Many towns, mountains, rivers in Swedish Lapland bear the names given to them by the Sámi people, usually describing their characteristics. When reading a map of Swedish Lapland, knowing the meaning of some Sámi words adds another, fascinating dimension to the landscape.

The Sámi language and the Finnish language, from the Finno-Ugric language tree, are related to each other, not very closely though (scholars argue about their closeness). It’s a language with many different expressions and synonyms for nature and reindeer husbandry.

The Sami language can be grouped into Eastern, Southern and Central Sámi. The groups may be further divided into varieties and ultimately individual languages, some of which are extinct today.

Sámi people in Russia speak Eastern Sámi, Central Sámi is spoken i Finland, Norway and Sweden, and Southern Sámi in Norway, although these divisions are only theoretical since people move all over Sápmi and the varieties change over time.

In Sweden, the most common varieties are Northern Sámi, Lule Sámi, Arjeplog Sámi, Southern Sámi and Ume Sámi. The dissimilarities in the different varieties are not unlike the differences in Swedish, Norwegian and Danish.

But the differences in Sámi varieties grow with geographical distances and varieties far away from each other, have as much in common as the Swedish and German language has.

Geargevággi/Kärkevagge or Rock vally (Stendalen).
Tuolpagorni and to the right, Vierranvárri.
On top of Giebmegáisi/Kebnekaise, Sweden's highest mountain.
Gaskkasbakti.
A glacier, or jietnja/jiekna.
In sight, Gaskkasbakti and Gaskascohkka. Can you spot which one is which? In sight, Gaskkasbakti and Gaskascohkka. Can you spot which one is which?

alep = higher. West(ern)
ára/áras = land with large boulders
ávrre (jávrre/hávrre) = lake
dievvá = hill
duottar = bare low fjell
gálav = ford
gaskka = in between
gårttje = waterfall
jåhkå = stream, creek
láhko = even tableland
lulep = East(ern)
måhkke = curve
njunjes = mountain spur
stuor/stuorra = big
tjåhkkå/cohkka = mountain peak
unna = small
vágge = glen, long valley
várre = mountain, fell
vuolep = lower, down below
Ädno = river

By the look of things

If you can understand some Sámi words; names of places, mountains, rivers – you can probably paint a picture of the mapped landscape and grasp the value of the land out of a sustenance perspective; grounds for fishing, hunting, reindeer husbandry or berry picking. A place can also be named after a person or happening. Like Nikkaluokta which means Nikka’s Bay and written as Nihkkáluokta in Northern Sámi.

The mountains, valleys and streams are usually named after their characteristics, they are terrain descriptive. A mountain with the last element ‘-bakti/bakte’ is with most certainty steep, while the last element ‘-tjvadda’ is a mountain without escarpments, i.e. the opposite of -bakti.

Usually names are put together, such as Badje and lánnda, Badjelánnda (Padjelanta in Swedish), meaning the higher land.

Kebnekaise, not what it seems

Giebmegáisi (or Kebnekaise) means high mountain peak with a cauldron, but Kebnekaise doesn’t have a cauldron shaped peak as the name suggests, whilst the closest mountain Tolpagorni has. Over a hundred years ago, Tolpagorni was called ‘Kebne kaise’ or ‘our cauldron’ in Northern Sámi, but was renamed. The theory is that the first expeditions that reached the Kebnekaise massif just assumed that the map pointed out the biggest mountain, not the one with a special characteristic, and gave Tolpagorni a new name.

So whether you are hiking in the Swedish Lapland mountains or just driving through the northern parts, knowing the meaning of some words might come quite handy. Road signs are usully written in both Swedish and Sámi – and in some parts of Swedish Lapland, in Meänkieli which is another minority language. But that is an entirely different story.

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