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Although the current Sami languages are spoken much further to the north and west, Proto-Samic was likely spoken in the area of modern-day Southwestern Finland around the first few centuries CE. Local (in Sápmi) ancestors of the modern Sami people likely still spoke non-Uralic, "Paleoeuropean" languages at this point (see Pre-Finno-Ugric substrate). This situation can be traced in placenames as well as through the analysis of loanwords from Germanic, Baltic and Finnic. Evidence also can be found for the existence of language varieties closely related to but likely distinct from Samic proper having been spoken further east, with a limit around Lake Beloye.
Separation of the main branches (West Samic and East Samic) is also likely to have occurred in southern Finland, with these later independently spreading north into Sápmi. The exact routes of this are not clear: it is possible Western Sami entered Scandinavia across Kvarken rather than via land. Concurrently, Finnic languages that would eventually end up becoming modern-day Finnish and Karelian were being adopted in the southern end of the Proto-Samic area, likely in connection with the introduction of agriculture, a process that continued until the 19th century, leading to the extirpation of original Samic languages in Karelia and all but northernmost Finland.
The Proto-Samic consonant inventory is mostly faithfully retained from Proto-Uralic, and is considerably smaller than what is typically found in modern Sami languages. There were 16 contrastive consonants, most of which could however occur both short and geminate:
|*? /?/||*? /?/|
|Fricatives||*? /ð/||*s /s/
Stop and affricate consonants were split in three main allophones with respect to phonation:
The spirant *? also had two allophones, voiceless [?] occurring word-initially and syllable-finally, and voiced [ð] elsewhere.
A detailed system of allophony is reconstructible, known as consonant gradation. Gradation applied to all intervocalic single consonants as well as all consonant clusters. This is unlike gradation in the related Proto-Finnic and its descendants, where it applied only to a subset. The conditioning factor was the same, however: the weak grade occurred if the following syllable was closed, the strong grade if it was open. This difference was originally probably realized as length:
Gradation only applied after a stressed syllable; after an unstressed syllable all medial consonants appeared in the weak grade.
In sources on Proto-Samic reconstruction, gradation is often assumed but not indicated graphically. In this article, when it is relevant and necessary to show the distinction, the weak grade is denoted with an inverted breve below the consonant(s): s : s?, ? : , tt : t?t?, lk : l?k?.
After the phonematization of gradation due to loss of word-final sounds, Samic varieties could be left with as many as four different contrastive degrees of consonant length. This has only been attested in some dialects of Ume Sami. Most other Samic varieties phonemically merged the weak grade of geminates with the strong grade of single consonants, leaving only three lengths. In some Samic languages, other sound developments have left only two or three degrees occurring elsewhere.
An asymmetric system of four short and five long vowel segments can be reconstructed.
Stress was not phonemic in Proto-Samic. The first syllable of a word invariably received primary stress. Non-initial syllables of a word received secondary stress, according to a trochaic pattern of alternating secondarily-stressed and unstressed syllables. Odd-numbered syllables (counting from the start) were stressed, while even-numbered syllables were unstressed. The last syllable of a word was never stressed. Thus, a word could end in either a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable (if the last syllable was even-numbered) or a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables (if the last syllable was odd-numbered). This gave the following pattern, which could be extended indefinitely (P = primary stress, S = secondary stress, _ = no stress):
Because the four diphthongs could only occur in stressed syllables, this stress pattern often led to alternations between vowels in different forms of the same word. More crucially, it led to alternations in inflectional endings between different words, depending on whether the second-last syllable of that word was stressed or not.
This alternation survives in many Samic languages in the form of distinct inflectional classes, with words with a stressed second-last syllable following the so-called "even" or "two-syllable" inflection, and words with an unstressed second-last syllable following the "odd" or "three-syllable" inflection. Weakening and simplification of non-final consonants after unstressed syllables contributed further to the alternation, leading to differences that are sometimes quite striking. For example:
|Proto-Samic||Northern Sami||Skolt Sami||Proto-Samic||Northern Sami||Skolt Sami|
|First-person singular present indicative||*eal-m||ealán||jillam||*v?st?t-m||vástidan||va?sttääm|
|First-person singular conditional||*eal-ki-m||ealá?in||jill?em||*v?st?t?ie-ki-m||vástidiven||va?stteem|
|First-person singular potential||*eal-?ë-m||ele?an||jill?em||*v?st?t?ea-?ë-m||vástideaan||va?stteem|
In compounds, which consisted of a combination of several root words, each word retained the stress pattern that it had in isolation, so that that stress remained lexically significant (i.e. could theoretically distinguish compounds from non-compounds). The first syllable of the first part of a compound had the strongest stress, with progressively weaker secondary stress for the first syllables of the remaining parts.
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|Nominative||?||*-k||Subject, object of imperative|
|Partitive||*-t?||Partial object, motion away|
|Essive||*-n?||*-jn?||Being, acting as|
|Inessive||*-sn?||Being at, on, inside|
|Elative||*-st?||*-jst?||Motion from, off, out of|
|Motion towards, to, onto, into|
*-jnë (In, Lu)
|*-j (+ *kuojm?)||With, in company of, by means of|
Several of the singular cases do not have a clear counterpart in the plural, or have different formations ancestral to different Sami languages. For example, what would later become the accusative plural developed out of the partitive plural form, while the inessive plural is the original essive plural form. The comitative plural was in origin a periphrastic construction consisting of the genitive plural with the noun *kuojm? "companion". It is likely that the case system was still partially in development during the late Proto-Samic period, and developed in subtly different ways in the various descendants.
