Proto-Samic language

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

The Proto-Samic language is the hypothetical, reconstructed common ancestor of the Samic languages. It is a descendant of the Proto-Uralic language.

Homeland and expansion[edit]

Although the current Sami languages are spoken much further to the north and west, Proto-Samic was likely spoken in the area of modern-day Southwestern Finland around the first few centuries CE. The ancestors of the modern Sami people likely still spoke non-Uralic, "Paleoeuropean" languages at this point. This situation can be traced in placenames as well as through the analysis of loanwords from Germanic, Baltic and Finnic. Evidence also can be found for the existence of language varieties closely related to but likely distinct from Samic proper having been spoken further east, with a limit around Lake Beloye.

Separation of the main branches (West Samic and East Samic) is also likely to have occurred in southern Finland, with these later independently spreading north into Sápmi. The exact routes of this are not clear: it is possible Western Sami entered Scandinavia across Kvarken rather than via land. Concurrently, Finnic language varieties that would eventually end up becoming modern-day Finnish and Karelian were being adopted in the southern end of the Proto-Samic area, likely in connection with the introduction of agriculture, a process that continued until the 19th century, leading to the extirpation of original Samic languages in Karelia and all but northernmost Finland.



The Proto-Samic consonant inventory is mostly faithfully retained from Proto-Uralic, and is considerably smaller than what is typically found in modern Sami languages. There were 16 contrastive consonants, most of which could however occur both short and geminate:

Bilabial Dental Alveolar Palatal(ized) Velar
Stops and
*p /p/
*pp /ʰpː/
*t /t̪/
*tt /ʰt̪ː/
*c /t͡s/
*cc /ʰt͡sː/
*ćć /ʰt͡ɕː/
*k /k/
*kk /ʰkː/
Nasals *m /m/
*mm /mː/
*n /n̪/
*nn /n̪ː/
/ɲ/ /ŋ/
Fricatives /ð/ *s /s/
*ss /sː/
*śś /ɕː/
Approximants *v /ʋ/
*vv /ʋː/
*l /l/
*ll /lː/
*j /j/
*jj /jː/
Trill *r /r/
*rr /rː/

A detailed system of allophony is however reconstructible, in particular the system of consonant gradation. Gradation in Proto-Samic applied to all intervocalic single consonants as well as all consonant clusters. The weak grade occurred if the following syllable was closed, the strong grade if it was open. This difference was originally probably realized as length:

  • A single consonant was short in the weak grade, e.g. [s], half-long in the strong grade [sˑ]
  • A geminate consonant was long [sː] in the weak grade, overlong [sːː] in the strong grade
  • A consonant cluster had a short 1st member in the weak grade, e.g. [sm], a half-long one in the strong grade, [sˑm]

After the phonematization of gradation due to loss of word-final sounds, Samic varieties could be left with as many as four different contrastive degrees of consonant length. This has only been attested in some dialects of Ume Sami, while mergers (most typically between the half-long and the mid-long grade) and other sound developments have left only two or three degrees occurring elsewhere.

Independently of gradation, stop and affricate consonants were also split in three main allophones with respect to phonation:

  • Plain voiceless [p], [t], [ts] etc, occurred word-initially, adjacent to other voiceless consonants, and in the strong grade of single intervocalic consonants
  • Lax voiceless [b̥], [d̥], [d̥z̥] etc, occurred between voiced sounds
  • Preaspirated [ʰpː], [ʰtː], [ʰtsː] etc, occurred in geminates

The spirant also had two allophones, voiceless [θ] occurring word-initially and syllable-finally, and voiced [ð] elsewhere.


An asymmetric system of four short and five long vowel segments can be reconstructed.

  • Short *i, *ë [ɤ], *o, *u
  • Long *ie, *ea, *ā [aː], *oa, *uo

The four diphthongs [ie ea oa uo] only occurred in stressed (initial) syllables, in complementary distribution to two long vowels *ē *ō [eː oː] occurring in unstressed (non-initial) syllables.



