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The real aborigines of Finland

Last update - Sunday, September 1, 2013, 15:10 By Panu Höglund

The only language spoken in Finland alone that is not Finnish is Aanaar Sami, one of the three Sami languages you would hear spoken in Lapland, the Sami country, in northern Finland. 

The Sami languages are remotely related to Finnish, but a Finn won't understand much of spoken Sami. And although the Sami languages are mutually related, they are different languages. The difference between Northern Sami, which is the strongest Sami language spoken in Norway and Sweden as well as Finland, and Aanaar Sami is at least as great as that between Irish and Manx. The third Sami language spoken in Finland came originally from Russian, and has a lot of Russian loanwords; there are a couple of native speakers left in Russia.

There are only 300 native speakers of Aanaar Sami, more or less, and most of them live on the shores of Lake Aanaar in northern Finland, near the Norwegian border. The lake is one of the wonders of Lapland, the third biggest lake of Finland, the country of lakes. Zachris Topelius, one of the greatest writers of Finland in the 19th century, wrote a well-loved song about the man of Lapland who wanted to find out how deep the lake was, but he didn't succeed in measuring its depth, and the lake herself was heard to say: ‘I am as deep as I am long.’ The story is not true, though, because the lake is relatively shallow, and there are good fishing grounds there.

The people of Aanaar, the speakers of the language, depend greatly on the lake for their livelihood. We, the Finns, mostly think of the great reindeer herds migrating across the country when we hear anyone mention the Sami people. But the people of Aanaar are no reindeer herders. They are fishermen – and you could hardly expect anything else, with them living on the shores of a lake. The lake always gave them food and nourishment, and the unofficial symbol of the Aanaar Sami is dried pike-fish.

The Sami of Aanaar are said to be the last remnant of the Forest Sami. To start with, the speakers of Finnish (or of related dialects) only lived on the coast, with Sami people roaming the forests of the interior. In the course of centuries, the Sami had to retreat northwards, until only a handful lived in northern Finland. Finns seized their lands, and only the place names lived on. Actually, even in the southernmost part of Finland there are place names that can only be explained in Sami.

Thus the Aanaar Sami, the few left, are the real aborigines of Finland. Their language was disappearing in the post-war years, because many Finns settled in Aanaar at that time, and as Aanaar people are of a generous and welcoming disposition, they did not want to impose their language on the blow-ins. Indeed, Lapland had been destroyed during the war, and the Finnish-speaking newcomers were contributing to the reconstruction effort. The locals wanted to ensure that their children could have a chance of success in society, in the big world where everybody spoke Finnish. The language almost died out, when a new generation of Aanaar Sami was brought up as Finnish-speakers.

In the 1980s, however, the Aanaar people again understood the importance of the language, and now there is a revival movement among young people. The leader of this movement is the young writer and tradition-keeper Petter Morottaja, and he has even published a fantasy novel in the language, based on the motifs of Sami mythology.



Panu Petteri Höglund is a writer and linguist from Finland.

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