Planet Earth

Saami I Am Not


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Finns and Laplanders speak related languages distinct from Indo- European, the main linguistic family of Europe. The Finno-Ugric language group is believed to have originated somewhere between the Ural Mountains and the Volga River. Linguists have naturally supposed that both the Finns and the Laplanders--also known as Saami--hail from that region. But recent genetic studies suggest otherwise. Finns, it seems, are more closely related to the Germans, English, and Italians than to the Saami, and thus they probably came to Finland from the south, not the east.

Molecular geneticists Antti Sajantila of the University of Helsinki and Svante Pääbo of Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich found that Finns were more likely to share identical microsatellites-- repetitive DNA sequences--with other Europeans than with the Saami. Meanwhile, more than a third of the Saami in the study group carried three specific genetic motifs that were found in only 1 in 50 Finns and in none of the other Europeans studied.

Although Sajantila and Pääbo have made the most detailed genetic study to date, other researchers have noted the European genes among the Finns--but attributed them to more recent European immigrants who mixed with an ancient populace of eastern origin. Sajantila, however, believes a better interpretation of the genetic evidence is that Finns colonized the land from the south some 2,000 to 4,000 years ago, adopting a proto-Saami tongue in the process.

Why would the Finns adopt the language of the reindeer-herding nomads they have displaced to the frozen north of Scandinavia? Usually it is the language of the oppressors that triumphs--as did proto-Hungarian, a Finno-Ugric language spoken by the Magyars who invaded Hungary in the ninth century. Sajantila points out that the Finns, who now outnumber the Saami by 100 to 1, may not always have been in the majority. In fact, studies of genetic diseases unique to the Finns indicate that at some point they went through a squeeze in numbers that, when the population later began to expand, resulted in the spread of rare, mutant genes. If this bottleneck occurred during their colonization of eastern Scandinavia, then the Finns might once have lived as a minority among the Saami.

We know from history that the Finns have been pushing the Saami northward, says Sajantila. So it seems that the Finns were more powerful. But if it’s true that the Finns have changed their language and obtained it from the Saami, it shows that the power game was not necessarily so simple or that the Saami were always the underdogs.

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