Proto-Samic language

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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/

Stop and affricate consonants were 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.

Consonant gradation[edit]

A detailed system of allophony is reconstructible, known as consonant gradation. Gradation applied to all intervocalic single consonants as well as all consonant clusters. This is unlike gradation in the related Proto-Finnic and its descendants, where it applied only to a subset. The conditioning factor was the same, however: 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]

In sources on Proto-Samic reconstruction, gradation is often assumed but not indicated graphically. In this article, when it is relevant and necessary to show the distinction, the weak grade is denoted with an inverted breve below the consonant(s): s : , č : č̯, tt : t̯t̯, lk : l̯k̯.

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. Most other Samic varieties phonemically merged the weak grade of geminates with the strong grade of single consonants, leaving only three lengths. In some Samic languages, other sound developments have left only two or three degrees occurring elsewhere.


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

Short vowels
Front Back
Close i u
Mid ë [ɤ], o
Long vowels
Front Back
Close-mid ie uo
Mid ē [eː] ō [oː]
Open-mid ea oa
Open ā [aː]
  • The four diphthongs *ie *ea *oa *uo only occurred in stressed syllables, in complementary distribution with the two long vowels *ē *ō occurring in unstressed syllables.
  • did not generally occur in the last syllable of a word.


Stress was not phonemic in Proto-Samic. The first syllable of a word invariably received primary stress. Non-initial syllables of a word received secondary stress, according to a trochaic pattern of alternating secondarily-stressed and unstressed syllables. Odd-numbered syllables (counting from the start) were stressed, while even-numbered syllables were unstressed. The last syllable of a word was never stressed. Thus, a word could end in either a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable (if the last syllable was even-numbered) or a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables (if the last syllable was odd-numbered). This gave the following pattern, which could be extended indefinitely (P = primary stress, S = secondary stress, _ = no stress):

  • P
  • P _
  • P _ _
  • P _ S _
  • P _ S _ _
  • P _ S _ S _
  • etc.

Because the four diphthongs could only occur in stressed syllables, this stress pattern often led to alternations between vowels in different forms of the same word. More crucially, it led to alternations in inflectional endings between different words, depending on whether the second-last syllable of that word was stressed or not.

This alternation survives in many Samic languages in the form of distinct inflectional classes, with words with a stressed second-last syllable following the so-called "even" or "two-syllable" inflection, and words with an unstressed second-last syllable following the "odd" or "three-syllable" inflection. Weakening and simplification of non-final consonants after unstressed syllables contributed further to the alternation, leading to differences that are sometimes quite striking. For example:

Form Even-syllable stem
"to live"
Odd-syllable stem
"to answer"
Proto-Samic Northern Sami Skolt Sami Proto-Samic Northern Sami Skolt Sami
Infinitive *ealē-t̯ēk eallit jiẹˊlled *vāstētē-t̯ēk vástidit vaˊstteed
First-person singular present indicative *eal̯ē-m ealán jiẹˊllam *vāstēt̯ē-m vástidan vaˊsttääm
First-person singular conditional *eal̯ā-k̯ć̯i-m ealášin jiẹˊllčem *vāstēt̯ie-k̯ć̯i-m vástidivččen vaˊstteˊčem
First-person singular potential *eal̯ē-ń̯ć̯ë-m eležan jiẹˊllžem *vāstēt̯ea-ń̯ć̯ë-m vástideaččan vaˊstteˊžem

In compounds, which consisted of a combination of several root words, each word retained the stress pattern that it had in isolation, so that that stress remained lexically significant (i.e. could theoretically distinguish compounds from non-compounds). The first syllable of the first part of a compound had the strongest stress, with progressively weaker secondary stress for the first syllables of the remaining parts.



Nominals, i.e. nouns, adjectives, numerals and pronouns were systematically inflected for two numbers and ten cases. The personal pronouns and possessive suffixes also distinguished the dual number.


The cases included the core cases nominative, accusative and genitive; the local cases inessive, elative, illative; as well as essive, partitive, comitative and abessive.

