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One assertion that one often hears about Swedish-speaking Finns is that we are dying out, caught in a relentless downwards spiral of decline, and that somehow inevitably we will eventually disappear. Whilst times may feel increasingly hard for the Swedish language in Finland, such assertions are false.
In fact, according to the latest statistics the population of Swedish-speakers in Finland is increasing. Today we are slightly more than 290 000 and according to a population prognosis, we will pass 300 000 in around 15 years time. This is clear from an article in Hufvudstadsbladet. The newspaper spoke with Fjalar Finnäs who has recently produced a statistical report on the situation of Swedish-speaking Finns. Finnäs is a professor of demography at Åbo akademi university.
Until 2005, it was true that we were in decline but today more Swedish-speakers are being born than are dying. The reason for the previous decline was that so many Swedish-speaking Finns emigrated to Sweden during the 1950s and 1960s. It’s well known that many Finns moved to Sweden during this period, but it is often overlooked that Swedish-speakers were massively over-represented amongst them. Some estimates state that as many as 25% of all the Finns that moved to Sweden during this period were Swedish-speaking (a much higher proportion than amongst Finland’s population).
Another reason why the population is today increasing is an increasing tendency amongst mixed language group couples to register their children as Swedish-speaking rather than Finnish-speaking.
As a proportion of the population, Swedish-speaking Finns have decreased to around 5,4% of the population. The number of Finnish-speaking Finns has also decreased as a percentage of Finland’s total population as the number of speakers of other languages has increased.
Swedish-speakers on average live longer, get divorced less often, have lower unemployment and retire early on sickness pensions less often than the Finnish-speaking population. This also helps the demographic situation of Swedish-speaking Finns.
This is the conclusion of sociologist Thomas Rosenberg from Lovisa on why some of the Finnish-speaking population are irritated by their Swedish-speaking compatriots.
His remarks come in the wake of the story of an 18-year old Swedish-speaking woman being assaulted at a restaurant in Åbo/Turku by a Finnish-speaking man because she was speaking Swedish.
According to Rosenberg, such a case is nothing new. “I don’t even know how many times I myself have been forced to flee from a pub because I was speaking Swedish – but it’s many”, he told the new Swedish-speaking youth website Peppar.fi. “During the 1970s and 1980s, the aggression against us Swedish-speaking Finns was strong, perhaps stronger even than today.”
Few researchers are prepared to – or dare to – comment on the subject of aggression towards Swedish-speakers by Finnish-speakers, reports Peppar.fi.
Thomas Rosenberg suggests that the reasons behind the increase in anti-Swedish feelings amongst Finnish-speakers may be down to the fact that there has been an increase in Finnish chauvinism in recent times at the same time as populism has grown. According to Rosenberg, this is partly because Europe has become more international and all the more immigrants have arrived. This has caused a kickback reaction. Rosenberg says that we know from the past that negative attitudes towards other cultures have always been strong in Finland, “we are a young nation. What we see now is a strong will to defend Finnishness. It is somewhat comic that this aggression is often directed towards us Swedish-speakers instead of towards immigrants”.
On being asked what Swedish-speakers can do to counteract this aggression, Rosenberg replied that “it is hard because the Finnish-speakers have a picture of us as being happy, positive and pleasant people. This image that they have created of us creates envy. We are not really freed from the stamp of being “bättre talande folket”* just because we are so damned happy and integrated and social competent and cocktail-knowledgeable and succeed so well. We appear to seem as governors of the poor Finnish-speakers in their image. That can be irritating for them. The stamp of us being the elite remains.”
Rosenberg suggests that Swedish-speakers lower their demands in order to improve relations. He suggests that a regional dimension is bought to the fore and suggests that we should abandon the concept of “forcing” people to learn Swedish throughout the entire country.
“I belong to the those that spoke in favour of abandoning compulsory Swedish language lessons in Finnish-speaking schools. We paid a high price for ‘compulsory Swedish’ because it was so unpopular. In the coastal areas [where the majority of Swedish-speakers live], people absolutely ought to study the minority’s language, but I think it is politically unwise to do this in the whole country. We should think in regional terms and restrict Swedish in Finland to the coastal areas – but there we ought to get stronger rights”
On being asked whether he was speaking about a ‘reserve’, Rosenberg answered yes. “Svenskfinland [Swedish-speaking Finland] is already a reserve to a great extent. We ought to reach a historic compromise and wind down the demand for a bilingual Finland and give up ‘compulsory Swedish’, just so long as we do not need to beg an apology for speaking Swedish in Svenskfinland.