From Proto-Uralic[edit]

Early on, Proto-Uralic and had merged with *a and *i respectively, leaving six basic vowels *i *e *ä [æ] *a [ɑ] *o *u in the first syllable in Pre-Samic. The former of these changes was still shared with the closest relatives of Samic, the Finnic and Mordvinic languages. In subsequent syllables, pre-Samic inherited two vowel qualities from Proto-Uralic, transcribed here as *a and . The Samic languages show no evidence for original vowel harmony. A third quality *o also occurred, whose origin is unclear but which is frequently also found in Finnic.

A few systemic changes in the consonant inventory likely also occurred at an early date:

  • The PU "palatal spirant" *δ́ coincided with plain , a development also shared with Finnic and Mordvinic.
  • The PU postalveolars *č, *š became alveolars *c, *s.
  • Before a vowel, the PU back fricatives *ś, *x were fortified to the corresponding stops *ć, *k. Any vowel preceding former *x was lengthened.

This approximate point of Pre-Samic also marks the introduction of the oldest Western Indo-European loanwords from Baltic and Germanic. Loans were also acquired from the southern relative Finnic, whose by-then still retained was substituted with . Likely contemporary to these were furthermore the oldest loanwords adapted from extinct Paleo-European languages during the northwestward expansion of Pre-Samic. Prime suspects for words of this origin include replacements of Uralic core vocabulary, or words that display consonant clusters that cannot derive from either PU or any known Indo-European source. A number of the later type can be found in the Finnic languages as well.


  • PU *śečä → preS *ćeca → PS *ćeacē "uncle"
  • PU *δ́ümä → preS *δima → PS *δëmē "glue"
  • PU *kënta → preS *kanto(j) → PS *kuontōj "tree stump"
  • PU *mexə- → preS *mēkə- → PS *miekë- "to sell"
  • Baltic *šalna → preS *salna → PS *suolnē "frost"
  • Germanic *raudaz "red" → preS *rawta → PS *ruovtē "iron"
  • Germanic *xansa- → preS *kansa → PS *kuossē "guest"
  • Finnic *pošja → preS *pośja → PS *poaśśē "rear"
  • substrate? → preS *keðka → PS *keaðkē "rock", in place of Uralic *kiwə
  • substrate? → preS *morə or *marə → PS *muorë "wood", in place of Uralic *puwə or *puxə
  • substrate? → preS *ašŋVn → PS *vuosŋōn "perch" (cf. Finnish ahven)
  • substrate? → preS *šewšəm → PS *sëvsëm "feather" (cf. Finnish höyhen)

Later consonant changes mostly involved the genesis of the consonant gradation system, but also the simplification of various consonant clusters, chiefly in loanwords.

  • Geminate fricatives *ss, *śś were introduced in certain loanwords.
  • *ŋ was denasalized before a heterorganic obstruent.
    • PU *joŋsə → PS *juoksë "bow"
    • PU *oŋtə → PS *vuovtë "cavity"

Vowel shift[edit]

A fairly late but major development within Samic was a complete upheaval of the vowel system, which has been compared in scope to the Great Vowel Shift of English.

  1. A few long vowels had been originally introduced when *x was lost. There may have been other sources.
  2. The short close vowels *i *u were lowered to more open values *ɪ *ʊ. The PU non-close stem vowel also became .
  3. Original *e was generally assimilated to before a following . (There are irregular examples where a similar assimilation *o seems to have also occurred.)
  4. All other original non-close vowels were lengthened: *e *ä *a *o*ē *ǟ *ā *ō.
  5. Next, *ɪ *ʊ became new short mid vowels *e *o.
    • In initial syllables, *ē *ǟ *ō were split depending on the following vowel. Before *ā *ō, these became *ɛ̄ *ā *ɔ̄ respectively. Before *e, the mid vowels remained, while was raised to .
    • in initial syllables became in all cases.
    • In subsequent syllables became , unless followed by *e in a third of later syllable. *āj became . normally remained, but was raised to (later *u) if followed by *e.
    • In all positions, short *e was velarized to .
    • In all positions, long close *ī *ū were shortened to *i *u.
    • In the initial syllable, all long mid vowels were diphthongized: *ē *ɛ̄ *ɔ̄ *ō*ie *ea *oa *uo. Word-initially, *ē *ō gained an epenthetic glide to yield *jie *vuo.

