Thursday, 30 December 2010

The background to the language situation

In the latest issue of the Finland-Swedish journal Nya Argus (nr. 11-12, 2010) linguistics professor Fred Karlsson considers the present uneasy situation surrounding the status of the Swedish language in Finland above all through the prism of the past. In doing so he raises some interesting points that are sometimes forgotten: the men who in the 19th century worked to establish Finnish as Finland’s national language were, after all, Finnish Swedes. Snellman, Forsman and other representatives of the country’s Swedish-speaking intelligentsia helped to bring about a peaceful linguistic revolution, but were soon regarded as traitors by their own Swedish-speaking compatriots. Karlsson also examines the nowadays neglected role of the Finnish linguist and politician Emil Nestor Setälä (1864-1936) who single-handedly drafted Finland’s declaration of independence in 1917 and also wrote an important work on the language law of 1922, in which he emphasized that although Finland had two languages, this did not mean that Finland had two nationalities: “Finland’s people are one.”

The essay also traces the history of pakkoruotsi (tvångsvenskan or “compulsory Swedish” – the preferred translation “mandatory Swedish”  seems like a bit of a euphemism) – in Finland’s schools, pointing out, somewhat drily by reference to online discussions, that compulsion is not usually the way to make friends. There are, however, difficult decisions to be made. An education minister of the Kekkonen era is quoted as saying that if compulsory Swedish is abolished, it will be replaced by another language, “and that language is not Spanish”. Karlsson believes that it’s incumbent on Finland-Swedes to keep a low profile in the current language debate, and to leave it up to the Finnish-speaking majority and their political leaders to draw up guidelines as to their situation in Finland, Europe and the constantly changing modern world.

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