Reporter 460, 4 December 2000

It’s not Finnish and Diane hopes it’s not the end for a threatened Lapland language

Dr Diane Nelson, of the Department of Linguistics and Phonetics, is hoping her fieldwork in Finnish Lapland will help to save one of the world’s many threatened languages. Diane says there are now as few as 400 speakers of Inari Sami. She is now compiling the first reference grammar of the language from the dozens of recordings made during her visit

Up to 90 per cent of the world’s 6,000 or so languages will have disappeared by the end of the next century, linguists fear.

About half the languages spoken around the globe today are already dying, says Dr Diane Nelson.

Diane with some of the recordings she made of the Inari Sami language during her fieldwork studies in northen Finland

"Many languages are spoken only by small numbers of older people who no longer pass on the language to younger generations. When languages die, so do stories, songs, jokes, and local traditions."

Dr Nelson adds that many educational systems have been designed to deliberately drive minority languages out of use.

Under Stalin, for example, ethnic minority children were sent to "Russian-only" summer camps. This was an attempt to create national unity through language. And in Alaska some Christian missionaries arrived with the aim of stamping out pagan languages along with pagan religions.

Such policies have resulted in the eradication or endangerment of hundreds of tongues, as well as causing countless personal tragedies.

Diane Nelson, left, with a poster of traditional Sami weaving patterns

Many young people in endangered language communities and their parents may see giving up their minority language as a key to financial and political success, explains Dr Nelson. For these reasons, linguists talk of ‘language murder and language suicide.’

But for many indigenous minority groups, the preservation of language is seen as a crucial part of preserving cultural heritage against globalisation.

Language death has become a biodiversity issue, says Dr Nelson. With mass extinction looming, documentation of these rapidly disappearing tongues by trained linguists is urgently needed, she adds.

Dr Nelson, and her colleague Ida Toivonen, of Stanford University, secured a research grant from the British Academy to spend part of last summer doing fieldwork on Inari Sami, a language spoken nowadays by as few as 400 indigenous people in Finnish Lapland.

"Preservation of a language relies in part on an accurate description of the grammar and sound system for use by linguists and language teachers."

Dr Nelson and her friend are now in the process of collating dozens of tapes of spoken sentences, dialogues, songs and stories in order to compile the first reference grammar of the language.

Although the relationship between language and "world view" is still an issue of debate there are some words and expressions in Inari Sami that reflect the unique lifestyle of the Sami people.

For example, the Samis have a different verb to describe people running and reindeer running. There are also different words for male and female reindeer, white reindeer (a sacred animal to the Samis), and reindeer pulling a sled, and different words for older and younger siblings; there is also a special word that means "a hole in the ice".

"The Sami informants we consulted could not think of a word that meant ‘embarrassed’ or ‘ashamed’," said Dr Nelson.

Traditionally reindeer herders, foresters and farmers, the Inari Sami now live scattered across a wide area.

Dr Nelson’s fieldwork involved home visits to native speakers living in remote villages or farms in the Arctic birch forest that covers northern Finland.

A sauna in one of the remote villages in northern Finland visited by Diane

Anna, one of the Sami, lives on the shore of a lake only a few miles from the Russian border. Her farmhouse and outdoor sauna building are covered with traditional wooden tools used for fishing and woodworking. Her home can be reached on foot only after a half-mile walk through the forest.

The work of the linguists complements local language preservation efforts in schools and community centres, including a day immersion school for young members of the Inari Sami community. The Inari Samis hope to match the linguistic success of their neighbours, the Northern Samis, who have around 20,000 native speakers and Northern Sami language teaching programs in local schools.

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