Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Linguistic Strife

As the first question asker KaiWen gets answered first.

This is his question:

I hear that there is strife and controversy between the Finnish and Swedish speaking populations of Finland over language. Why is this? From what I understand they have equal legal status. There are plenty of other multi-lingual countries that seem to get along fine, like Switzerland or Singapore.


Well, thank you for your relevant and complicated question. Let’s start delving into this question with some background and statistics. About 5.5% of the Finnish population is Fenno-Swedish. In Helsinki the Swedish speaking population is about 7%. The autonomous region of Åland (Ahvenanmaa) is almost completely Swedish speaking. Most of the Swedish speaking population lives along the coast. My home city of Tampere seems to have relatively few of them. I have only ever met one. Not counting Åland there are about 250,000 Fenno-Swedes. In contrast there are 54,546 Russian speakers. Total population is about five and a half million based on current estimates.

Now that I have given you a bunch of gibberish numbers let me talk about the history of this language debate. The reason Finland has Swedish speakers who are Finns is that Finland was a province of Sweden up until 1800, I lost my history book so that is the best you get and need for the purposes of this article. After this Finland became an autonomous region within Russia. We retained Swedish as our governing language because that is what it had always been and Russia did not make us change it. Finnish was the language of the lower classes and Swedish the language of the educated upper classes. Later Finnish, after independence, was made into the language of government.

Over time the percentage of Swedish speakers has been declining but there are many communities that the percentage of Swedes if so high that some of them do not speak Finnish that well. Also in contrast I speak no Swedish at all, so bork bork bork. I see Swedish on a daily basis when I go to government buildings but in places like grocery stores, and the like, English is a much more common second language to write things in.

Now to the strife: I am sorry to disappoint you, KaiWen, the reports of actual strife are mostly limited to election times and as far as I have observed it is mostly centered on mandatory Swedish learning in schools. This means kids have to start studying Swedish in middle school whether they want to or not. Most people I have met have relatively little motivation for this because later when they are grown they will go to Sweden and use English as the common language because both Finns and Swedes have excellent English skills. Also English can be used to communicate with the Fenno-Swedish population too if their Finnish skills are poor.

During the parliamentary election this came up as an issue addressed by The Finns (Perussuomalaiset). They are a very nationalistic party and in my opinion racist and anti-immigrant in their policies. They wanted to remove mandatory Swedish from schools. This caused pro- and anti- demonstrations and it got a little heated there for a little bit but as the elections were over and the Perussuomalaiset failed to deliver on anything they promised it blew over along with their Get-those-Darkies-Outta-Here initiative.

The discussion about removing mandatory Swedish has been discussed since I was in elementary school and is one that is not likely to be resolved for quite some time now. I don’t think there has been much serious discussion about removing Swedish as the other official language. In conclusion, sorry to disappoint, KaiWen, the reports of language strife in Finland have been greatly exaggerated.

So, how was the first post? Anything I missed? Is the answer completely wrong? I welcome comment, addition and correction.