Academic from Helsinki feels right at home in northernmost Lapland

Pekka Sammallahti

Pekka Sammallahti

Pekka Sammallahti is researching the Sámi language and lives in Utsjoki, where one hears Sámi everywhere
A narrow winding forest road diverges from the main road between Utsjoki and Nuorgam, the northernmost village in Finland.
The road has no name, only a number.
At the end of the road, between the Finnish and the Norwegian fells, sits a hundred-year-old log house.
The closest neighbour is about a kilometre away as the crow flies.
Pekka Sammallahti, professor of the Sámi Language and Sámi Culture at the University of Oulu, is waiting for us in the house. How do, and welcome.
We just wanted to see what a Helsinki-born man is doing up here in the remotest corner of Lapland. Any further and he’d be abroad.
“He lives”, Sammallahti says with a genial grunt.

The 61-year-old Sammallahti works with the University of Oulu’s Giellagas Institute as a professor and teaches Northern Sámi as a first language.
Sammallahti’s interest towards the Sámi language stems from his childhood. The first time Sammallahti travelled to Lapland he was 11 years old, and from the age of 13 he has journeyed there every summer.
“I have never liked the city much. This kind of lifestyle suits me much better.”
Sammallahti’s involvement with the Sámi language kicked properly into gear when he started studying Finno-Ugric Linguistics and General Linguistics at the University of Helsinki. Nearly every one of Sammallahti’s papers was related to the Sámi language.
With regard to his knowledge of Sámi, Sammallahti is self-taught. As far as actual Sámi language studies, he has only ever taken one writing course.

Sammallahti’s wife Inga Guttorm is a Northern Sámi. The couple moved to Utsjoki in 1985. Their home was renovated from a log house built by Guttorm’s grandfather.
The move slightly increased Sammallahti’s length of travel to and from work. The commuting distance is 670 kilometres – each way. By bus and train the journey takes around ten hours.

For over twenty years, Sammallahti travelled to Oulu every week, leaving home on Monday and returning on Thursday.
“I have calculated that between 1984 and 2005 I have sat on the coach operator Eskelinen’s bus at least 1,500 times on the run between Vetsikko and Rovaniemi.”
Now a part-time pensioner, Sammallahti only travels down to Oulu every second month. The increased free-time he uses to complete half-finished book projects.
Among the works in progress is a definitive volume on Sámi phonetics.

In the professor’s view, documenting endangered languages is important for two reasons.
Firstly, it is resource science, based on which the language can then be developed further. Secondly, use of languages has to be cultivated, for language is one of the most important accomplishments of the human race.
“Many people share the view that the diversity of languages is just as important as biodiversity”, Sammallahti offers.

From the language perspective, however, the situation looks quite as grim as the future of our dwindling biodiversity.
It has been predicted that by the end of this century 95 per cent of the world’s languages will have died out.
Sammallahti is therefore annoyed by the fact that today’s researchers more and more concentrate on theoretical issues.
“There are plenty of philologists in the world, but the majority of them study dominant languages, such as English and French. The main emphasis should be in documenting endangered languages.”
Sammallahti practices what he preaches: among other things he has edited the Northern Sámi–Finnish and Northern Sámi–German dictionaries.

In the Sammallahti-Guttorm household, Finnish is only used when there is a visitor who does not speak Sámi. The Sámi environment is a definite advantage to a researcher of the language.
“In spontaneous everyday situations one constantly runs up against new expressions. It’s keeping a finger on the pulse, so to speak. One observes where the language is heading.”

Sammallahti is also captivated by the Utsjoki natural surroundings, which start right on his doorstep.
The yard slopes towards the old river bed of the Vetsijoki river, which soon merges with the larger Tenojoki, which follows and then crosses the border and flows eventually into the Arctic Ocean, and is also widely regarded as the finest salmon river in Northern Europe.
Along the path leading to the river, Inga Guttorm’s grandfather’s old boat Vellamo lies overturned.
“It has been there for 60 years, and there it will stay. I very much doubt it will disintegrate in our lifetime.”

By Niina Pasula

Source: Helsingin Sanomat

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