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It would be fair to assume that the answer to this question is yes. At least if you base your conclusion on product packaging and many signs in Finland. All the more often, the Swedish version of text on product wrappers and on signs is less visible and often even less comprehensive than that of the Finnish version. More rarely, it’s simply badly or wrongly translated. So, it’s an often heard joke amongst Swedish speakers that a person has to have good eyesight to be Swedish-speaking.
The capital of our country, Helsingfors as we call it in Swedish, Helsinki in Finnish, is in fact Finland’s largest Swedish-speaking municipality if one goes by the raw number of Swedish-speaking Finns living there. There are roughly 30 000 Swedish-speakers in our capital, although it’s overall large population means that today these account for only slightly over 6% of the entire residents. But from its foundation by King Gustav Vasa in 1550 all the way until around the turn of the twentieth century, Swedish-speakers were in the majority. During the twentieth century, virtually the whole of Nyland (Uusimaa), but especially the capital, saw massive internal migration as thousands of Finnish-speakers from the interior of the country flocked to the more affluent south. Whilst they undoubtedly gave much to our nation’s economic progress, they had the side effect of irrevocably changing the language situation in many historically Swedish environs – a process that continues even today.
In today’s Helsinki, few Swedish-speaking Helsinki residents (at least those below around 60) bother to start conversations in Swedish in shops, businesses and often even with the authorities (who are legally obliged to offer services in both national languages). The frustration with being met by someone who does not understand or does not want to understand is just all too common. Yet, even in an ever more monolingual capital, there are still spaces that are exceptions to this rule. Places such as in branches of Aktia (a bank), certain known Swedish-speaking cafeteria hangouts and other traditionally Swedish-speaking-owned businesses and of course Stockmann are still thought, by many, to be places where one can naturally speak Swedish without causing oneself too many problems.
It has therefore caused a minor controversy – at least within the pages of Hufvudstadsbladet (slang: Husis) – that Stockmann (slang: Stokis) has, for the first time that at least anyone can remember, placed advertising signs outside its main central Helsinki department store in which the Swedish-text is not afforded equal coverage with the Finnish version. That the adverts also use the Finnish slang word ‘Stocka’ instead of the Swedish slang ‘Stokis’ even in the Swedish text just adds insult to injury. Stockmann’s marketing director brushes off criticism of both these matters saying that they had to make the Swedish text smaller as otherwise the advert’s picture would not have fit on the banner.
The title picture is taken a while back inside the then-newly opened extension of S-market in Borgå. The Finnish text directs the shopper towards the sugar (‘sokerit’). The Swedish shopper is sent to buy socks (‘sockor’, Swedish for sugar is ‘socker’). Source: Borgåbladet
Today, leaders of the political parties represented in the Finnish parliament signed a statement against racism and committing their respective parties to fight racism wherever it occurs and to have a zero tolerance attitude towards any instance of racism. The leaders of all the parties committed themselves to this iniative, which originated from the Swedish People’s Party (SFP). All the leaders, except Timo Soini (pictured) of the so-called ‘True Finns’ party (Perusuomalaiset).
This rather confirms that the ‘True Finns’ are quite happy, even proud, to have openly racist candidates and opinions within their party, which is a sad development for Finnish politics. There again, perhaps one should have not expected anything else from this particular party. Where questions absolutely must be asked, however, is to the Christian Democrats. The Christian Democrats have entered into an electoral alliance with the ‘True Finns’ for June’s European parliamentary election. This effectively means that a vote for the Christian Democrats is a vote for the ‘True Finns’. I wonder what the voters of the Christian Democrats think to their votes going towards helping to elect racists. Swedish-speaking Christian Democrat supporters will also want to question as to whether they can stomach potentially helping to support electoral gains by a party openly hostitle to the Swedish-language and minorities in general. The Christian Democrat leadership ought to be embarrased by this bed-shearing with the discriminative ‘True Finns’. Let’s hope they still find time to redeem themselves and reject this electoral alliance in which they so clearly sacrifice their principles by enterting into.
