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Reconstruction ofSami languages

Proto-Sami is the hypothetical, reconstructed common ancestor of the Sami languages. It is a descendant of the Proto-Uralic language.

Homeland and expansion

Although the current Sami languages are spoken much further to the north and west, Proto-Sami was likely spoken in the area of modern-day Southwestern Finland around the first few centuries CE. Local (in Sápmi) ancestors of the modern Sami people likely still spoke non-Uralic, "Paleoeuropean" languages at this point (see Pre-Finno-Ugric substrate). 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 Sami proper having been spoken further east, with a limit around Lake Beloye.

Separation of the main branches (West Sami and East Sami) 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 languages that would eventually end up becoming modern-day Finnish and Karelian were being adopted in the southern end of the Proto-Sami area, likely in connection with the introduction of agriculture, a process that continued until the 19th century, leading to the extirpation of original Sami languages in Karelia and all but northernmost Finland.



The Proto-Sami 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:

The spirant also had two allophones, voiceless [θ] occurring word-initially and syllable-finally, and voiced [ð] elsewhere.

Consonant gradation

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:

Gradation only applied after a stressed syllable; after an unstressed syllable all medial consonants appeared in the weak grade.

In sources on Proto-Sami 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, Sami 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 Sami varieties phonemically merged the weak grade of geminates with the strong grade of single consonants, leaving only three lengths. In some Sami 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]


Stress was not phonemic in Proto-Sami. 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):

Because the four diphthongs could only occur in stressed syllables, and consonant gradation only occurred after a stressed syllable, this stress pattern led to alternations between vowels in different forms of the same word. These alternations survive in many Sami 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-Sami Northern Sami Skolt Sami Proto-Sami Northern Sami Skolt Sami
Infinitive *ealē-t̯ēk ealli-t jiẹˊlle-d *vāstē-tē-t̯ēk vásti-di-t vaˊst-tee-d
First-person singular present indicative *eal̯ā-m ealá-n jiẹˊlla-m *vāstē-t̯ā-m vásti-da-n vaˊst-tää-m
First-person singular conditional *eal̯ā-k̯ć̯i-m ealá-ši-n jiẹˊll-če-m *vāstē-t̯ie-k̯ć̯i-m vásti-dī-včče-n vaˊst-teˊ-če-m
First-person singular potential *eal̯ē-ń̯ć̯ë-m ēle-ža-n jiẹˊll-že-m *vāstē-t̯ea-ń̯ć̯ë-m vásti-dea-čča-n vaˊst-teˊ-že-m

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.


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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 *-jtēs̯ën (N)
*-jtē (S)
*-j̯t̯ën (In)
Motion towards, to, onto, into
Comitative *-jnē
*-jnë (In, Lu)
*-j (+ *kuojmē) With, in company of, by means of
Abessive *-ptāk̯ëk - Without, lacking

The case system shows some parallel developments with the Finnic languages. Like Finnic, the original Uralic locative *-na was repurposed as an essive, the ablative case *-ta became the partitive, and new locative cases were formed from these by infixing *-s-. Sami lacks any equivalent to the Finnic "external" cases beginning with *-l-, however. Moreover, the earliest stages of Samic appear to have used these cases only in the singular, as several of the singular cases do not have a formational counterpart in the plural:

Given the discrepancies in the plural locative cases, it is likely that this part of the case system was still partially in development during the late Proto-Sami period, and developed in subtly different ways in the various descendants. In most Sami languages, the case system has been simplified:


Proto-Sami 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

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 following non-finite forms were also present:


The vocabulary reconstructible for Proto-Sami has been catalogued by Lehtiranta (1989), who records approximately 1500 word roots, for which either a pre-Sami 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

This approximate point of Pre-Sami 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 Sami . Likely contemporary to these were the oldest loanwords adapted from extinct Paleo-European substrate languages during the northwestward expansion of Pre-Sami. 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.


Later consonant changes mostly involved the genesis of the consonant gradation system, but also the simplification of various consonant clusters, chiefly in loanwords.

Vowel shift

A fairly late but major development within Sami 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-Sami, 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-Sami Proto-Sami
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-Sami Proto-Sami
i ë
a ē, i (...j), 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-Sami *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.

