Northern Sami

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Northern Sami
Region Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia
Native speakers
ca. 25,000  (1992–2013)[1]
Latin (Northern Sami alphabet)
Northern Sami Braille
Official status
Recognised minority
language in
Finland; Norway; Sweden[2]
Language codes
ISO 639-1 se
ISO 639-2 sme
ISO 639-3 sme
Glottolog nort2671[3]
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters.

Northern or North Sami (davvisámegiella; disapproved exonym Lappish or Lapp) is the most widely spoken of all Sami languages. The speaking area of Northern Sami covers the northern parts of Norway, Sweden and Finland. The number of Northern Sami speakers is estimated to be somewhere between 15,000 and 25,000. About 2,000 of these live in Finland[4] and between 5,000 and 6,000 in Sweden.[5]


A page from the 1638 edition of Svenske och Lappeske ABC Book with the Lord's Prayer in what is believed to be Northern Sami

Among the first printed Sami texts is Svenske och Lappeske ABC Book ("Swedish and Lappish ABC book"), written in Swedish and what is likely a form of Northern Sami. It was published in two editions in 1638 and 1640 and includes 30 pages of prayers and confessions of Protestant faith. It has been described as the first book "with a regular Sami language form".[6]

Northern Sami was first described by Knud Leem (En lappisk Grammatica efter den Dialect, som bruges af Field-Lapperne udi Porsanger-Fiorden) in 1748 and in dictionaries in 1752 and 1768. One of Leem's fellow grammaticians was Anders Porsanger, who studied at the Trondheim Cathedral School and other schools, but who was unable to publish his work on Sami due to racist attitudes at the time. Unfortunately, the majority of his work has disappeared.


The roots of the current orthography for Northern Sami were laid by Rasmus Rask who, after discussions with Nils Vibe Stockfleth, published Ræsonneret lappisk sproglære efter den sprogart, som bruges af fjældlapperne i Porsangerfjorden i Finmarken. En omarbejdelse af Prof. Knud Leems Lappiske grammatica in 1832. Rask felt that the orthography should be based on the principle of one sound–one letter. All of the orthographies that have been used for Northern Sami trace their roots back to Rask's system, unlike the orthographies used for Lule and Southern Sami, which are mainly based on the orthographical conventions of Swedish and Norwegian. Following in the tradition of Rask meant that diacritics were used with some consonants (č, đ, ŋ, š, ŧ and ž), which caused data-processing problems before Unicode was introduced. Both Stockfleth and J.A. Friis went on to publish grammar books and dictionaries for Sami. It can be said that Northern Sami was better described than Norwegian was before Ivar Aasen published his grammar on Norwegian.


Northern Sami was and is used in three countries, each of which used its own orthography for years. Friis' orthography was used when work on translating the Bible into Northern Sami commenced, in the first Sami newspaper called Saǥai Muittalægje, and in the Finnemisjonen's own newspaper Nuorttanaste. The groundwork for Northern Sami lexicography was laid by Konrad Nielsen who used an orthography of his own creation in his dictionary Lappisk ordbok. Starting in 1948, the orthographies used in Norway and Sweden were combined into a single Bergsland-Ruong orthography. It was not greatly used in Norway. In addition, the authorities there instituted a policy that prohibited Sami from being used in practice.

In Sweden, classes were taught in Sami in the Sami schools, as the policy of Lapp ska vara lapp (Sami should be a Sami) was applied to those reindeer herders with the intention of keeping them separated from larger society. In 1979, an official orthography for Northern Sami was adopted for use in Norway, Sweden and Finland.


Area number 5 illustrates the approximate distribution of Northern Sami in northern Scandinavia.
Trilingual border sign (Finnish, Swedish and Northern Sami) on the E8 road at the border between Norway and Finland, at Kilpisjärvi, Finland

The mass mobilization during the Alta controversy as well as a more tolerant political environment caused a change to the Norwegian policy of assimilation during the last decades of the twentieth century. In Norway, Northern Sami is currently an official language of two counties (Finnmark and Troms) and six municipalities (Kautokeino, Karasjok, Nesseby, Tana, Porsanger and Gáivuotna (Kåfjord)). Sami born before 1977 have never learned to write Sami according to the currently used orthography in school, so it is only in recent years that there have been Sami capable of writing their own language for various administrative positions.



