Threatened Indigenous Voices: Sámi

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Lately I’ve been making a big push for endangered and minority language awareness via alternative routes than the stuffy linguistic articles and reports that come out of academia. These are all well and good, but as I wrote in another article recently – this really isn’t the way to get indigenous language issues into the public eye. It is – simply put – boring.

One of the ways that I foresee awareness of such issues spreading is through appreciation for and the sharing of music. It’s one form of expression enjoyed and appreciated by people around the world for thousands of years. It transcends time and cultures and can even act as a catalyst for social change and multicultural understanding.It’s for that reason that I’m working on a series of articles featuring some of my favorite minority or endangered language performers or groups from around the world for you to enjoy and share with others in the hope that we can help to cement these voices forever within the vault of cyberspace.

This selection of Sami language performers will be the first of hopefully many articles that share the music and voices of indigenous, minority or ‘rare’ languages.

 Sámi

Sami or Saami is an endangered indigenous language family native to Northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. This region is known collectively as Sápmi or Lapland. Ethnic Sami are sometimes referred to as Lapps or Laplanders in English and number somewhere between 90,000 and 135,000 individuals. Despite this only a fraction of this indigenous population – now spread throughout the world – is capable of speaking a Sami language.

Sami is a branch of the larger Uralic family of languages that also includes Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian. Sami is comprised of several languages with populations that vary greatly in size ranging from 20,000 speakers to fewer than 10.Essentially all Sami languages are extremely threatened. Fewer than 25,000 speakers of Sami languages remain – most of whom speak Northern Sami, by far the largest branch with around 20,000 speakers.

  
A map of Sami dialects numbered 1. Southern Sa...
A map of  some Sami dialects: 1. Southern Sami 2. Ume Sami 3. Pite Sami 4. Lule Sami 5. Northern Sami 6. Skolt Sami 7. Inari Sami 8. Kildin Sami 9. Ter Sami (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

1. Dawn Light by Northern Sámi folk singer Máddji.

You can find more from Maddji on iTunes – here.

2. Ancient Forces – Berit Margrethe Oskal

This piece, called Ancient Forces in English, “Eamifámut” in Sami, is an example of the ancient Sami folk singing style of “Yoiking” or “Joiking”. The sound is similar to some Native American chants and is considered to be one of the oldest musical traditions in Europe.

This musical style has come under fire over the ages, particularly in the 17th and 18th centuries when the Christianization of Norway by the church and Norwegian “high society” labeled it as sinful and yoiking was outlawed.

This awesome piece fuses the ancient style with a much more modern rock element. This blend of new and old traditions is one way in which interest and appreciation for indigenous languages can best be spread.

Berit Oskal’s music has been met with a good deal of success in Norway, and internationally via YouTube

More music by Oskal can be found on iTunes, and you can read more about the artist herself on her website.

Ursula Länsman of the Sami group Angelit says of the yoik:

“A yoik is not merely a description; it attempts to capture its subject in its entirety: it’s like a holographic, multi-dimensional living image, a replica, not just a flat photograph or simple visual memory. It is not about something, it is that something. It does not begin and it does not end. A yoik does not need to have words – its narrative is in its power, it can tell a life story in song. The singer can tell the story through words, melody, rhythm, expressions or gestures.”

~Länsman

– From the University of Texas’ page on Sami culture.

3. Sofia Jannok – Liekkas.

Sofia Jannok is another Sami artist and one of the better known contemporary Sami performers. Native to Sweden, she also performs primarily in Northern Sami and utilizes a great deal of Yoiking. She does sometimes write in Swedish or English as well, but I suppose we can forgive her.

You can find out more about her music and some of her activism on her site – here.

Interested in learning Sami?

As with most endangered languages; finding resources with which to learn Sami is going to prove difficult if you don’t live in Scandinavia – and even then you’ll be hard pressed. Luckily for you I’ve already done some of the work!You can learn some Northern Sami from Gulahalan – a Sami podcast and language learning site. Gulahalan will also be available on our Video/Podcast page located at the top of the site on the menu bar.

Photoglob AG Zürich
A Sami family in Norway around 1900.

The downside is that it’s written in Swedish – so navigating the page is fun if you’re a non-speaker, but with a little effort you should be able to find your way around!

But what’s life without a little linguistic adventure?

These listed videos and many, many more videos of Sami folk and pop music can be found here on the YouTube channel of Niels Ovlla Dunfjell.

A small selection of Sami language courses are also available for free on Memrise.

Unfortunately, most endangered languages are not as fortunate as the Sami family when it comes to their acceptance among the nations whose modern borders now contain them.

Sami enjoys far more public outreach and its music claims a far more prominent spotlight in Scandinavian and global pop culture than the majority of indigenous languages around the world.

With linguists projecting the loss of an enormous portion of the world’s living languages within the next century; the likelihood of Sami and other minority languages surviving is sadly very small.

The wonderful thing about music though is its ability to immortalize voices.

Frozen within an electronic time capsule any language willing and able to be heard can be preserved and enjoyed for as long as there are ears that are willing and able to listen and remember.

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  • JC

    Is there any particular reason you did not include Amoc? I can’t speak to how good his music is, but his approach of rap certainly is interesting. I wonder if it has helped the language.

  • No reason in particular. I actually didn’t come across his work while digging for these and I figured that three videos was enough.

    I will definitely be checking it out though and will try to incorporate something about him into future work!

    Thanks for reading and for your comment!