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Swedish-Speaking Ostrobothnia

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At the turn of this century the Finnish- and Swedish-speaking populations in Ostrobothnia were still isolated from each other and the differences in the groups were noted. Most of the differences had their origin in local, cultural, and religious traditions.

Finland’s Swedish-speaking minority of just under 300,000 people, or about 6% of the nation’s population, inhabit four distinct regions: Ostrobothnia, Åboland, Nyland, and the Åland Islands. All four are situated on or near the western coast of Finland. The “capitals” of these regions are, respectively, Vasa, Åbo, Helsingfors and Mariehamn. The Swedish settlement in Ostrobothnia is located on the west coast, from Karleby in the north to Sideby in the south. It forms a belt of about 250 kilometers in length, and the Swedish settlement stretches no more than 50 kilometers from the coast in the west inland to the east. During the 20th century the population has declined from about 130,000 to 100,000, due mostly to a low birth rate and emigration to North America and Sweden. From this narrow strip of land there has been little contact across the rather distinct language frontier between Swedish and Finnish speakers. The only day-to-day contacts between the language groups occurred through the rivers, because fishing was of great importance to both groups.

Industrialization and urbanization brought considerable migration of Finnish-speakers to the coast. The roads were now built in an east-west direction, whereas most roads before had been built in a north-south direction. Today the formerly Swedish-speaking old cities of Karleby, Jakobstad, Vasa, Kristinestad and Kaskö are all bilingual, both legally and in practice.

For the Swedish-speaking fishermen and businessmen the sea connection to Sweden also played an important role. Until 1809, when Finland was part of the Swedish empire, the Swedish-speakers had an advantage because of their language abilities. The trade (of wood and tar) to Stockholm favored both skillful craftsmen and seafarers. For people living near the coast shipbuilding was of great importance for a long time. The tradition still lives on and some of the finest sailing boats in the world, including luxury cruisers, are designed and built in this part of Finland.

For coastal Ostrobothnians traveling and migration became a way of life. Often family farms were too small to support everyone in the family. And when emigration to America became an option, emigration and return-migration became a way of life for coastal settlements. A common saying about the Swedish Ostrobothnians is: “At home they long for far away, when abroad they yearn for home”.

For many Swedish-speaking Ostrobothnians the name Ostrobothnia (Österbotten-Pohjanmaa) still refers only to the area from Karleby to Sideby, now consisting of 16 municipalities, of which 7 enjoy the status of towns. It is still true that the cities of Närpes and Nykarleby have the old parish structure with many small villages where the majority of the people and most of the land are in the outskirts, in small villages.

The original name Ostrobothnia has a much larger geographic scope. In the Swedish language, Österbotten often denotes the area of the Swedish-speaking settlement in Ostrobothnia. Even after new provincial districts were created and the old province of Vasa län disappeared in 1997, the terminology is still confusing. For the purposes of weather forecasts today there are four districts: North Ostrobothnia, Mid-Ostrobothnia, South Ostrobothnia, and Ostrobothnia. The last-mentioned district refers to the Swedish part of Ostrobothnia.

A natural consequent of Finland’s historical connection to Sweden, the economic, cultural and political elite in Finland was predominantly of Swedish nobility, clergy and upper class. For some time during and after the Finnish language movement and into the 20th century, Swedish-speakers continued to be over-represented in certain key positions in Finnish society. This led to the erroneous impression that all Swedish-speakers in Finland represent the upper classes. The Swedish-speakers in Ostrobothnia have never identified themselves as belonging to the elite of Finnish society.

The Swedish-speakers of Finland enjoy a unique cultural autonomy, with a separate school system in Swedish which, however, follows the same curriculum as the Finnish-language system. Finland has a separate Swedish-language diocese of the Lutheran church, the Borgå diocese, and also a Swedish military unit, the Nyland Brigade in Ekenäs. The first university in Finland, Åbo Akademi, established in 1640, was moved to Helsinki a few years after the capital of Finland moved from Åbo. A Swedish-language university with the same name was re-established in Åbo in 1917, first as a privately funded univeristy and later funded by the government. Today Åbo Akademi University has two faculties and over 1,000 students in Ostrobothnia.

Ostrobothnians have been a traveling people and consequently returning emigrants brought many movements and new ideas to Finland. Thus the communist movement in Ostrobothnia was partly due to returning emigrants, who lived through the economic depression in the United States and Canada in the thirties. Even the peace movement and many religious movements were often adopted first by returning emigrants.

Different religious movements from abroad, such as Baptism, Methodism, Adventism and Pentecostalism, and national religious movements within the Lutheran Church, have struck root here. The peace and temperance movements have been of considerable importance in the region. One explanation for the prominence of such movements is that the belief in individual freedom and opposition to all kinds of collective pressure found a stronghold here. Today the Swedish-speaking Ostrobothnians are themselves proud of their purported or imagined stubbornness and love of liberty. It is no surprise that the Swedish-speaking municipalities of Ostrobothnia were among the first to take in refugees from Vietnam, Somalia and Kurdistan in the 1980s and the 1990s.

Writers in Swedish-speaking Ostrobothnia started a publishing company of their own because the large Swedish-language publishing houses in the southern parts of Finland were not interested in publishing their books. The Swedish-speakers in Ostrobothnia may well be one of the world’s most published language groups, relatively speaking. Just about every local community has writers, literature groups and circles. It is a matter of considrable interest that two of Finland’s most important national writers, Johan Ludvig Runeberg (1804-1877) and Zachris Topelius (1818-1898) came from Swedish-speaking Ostrobothnia. Both of them played a central role in the creation of a Finnish nationalist movement and a national identity in Finland during the Russian era.

Other Ostrobothnian writers are Jarl Hemmer (1893-1944, born in Vasa, who wrote “A man and his conscience” which deals with the Civil War in Finland in 1918 and its aftermath. Poet, novelist, playwright and academic Lars Huldén, 1926-), born in Munsala, is another towering figure in Finland-Swedish literature. He is currently engaged in the new translation of Finland’s national epic, The Kalevala, into Swedish. Swedish-speaking poet Gösta Ågren is another Ostrobothnian. One of the youngest writers is Lars Sund who wrote about emigration and the immigrant life in North America.

In the rural areas the language structure has remained quite stable. More than half of the Swedish-speaking Ostrobothnians live in municipalities where they make up the majority. In the cities, the language structure has changed during the 20th century due to Finnish-speakers moving in. As a national minority the Swedish-speakers in the towns of Ostrobothnia are characteristically bilingual, but still monolingual in some of the Swedish coastal villages. More and more Swedish-speaking Ostrobothnians take full advantage of the opportunity to live simultaneously with three separate cultures: Finnish, Swedish and Finland-Swedish culture.

Extracted from “Exploring Ostrobothnia” article by Kjell Herberts and Börje Vähämäki

June Pelo


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