Case Singular
Nominative *-k Subject, object of imperative
Accusative *-m *-jtē Object
Partitive *-tē Partial object, motion away
Genitive *-n *-j Possession, relation
Essive *-nē *-jnē Being, acting as
Inessive *-snē Being at, on, inside
Elative *-stē *-jstē Motion from, off, out of
Illative *-s̯ën *-jtēsën (N)
*-jtē (S)
*-jtën (In)
Motion towards, to, onto, into
Comitative *-jnē
*-jnë (In, Lu)
*-j (+ *kuojmē) With, in company of, by means of
Abessive *-ptākëk - Without, lacking

Several of the singular cases do not have a clear counterpart in the plural, or have different formations ancestral to different Sami languages. For example, what would later become the accusative plural developed out of the partitive plural form, while the inessive plural is the original essive plural form. The comitative plural was in origin a periphrastic construction consisting of the genitive plural with the noun *kuojmē "companion". It is likely that the case system was still partially in development during the late Proto-Samic period, and developed in subtly different ways in the various descendants.

In most Samic languages, the case system has been simplified:

  • The partitive has been lost in most western languages.
  • In several languages the genitive and accusative singular have coincided, and in Northern Sami this led to an analogical merger in the plural. Southern and Pite Sami still keep the two cases separate.
  • A sound change *sn > *st that occurred in the history of several Sami languages caused a merging of the inessive and elative singular, creating a single "locative" case. Several languages merged the plural cases analogically, but some languages chose the former inessive plural form, while others chose the elative plural.


Proto-Samic possessive suffixes [1]
Case Person Number
Singular Dual Plural
Nominative 1st *-më *-mën *-mēk
2nd *-të *-tën *-tēk
3rd *-sē *-sēn *-sēk
Accusative 1st *-më *-mën *-mēk
2nd *-mtë *-mtën *-mtēk
3rd *-msē *-msēn *-msēk
Oblique 1st *-në *-nën *-nēk
2nd *-ntë *-ntën *-ntēk
3rd *-ssē *-ssēn *-ssēk

Verb inflection[edit]

1st singular *-m *-jëm *-(k)ōmë
2nd singular *-k *-jëk *-k
3rd singular *-∅ *-j *-(k)ōsē
1st dual *-jēn *-jmën *-(k)ōmën
2nd dual  ? *-jtën *-(kē)tēn
3rd dual *-pēn *-jkV- (West)
*-jnën (In)
1st plural *-pē *-jmēk *-(k)ōmēk
2nd plural  ? *-jtēk *-(kē)tēk
3rd plural *-jēk  ? *-(k)ōsēk
Connegative *-k - *-k
  • The conditional mood had the mood marker *-kćē- (cognate to the Estonian conditional marker -ks-), to which past tense endings were attached. In Western Samic, a new conditional mood was innovated, consisting of the connegative form of the verb joined to a past-tense form of the copula *leatēk.
  • The potential mood had the mood marker *-ńćë- (cognate to the Finnish conditional marker -isi-). It received present-tense endings.

The following non-finite forms were also present:

  • Infinitive *-tēk, identical with the Finnic ending *-dak.
  • Verbal noun *-mē, identical with the Finnic verbal noun suffix *-ma.
  • Present participle *-jē, originally an agent noun suffix, cognate to the Finnic agent noun suffix *-ja.
  • Past participle *-më or extended *-mëńćë. The extended form is identical with the Finnish verbal noun/"fourth infinitive" suffix *-minen ~ *-mice-.


The vocabulary reconstructible for Proto-Samic has been catalogued by Lehtiranta (1989), who records approximately 1500 word roots, for which either a pre-Samic ancestry is assured, or whose distribution across the Sami languages reaches at least from Lule Sami to Skolt Sami. Within this sample, loanwords from the Finnic and Scandinavian languages already constitute major subsets, numbering slightly over 150 and 100, respectively.


From Proto-Uralic[edit]

  • *a followed by *i > *o followed by *a.
  • > *a, a change shared with the Finnic and Mordvinic languages. This change counterfeeds the previous one.
  • > *i.
  • Loss of vowel harmony (if it existed). In non-initial syllables, front and back harmonic allophones collapsed into one: > *i and > *a.
  • *δ́ > , a development also shared with Finnic and Mordvinic.
  • *č, *š > *c, *s
  • Vowels are lengthened before *x.[2]
  • *ś, *x > *ć, *k before a vowel. *x is lost elsewhere.

