Pekka Sammalahti 1998:
The Saami Languages. An Introduction.
Davvi Girji OS. Káráshjohka. 268 p.

By Trond Trosterud

With The Saami Languages. An Introduction (SLI) Sámi linguistics has finally got a comprehensive handbook. It discusses (the number of pages devoted to the topic is given in parenthesis) areal variation (33), phonology (20), morphology (35), syntax (20), lexicon and semantics (30), historical development (45 + integrated in all chapters) and sample texts (30), and thus gives much more than the superficial glance we have been offered in various overviews until now. The existing scientific literature on Sámi is mostly in Finnish and German, partly also in Scandinavian, Russian and French, so with SLI Sammallahti opens up a new world to the English monoglot.

The Introduction is clear and informative, with accurate estimates of speakers of the different languages. Areal variation is concise, and gives good lists of the main defining features of each dialect division. The text is accompanied by KorhonenŐs standard dialect map from 1967, but we also get ten additional maps covering smaller areas, taken from a variety of sources, all in all a more detailed picture than what has hitherto been collectively published. The picture is still far from clear, though, for Northern Sweden-Norway we get only reindeer herding districts, and the Southern-Ume dialect map is dominated by the main dialect borders of the Scandinavian dialects. This fact is not revealed in the legend, and as presented the map may thus stimulate the uninformed reader to some rather unorthodox interpretations of the extension of the South and Ume Sámi areas. Also, the maps give the situation as it was before the closing of the Norwegian-Swedish border after World War I. Sammallahti does not offer maps of the present situation, as they "would be chaotic and unenlightening", contrasted to the maps showing the "result of organic and autonomous development" (p. 38). He is right about the chaos and the need for maps of the 1900 situation, of course, but in the near future the Sámi society still will be interested in knowing the contemporary state of affairs. The map collection presented thus emphasises the need for more research on Sámi dialectology:

Sámi phonology is heavily influenced by Knut BergslandŐs glossematic dissertation Røroslappisk grammatikk from 1946, and SLI is no exception. Thus, in the Phonology chapter we get an overview with phonotax as the leading principle, describing the systematic differences between onset, nucleus and coda of initial syllables and non-initial even and uneven syllables. The chapter treats diphthong simplification, vowel alternation and consonant gradation both synchronically, in the Western dialect of Northern Sámi, and diachronically, showing the development leading from Proto-Sámi to the dialect chosen for illustration. Phonological analyses of the presented material is thus left to the interested reader. The Morphology chapter gives the inflection of verbs, nouns and pronouns for Proto-Sámi and Northern Sámi, a concise overview of derivation ordered after semantic roles, and the main means of compounding. The text accompanying the paradigms aims at showing the mechanisms behind the changes in each case, and also highlights many of the numerous deviations from the agglutinative form-meaning correspondence (such as person marker alternations depending on tense/mood markers, case-sensitive ordering of possessive suffixes, etc.).

Syntax is the shortest chapter of SLI, thus reflecting the situation within Sámi linguistics. We get the main word order of Southern Sámi (SOV) and of the other Sámi languages (SVO), but we are not informed that the SOV pattern expands to SAOV and not SOVA when the main verb is accompanied with auxiliary verbs (modals, negation, etc.). The Sámi languages show the same Wackernagel position for clitics as their Finnic neighbours, a fact that can be read out of the examples but is not mentioned in the text. The non-Finnic agreement between finite verb and E-subject in habitive constructions must also be deduced from the examples, but the case alternation in the possessor (genitive in Southern Sámi and locative elsewhere) is discussed. The chapter closes with some really interesting facts about binding in Sámi.