The consonant inventory of Northern Sami is large, consisting of three different series of plosives/affricates (voiceless, voiced and preaspirated) and two series of nasals (plain and glottalized). In addition, length (gemination) is contrastive for almost all consonants.

Northern Sami consonants[7]
Labial Dental Alveolar Palatal Velar
Nasal plain m n ɲ ŋ
glottalized ʔm ʔn ʔɲ
Plosive /
voiceless p t t͡s t͡ʃ k
voiced b d d͡z d͡ʒ ɡ
preaspirated ʰp ʰt ʰt͡s ʰt͡ʃ ʰk
Fricative f ð s ʃ h
Trill r
Approximant central ʋ j
lateral l ʎ
  • /ʋ/ is realised as a labiodental fricative [v] in the syllable onset (before a vowel), and as bilabial [β] or [w] in the syllable coda (before a consonant).[7] Although [v] is a fricative, it behaves phonologically like an approximant, in particular /j/.

All consonants can be geminated (held longer), except for /h/. This distinction is phonemically contrastive and widely productive as a grammatical feature. Geminated glottalized nasals are realised with the glottalization in between the two consonants (/mʔm/, /nʔn/, /ɲʔɲ/). In geminated preaspirated consonants, it is the preaspiration that lengthens rather than the occlusion (/hːp/, /hːt/, /hːts/, /hːtʃ/, /hːk/).[7]

Except for glottalized or preaspirated consonants, /h/, /j/ or /ʎ/, all consonants also possess a third "overlong" length. Overlong consonants are somewhat longer still than regular long consonants. However, vowels are shortened by a following overlong consonant, so it is unclear whether the consonant or the vowel length is contrastive. Overlong consonants are not indicated in the standard orthography, but are commonly denoted with an apostrophe between the two consonant letters (p'p, m'm etc.) in reference works when the distinction is relevant.[7]


Front Back
Unrounded Rounded Unrounded Rounded
Close i [i] u [u]
Mid e [e] o [o]
Open á [a] a [ɑ]


Zero stress can be said to be a feature of conjunctions, postpositions, particles, and monosyllabic pronouns.


Northern Sami is an SVO language.


Northern Sami has a long orthographic history, which has had no fewer than 9 Latin alphabets. The most recent alphabet was approved in 1979 and last modified in 1985:

Sami Letter's Name IPA English Approximation
A a a /ɑ/ spa
Á á á /a/ chai
B b be /b/ bat
C c ce /ts/ lets
Č č če /tʃ/ chew
D d de /d/ do
Đ đ đe /ð/ this
E e e /e/ sleigh
F f áf /f/ fun
G g ge /ɡ/ go
H h ho /h/ help
I i i /i/ me
J j je /j/ yes
K k ko /k/ cat
L l ál /l/ lip
M m ám /m/ myth
N n án /n/ no
Ŋ ŋ áŋ /ŋ/ sing
O o o /o/ go
P p pe /p/ park
R r ár /r/ (trilled) rat
S s ás /s/ sip
Š š áš /ʃ/ shed
T t te /t/ told
Ŧ ŧ ŧe /θ/ thick
U u u /u/ do
V v ve /v/ vex
Z z ez /dz/ rods
Ž ž /dʒ/ joke

An acute accent was placed over the corresponding Latin letter to represent the letters particular to Northern Sami (Áá Čč Đđ Ŋŋ Šš Ŧŧ Žž) when typing when there was no way of entering these letters correctly otherwise.[8] These substitutions are still found in books printed after the common orthography was adopted due to system limitations when typing.

Until the official orthography currently in use was adopted in 1979, each country had its own, slightly different standard, so it is quite possible to come across older books that are difficult to understand for people unacquainted with the orthography:

  1. Maanat leät poahtan skuvllai.
  2. Mánát leat boahtán skuvlii.

(The children have come to school.)