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-Sami 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-Sami 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-Sami 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

The main division among the Sami languages is the split between eastern and western Sami.

Changes that appear across the Eastern-Western divide are:

Western Sami

Innovations common to the Western Sami languages:

The Southern West Sami languages consist of Southern Sami and Ume Sami, and have a number of further innovations:[8]

The Northern West Sami languages consist of Pite Sami, Lule Sami and Northern Sami. They have one important common innovation:

Pite Sami and Lule Sami form their own smaller subgroup of shared innovations, which might be termed Northwestern West Sami:[9]

Northern Sami by itself has its own unique changes:

Eastern Sami

The Eastern Sami languages have the following innovations:

The Mainland East Sami languages, Inari Sami, Skolt Sami and Akkala Sami, share further innovations:[10]

Skolt and Akkala Sami moreover share:

Peninsular East (Kola) Sami, consisting of Kildin Sami and Ter Sami, share:[10]


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 vB 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 Sami substratum.


In the history of Proto-Sami, some sound changes were triggered or prevented by the nature of the vowel in the next syllable. Such changes continued to occur in the modern Sami languages, but differently in each. Due to the similarity with Germanic umlaut, these phenomena are termed "umlaut" as well.

The following gives a comparative overview of each possible Proto-Sami vowel in the first syllable, with the outcomes that are found in each language for each second-syllable vowel.

Long open
Outcomes of first-syllable *ā
Second vowel *u *i
Southern aa ae aa åå ee
Ume á å̄ ä
Pite á ä
Lule á
Northern á
Inari á ä a
Skolt ä äʹ a
Kildin а̄ оа
Long open-mid
Outcomes of first-syllable *ea
Second vowel *u *i
Southern ea ie ïe ee
Ume eä, iä eä, ie eä, iä ē
Pite ä, ie e
Lule ä ie ä, e
Northern ea ē
Inari e
Skolt eäʹ, iẹʹ ieʹ
Kildin я̄ е̄ е̄ ӣ
Outcomes of first-syllable *oa
Second vowel *u *i
Southern åa åe oe åå öö
Ume å̄ ū ǖ
Pite å̄ ū
Lule oa oa, å̄
Northern oa ō
Inari o
Skolt uäʹ, uẹʹ ueʹ
Kildin уа уэ о̄ ӯ
Long close-mid
Outcomes of first-syllable *ie
Second vowel *u *i
Southern ea ie ïe ?
Ume eä, iä eä, ie eä, iä ē
Pite ä, ie e
Lule ie
Northern ie ī
Inari ie
Skolt ieʹ iõʹ
Kildin е̄ ӣ
Outcomes of first-syllable *uo
Second vowel *u *i
Southern ua åa ue oe åå öö
Ume ua ua ū ue
Pite ua, uo uä, uo ua, uo ū
Lule uo
Northern uo ū
Inari ye uo
Skolt ueʹ uõʹ
Kildin уэ ӯ, ы ӯ ӯ
Short mid
Outcomes of first-syllable *ë
Second vowel *u *i
Southern a ä, å e a, ï o e
Ume a å e
Pite a i
Lule a
Northern a
Inari a o
Skolt â âʹ õ õʹ
Kildin а э̄, э э̄, э
Outcomes of first-syllable *o
Second vowel *u *i
Southern å u o, a o u
Ume å u ü
Pite å u
Lule å
Northern o
Inari o u
Skolt å åʹ o
Kildin о̄ оа, о оа, о̄ о, о̄
Short close
Outcomes of first-syllable *i
Second vowel *u *i
Southern ä, ij ä i ïj y i
Ume ï i ï y i
Pite i
Lule i
Northern i
Inari i
Skolt e i
Kildin ы/и
Outcomes of first-syllable *u
Second vowel *u *i
Southern å, a å u o, ov o u
Ume u ü u ü
Pite u
Lule u
Northern u
Inari u
Skolt o u
Kildin у


  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 (ed.), Studien zur Phonologie und Morphonologie der uralischen Sprachen, Studia Uralica, vol. 4
  8. ^ Sammallahti 1998, pp. 7–8.
  9. ^ Sammallahti 1998, p. 8.
  10. ^ a b Sammallahti 1998, p. 26.