconstruct *mēlē.

Sammallahti in profile

The international edition of Helsingin Sanomat continues to offer material for people interested in the Uralic languages with a profile of Pekka Sammallahti, the foremost living scholar of the Sámi languages and the author of what is for many students the way into the field, The Saami Languages: An Introduction.

The bit on language preservation is interesting:

From the language perspective, however, the situation looks quite as grim as the future of our dwindling biodiversity.

It has been predicted that by the end of this century 95 per cent of the world’s languages will have died out.

Sammallahti is therefore annoyed by the fact that today’s researchers more and more concentrate on theoretical issues.

‘There are plenty of philologists in the world, but the majority of them study dominant languages, such as English and French. The main emphasis should be in documenting endangered languages.’

Sammallahti practices what he preaches: among other things he has edited the Northern Sámi–Finnish and Northern Sámi–German dictionaries.

The idea that Chomsky has led us to a kind of English-only navel-gazing is an old one, and I’ve read many reports that this 1970s-era order is being swept away. Certainly most of the linguists I encounter are passionate about insights gained from little-known languages.

Skolt Sámi still hanging on

Helsingin Sanomat recently featured an article on a family trying to preserve Skolt Sámi, and I’m happy to see that this has made it to the English-language edition for the benefit of international readers:

A flurry of activity is going on in the living room of an apartment in Ivalo in Finnish Lapland. Two-year-old Janna-Maria climbs into the lap of her mother Marjo Semenoff. Seven-year-old Janne peeks from behind the easy chair.

Skolt Sámi is the second home language in the family.

“I know the word for cat”, says Jasmin, age 8, to the visitor. “Kaass”.

Rolle, their puppy, inspires mother to ask: “And what is the word for dog?”

Pensive looks appear on Jasmin’s and Janne’s faces, but the word does not come to them. “It starts with P”, their mother says, and suddenly their faces light up.


Finnish is the language that the family speaks when dealing with everyday life, but the parents make a point of speaking Skolt Sámi with their children as well.

Festschrift for Sammallahti now available on the web

The Sami-titled Festschrift for Pekka Sammallahti Sámit, sánit, sátnehámit. Riepmočála Pekka Sammallahtii miessemánu 21. beaivve 2007, published last spring as Mémoires de la Société Finno-Ougrienne 253, is now available online. There are a number of interesting papers here, published in Sami, German, Finnish or English. One of them in particular, Juha Janhunen’s ‘The primary laryngeal in Uralic and beyond’ is especially striking for its application of contemporary phonetic and phonological theory (and an updating of FU transcription) to a well-known Proto-Uralic mystery.

Cognates between Finnish and Sami

I’m taking the Finno-Ugrian Studies department’s Introduction to Historical Linguistics this semester. As I’ve long since become familiar with the comparative method, basic issues of areal convergence, and types of sound change, I assumed that the course would serve only for university credits and for improving my Finnish comprehension. But as all examples are drawn from the Uralic languages, I’m learning a lot about basic sound correspondences between the languages I’m not so familiar with. Yesterday we examined the following Finnish and Northern Sami cognates:

Finnish Sami
h-s- hirvi sarva ‘elk’
hämä sápmi ethnic name
heinä suoidni ‘hay’
halla suoldni ‘frost’
s-s- sappi sáhppi ‘bile’
souja suodji ‘shelter’
salo suolu ‘wilderness’
sormi suorbma ‘finger’
säyne sievnna
s-č- sysi čađđa ‘coal’
silmä čalbmi ‘eye’
selkä čielgi ‘back’
sotka čoađgi
sarvi čoarvi ‘horn’
suomu čuopma ‘(fish) scale’
sata čuohti ‘100’

Of course the cognates s-s- easily gives a proto-form *s-, but for the other two it would be necessary to use data from many other Uralic languages. Finnish h- ∼ Sami s- goes back to a proto-form š-, while Finnish s- ∼ Sami č- are descended from ś-.

What I find very interesting about this list is that it shows that the numeral 100, sata in modern Finnish, was borrowed from an Indo-Iranian language before the breakup of the common ancestor with Sami.

New Inari Sámi website, celebrated Sámi pop

A post by Johanna Laakso on the Ura-list announced The Inari Sámis, a website put up by SIIDA with information on this small and little-known Sámi people. It’s available in English, Finnish, and Inari Sámi.

In other news, the Sámi contestants have won at Liet Lavlut 2006, an alternative to the Eurovision contest that celebrates song in minority languages. Johan Kitte and Ellen Sara sang in North Sámi.