Searching for Suomenruotsalainen.
So, here we are, a country with two national languages. On the one hand we have Finnish, spoken by the majority of the population. On the other there is Swedish, the mother tongue of our national hero Carl Gustav Emil Mannerheim and currently around 300,000 people (5.5 per cent of the population; including). Scattered around the south, southwest and west coast of Finland, Swedish is also the language found on the autonomous group of rocks situated halfway to Sweden, also known as Åland, or Ahvenanmaa.
Many have attempted to put their finger on whom exactly the Swedish-speakers in Finland are, and many have failed. Take the Swedish-speaking comedian Andre Wikström for example, who tried to capture the essence of the Finland Swedes in a Facebook post:
“There are a lot of prejudices against us Finland Swedes. For example, that we are all very rich, live longer than the Finnish-speakers and during summer we only sail and sing schnapps songs.”
Well the explanation, according to Wikström, is that each time a Finland Swede is born, a star falls from the sky and when reaching the earth’s atmosphere it turns into a good fairy which brings the newborn a silver coin… well, long story short, after turning 18 the young Finland Swede sails to the Island Kökars in Åland/Ahvenanmaa, where the silver coin can be traded for an enchanted squirrel, from a troll called Lill-Mattsson, but only after amusing Lill-Mattson with 17 schnapps songs. Drowning the enchanted squirrel in camomile tea will then result in a long and healthy life, with a nice start-up sum of around 950,000 euros, which can be collected from the Aktia bank, but only from Aktia!
I can personally relate to Wikström’s theory in quite a few ways: I’m a Swedish-speaking Finn. I used to sail with my family when I was younger – never to Åland though. I’ve been to Åland, but never to Kökars and I have a bank account, but it’s not in Aktia. I’ve also drank camomile tea at some point or another, but I don’t think there was a squirrel carcass floating around in the teapot. So if Wikström’s theory doesn’t apply to all of us, what is it then to be a Finland Swede? Is it simply sharing the knowledge of a language or is there an enchanted squirrel hidden there somewhere, maybe inconspicuously dropped in the teapot when I wasn’t looking?
I’m a Finn with Swedish as my mother tongue, so a Finland Swede. I feel strongly Swedish-speaking because of my mother tongue, both my parents have had Swedish as their mother tongue, I’ve attended Swedish-speaking schools, Swedish-speaking hobbies and for the most part Swedish has been spoken within my friend circle. I’m a Finn who lives her everyday life almost completely in Swedish.
If I marry someone who speaks Finnish I’ve decided to speak Swedish with my children, and if I marry someone who speaks Swedish, I’ve decided to speak Finnish with them. Just to make it easier for them.
Growing up in Finland, speaking Swedish, but having a German mother makes it quite hard to tell what I actually am. I guess I could describe myself as a “half-German-Finnswede” if there is such a term?
I’m from Kronoby and I study in Vasa. In Finland I identify myself as an ‘Ostrobothnian’, in other words a hard drinking, hard working guy. Finland Swedishness in Ostrobothnia means that you only talk Swedish and not a lot of Finnish and in Nyland it means that you’re richer. I speak Finnish at work and when I accidentally try to pick up a Finnish-speaking broad at the bar.
Well, dazed and confused by these philosophical questions and theories, I contacted Kjell Herberts, a researcher of multilingualism and minorities at the Åbo Akademi University in Vaasa, whom I hoped could clarify this issue for me.
Herberts has been researching Finland Swedish society for years now, using different opinion polls and questionnaires as his instruments. These include his own ‘barometer’ which has been distributed among Finland Swedes yearly since 2000, and the ‘language barometer’ – in collaboration with the Ministry of Justice – which follows the Finnish and Swedish-speaking minorities in bilingual municipalities, to see how well the language law applies in practice.
By using blocks of questions related to the attitudes, values and lifestyles of Finland Swedes, the barometer attempts to put the Swedish-speaking population in a national, Nordic and European perspective, Herberts explains.
“But, in recent years, it has been mainly about trying to get a more longitudinal perspective of the Finland Swedes and Swedish in Finland and seeing if there are any differences between Swedish-speakers and Finnish-speakers.”