In most Samic languages, the case system has been simplified:
|3rd dual||*-p?n||*-jkV- (West)
The following non-finite forms were also present:
The vocabulary reconstructible for Proto-Samic has been catalogued by Lehtiranta (1989), who records approximately 1500 word roots, for which either a pre-Samic ancestry is assured, or whose distribution across the Sami languages reaches at least from Lule Sami to Skolt Sami. Within this sample, loanwords from the Finnic and Scandinavian languages already constitute major subsets, numbering slightly over 150 and 100, respectively.
This approximate point of Pre-Samic marks the introduction of the oldest Western Indo-European loanwords from Baltic and Germanic. Loans were also acquired from its southern relative Finnic, substituting the early Finnic sound *? with Samic *?. Likely contemporary to these were the oldest loanwords adapted from extinct Paleo-European substrate languages during the northwestward expansion of Pre-Samic. Prime suspects for words of this origin include replacements of Uralic core vocabulary, or words that display consonant clusters that cannot derive from either PU or any known Indo-European source. A number of the later type can be found in the Finnic languages as well.
Later consonant changes mostly involved the genesis of the consonant gradation system, but also the simplification of various consonant clusters, chiefly in loanwords.
A fairly late but major development within Samic was a complete upheaval of the vowel system, which has been compared in scope to the Great Vowel Shift of English.
The previous changes left a system consisting of *i *e *ä *a *o *u in the first syllable in Pre-Samic, and probably at least long *? *? *?. In unstressed syllables, only *i *a *o were distinguished. The source of *o is unclear, although it is frequently also found in Finnic.
The table below shows the main correspondences:
The processes that added up to this shift can be outlined as follows:
At this point, the vowel system consisted of only two short vowels *? *? in initial syllables, alongside the full complement of long vowels *? *? *? *? *? *?. In non-initial syllables, the vowels were *? *? *?. After this, several metaphonic changes then occurred that rearranged the distribution of long vowels in stressed syllables.
Sammallahti (1998:182-183) suggests the following four phases:
The inventory of long vowels in stressed syllables now featured seven members: *? *? * *? * *? *?. However, in native vocabulary *? * remained in complementary distribution: the closed-mid vowel only occurred before following *?, the open-mid vowel only before following *?, *?.
Further changes then shifted the sound values of the unstressed syllables that had conditioned the above shift:
Lastly, a number of unconditional shifts adjusted the sound values of the vowel phonemes.
To what extent the two last changes should be dated to Proto-Samic proper is unclear. Although all Sami languages show these changes in at least some words, in Southern Sami and Ume Sami earlier *?, *?, *?, *? are regularly reflected as ij, i, u, uv in stressed open syllables. It is possible that these are archaisms, and shortening and lowering occurred only after the initial division of Proto-Samic into dialects. The effects of the vowel shift can be illustrated by the following comparison between Northern Sami, and Finnish, known for retaining vowel values very close to Proto-Uralic. All word pairs correspond to each other regularly:
|*kixi-||*kikë-||gihkat||kii-ma||PU, PS, NS: 'to rut'|
The main division among the Sami languages is the split between eastern and western Samic.
Changes that appear across the Eastern-Western divide are:
Innovations common to the Western Samic languages:
Pite Sami and Lule Sami form their own smaller subgroup of shared innovations, which might be termed Northwestern West Samic:
Northern Sami by itself has its own unique changes:
The Eastern Samic languages have the following innovations:
Skolt and Akkala Sami moreover share:
|*ë||i, e, a||a, o||a (o, e)||a||ë|
|*k?C?||kC||vC||vC (?C)||vC||Weak grade of clusters *k?t?, *k?c?, *k, *k?s?, *k|
|*?C||jhC||jhC (?C)||?C||Clusters *?n, *?t, *?k|
|Clusters *ck, *?k, *?m|
|*?m||*m: -> ?m||?m (m:)||vm|
|*N?N?||?N||?N (N:)||N:||Weak grade of original geminate nasals|
|*N||N:||(?N)||?N||?N (N:)||N:||Strong grade of original single nasals|
|*PN||N||?N||?N (N:)||N:||Clusters *pm, *tn|
|*NP||BB||BB||NB||Homorganic clusters *mp, *nt, *nc, *, *?k|
|*mP||b?B (mB)||b?B||vB||b?B||mB||Heterorganic clusters *mt, *m?, *mk|
|*nm, *mn||BN (NN)||BN||NN|
|*P||?P:||P:||Strong grade of original single stops and affricates|
Reflexes in parentheses are retentions found in certain subdialects. In particular, in the coastal dialects of North Sami (known as Sea Sami), several archaisms have been attested, including a lack of pre-stopping of geminate nasals, a lack of *?-vocalization, and a reflex /e/ of *ë in certain positions. These likely indicate an earlier Eastern Samic substratum.
In the history of Proto-Samic, some sound changes were triggered or prevented by the nature of the vowel in the next syllable. Such changes continued to occur in the modern Sami languages, but differently in each. Due to the similarity with Germanic umlaut, these phenomena are termed "umlaut" as well.
The following gives a comparative overview of each possible Proto-Samic vowel in the first syllable, with the outcomes that are found in each language for each second-syllable vowel.