Skip to content
printicon
Main menu hidden.

Naming and Narrating Places: Empowering Sami Traditions and Identities through Popular Place-Making Processes

Research project The purpose with the project was to study the decision-making processes that in Sweden precedes a decision to adopt a minority place-name.

The project illuminates the complexities involved in the process of making minority place-names official and using them on maps and signs. Our studies describe in detail the processes. The minority place-names have the power to strengthen indigenous languages, cultures and identity, and the criteria for decision-making are therefore important. The project demonstrates that good reasons exist why official regulations regarding minority language place-names should be revised.

Head of project

Project overview

Project period:

2013-01-01 2016-12-31

Participating departments and units at Umeå University

Department of Language Studies

External funding

Formas

Project description

The main purpose with the project was to study the decision-making processes that in Sweden precedes a decision to adopt a minority place-name in the basic database of the Swedish National Land Survey (‘Lantmäteriet’). After a name is registered in this database place-markers (road signs) can be set up. Such markers makes minority language visible in the linguistic landscape and also acknowledges the presence of minority groups in society

A hypothesis has been that the current decision making processes in Sweden, which are adapted to suit cases of Swedish place-names, can be in need of revision when it comes to minority language place-names.

Within the project the following data have been collected and analyzed, using thematic analysis and qualitative socio-onomastic approaches:

1.       Questionnaire survey with representatives of Sweden’s 19 Sami administrative areas.

2.      Compilation of a corpus with all official documents regarding three different place-name processes: the implementation of an official Sami name for Lycksele, Dorotea and Umeå.

3.      Two questionnaire surveys, one Internet based and one physically displayed at Västerbotten museum during the Sami Week 2017, both regarding the Ubmeje name process.

4.      In addition, archival data from the Institute for Language and Folklore (‘Institutet för språk och folkminnnen’) and the Swedish National Archives (‘Riksarkivet’) have been consulted in order to clarify the history of relevant place-names.  

The project has illuminated complexities involved in the process of making minority place-names official and using them on maps and signs. In a number of studies, Andersson and Edlund, describes the details of the societal processes that eventually results in official decisions regarding minority place-names as Ume Sami Ubmeje (for Umeå), Ume Sami Likssjuo or South Sami Liksjoe (for Lycksele) and the South Sami Birjevahne, Döörte as well as Kraapohke (for Dorotea).

When the Swedish National Land Survey decides whether a minority name should be included in the database or not, they look at local use of the name since 1930. Whether or not a municipality is part of a minority language administrative area or if the name in question is part of a revitalization process is not taken into account.

This research project shows, however, that minority place-names can have a range of important functions that this official name process fails to take into consideration. This is illustrated through a qualitative study of the Ubmeje name process. Expressed summarily, minority place-names tell a story about the sociolinguistic context, but also about who lives in an area—regardless of the language they speak. This is an important function in post-colonial contexts because centuries of suppression of indigenous languages have led to massive language loss and even language death. For many indigenous people, language cannot be a cornerstone of identity. The place-name also tells a story about history, about historical connections to a place. Again very important, since colonialism in many contexts have severed indigenous peoples’ connection to places. Partly by telling these stories of the past and present, the minority place-name have the power to strengthen indigenous languages, cultures and identity. Although it is naïve to think that a place-name will lead to a significant increase in indigenous language use, but as a symbol it supports other processes and shows that society stands behind the development.

In the local discussion about minority place-names, small and vulnerable language groups are pitted against each other. This becomes apparent in the case of Ume Sami Likssjuo and South Sami Liksjoe (for Lycksele), two names that have been competing locally. For the Ume Sami in the south part of the Ume Sami territory and the northernmost South Sami in the Tärna region, the official Sami name for Lycksele becomes an important symbolic issue. The Ume Sami and South Sami names are not interchangeable, even if they are pronounced in exactly the same way. The orthography in itself has attained an identifying function.

The official processes of making decisions regarding Kraapohke for Dorotea shows how a place-name that was deemed as more or less dead actually lives on in local spoken language. This example illustrates the difficulties of establishing whether or not a name is in use when the name only is to be found in a limited circle of language users.

Minority language place-names makes minority groups visible and help strengthen threatened cultures and identities. Efforts must be made to document minority language place-names in actual language use, and given the difficulties involved, this demands more resources than today. Furthermore, the role of the Sami Parliament should be made clearer in the decision making process.  

The research project has demonstrated that good reasons exist why official regulations regarding minority language place-names should be revised. By including revitalization as a factor to consider in the official process, the intentions behind the regulations on national minorities and minority languages (SFS 2009:724) would be realized.

External funding