The results imply that it’s not always so easy to distinguish between the two, according to Herberts. Some Finnish-speakers tend to live very ‘Finland Swedish’ while there are Finland Swedes who live rather ‘Finnish’. Furthermore, the surveys and questionnaires don’t even reach the registered Finnish-speakers who have moved and assimilated to a Swedish-speaking region, he tells me.
In a way, I always knew it was difficult to pick the two apart, as there are no physical characteristics that give us away, except when we open our mouths and some unintelligible attempt at Finnish follows. But now Herberts says that there are native Finnish-speakers among us. How deep does the rabbit hole really run, I wonder, as perspiration begins to materialise on my forehead.
Then I remember Bero Persons, a student at the Swedish-speaking business school Hanken, whose dad is American and mom is Finnish-speaking. When I confront him on the subject he replies:
“I don’t identify myself as an American even though my father is from there, as I’ve lived here (in Finland) my whole life. But I feel quite lucky to have three languages from home and I would say that I’m in between Finnish and Finland Swedish, as in all my friends are Swedish-speaking and I have a strong relationship with the Swedish-speaking community, but I also speak Finnish at home. So I think I’ve seen both sides, but I would maybe say I feel more Swedish-speaking than Finnish-speaking,” Persons contemplates.
When it comes down to the big question of identifying the Finland Swedes, Persons thinks that, “it is a strong community. It’s a heritage that a part of the population carry on and I believe it’s really important as it’s a big part of our history. Because there is the language that unites them, the community is stronger and people know each other better, so it creates a belonging of some sort,” Persons reflects.
Okay, so now Americans are Finland-Swede also? It’s getting hard to keep up. Thus, I return to my conversation with Herberts, and ask him if he thinks there’s anything that characterises the Finland Swedes.
“Well, it has often got to do with what is connected with culture, the culture which is a bearer of the language. It is here where the Finland Swedes meet, which is in the mass media, in the industries, institutions and organisations of different kinds, and there you can probably see some differences as the cultures can differ somewhat. But otherwise I think you have to be very careful to draw these divisions between Swedish and Finnish in Finland, because we have so many who float over this, many times, artificial language border. When you live bilingually, sometimes you are more Finnish and sometimes you are more Finland Swedish,” Herberts says.
“Just look at how bilingual families live their lives, which part of their internal culture is Finland Swedish, and which part is Finnish? It becomes quite preposterous a lot of the times,” Herberts points out.
This is more like it! Finally something I can draw upon from my own experiences.
On an island of bilingualism
A little of my backstory: I was brought up on the Sea Fortress Suomenlinna, a 15-minute ferry ride from mainland Helsinki, where Finnish was chiefly spoken. This meant that most of my conversations when outside the refuge of my house – in day care, during evenings in the park playing football and with all my friends – were in Finnish. At home, however, Swedish dominated as it was the language I spoke with my mom and brother, while resorting to Finnish when I spoke with my dad.
There is nothing unusual about this, Herberts offers. “After interviewing hundreds of bilingual families, it became very clear that if the family attempts to find a balance between the languages and the parents are consistent in their communication, it is clear that you can grow up bilingual. But then I think that the choice of school language is quite decisive, when it comes to identity and consensus building.”
Jackpot!! The first time my bilingualism even became an issue for me, was when I was about to begin elementary school. When I was younger, instead of being sent to the Finnish-speaking elementary school in Suomenlinna with all my friends, as I had hoped, I soon found myself at a Swedish-speaking elementary school on the mainland. I wasn’t too pleased about this turn of events, but after much kicking and screaming I soon found that I rather enjoyed my new surroundings and my new Swedish-speaking kaverin (mates).
However, this is also when my first experience with the historic language strife in Finland took place, in a local candy store and video rental ‘kiosk’ where the older kids from a nearby Finnish-speaking school would throw around the word hurri whenever they referred to us (I still don’t know what it means), and in any other way make our lives a tad more miserable. Well, years and countless snowballs thrown later, the language question doesn’t seem so dramatic anymore. Apart from a few heated football games and some mud slinging at the snägäri (hot dog stand) after the pub, I only tend to encounter the language rift in politics, where the Swedish People’s Party and the (True) Finns Party are at each other’s throats, and in the media coverage that follows.