This approximate point of Pre-Samic marks the introduction of the oldest Western Indo-European loanwords from Baltic and Germanic. Loans were also acquired from its southern relative Finnic, substituting the early Finnic sound with Samic . Likely contemporary to these were 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 *kïnta > preS *kanto(j) > PS *kuontōj 'tree stump'
  • PU *mexi- > preS *mēki- > PS *miekë- 'to sell'
  • Baltic *šalna → preS *salna > PS *suolnē 'frost'
  • Germanic *raudaz 'red' → preS *rawta > PS *ruovtē 'iron'
  • Germanic *hansa- → preS *kansa > PS *kuossē 'guest'
  • Finnic *pošja → preS *pośja > PS *poaśśē 'rear'
  • substrate? → preS *keðka > PS *keaðkē 'rock', in place of Uralic *kiwi
  • substrate? → preS *mori or *mari > PS *muorë "wood", in place of Uralic *puwï or *puxï
  • substrate? → preS *ašŋVn > PS *vuosŋōn 'perch' (cf. Finnish ahven)
  • substrate? → preS *šewšim > 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.
  • 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.

The previous changes left a system consisting of *i *e *ä *a *o *u in the first syllable in Pre-Samic, and probably at least long *ī *ē *ū. In unstressed syllables, only *i *a *o were distinguished. The source of *o is unclear, although it is frequently also found in Finnic.

The table below shows the main correspondences:

Stressed syllables
Pre-Samic Proto-Samic
i ë
ī i
e ea, ë (...ë)
ē ea, ie (...ë)
ä (ǟ?) ā, ie (...ë)
a (ā?) uo
o (ō?) oa, uo (...ë), rarely o (...ë)
u o
ū u
Unstressed syllables
Pre-Samic Proto-Samic
i ë
a ē, ā (...ë)
o ō, u (...ë)

The processes that added up to this shift can be outlined as follows:

  1. Lowering: *i *u > *ɪ *ʊ, including unstressed *i.[3]
  2. Raising: *e > before a following . There are also irregular examples with *o > (for example *kolmi 'three' > *kʊlmi > Proto-Samic *kolmë > Northern Sami golbma).
  3. All non-close vowels are lengthened: *e *ä *a *o > *ē *ǟ *ā *ō. If earlier long non-close vowels existed, they were merged with their short counterparts by this time.

At this point, the vowel system consisted of only two short vowels *ɪ *ʊ in initial syllables, alongside the full complement of long vowels *ī *ē *ǟ *ā *ō *ū. In non-initial syllables, the vowels were *ɪ *ā *ō. After this, several metaphonic changes then occurred that rearranged the distribution of long vowels in stressed syllables.

  • *ē *ǟ *ō > *ɛ̄ *ā *ɔ̄ before and . This may indicate that second-syllable was a relatively open vowel such as [ɔː].[4]
  • *ǟ *ā > *ē *ō before .
  • > also elsewhere.

Sammallahti (1998:182–183) suggests the following four phases:

  1. Lowering of mid vowels before and .
  2. Raising of open vowels before , merging with the un-lowered mid vowels.
  3. Raising of remaining .
  4. Backing of remaining .

The inventory of long vowels in stressed syllables now featured seven members: *ī *ē *ɛ̄ *ā *ɔ̄ *ō *ū. However, in native vocabulary *ē *ɛ̄ remained in complementary distribution: the closed-mid vowel only occurred before following , the open-mid vowel only before following , .

Further changes then shifted the sound values of the unstressed syllables that had conditioned the above shift:

  1. *āj > *īj, regardless of following vowels.
  2. > , unless followed by in a third or later syllable.
  3. > *u before .

Lastly, a number of unconditional shifts adjusted the sound values of the vowel phonemes.

  1. *ē *ɛ̄ *ɔ̄ *ō > *ie *ea *oa *uo, in initial syllables. Word initially, *ie *uo > *jie *vuo.
  2. *ɪ *ʊ > *ë *o. There likely was an intermediate *e for the first of these.[5]
  3. *ī *ū > *i *u.

