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The Sami dialects
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The Sami dialects Skicka till en vänSkriv ut

Two Sami children look out
Which dialect do these children speak? Northern Sami, at a guess, going by their caps. Photo: Haraldsson, Ajtte Mountain & Sami Museum.
Language, dialect or variety?

Is Lule Sami a separate language or a dialect? Is Swedish a variant of Danish? It's difficult to know how to determine what is a language and what isn't.

Depending on how you classify languages and dialects, there are said to be between 2,000 and 6,000 languages in the world. If we consider Swedish and Norwegian to be two different languages, then Sami should also be subdivided into several languages. However, as the Sami are a relatively small group of people, the decision has been taken to refer to all the variants of Sami as one Sami language, and to divide the language into three main dialects.

Nine dialects
The three main dialects are in turn divided into nine dialects or varieties, as they are also referred to by linguists. The main Sami dialects are: Eastern Sami, Central Sami and Southern Sami.

Linguistic frontiers not the same as national borders
The fact that the frontiers for the Sami linguistic areas do not coincide with the national boundaries is a clear sign that the national borders in the north splintered the Sami's areas. Eastern Sami dialects are spoken on the Kola Peninsula in Russia; Central Sami dialects are spoken in Finland, Norway and Sweden; Southern Sami dialects are spoken in Norway and Sweden. Northern Sami, Lule Sami and Arjeplog Sami (belonging to the main Central Sami dialect), Southern Sami and Ume Sami (a variety with linguistic features of both southern and northern origin) are all spoken in Sweden. The boundaries between the different varieties are not clearly defined, but rather tend to change gradually.

Northern Sami the largest
Northern Sami has the most speakers, being spoken by an estimated 15-17,000 people across the entire Sami area, of which 5-6,000 are in Sweden. Northern Sami has also spread into Lule Sami and Southern Sami areas as a result of the authorities' forcible relocation of Northern Sami people to these areas during the 1930s.

Difficult to understand each other
One estimate is that around 500 people speak Lule Sami and a similar number speak Southern Sami. The differences that exist mean that a Sami from one area may have difficulty understanding a Sami from another area. The differences are comparable with the differences between Swedish, Norwegian and Danish. People who have grown accustomed to a different dialect can talk with each other, while others find it more difficult to communicate. The differences between the varieties located furthest away from each other - the Sami language in the east and Sami in the south - are almost as great as the differences between Swedish and German.

Senast ändrad: 2006-03-16
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... the differences between the various Sami dialects can be as great as the differences between Swedish and Danish and between Swedish and German.

... Sami who live close to a different dialect area find it easier to understand that dialect.

... not all Sami people can speak Sami.

... Northern Sami people live in the Southern Sami area.