Linguistics and English Language

Language in context seminar

Speaker: Øystein A. Vangsnes (UiT The Arctic University of Norway)

Title: A prognosis for Sámi in Norway: Language population dynamics and schools as key torevitalization

Abstract: The nine living Sámi languages, indigenous to Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia, are all considered vulnerable and/or threatened according to organizations such as UNESCO and the Endangered Languages Project. Totaling less than 30 000 speakers it is clearly the most endangered language group in all of Europe. Longstanding assimilation policies in the 19th and 20th century accelerated language change, sometimes along with ethnic change, sometimes without, but nevertheless leading to a situation where the ethnic group is much bigger than the linguistic group (see the figures in Ethnologue).

With the current reclaiming of “sáminess”, revitalization of the languages is a central task in the eyes of many Sámi. In this paper the school system will be placed at the core of this process. A central claim is that the future language users will mainly be the children now receiving formal instruction in Sámi in the education system. A prognosis will be made for the Norwegian part of the population on the basis of current school figures for grades 1-10. Pupils are listed according to three different curricula (Sámi as first, second, and third language) and variety of Sámi (North, Lule, and South Sámi). Notice that although L1 may equal “Sámi medium education”, it does not always do so – for many pupils Sámi is just their main language for literacy training whereas other subjects are taught in the majority language (Norwegian).

The school figures have not changed much over the last decade. On the assumption that the ratio pupils to whole population is the same among Sámi and Norwegian a prognosis for the Sámi languages is made by multiplying the Sámi school figures by 8.2 which is this ratio for the Norwegian population as a whole. That gives the following. Even if all Sámi pupils become future bearers of the language(s) there will not be an increase in the total number of speakers as currently given in the Ethnologue database. Furthermore, if only L1 pupils become the future speakers, there will be a significant decrease, in particular for North Sámi. Important still, even many L1 pupils are likely to abandon the language during their life span.

This raises a host of questions regarding school models and the interplay between education and other factors that either support or weaken the situation for the indigenous minority language (home language, extra-mural activities, migration, language policies etc., cf. criteria for language vitality by for example UNESCO, Ethnologue, the Endangered Languages Project).

The conclusion of the paper will be twofold: 1) The number of pupils receiving instruction in Sámi needs to be increased in order for the position of the languages to be strengthened, and 2) the language models need to favor the minority language as much as possible in order to compensate for the ubiquitous presence of the majority language(s).


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Stephen McNulty

Sarah Van Eyndhoven

Co-ordinators of LinC

Oct 18 2019 -

Language in context seminar

2019-10-18: A prognosis for Sámi in Norway: Language population dynamics and schools as key torevitalization

Room G32, Psychology Building, 7 George Square, Edinburgh, EH8 9JZ