The first sentence is from Antti Outakoski's Samekiela kiellaoahpa from 1950; the second one is how it would be written according to the current orthography.


Northern Sami can be divided into four major dialect groups: Torne, East Finnmark, West Finnmark (written standard) and Sea Sami.


Northern Sami is an agglutinative, highly inflected language that shares many grammatical features with the other Uralic languages. Sami has also developed considerably into the direction of fusional and inflected morphology, much like Estonian to which it is distantly related. Therefore, morphemes are marked not only by suffixes but also by morphophonological modifications to the root. Of the various morphophonological alterations, the most important and complex is the system of consonant gradation.

Consonant gradation[edit]

Consonant gradation is a pattern of alternations between pairs of consonants that appears in the inflection of words. The system of consonant gradation in Northern Sami is complex, especially compared to that found in the Finnic languages. A word stem can appear in two grades: the strong grade and the weak grade. Historically, the weak grade appeared when the syllable in which the consonant appeared was closed (ended in another consonant), but the loss of certain vowels or consonants have obscured this in Northern Sami and it is now a more-or-less opaque process.

Consonants show a three-level gradation pattern, with higher level being "stronger" in some sense. A given word can alternate either between level 3 in the strong grade and level 2 in the weak grade, or between level 2 in the strong grade and level 1 in the weak grade. The level of a consonant depends on how it interacts with the preceding vowel: a vowel is always shortened when a level 3 consonant follows. Thus, all consonant clusters (combinations of different consonants) have level 3/2 gradation, only non-clusters can be level 1.


The full three-level patterns apply to short, long and overlong consonants of any type, except for long voiced/voiceless occlusives.

Level 2 → level 1 alternations:

  • Short preaspirated occlusives in the strong grade become short voiced in the weak grade. Note however that ht gradates to the fricative đ rather than the plosive d.
  • Short glottalized nasals in the strong grade become short plain nasals in the weak grade.
  • Long non-occlusive non-glottalized consonants in the strong grade become short in the weak grade.

Level 3 → level 2 alternations:

  • Long preaspirated occlusives in the strong grade become short preaspirated in the weak grade.
  • Long glottalized nasals in the strong grade become short glottalized nasals in the weak grade.
  • Overlong non-occlusive non-glottalized consonants in the strong grade become long in the weak grade.

Note that, although lj is phonemically a single consonant, it counts as a cluster in terms of syllable structure and therefore only has level 3/2 gradation.

Level 3 Level 2 Level 1
hpp hp b
htt ht đ
hcc hc z
hčč ž
hkk hk g
bm pm m
dn tn n
dnj tnj nj
Overl. Long Short
m'm mm m
n'n nn n
n'nj nnj nj
ŋ'ŋ ŋŋ ŋ
f'f ff f
đ'đ đđ đ
s's ss s
š'š šš š
ŧ'ŧ ŧŧ ŧ
l'l ll l
r'r rr r
v'v vv v
llj lj

Long voiced/voiceless occlusives[edit]

Long voiced occlusives alternate with long voiceless occlusives. These behave as clusters, and are therefore level 3/2 in terms of weight.

Level 3 Level 2
bb pp
dd tt
zz cc
žž čč
gg kk

An exception here is dj, which has three levels.

Level 3 Level 2 Level 1
ddj dj j

Clusters ending with glottalized nasal[edit]

Clusters ending with glottalized nasals can behave in two ways. If the first member of the cluster is r, then the nasal changes from long glottalized to short glottalized. In other cases, the nasal changes to long plain.

Level 3 Level 2
rbm rpm
rdn rtn
rdnj rtnj
rgŋ rkŋ
*bm *mm
*dn *nn
*dnj *nnj
*gŋ *ŋŋ

Other clusters[edit]

All other clusters have doubling of the final consonant of the cluster in the weak grade. In clusters beginning with k, the k itself also changes to v.

