perjantai 11. marraskuuta 2011

Swedish-speaking Finns

As the Finnish language question is not internationally as well known as the Belgian or the Canadian one, I'll shed some light on that for my dear non-Finnish readers. This short personal approach is very superficial but for the interested one's there's a great deal of passionate text to be found on the subject.

Finland has two official languages, Finnish and Swedish. The Finland Swedish originates from the time when Finland still was a part of Sweden. Swedish was the official language used by nobles and officials, but the majority of the people spoke Finnish. In 1809 the modern day Finland became an autonomous part of the Russian Empire but the status of Swedish remained the same. When Finland gained its independence in 1917, Finnish had become the leading language. Today 5-6 % of the Finns on the mainland are Swedish speaking, living mainly in the southern and eastern coastal areas of Finland and in the Finnish archipelago.

The yellow indicates the Swedish-speaking area of Finland
The Finnish Swedish is bacally the same as Swedish Swedish, the main difference being the pronounciation. Here in Brussels I was walking with a Finnish friend in a very touristy restaurant street speaking Swedish. The waiters approached us and spoke Finnish to us, which was quite surprising actually. Well, what you should know is that I don't have a Finnish accent. I speak a different language.

Finnish and Swedish names differ greatly from eachother. My name is strictly Finnish, so people are quite often surprised that I also speak Swedish. Vice versa, people with Swedish names are often automatically assumed to speak Swedish. This is not always the case and it can even contribute to small scale self-questioning, especially considering that many of these people would have had the chance to learn Swedish if their parents would have decided so.

Having grown up in a city with 0,5 % Swedish-speakers, I have been fortunate to be able to go to a Swedish school. It has mainly contributed to building my identity. I have come to know a culture surprisingly different from the traditional Finnish one. I have been perceived as interesting and different just because I speak fluent Swedish. I have spent a summer in Norway when I was young and felt independent and strong, because I could communicate easily with the locals. Finnish employers highly value knowledge of Swedish language, because it is very useful but only a few people really have it.

Both languages are mandatory subjects in school but when Swedish-speakers communicate with the Finnish-speakers, either Finnish or English is used. Swedish has a very strong position in the Finnish society, which causes sometimes great frustration and even violent outbursts in the Finnish-speaking population. A good example is the following. Dick Harrison, a Swedish professor in history, wrote an article describing the the hateful approach to the Swedish language in Finland that had surprised him. After publishing the article, he received numerous emails stating that a Swedish person should not mix himself in a Finnish internal issue, especially considering that Sweden is only trying to invade Finland; that the Swedish have been depriving the rights of the true and original population of Finland since the beginning; and that Swedish is a small and unimportant language that it is unnecessary to study. The internet was filled with hateful speech about Harrison, who could not believe what was happening. His life was being threatened for truthfully describing the situation in Finland.

The idea that "true Finns only speak Finnish" is rooted in many and it is virtually impossible to have an objective public debate on the matter. Finland will not be divided into two but with parts of Finland where virtually no Finnish is spoken, the Swedish language is not going anywhere. Nor is the Finnish hostility towards the Swedish langage. A never-ending story.

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