The effects of the vowel shift can be illustrated by the following comparison between Northern Sami, and Finnish, known for retaining vowel values very close to Proto-Uralic. All word pairs correspond to each other regularly:

Northern Sami Finnish meaning
namma nimi 'name'
varra veri 'blood'
giehta käsi 'hand'
buolva polvi 'knee'
eallit elää 'to live'
ájbmi äimä 'large needle'
guolli kala 'fish'
guollán kalani 'my fish'
oalgi olka 'shoulder'
mođđi muta 'mud'

Towards the modern Sami languages[edit]

The following changes serve to define a number of subgroups within Samic:

  • Southwestern Samic (South Sami + Ume Sami)
    • Stressed *i *u become /ij uv/ in open syllables
    • Stressed *ë *o become /i u/ in open syllables (in Ume Sami only if the next vowel is not )
    • Single consonants following short stressed syllables have been geminated
  • Northwestern Samic proper (Pite Sami + Lule Sami)
    • 2nd syllable is assimilated to /o/ after 1st syllable /o/
    • The distinction between single and geminate stops (*p *pp etc.) is neutralized after the liquids /l/, /r/
  • Mainland East Samic (Inari Sami + Skolt Sami + Akkala Sami)
    • *s *ś *c *ć *k are geminated even in the weak grade
    • Unstressed *u has merged with *ɔ̄
    • Skolt + Akkala:
      • Final unstressed vowels have been lost
      • Unstressed *ɔ̄ has merged with
      • Stressed *i *u may be reflected as mid vowels /e o/ under certain conditions
  • Peninsular East Samic (Kildin Sami + Ter Sami)
    • Between unstressed syllables, *t is lost after a consonant

Several innovations, however, are much less localized, having spread over a wide area in Samic. Frequently but not always these reflect the division between the Western (South thru North) and Eastern (Inari thru Ter) Samic languages.

Feature South Ume Pite Lule North Inari Skolt Akkala Kildin Ter Notes
i, e, a a, o a (o, e) a ë
*θ- h t
*kC kC vC vC (ɣC) vC Clusters *kt, *kc, *kć, *ks, *kś
*śC jhC jhC (śC) śC Clusters *śn, *śt, *śk
*ćC ćC śC ćC (śC) ćC Clusters *ck, *ćk, *ćm
*ŋv *vg̊ vv
*ŋm *mː → ʔm ʔm (mː) vm
*Nː ʔN ʔN (Nː)
*Nˑ (ʔN) ʔN ʔN (Nː)
*PN N ʔN ʔN (Nː) Clusters *[b̥m], *[d̥n]
*rN rN rhN rʔN, rhN rN
*NB BB BB NB Homorganic clusters *[mb̥], *[nd̥], *[nd̥z], *[nd̥ʑ], *[ŋg̊]
*mB b̥B (mB) b̥B b̥B mB Heterorganic clusters *[md̥], *[md̥ʑ], *[mg̊]
*NN BN (NN) BN NN Heterorganic clusters *mn, *nm
*Pˑ ʰPː
*Cˑ Cː (Cˑ)

Reflexes in parentheses are retentions found in certain subdialects. In particular, in the coastal dialects of North Sami (known as Sea Sami), several archaisms have been attested, including a lack of pre-stopping of geminate nasals, a lack of -vocalization, and a reflex /e/ of in certain positions.

Assimilation of nasal+stop clusters in Inari and Skolt Sami is on the basis of loanwords known to have occurred later in Inari and Skolt Sami than in the Western Sami languages.


  • Ante, Aikio (2004). "An Essay on Substrate Studies and the Origin of Saami". Mémoires de la Société Neophilologue de Helsinki 63. 
  • Ante, Aikio (2006). "On Germanic-Saami contacts and Saami prehistory". Journal de la Société Finno-Ougrienne 91: 9–55. 
  • Korhonen, Mikko (1981). Johdatus lapin kielen historiaan. Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seuran toimituksia (in Finnish) 370. 
  • Lehtiranta, Juhani (1989). Yhteissaamelainen sanasto. Mémoires de la Société Finno-Ougrienne 200. 
  • Sammallahti, Pekka (1998). The Saami Languages: An Introduction. Davvi Girji. 

External links[edit]