Rosenberg hopes that reaching such a compromise would be possible. “Swedish is currently continually being undermined as an official language. There is just an long series of loses, and it is certainly the fault of politicians. We have too long lived with the belief that we have a good language law – but it reflects an early twentieth century reality that we no longer live in. I do believe that in the long run, the historically dependant prejudice based on us being ‘occupants’ will disappear. But we’re not there yet”.
* Svenskatalande bättre folk – “Swedish-speaking better people”. A common stereotype held of the Swedish-speaking Finns, usually with a derogatory meaning. Based on an untrue image that the Swedish-speakers are all rich and perhaps snobbishly assume that they are a ‘better people’ than the Finnish-speakers.
This article is based heavily on Peppar.fi’s article, which can be found here [SV]. Thus, any errors and the woodenness of the translation are entirely my fault!
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
Swedish-speaking Finns are becoming all the more bilingual. That’s according to the latest trend from the Finland-Swedish Barometer survey.
According to researcher Kjell Herberts at the Institute for Finland-Swedish Future Research, one can read this trend by comparing the latest barometer results with surveys done in the past. In 1950, 46% of Swedish-speaking Finns asked said that they had a strong command of both national languages. According to the most recent research, 82% of Swedish-speaking Finns are of the opinion that they have a strong command of Finnish as well as Swedish. (Although it is apparently hard to make a totally accurate comparison, as the questions were asked differently in 1950 as to more recent surveys, and the question does not necessarily imply that one should be fluent in Finnish to give a positive response).
According to Herberts, the situation for Swedish in Finland is made more difficult by those Swedish-speaking Finns who so easily and willingly switch to using Finnish when accessing services. According to Herberts, it is also the case that the more bilingual one becomes, the easier it is to abandon one’s own language. Herberts, however, does not believe that the existence of Swedish in Finland is threatened in at least the short term.
The latest barometer survey also shows that Swedish-speaking young people are significantly less interested in politics than their Finnish-speaking counterparts. 77% of Swedish-speaking youths said that they were either not at all interested or not especially interested in politics.
So was the title of Björn Månsson’s interesting leader article in this morning’s Hufvudstadsbladet.
Revisiting the issue of a separate European parliament seat to represent Åland (as Åland politicians are demanding) or for the wider group of all Swedish-speaking Finns (as Henrik Lax and some others have raised), the leader article unveils some interesting facts which make the demand not so unreasonable as it might have previously seemed.
Månsson draws the reader to the attention of the case of the German-speaking minority in Belgium. Like Åland, they have their own parliament and effective autonomy in their own region. The German minority in Belgium are around 73 000 people – rather more than Åland (around 27 000) but small compared to the total number of around 300 000 Swedish-speaking Finns. Yet, the German-speaking Belgians are guaranteed their own place in the European parliament. And that’s despite their proportion of the entire Belgian population being only 0,7 %. Swedish-speaking Finns make up around 6 % of Finland’s population; Ålanders account for about 0,5 %. Looking at those statistics, it’s harder to argue against a specific Swedish-speaking mandate.
Månsson goes on to highlight the case of the German-speaking minority in Italy, the residents of South Tirol. They also have, practically, a safe seat in the European parliament. What’s especially interesting here is that this German minority is around 290 000 in number – i.e. more or less exactly the same in number as the Swedish-speaking Finns. Yet, looking at them as a proportion of Italy’s entire population, they comprise just 0,5 % – a percentage that is equivalent to Åland’s share of Finland’s people. Surely then, Åland’s demands for its own seat in the EU parliament are entirely reasonable.
Perhaps it’s not as easy as that. Månsson points out that it’s much easier for Italy to give away one seat to a minority as due to Italy’s large overall population it gets an entire 78 places in the EU parliament. But for Finland, with only 13 European parliament mandates, giving one mandate away to a district of just 0,5% of the people would seem highly inequitable.