Level 3 Level 2
+ short
+ long
*b *bb
*c *cc
*d *dd
*f *ff
*g *gg
*hl *hll
*hm *hmm
*hn *hnn
*j *jj
*k *kk
*l *ll
*p *pp
*r *rr
*s *ss
*t *tt
*v *vv
*z *zz
k + short v + long
kt vtt
kc vcc
ks vss
kst vstt

Inflection types[edit]

All inflected words, whether nouns, adjectives or verbs, can be divided into three main inflectional classes. The division is based on whether there is an even or odd number of syllables from the last stressed syllable to the end of the word.

  • Words with even inflection (bárrastávvalsánit, also called "vowel stems") have an even number of syllables from the last stressed syllable of the stem; usually two, but sometimes also four.
  • Words with odd inflection (bárahisstávvalsánit, also called "consonant stems") have an odd number of syllables from the last stressed syllable of the stem; usually three, but very rarely one or five.
  • Words with contracted inflection (?) have an even number of syllables from the last stressed syllable of the stem, but have the consonant gradation pattern of odd-inflection words. If the gradation has three levels, the strong grade is always level 3.

For nouns and adjectives, the stem is determined from the accusative/genitive singular rather than the nominative, as the latter often drops the final vowel. For verbs, the infinitive is used.

Words with even and contracted inflection can be divided further, based on the final vowel of the stem. For even-inflected words, this vowel is most commonly a, i or u, while for contracted words it is mostly á, e or o. Words with odd inflection always have the same stem-final vowel, a.


Nouns inflect in singular (ovttaidlohku) and plural (máŋggaidlohku), and also for one of 7 cases. The following table shows the general endings; the actual forms can differ based on consonant gradation and the inflection type of the word.

Case Singular
Nominative (nominatiiva) -∅ -t Subject
Accusative (akkusatiiva) -∅ -id Object
Genitive (genitiiva) -∅ -id Possession, relation
Illative (illatiiva) -i -ide, -idda Motion towards/onto/into
Locative (lokatiiva) -s -in Being at/on/in, motion from/off/out of
Comitative (komitatiiva) -in -iguin With, in company of, by means of
Essive (essiiva) -n, -in As, in the role of, under condition of (when)

The accusative and genitive are always identical. There is no singular/plural distinction in the essive, so that for example mánnán is interpreted as either "as a child" or "as children".

Nouns with even inflection[edit]

Nouns with even inflection have consonant gradation of the last consonant in the stem. The strong grade appears in the nominative, illative and essive singular, while the weak grade appears in the remaining forms.

giehta "hand"
Stem in -a-
oaivi "head"
Stem in -i-
ruoktu "home"
Stem in -u-
Case Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative giehta gieđat oaivi oaivvit ruoktu ruovttut
Accusative gieđa gieđaid oaivvi oivviid ruovttu ruovttuid
Genitive gieđa gieđaid oaivvi, oaivve oivviid ruovttu, ruovtto ruovttuid
Illative gihtii gieđaide oaivái oivviide ruktui ruovttuide
Locative gieđas gieđain oaivvis oivviin ruovttus ruovttuin
Comitative gieđain gieđaiguin oivviin oivviiguin ruovttuin ruovttuiguin
Essive giehtan oaivin ruoktun

Nouns with odd inflection[edit]

Nouns with odd inflection have consonant gradation. The weak grade appears in the nominative and essive singular, while the strong grade appears in the remaining forms. Some nouns also have other alternations in the stem of the strong grade, such as changes of i to á, u to o, or addition of a consonant.

ganjal "tear (eye)" lávlla "song"
Extra consonant
mielddus "copy"
Vowel change
+ monophtongization
Case Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative ganjal gatnjalat lávlla lávlagat mielddus mildosat
Accusative gatnjala gatnjaliid lávlaga lávlagiid mildosa mildosiid
Genitive gatnjala gatnjaliid lávlaga lávlagiid mildosa mildosiid
Illative gatnjalii gatnjaliidda lávlagii lávlagiidda mildosii mildosiidda
Locative gatnjalis gatnjaliin lávlagis lávlagiin mildosis mildosiin
Comitative gatnjaliin gatnjaliiguin lávlagiin lávlagiiguin mildosiin mildosiiguin
Essive ganjalin lávllan mielddusin

Nouns with contracted inflection[edit]

Nouns with contracted inflection have consonant gradation. The pattern follows that of odd-inflection nouns, with the weak grade in the nominative and essive singular, and the strong grade in the remainder. If the weak grade is level 1, the strong grade will be level 3. The final syllable is generally altered along with the gradation as well.