To what extent the two last changes should be dated to Proto-Samic proper is unclear. Although all Sami languages show these changes in at least some words, in Southern Sami and Ume Sami earlier , , , are regularly reflected as ij, i, u, uv in stressed open syllables. It is possible that these are archaisms, and shortening and lowering occurred only after the initial division of Proto-Samic into dialects.[6][7] 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:

(Post-)Proto-Uralic Proto-Samic Northern Sami Finnish Translation
*kixi- *kikë- gihkat kii-ma PU, PS, NS: 'to rut'
Fi: 'heat'
*nimi *nëmë namma nimi 'name'
*weri *vërë varra veri 'blood'
*mexi- *miekë- Skolt Sami:
'to sell'
*käti *kietë giehta käsi 'hand'
*polwï *puolvë buolva polvi 'knee'
*elä- *ealē- eallit elää 'to live'
*äjmä *ājmē ájbmi äimä 'large needle'
*kala *kuolē guolli kala 'fish'
*kalanï *kuolānë guollán kalani 'my fish'
*wolka *oalkē oalgi olka 'shoulder'
*wolkajta *oalkijtē olggiid olkia 'of shoulders'
*muδa *moδē mođđi muta 'mud'
*suxi- *sukë- suhkat sou-taa 'to row'

Towards the modern Sami languages[edit]

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

  • Southwestern Samic (South Sami + Ume Sami)[8]
    • Stressed *i *u reflected as /ij uv/ in open syllables
    • Stressed *ë *o reflected as /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)[9]
    • 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)[10]
    • *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 (Kola) Samic (Kildin Sami + Ter Sami)[10]
    • 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
*k̯C̯ kC vC vC (ɣC) vC Weak grade of clusters *k̯t̯, *k̯c̯, *k̯ć̯, *k̯s̯, *k̯ś̯
*śC jhC jhC (śC) śC Clusters *śn, *śt, *śk
cC (sC)
ćC (śC)
Clusters *ck, *ćk, *ćm
*ŋv *vg̊ vv
*ŋm *mː → ʔm ʔm (mː) vm
*N̯N̯ ʔN ʔN (Nː) Weak grade of original geminate nasals
*N (ʔN) ʔN ʔN (Nː) Strong grade of original single nasals
*PN N ʔN ʔN (Nː) Clusters *pm, *tn
*rN rN rhN rʔN, rhN rN
*NP BB BB NB Homorganic clusters *mp, *nt, *nc, *ńć, *ŋk
*mP b̥B (mB) b̥B b̥B mB Heterorganic clusters *mt, *mć, *mk
*nm, *mn BN (NN) BN NN
*P ʰPː Strong grade of original single stops and affricates
*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. These likely indicate an earlier Eastern Samic substratum.

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.


  1. ^ Sammallahti 1998, p. 73.
  2. ^ Sammallahti 1998, p. 190.
  3. ^ Sammallahti 1998, pp. 181–182.
  4. ^ Sammallahti 1998, p. 181.
  5. ^ Sammallahti 1998, pp. 185–186.
  6. ^ Itkonen 1939, pp. 63-64.
  7. ^ Tálos, Endre (1987), "On the vowels of Proto-Uralic", in Rédei, Károly, Studien zur Phonologie und Morphonologie der uralischen Sprachen, Studia Uralica, 4 
  8. ^ Sammallahti 1998, pp. 7–8.
  9. ^ Sammallahti 1998, p. 8.
  10. ^ a b Sammallahti 1998, p. 26.


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  • Ante, Aikio (2006), "On Germanic-Saami contacts and Saami prehistory", Journal de la Société Finno-Ougrienne, 91: 9–55 
  • Itkonen, Erkki (1939), Die Ostlappische Vokalismus vom qualitativen Standpunkt auf, Mémoires de la Société Finno-Ougrienne, 79 
  • Korhonen, Mikko (1981), Johdatus lapin kielen historiaan, Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seuran toimituksia (in Finnish), 370, Helsinki: Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura 
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  • Sammallahti, Pekka (1998), The Saami Languages: An Introduction, Davvi Girji 

External links[edit]