Northern Sami language

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Northern Sami
Region Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia
Native speakers
21,000  (1992)[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]
Northern Sami is 5 on this map.
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters.
Trilingual border sign (Finnish, Swedish and Northern Sami) on the E8 road at the border between Norway and Finland, at Kilpisjärvi, Finland

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]


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.


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[6]
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).[6] 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/).[6]

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.[6]


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.[7] 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


Northern Sami has 7 cases in the singular. The genitive and accusative are always identical.

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

There is no singular/plural distinction in the essive, so that for example mánnán is interpreted as either "as a child" or "as children".


The personal pronouns have three numbers: singular, dual, and plural. 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



Northern Sami verbs conjugate for three grammatical persons:

  • first person
  • second person
  • third person


Northern Sami has 4 grammatical moods:

Grammatical number[edit]

Northern Sami verbs conjugate for three grammatical numbers:


Northern Sami has 2 simple tenses:

and 2 compound tenses:

Verbal nouns[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 (17th ed., 2013)
  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 2.2. 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. ^ a b c d Bals, Berit Anne; Odden, David; Rice, Curt (2005). "Topics in North Saami Phonology". Retrieved 2014-11-08. 
  7. ^ Svonni, E Mikael (1984). Sámegiel-ruoŧagiel skuvlasátnelistu. Sámiskuvlastivra. III. ISBN 91-7716-008-8. 

External links[edit]