The Sami: a model in their ability to bridge modernity and a traditional lifestyle

Posted by Marie Roué on December 16, 2011

By Marie Roué, ethnologist, director of research at the CNRS / Museum of natural history, Paris. A specialist of Arctic peoples, she has been studying the Sami since 1969.

Marie Roué en costume sami traditionnel

The Sami live on a territory they call Sapmi (Lapland) that covers 4 different countries: Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. Despite the borders and different legislations in each of these countries, the Sami have retained a strong sense of unity in respect to both language and culture.

The origins

The first traces of life that archeologists have found in the area are those of Sami ancestors – traces of a camp near the sea on the Norwegian island of Sørøya, dated between 11,000 and 8,000 B.C.

There’s also archeological proof that some groups of Sami hunters and fishermen ventured inland Swedish Lapland: wild reindeers and elks were already hunted. The climate was much warmer then than it is now, with milder winters, and wetter summers.

Colonization and Christianization began to spread in the 17th century: attempts in convincing the Sami to give up their traditional shamanist religion were conducted the hard way. Shamans were even burned along with their drums. Some of the ancestral beliefs are still alive today though, even if they’re difficult to spot, having blended in with other religions and cultures.

How many of them are there now?

The Sami population is difficult to estimate as criteria differ from one country to another. Anyone who declares themself Sami, speaks Sami, or has at least a father, mother, or grandparents who speak Sami – can be declared Sami.

Estimates, henceforth, account for approximately 70,000 Sami, 2,000 of whom live in Russia, 6,000 in Finland, 40,000 in Norway, and 20,000 in Sweden.

Reindeer farmers: a myth or reality?

Originally, the Sami were hunters-fishermen-gatherers. Farming only began in the 17th century, essentially because of the Scandinavian colonization, which made wild animal populations fall.

Nowadays reindeer farmers are a minority: in Sweden, for example, 2,000 of them make a living off farming, i.e. around 10% of the Sami. As for the others, many have moved south towards the larger cities to find more “standard” jobs, while others went back to traditional fishing despite fierce competition with the fishing industry.

Life is hard for the farmers. The exploitation of their country’s mining wealth and the spread of forest industries are a threat to lichen pastures, essential to reindeers nine months a year.


Political progress

The Sami have kept defending their political and territorial rights, which are being gradually recognized.

They have a parliament in Sweden and in Norway. In Sweden the parliament’s range of action was originally very narrow: it was limited to the domain of culture and could only get involved on economic issues. Reindeer farming was under the authority of the Ministry of Agriculture, and hence, of the state of Sweden.

The role of the Sami parliament today is increasingly socio-economic, handling farming and government relations in critical periods that require help from the state.

Important issues such as that of prey animals also fall under its jurisdiction: wolves, eagles, lynx, wolverines, etc. are all protected species that happen to feed on reindeers. The question here is to define whether Sami land can or cannot serve as food-supply for all the wildlife Sweden and the rest of the world wishes to preserve, considering that would be at the expense of reindeer farmers.

The Sami people, very attached to their lifestyle and culture

The Sami show quite a remarkable attachment to their culture. They have this relation to the landscape, the country, the lifestyle they keep perpetuating despite material and economic hardship. They’re aware that if they give up, their line of descent will break off and their children or grandchildren will not be able to resume farming activities. So they keep going, for their own sake but also for the sake of transmission.

And their sense of humor remains untouched when it comes to comment the complexity of their situation. One of my friends from the Swedish highlands once told me with a chuckle: “Since there isn’t much to do this summer, I’m going on holiday to work as a road-mender in Norway because it makes more money than in Sweden, and with that money, I’ll be able to farm again when the season returns.”

They’re confident in their ability to adapt, even to climate change, but questions remain: “Our lifestyle has always been based on nomadism: when there are no resources left here, we move further. But when there’ll be an airport in one place, a city in another, and protected forests all around, where will we be going then?”

The Sami stand at the crossroads of major contemporary issues: how to remain traditional while becoming modern, how to remain oneself without folklorizing? They’re developing strategies to answer all these questions, and do appear as quite a model in the courage they show taking up all these challenges implied by modernity.

Read a description of Sami languages.

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Celtic languages – from decline to revival?

Posted by James Costa on September 23, 2011

By James Costa, Research Associate, French Institute for Education, Lyon École Nationale Supérieure.

celtic cross - Photo : Antonio Acuna (cc)

The languages known as Celtic, gathering Irish, Manx, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Cornish, and Breton, belong to the Indo-European language family. They form their own grouping, distinct from the Romance, Germanic or Slavic languages. Only one of them is a national language (in competition with English); all of them are considered as “endangered”, particularly by Unesco. Alongside their last speakers, here is an entire group of languages that could well disappear as language of communication before the end of the century.

Origins under debate

Much has been written on the Celtic languages and it is difficult to figure out exactly where they come from.

