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The Finns Who Speak Swedish


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Swedish-speaking parents in Finland face hard choices. If their own Swedish mother tongue is to continue, their child will have to be bilingual. Should the child go to a Finnish-language nursery school? A Swedish-language secondary school? Or what? But places at schools may be limited, so there could be no real choice at all.

Some parents succumb to the harsh facts of life. Finnish is the dominant language, the language of power, so they think their children should be brought up to speak only Finnish. Equally, the children of Swedish-speaking parents may opt to be more involved with Finnish than Swedish, through their choice of friends and colleges.

This is something that visitors to Finland find difficult to understand. Swedish-speaking, or Swedo-Finns, are not immigrants, nor are they Swedes. They may not even have any family connections with Sweden. They are Swedish-speaking Finns whose first language is Swedish but who can also speak Finnish, and who are obliged to do so at work and outside the home. When Finland is described as a “bilingual” nation, it means that Swedo-Finns can speak both Finnish and Swedish. Finnish-speaking Finns more often speak English than Swedish.

Swedo-Finns can attend Finnish schools and be taught in Swedish; they can read Finnish newspapers published in Swedish and listen to Swedish-language programs on radio stations, or watch Swedish TV. Swedish-speaking schools are few and often some distance from the home of Swedo-Finns.

Swedish speakers date back to the 700 years when Finland was the eastern part of the Kingdom of Sweden. Then, and also during the time when Finland was a Grand Duchy of Russia, from 1808 to independence in 1917, Swedish was the official language, the language of the government, of the law, of higher education, at the University of Åbo, and of the monied classes. There was a sizeable Swedish-speaking rural population, mostly in the west and south. It was not until 1828 that Åbo University established a Finnish language lectureship, and not until 1850 that a professorship of Finnish was introduced. A considerable number of the 19th century cultural ambassadors, painters and writers were also Swedish-speakers.

When Finland gained its independence, the 1919 Constitution decreed that Finland should have two official national languages: Finnish and Swedish. At that time, Swedish-speakers accounted for 12% of the population. Today the figure has shrunk to 6%. Only 300,000 people are now Swedo-Finns whose mother tongue is Swedish and who speak Swedish at home.

The town of Borgå continues to be the hub of Swedo-Finnish life. It was the birthplace of Albert Edelfelt (1854-1905) an early and successful painter. Finland’s national poet, the Swedish-speaking and writing Johan Ludwig Runeberg (1804-1877), taught there for 20 years. The opening words of his Swedish-language Fänrik Ståls Sägner (Tales of Ensign Stål) became Finland’s national anthem (Vårt Land, or Maamme in Finnish).

The compiler of the epic poem the Kalevala, Elias Lönnrot (1802-1884), was born in Nyland in the Southwest and has a Swedish name. He went on to become Professor of Finnish at Helsinki University. He also produced a Swedish-Finnish dictionary, which is credited with establishing a Finnish literary language.

In 1863 Czar Alexander II encouraged Finnish to become the dominant language and the language of power. Political disputes over the two languages flared up from time to time, especially in the 1920s and 1930s when it became a central political issue, with the accusation that Swedo-Finns were wealthy. It is noticeable that Finnish history books often play down the national and cultural contribution made by Swedo-Finns.

Sadly, the population of Swedo-Finns is dying out. The stalwarts of Swedo-Finnish culture – general interest newspapers for example – are on the decline. In 1960, there were 21 Swedish language newspapers (182 Finnish); in 1988 the figure was 14 (with 374 Finnish publications). Factors such as the growing number of “mixed marriages” between Finnish and Swedish speakers speed the decline, primarily because Finnish-speakers often do not have the will to learn Swedish. The prefer English, the glamorous language of the movies and pop songs.

The dwindling numbers of Swedo-Finns cluster around four main regions in the southwestern and western coastal areas – Nyland, Åboland and Österbotten. Here, Swedo-Finns account for about 20% of the population and the law requires that they are adequately catered for.

The case of the Åland Islands, which lie off the southwest of Finland almost halfway to Sweden, is unique. Though this is Finnish territory, the rules are reversed. When Finland became independent in 1917, the Ålanders’ background and culture were (and are) Swedish and they voted overwhelmingly to become part of Sweden. After much wrangling the matter went to the League of Nations in the early 1920s which decided that the Åland Islands remain Finnish but that the Islanders’ Swedish language would be safeguarded. The official language is Swedish and Swedish culture is preserved by law. The 24,000 Ålanders have their own parliament and government to rule their internal affairs. They are also a member to the main Parliament in Helsinki.

Talk to Swedo-Finns about the personal problems of being a linguistic minority and they will often tell you of the difficulties of not being able to epress themselves fully in both languages. Although technically bilingual in Swedish and Finnish, they know the frustrations of fishing for a specific word to convey a meaning in one language and being able to recall that word only in the other language. The plus side is that some Swedo-Finns, used to switching from Swedish to Finnish, become very able linguists, taking on board German, English, French, Danish and Norwegian without too much effort.

Excerpts from “Insight Guides – Finland”

June Pelo

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