The first half of the chapter Lexicon and semantics presents a nice overview of the lexicalization of some fundamental semantic notions. In the second half comes an analysis of the basic Sámi vocabulary, ordered first according to origin (native: Uralic, Finno-Ugric, Finno-Permic, etc. and borrowed: Indo-European, Aryan, Balto-Slavic, etc.) and then according to semantic group (society, material culture, etc.). The result is a very welcome and sober picture of both the Sámi vocabulary in itself, but also of the way the social relations of its speakers have changed during the millennia. For each entry we are given the Northern Sámi form and an English translation, but I miss the reconstructed word-form, the corresponding borrowed form (in the case of loan words), and its descendant in one of the daughters of the source language, and reference to the relevant etymological literature (even the main references, Janhunen 1982 and Sammallahti 1988 are missing from the literature list).

The Literature list contains 89 entries, and is far too short for a standard reference work as SLI (it could easily have been quadrupled). Moreover, SLI does not link the material it presents to the primary literature in any systematic way, neither by references in the running text nor by a commented reading list following each chapter. This is regrettable, because it would be of utmost importance to Sámi linguistics if this book were to function as a bridge to the literature rather than as a substitution for it. As it is, we get the impression that the author climbs the tree of knowledge, gives us some fruits, but pulls up the ladder behind him. In the introduction, I would have liked to see explicit references to the Sámi bibliographies (e.g. to Løøv & Akselsen 1989), and to the scientific and practical dictionaries and the standard grammars (this would also have revealed the omission of Kert 1971 and Spiik 1989), and similar summaries at the end of each chapter. By no means does the author treat himself milder than his colleagues, I would have liked to see at least twice as many entries under "Sammallahti".

The text samples contain short texts of 10 different Sámi languages, in orthographic, phonemic and phonetic (Finno-Ugric Transcription) versions, with free translation and a glossary for each text. The texts are thus well-suited for introductory courses. The book contains 7 Appendices, a Finno-Ugric Transcription legend very well organized according to place and manner of articulation, the Swadesh 100-word List, and an overview of the development of the Vowels, Consonants, Declension and Conjugation through a multiple of stages from Proto-Finno-Sámic to Northern Sámi. The author has access to a rich research tradition, and presents it in a clear way. The 845 Most Common North Saami Words and their etymological background makes up an embryonic version of a much needed Sámi etymological dictionary. The fact that the 845 words are presented as the most common ones may indicate that author has made a frequency list, unfortunately no such list is presented (with a dense typography it would have occupied only a couple of pages).

The book is in a large A4 format, but rather than pressing as much text as possible into each page (as the present reader often would have preferred) the space is filled with an exceptionally large font size (the exact size is not revealed, but it looks like 16 point), a solution that will be welcomed by weak-sighted readers.

As a general summary, SLI is a good book. It gives us a useful collection of data from modern Sámi and reconstructed Proto Sámi forms, and shows the steps that that the linguists have taken to get from the former to the latter. It fills a gap in the linguistic literature, and will, despite is rather minimalist quotation practice, undoubtedly serve as a starting point both for students of Sámi and for general linguists and Scandinavianists interested in the Sámi languages.


Løøv, Anders & Eva Akselsen 1989: Sámi bibliografia : chállosat Norggas 1945-1987 = Samisk bibliografi : utgivelser i Norge 1945-1987. Trondheim : Universitetsbiblioteket i Trondheim.

Kert, G.M 1971: Saamskij jazyk (kil'dinskij dialekt). Leningrad: Izdatel'stvo "Nauka".

Spiik, Nils Eric 1989: Lulesamisk grammatik. Luleå: Sameskolstyrelsen

Bergsland 1946: Røroslappisk grammatikk, Institutt for sammenliknende kultur-forskning, Oslo.

Janhunen, Juha 1981: Uralilaisen kantakielen sanastosta (Über den Wortschatz des Protouralischen. Journal de la Société Finno-Ougrienne 77.

Sammallahti, Pekka 1988: Historical Phonology of the Uralic Languages. D.Sinor (ed): The Uralic Languages. Description, History and Foreign Influences. Leiden-New York-København-Köln: E.J.Brill.