They have fuelled the imaginations of a number of poets, novelists and linguists since 1707, when Edward Lhuyd, a Welsh naturalist with a passion for ancient history, noticed similarities between, on one side, the languages of Brittany, Wales and Cornwall – Brythonic languages – and on the other, the languages of Ireland and the Isle of Man – Gaelic languages.

Lhuyd also linked these languages to Welsh and identified them as “Celtic”, after the Greek name given to the different peoples who had dominated Europe centuries prior.

Ancient authors are the first to mention the presence of the Celts (keltoï in Greek) over a large portion of Ancient Europe, though they do not specify where they originally came from.

Archaeologists lead further back in time, retracing the sources and migrations of the Celts from Central Europe as early as the 7th century B.C. (the Hallstatt and La Tène cultures).

However, this hypothesis is now being challenged by recent studies combining archaeology, linguistics, and genetics, which suggest origins located in today’s Portugal, as well as a conquest of Europe by the Atlantic coast.

At this point in research, therefore, no one can declare for certain which was or were the original sources of modern Celtic languages.

Yielding before Rome in the South, the Germanic in the East and North

Nevertheless, these languages, testified by countless toponyms in a large part of Western Europe, were gradually replaced by varieties of Latin in Gaul, Iberia and northern Italy, and by Germanic idioms in Germany, Switzerland and even the Isle of Brittany (today’s Great Britain), where the use of English kept increasing throughout the Middle Ages.

Thus the variety of Breton spoken in the Kingdom of Strathclyde (South of today’s Scotland) yielded before English around the 12th century. In the Southwest of today’s Great Britain, the latest speaker of Cornish is known to have lived in the 18th century.

Left unconquered by Rome, Ireland remained a monolingual Celtic speaker up to the first Norman forays of the 13th century, even though the monks did speak Latin.

Ireland was also the starting point of a gaelicization movement across Scotland in the 3rd and 4th centuries, which led to the local extinction of Pictish, permanently replaced by Gaelic in the 12th century.

The Welsh exception

Languages of the farmers and fishermen, and later that of miners in Wales, the “Celtic” languages have been constantly ostracised over the centuries: according to the conceptions of economically dominant groups in Western Europe, the Celtic languages were associated with poverty and a lifestyle deemed as outdated.

The case of Welsh is the only exception in such a context: the year of 1588 witnessed the publication of Bible translated into Welsh – a Bible that still happens to be in use today in various chapels across Wales. If Welsh was the language of God, it could also be the language of Man!

motif celtique - Photo : Bert23 (cc)

From 19th century Celtomania to the 1960s revival

By the end of the 19th century, from Brittany to Scotland, the emergence of an indigenous cultural elite generated movements of cultural demand centred on the very use of these languages. These demands usually encountered the requirements of the growing modern Nation States, originally designed to be monolingual.

The 1960s carried a revival of local cultures worldwide, and various linguistic movements struggled to raise awareness towards the global span of these cultures, and the dignity of these languages.


Now at the dawn of the 21st century, Breton is spoken by fewer than 200,000 people. A census led in the Republic of Ireland reports that about 1,5 million people are believed to speak Irish, although in fact, the language could be spoken by less than 10,000 people. Scottish Gaelic is used by some 55,000 people.

The status of Cornish and Manx is unusual:

- the use of Cornish came to an end in the 18th century, although nowadays about 2,200 people speak a variant of Cornish that was reconstructed from medieval texts during the 20th century;

- Manx has been recorded with its last “traditional” speakers: it is now back in use on the Isle of Man, and considered official by the local government.

There again, Welsh seems the only one to be avoiding the momentum of decline: for the first time in a hundred years, the number of people who declared speaking Welsh in a 2001 census was on the increase, and exceeded 600,000 people. A turnaround due to the very strong pressure upheld by activists in the course of the past decades, thanks to which Welsh is now widely present in all sectors of public life; in the media and school as in administration.

Although maybe not as prominently, the revival is also discernible in other Celtic countries and beyond, in North America and Australia. Celtic languages, for the most, are no longer mere languages of common communication outside home – they now have other grounds to express themselves on, identity is one of them.

Further into the subject

Abalain, H. (1989). Destin des langues celtiques. Gap: Ophrys.

Crystal, D. (2005). Revitalizing the Celtic Languages. Paper presented at the XI Annual Conference of the North American Association for Celtic Language Teachers. Retrieved from

Dorian, N. C. (1981). Language Death : the Life Cycle of a Scottish Gaelic Dialect. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Filippula, M., Klemola, J., & Paulasto, H. (2008). English and Celtic in Contact. New York & Abingdon: Routledge.

McLeod, W. (Ed.). (2006). Revitalising Gaelic in Scotland. Edinburgh: Dunedin Academic Press.

On the origins of the Celtic languages

Cunliffe, B, & Koch, J. (2010) Celtic from the West. Oxford: Oxbow.