čeavrris "otter"
Stem in -á-
boazu "reindeer"
Stem in -o-
Case Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative čeavrris čeavrát boazu bohccot
Accusative čeavrá čeavráid bohcco bohccuid
Genitive čeavrá čeavráid bohcco bohccuid
Illative čeavrái čeavráide bohccui bohccuide
Locative čeavrás čeavráin bohccos bohccuin
Comitative čeavráin čeavráiguin bohccuin bohccuiguin
Essive čeavrrisin boazun


Adjectives inflect the same as nouns do, and have the same cases and inflection types.

Attributive form[edit]

Adjectives also have an additional form, the attributive form (attribuhttahápmi). This form is used when the adjective is used attributively, where it precedes the noun. The attributive does not receive any endings, so it does not have cases or number. Its formation is also unpredictable: for some adjectives, it's formed from the nominative singular by adding an extra ending of some kind to the stem, while for others the attributive is formed by removing part of the stem. It may also be identical to the nominative singular. Some examples:

Nom. singular Stem Attributive Meaning
boaris boarás- (odd) boares old
čáppat čábbá- (contracted) čáppa beautiful
čielggas čielggas- (odd) čielga clear, transparent
čieŋal čieŋal- (odd) čiekŋalis deep
duohta duohta- (even) duohta true
duolvvas duolvas- (odd) duolva dirty
gievra gievra- (even) gievrras strong
guhkki guhkki- (even) guhkes long
mohkkái mohkká- (contracted) mohkkás complicated
ruoksat ruoksad- (odd) rukses red
šealgat šealgad- (odd) šealges shiny
uhcci uhcci- (even) uhca small

Not all adjectives have an attributive form. For example, the frequently-used adjective buorre "good" has only case forms. When there is no attributive form, this doesn't mean it can't be used attributively. Instead, the case and number of the adjective matches that of the noun it is an attribute of (as in for example Finnish).


Personal pronouns[edit]

The personal pronouns inflect irregularly, and also have a third number, the dual (guvttiidlohku). The dual is used to refer to exactly two people. The next two tables contain the personal pronouns in the nominative and genitive/accusative cases, respectively.

Nominative singular dual plural English
1st person nom mun moai mii I
2nd person nom don doai dii you
3rd person nom son soai sii he, she
Genitive/Accusative singular dual plural English
1st person gen mu munno min my
2nd person gen du dudno din your, yours
3rd person gen su sudno sin his, her

The next table demonstrates the declension of a personal pronoun he/she (no gender distinction) in various cases:

  Singular Dual Plural
Nominative son soai sii
Genitive-Accusative su sudno sin
Locative sus sudnos sis
Illative sutnje sudnuide sidjiide
Comitative suinna sudnuin singuin
Essive sunin sudnon sinin


Verbal categories[edit]

The conjugation of Northern Sami verbs resembles that of Finnish. There are three grammatical persons (persovnnat), and three grammatical numbers (logut), singular, dual and plural. There are four or five grammatical moods (vuogit):

  • indicative (indikatiiva or duohtavuohki), indicating real events or statements of fact.
  • imperative (imperatiiva or gohččunvuohki), indicating commands.
  • optative (optatiiva or ávžžuhusvuohki), indicating wishes, things that the speaker would like to see done or realised. The optative is not usually considered a distinct mood, but is generally combined with the imperative.
  • conditional (konditionála or eaktovuohki), indicating conditional or hypothetical statements, like the English subjunctive and the verb "would".
  • potential (potientiála or veadjinvuohki), indicating ability or possibility.

Tense is also distinguished, but only in the indicative. There are two tenses (tempusat):

Finally, there are several non-finite forms.