The twist over whether the town of Karleby (Kokkola) will align itself with Uleåborg (Oulu) and Lappland as part of the future regional administration reforms continues. The Centre party dominated provincial council of Mellersta Österbotten (Central Österbotten), of which Karleby is the biggest municipality, has voted to align the entire province northwards. The majority of politicians in the town of Karleby itself (although not Centre) are of the opinion that Karleby should be a part of the Vasa region. This issue is of particular importance to Swedish-speakers in Karleby who would have little chance of obtaining high quality services in Swedish from an administration based in the unilingual Finnish-speaking north.
The Centre Party’s dogged insistence that Karleby’s future lies northwards again shows their complete disinterest (and even hostility) towards safeguarding the legal rights of Swedish-speaking Finns. It again shows their lack of respect for municipal democracy, as we’ve seen before in the case of strongly bilingual Sibbo (where Centre supported the annexation of a significant portion of that municipality by Helsinki against the Sibbo residents’ wishes). Now it seems that Centre cares so little for the interests of Swedish-speaking Finns, even their own party’s Swedish-speaking district has appealed to ministers of rival parties to ensure that when the cabinet take their decision on Karleby’s future, they choose the southern option. According to a report on Radio Vega, the Swedish-speaking Centre district has appealed to the National Coalition party (Kokoomus) minister Jyri Häkämies (who sits on the ministerial working group that handles regional administration matters) side-stepping their own Centre minister Mari Kiviniemi who is the actual lead on this issue as Municipality and Regions minister. Quite extraordinary.
With this in mind, one has to ask what the point of a Swedish-speaking Centre district if it can’t achieve even influence within its own mother party. This seems to prove the thesis that it has only been set up in order to try and win votes for the Centre party from a new sector of the population, rather than to actually represent Swedish-speaking Finns in politics. One must wonder when the Swedish-speaking district’s chairman, the controversial Peter Albäck, will realise this; that he and his district’s members are being used by the Centre party.
The ministerial working group handling Mellersta Österbotten and Karleby’s future, and that of around 13 000 Swedish-speaking Finns in the region, will meet tomorrow.
Comparing the Nordic countries: Part 1
The Scandinavian public service broadcasting companies’ main news programmes are currently running a joint theme looking at the relationship towards different aspects of life in the Nordic region. As part of this, they’ve carried out a wide-reaching opinion poll of people in each country.
The results of the first theme reported on by the broadcasters came out last week. This looked at how the Scandinavian countries see one and other. Reporting of this particularly focused on the results of the opinion poll’s question, “If you had to live in another Nordic country other than your own, which one would you move to?”. From this, it became clear that Finland was not at all popular as a destination for our neighbours in Sweden, Norway and Denmark; only 4, 2 and 1 per cent of people in each of these respective countries answered Finland. 41% of Finnish respondents said they’d live in Sweden, 30% Norway, 14% Denmark and 3% Iceland (10% answered “don’t know”).
The Swedish and Norwegian broadcasters’ reports on the poll results focused on just why Finland was so unpopular as a choice. Norwegian NRK’s evening TV news presented a row of brief “in the street” interviews with Norwegians in Oslo which bought out the usual stereotypes of Finland. Most Swedes and Norwegians asked, however, said it mainly came down to language, the perception that Finnish is nearly impossible to learn and that one can’t get by speaking a Scandinavian language in Finland. Of course, neither of these two things is actually true. Finnish is not impossible to learn and is not even particularly that hard, being such a logically structured language – it is however bewildering at the beginning or if one just glances at it, as to a Germanic language speaker, it’s just so different. And of course, the usual lack of knowledge that Finland is in fact a bilingual country and that one can survive in many places speaking a Scandinavian tongue and indeed get services in one, again showed through in the results.
Perhaps what the survey did show is that all of our education systems ought to focus more on the common aspects of our history so that we know more facts about one and other, rather than having to rely on stereotypes. In Finland, this would mean ensuring that the history of pre-1809 is once again included in the compulsory history curriculum in schools. That is is not there already now seems ridiculous, when one thinks of the roll of the Swedish period in shaping the form of our country. This 200th anniversary year of the Diet of Borgå, where the Russian tsar Alexander I, confirmed that the rule of law from the Swedish period would be followed as Russia took ownership of Finnish territory, would seem a good time to introduce such a reform.