So, perhaps Finland should ask the EU for an extra seat to be given to Åland. According to Hufvudstadsbladet, that seems an unlikely option. The EU has thrown that option out of the window for fear of opening a Pandora’s box where all of Europe’s autonomous areas demand their own individual seat. So, perhaps the second option is to give a mandate to the entire Swedish-speaking population. According to Månsson, that could be secured by introducing a requirement for one of Finland’s MEPs to have Swedish as their mother tongue.
For me, a Swedish speaking mandate sounds impracticable. If we were to use the suggestion in this Hbl leader, how would we make sure that the electorate vote in one MEP with Swedish as their mother tongue? If the first 13 people elected all have Finnish as their mother tongue, do you deprive number 13 of his or her seat and install the most popular Swedish-speaker even if they got a lot less votes than any in the top 13? Surely that would cause an outcry – not least in some quarters of the Finnish language press. It would also be impossible to create a geographic voting district – Finnish and Swedish speakers live side by side. Svenskfinland is not a clear cut geographic entity.
In any case, even if there were to be a Swedish-speaking seat created, would the people of Åland be satisfied? As Månsson writes, probably not. There are many people on Åland who don’t even consider themselves Swedish-speaking Finns (finlandssvenskar). For them, they are Ålanders (ålänningar) – and that is a status apart. For them, it’s only direct representation for Åland – and Åland alone – that will do.
The Minister of Culture and Sport Stefan Wallin (sfp) has repeated his belief that there should be more women in positions of leadership in Finland.
According to FNB (STT) via Hufvudstadsbladet, the chairman of the Swedish Peoples Party said today that “Women are often higher educated than men and make up almost half of the Finnish labour force. Yet, that’s not seen in leadership positions. In 2006, only around a fifth of all persons in positions of leadership were women.”
Wallin expressed particular disappointment that the percentage of women on the boards of publically traded companies had increased so slowly. Only 12 % of board members are female.
Nearly 4 out of 10 Swedish-speaking Finns believe that an organised resistance exists towards Swedish-speaking Finns and Swedish-speaking culture in Finland.
This is revealed in a opinion survey that the Swedish department of Finland’s public service broadcaster Yle ordered from the Institute for Finland-Swedish Societal Research (IFS) at the university Åbo akademi.
38% of Swedish-speaking Finns believe there is an organised opposition to all things Finland-Swedish, 35% don not share this view and 27% chose not to answer this question.
According to Yle, IFS researcher Kjell Herberts thinks the trend is clear – Swedish-speaking Finns feel concerned and anxious and see that understanding for the Swedish-speaking element in Finland can no longer be taken for granted. Herberts believes that, for example, the handling of the restructuring of the municipalities and basic services can have contributed to this viewpoint. In the view of Herberts, things felt much more secure in the past. Now Swedish-speaking Finns often see that it’s just talk, not action, when decision makers promise to safe-guard Swedish-language services.
Low marks for almost all decision makers
As part of the survey, respondents were asked to rate various institutions and the parliamentary political parties, using a school-style grade (from 4-10), for how good they are in handling Swedish-speaking issues. Few got good grades.
Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen’s (centre) coalition government received a low 5,9.
The Swedish Peoples’ Party (SFP) received the best grade, 8. This is quite a surprise as SFP has been criticised in recent times for not managing to succeed in defending Swedish-speaking interests well enough – it has sat in coalition governments that have removed Swedish as a compulsory element of the school graduation exam for Finnish-speaking students and that have reformed institutions in ways seen as marginalising the Swedish-speaking influence.
The other political parties received even worse grades. The Social Democrats (SDP) received 6,3. The Christian democrats got 6 and the Green party 5,9. The Left Alliance received 5,6. The two biggest parties in the current parliament, National Coalition (Kokoomus) and Centre received 5,5 and 5,4 respectively. The lowest grade was given to the True Finns party, who received 4,4.
85% think Swedish should be part of the school graduation exam
If it were up to Swedish-speaking Finns, Swedish would again be introduced as a compulsory element of the school graduation exam for Finnish-speaking students.
53% of respondents would make the other domestic language (i.e. Swedish for Finnish-speakers and Finnish for Swedish-speakers) obligatory in the test. 32% support making it compulsory but don’t believe it’s a realistic proposition. 15% thought it should not be compulsory.