Learning Celtic languages

Costa-Lynch, J. (2005). Le gallois de poche. Paris: Assimil.

Press, I., & Le Bihan, H. (2003). Colloquial Breton. London & New York: Routledge.

Taylor, I., & Robertson, B. (2003). Teach Yourself Gaelic. London: Teach Yourself.

Le Bihan, H., Denis, G., & Ménard, M. (2009). Le breton pour les nuls. Paris: First.

Ó Sé, D. & Sheils, D. Teach Yourself Irish. London: Teach Yourself.

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Finding a place for Occitan in the French Republic

Posted by Marie Jeanne Verny on September 15, 2011

By Marie Jeanne Verny, lecturer at the University of Paul Valéry, in Montpellier, France, and FELCO secretary (Fédération des Enseignants de la Langue et Culture d’Oc – “Federation of the educators of Oc language and culture”).

Carte linguistique de l'occitan

What is Occitan?

Occitan, also known as langue d’Oc, is spoken over eight regions of southern France (one third of the country), as well as in 12 valleys of the Italian Alps and in the Val d’Aran, Spain.
The number of speakers is usually estimated between 1 and 2 million, although many more actually understand Occitan.
The language has different variations, which do not prevent communication or the sharing of cultural creation.

French vs. Occitan

Occitan was attested in the 10th century, and rapidly became the language of literary creation and that of administration.

But the langue d’Oc soon had to face French, a langue d’Oïl in the northern part of the country: a mere symbol of royal power at first, French eventually became the official language, that of the elite, in the course of the 16th century.

Massive schooling at the end of the 19th century imposed French as a language of communication and led to cut off the transmission of the langue d’Oc within the family circle. While the language did remain the main language of daily communication for the working classes until the dawn of the 20th century, it appeared quite normal, then, including to those concerned, that social promotion implied school, French, and thus, the repression of a dialect associated to working-class origins.

This context of massive conversion to French in the Occitan population lasted throughout the entire 20th century. Some deemed this conversion to be mechanically and ideally deliberate, yet in fact it sheltered a complex phenomenon of social self-depreciation.

Early stages of a formal recognition within the education system

Since the 1950s, Occitan is beginning to receive some degree of public recognition, particularly in the education spheres.
The Deixonne law of 1951 gingerly opened the way for Occitan to enter education, and the way gradually became larger: optional introduction classes, bilingual classes on a parity basis with public education, private associative schools – known as calandretas. First steps in the training of teachers at university, a secondary school teaching qualification in Occitan, and a specific examination for school teachers have also been established since. Occitan is now studied by tens of thousands of students from nursery school to university. And the number of job offers requiring a decent command of the language currently exceeds the number of graduates!

A change in mentality

Since the end of World War II, as the transmission within families gradually faded, major changes have occurred in the representations of the language – linguistic surveys show that a small yet sizeable proportion of the population remains faithful to Occitan.

The term Patois [used as “lingo”], while still employed to refer to the language, is slowly being given up in favour of the very term Occitan, or more limited yet underogatory geographical terms (Béarnese or Provençal for instance, which are variants of the langue d’Oc).

Likewise, the gradual diffusion of a graphic system common to all the geographical varieties contributed to support and strengthen the idea that Occitan, in its diversity, could stand as a language “like any other”.

Sustaining revival

In the wake of this change of mindset, new conducts have appeared and keep developing, such as bilingual signalling systems or the use of Occitan in public events, formal or unformal.

The emergence of an original form of literature is also being observed, in which the age-old tradition of poetry finds itself carried by a wealth of published prose (Max Rouquette, Bernard Manciet, Marcelle Delpastre, etc.). The same goes for a modernising musical creation: 70s and 80s “nouvelle chanson”, recent bands such as Massilia or Fabulous Troubadors…

Even more recently, Occitan has forcefully entered the Internet with an abundance of specialized websites, blogs, and message boards where users, young ones for the most, use Occitan as a language of expression.

Nevertheless, such demonstrations of a favourable feeling, active or passive, towards the Occitan language and culture, should not hide the remaining obstacles: the standstill in family transmission, the absence of social visibility, the absence of formal recognition, and the lack of pro-active policies in favour of the language make it difficult to envision an genuine trend reversal.

There is no denying that despite significant legal provision (UNESCO convention on the protection and promotion of the diversity of cultural expressions, EU resolution in favour of regional languages, article no. 75-1 of the French constitution, etc.), France still has a hard time measuring the effective cultural wealth of its plurilingualism and that of its creative potential. Thus are the other languages of the country thought of and pointed out, at best, as a merely emotional extra touch of soul, at worst, as an impediment to national unity and/or republican construction. Hence the emergency to adapt legislation by drafting a law, that has been promised on several occasions.

Photo : Georges Souche (

Photo : Georges Souche (

Learn more about Occitan on our website.

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