Sunday, July 17, 2016

Nations Can Be Divided by Many Things – The Saami are Divided by Two Alphabets

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 17 – The members of the Saami nation in Russia’s Murmansk oblast are divided “not by fish quotas, not by land and not by the government but by their alphabet,” a conflict that has been ongoing for more than 40 years and has involved Moscow, corrupt local officials, and concerns about foul language and kowtowing to the West.

            There are approximately 100,000 Saami in the world, of whom only about 2,000 live in Russia. But because they are so small, those involved in the fight are more willing to talk about this conflict than is the case with other larger nations. And consequently, this battle over two letters in the alphabet provides insights into more hidden debates elsewhere.

            Two Murmansk specialists on the Saami language, Rimma Kuruch and Nina Afanasyeva, have been working on the alphabet issue since 1976.  Three years later, they secured preliminary official backing for a new Saami alphabet, one informed by the experience of that nation in the West and including two Latin script letters (

                In 1982, however, the RSFSR education ministry decided that it was not happy with the new Westernized Saami alphabet. It represented a form of “kowtowing to the West” because it used the Latin script letters “j” and “h,” letters critical to the sounds of the Saami language but absence in Russian.

            That sparked a fight between the scholars in Murmansk and the officials in Moscow. After five years of back and forth, the officials won and those two Latin letter were replaced with two modified Cyrillic ones. During that fight, however, the Murmansk scholars were able to publish the first Saami-Russian dictionary in 1985 and use their alphabet, not Moscow’s.

            That alphabet in fact is the internationally recognized Saami one, used in Norway and Sweden and supported by the European Union.

            But Moscow officials began to take their revenge. First, they lured to Moscow the Saami translator of “Pippi Longstalkings” and set her up in opposition to the Murmansk experts. Then, they published her Saami primer. And finally, they froze out the Murmansk investigators, not showing them anything they had approved the publication of.

            It was the last that has provoked the current conflict. Afanasyeva says she and her colleagues found out in 2014 that the Murmansk Center of People of the North was getting ready to issue a new Saami-Russian dictionary. But officials refused to show her a copy of that book until just before it appeared.

            She and her colleagues pointed to numerous errors and to the inclusion of many vulgar and offensive terms but were told that there was no reason to prevent the planned publication of the book. Russian officials appeared to have won the battle of the alphabets, but they put themselves at risk of losing in the new climate by supporting publication of offensive words.

            After the dictionary was released, reports, the local newspaper, “Lovozerskaya Pravda” began to publish articles suggesting that the new dictionary with the offensive language was no accident. Rather, it was intended, the paper declared, to show the Saami people as backward and uncultured.

            Officials responded by saying that they would recall the publication and eliminate the offensive words if not the offensive alphabet.  But many Saami refused to exchange their copies of the original version – only 500 copies were printed and identified as “not for sale” -- and it is unclear what will happen to this edition and to those who retain it.

            Nadezhda Chuprova, the head of the Murmansk Center for Indigenous and Numerically Small Peoples of the North, says that “the situation with the Saami alphabet is very complicated. I am not a linguist and won’t comment, but there are documents from which it follows that this is one and the same alphabet,” differing only with the presence of two Latin letters or not.

             More research is necessary, she adds. But meanwhile, reports, “the official position of bureaucrats ‘from the Saami themselves’ is that there are two alphabets but that authors can use either of them.” Only the Russian education ministry can end this dispute, but Chuprova says this is an issue above her pay grade.

            But as usual in Russia today, this intellectual and political issue has become mired in corruption. It appears that far more money was allocated to publish the Saami-Russian dictionary than could possibly have been spent on it and that one of those involved was later charged with corruption.

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