But recent headlines have also emphasised the ongoing language debate once again, with a citizens’ initiative calling for the end of obligatory Swedish in schools being signed by over 50,000 people, officially bringing the issue to parliament.
Whether Herberts thought that Swedish’s status as a national language would be in jeopardy if the obligatory Swedish was abolished in schools, he says, “I do think it would be the next discussion in that case, and other solutions would be sought-after. It is clear that in some parts of Finland it is very important and natural to use both languages, but not in the whole country.”
Map of Finland-Swedishness
Herberts, who has lived almost throughout Swedish-speaking Finland at some point or another, helps explain the difference between these regions by drawing a mental map of some of them. “If you consider the whole south coast, you could say from Lovisa (Loviisa) to Hangö (Hanko), it has been imprinted by a very strong Swedishness, but simultaneously, also by a, at times, rather strong Finnish occupancy. For example, Eastern Nyland (Uusimaa) has experienced that even though the population base has been the same, the majority has still turned into the minority. I think that has an effect on the mentality and maybe some people feel like living on an ice floe,” he illustrates.
“Then you can say that in Middle Nyland (Keski Uusimaa) they have learned to live in two languages and the threat there might be that Swedish is becoming a language used at home but not in the public space. I sometimes say that Finland Swedishness is strong as there are strong Finland Swedish institutions you bind the identity with, but the Swedish language’s viability is diminishing all the time in the public space,” Herberts continues.
Then you can look at Ostrobothnia, “where there are milieus which are fairly bilingual and the Finnish is strong. But at the same time Swedish is strong in, for example, Vasa (Vaasa), where you can comfortably live your life in Swedish. Of course you should be bilingual when working in the private or public sector, but there is a sense of security at least, when Swedish is not seen as threatened on the local level.”
Herberts also thinks that the figure 5.5 per cent that you so often encounter when talking about the Swedish-speaking Finns can be quite misleading. “The milieus are so very different that the 5 percent doesn’t mean anything if you live in Korsnäs and belong to a majority of 97 per cent or live in Vanda (Vantaa) where you are a minority of 5 per cent. They are completely different living conditions when it comes to language,” he says.
“So I think that the local situation characterises considerably more than we often realise. There are many who live in a Finland Swedish bubble without experiencing that they actually live in a bilingual milieu, and then there are those who want to join the Finland Swedish bubble because they finally want to get to speak some Swedish.”
Around a third of Finland Swedes feel like they are functional in both languages, according to Herberts. “This is especially somewhat younger people and people who live in the cities in Southern Finland. Then a bit more than a third, maybe 40-45 per cent who think they can manage more or less to have a discussion in Finnish, and then there is a diminishing group, maybe around 20 per cent who don’t think that they could manage an elementary discussion in Finnish. But the Åland residents are included in this number.”
At the end of our conversation, Herberts closes by saying, “I think there are many who grow up bilingual and live bilingually, and don’t understand why you have to discuss these questions and speak about identity like you have to pick a side. A very good model is this double identity, that sometimes you’re simply more Swedish-speaking and sometimes you’re more Finnish, and there shouldn’t be any conflict in that,” he finishes.
In a good place
As I say goodbye to Herberts over the phone, I sigh from relief as I now feel content of not having to literally “move back to Sweden” whenever someone tells me to do so. I can also keep on cheering for the Finnish ice hockey team and won’t have to swop my life-long heroes Teemu Selänne and Saku Koivu for Mats Sundin and Peter Forsberg. Phheeeeww…!!
I don’t even think I would feel very much at home in Sweden because each time I go there, some locals are wondering: ‘why is this Moomintroll-sounding guy speaking so good Swedish!?’ And after explaining for the 550th time that we are Finland Swedes who happen to have Swedish as our mother tongue, the next question rings: So you are Swedes living in Finland, right!?
At this point I usually suppress an impulse or two before correcting them politely, “No, we are Finns who talk Swedish, a legacy left by our countries’ mutual history.”
This tends to raise some eyebrows on both sides of the Gulf of Finland, but what can you do? Oh well, hejssan svejssan and thank you for your time, I got myself a troll to find. Ahoy!