Verbs with even inflection[edit]

Conditional Potential
1st singular viegan vihken vihkon viegašin, viegašedjen viegažan
2nd singular viegat vihket viega viegašit, viegašedjet viegažat
3rd singular viehká viegai vihkos viegašii viegaža, vieg
1st dual vihke viegaime viehkki viegašeimme viegažetne
2nd dual viehkabeahtti viegaide viehkka viegašeidde viegažeahppi
3rd dual viehkaba viegaiga vihkoska viegašeigga viegažeaba
1st plural viehkat viegaimet vihkot, viehkkut viegašeimmet viegažit, viegažat
2nd plural viehkabehtet viegaidet vihket, viehkkit viegašeiddet viegažehpet
3rd plural vihket vihke vihkoset viegaše, viegašedje viegažit
Connegative viega viehkan viege viegaše vieg
Conditional Potential
1st singular ealán ellen ellon ealášin, ealášedjen eležan
2nd singular ealát ellet ele ealášit, ealášedjet eležat
3rd singular eallá elii ellos ealášii eleža, el
1st dual elle eliime eal'lu ealášeimme eležetne
2nd dual eallibeahtti eliide eal'li ealášeidde eležeahppi
3rd dual ealliba eliiga elloska ealášeigga eležeaba
1st plural eallit eliimet ellot, eal'lut ealášeimmet eležit, eležat
2nd plural eallibehtet eliidet ellet, eal'lit ealášeiddet eležehpet
3rd plural ellet elle elloset ealáše, ealášedje eležit
Connegative ele eallán eale ealáše el
Conditional Potential
1st singular goarun gorron gorron gorošin, gorošedjen gorožan
2nd singular goarut gorrot goro gorošit, gorošedjet gorožat
3rd singular goarru gorui gorros gorošii goroža, gor
1st dual gorro goruime goar'ru gorošeimme gorožetne
2nd dual goarrubeahtti goruide goar'ru gorošeidde gorožeahppi
3rd dual goarruba goruiga gorroska gorošeigga gorožeaba
1st plural goarrut goruimet gorrot, goar'rut gorošeimmet gorožit, gorožat
2nd plural goarrubehtet goruidet gorrot, goar'rut gorošeiddet gorožehpet
3rd plural gorrot gorro gorroset goroše, gorošedje gorožit
Connegative goro gorron goaro goroše gor

Verbs with odd inflection[edit]

Verbs with contracted inflection[edit]

Negative verb[edit]

Northern Sami, like other Uralic languages, has a negative verb that conjugates according to mood (indicative, imperative and optative), person (1st, 2nd and 3rd) and number (singular, dual and plural).

  Ind. pres. Imperative Optative Supinum?
  sg. du. pl.     sg. du. pl.     sg. du. pl.     sg. du. pl.
1 in ean eat 1 - - - 1 allom allu allot 1 aman amame amamet
2 it eahppi ehpet 2 ale alli allet 2 ale alli allet 2 amat amade amadet
3 ii eaba eai 3 - - - 3 allos alloska alloset 3 amas amaska amaset

The negative verb in Northern Sami does not conjugate according to tense.


  1. ^ Northern Sami at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. ^ "To which languages does the Charter apply?". European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. Council of Europe. p. 4. Retrieved 2014-04-03. 
  3. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Northern Sami". Glottolog. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  4. ^ "Samediggi - Saamelaiskäräjät - Sámi language". Retrieved 2008-09-21. 
  5. ^ "The Sami dialects". Retrieved 2008-09-21. 
  6. ^ Original quote: ""med en regelmessig samisk sprogform""; Forsgren, Tuuli (1988) "Samisk kyrko- och undervisningslitteratur i Sverige 1619-1850." Scriptum: Rapportserie utgiven av Forskningsarkivet vid Umeå universitet, ISSN 0284-3161; p. 12[1]
  7. ^ a b c d Bals, Berit Anne; Odden, David; Rice, Curt (2005). "Topics in North Saami Phonology". Retrieved 2014-11-08. 
  8. ^ Svonni, E Mikael (1984). Sámegiel-ruoŧagiel skuvlasátnelistu. Sámiskuvlastivra. III. ISBN 91-7716-008-8. 

External links[edit]