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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Why a Swedish politician is demanding the right to speak an ancient ‘forest language’ in parliament

Sweden's forest language Elfdalian is at risk of dying out, and this week a politician took the question of its survival to parliament.

Why a Swedish politician is demanding the right to speak an ancient 'forest language' in parliament
Centre Party MP Peter Helander said he would be speaking the ancient dialect in the parliamentary chamber in future. Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT

Swedish MP Peter Helander, who belongs to the Centre Party and comes from the Dalarna region, asked Culture Minister Amanda Lind why the government had not chosen to investigate whether Elfdalian should be classified as a language, as the Council of Europe has proposed.

To make his point, he spoke a phrase in the language.

“This is Elfdalian, the remnant of Old Norse that we still have in Sweden. I have previously asked the minister to recognise Elfdalian as a minority language, and the Elfdalian language community have been working towards this for 15-20 years,” explained Helander.

“Even the Council of Europe has taken the position that Sweden should have an independent investigation into whether Elfdalian is a language or not. It is a language that is at risk of dying out and Sweden should take responsibility to protect this remnant of the Old Norse language.”

Before the minister could respond, the parliamentary speaker cut in to remind Helander that only Swedish may be spoken in the Chamber.

He responded: “Thank you, then perhaps we can have a debate on whether it was Swedish I was speaking or not, since the government says it is a Swedish dialect and not another language. In the future I intend to speak Elfdalian here, since the government thinks it is a dialect and we can speak dialect [in the Chamber].”

Elfdalian is mutually unintelligible with Swedish, bearing more resemblance to Icelandic and lacking the letters C, Q, X and Z.

The language was on the verge of dying out a few years ago, but has seen an uptick in interest – and speakers – thanks to efforts from the local community. That’s included courses for locals, a bilingual preschool teaching Elfdalian to youngsters, translating books into the language and even using the game Minecraft to make it appealing to the younger generation. As of 2017, only 60 people aged under 18 were believed to speak the language.

National recognition as a language would be an important step for Elfdalian, because it would give a boost to efforts to promote and protect it.

In 2016 it was assigned an ISO language code, which are used to help the internet classify what is or is not a language, but the Swedish government still classifies it as a dialect.

In response to Helander’s question, Culture Minister Amanda Lind said the government judged Elfdalian to be a dialect. Although she praised the work under way to preserve Elfdalian, she said it was not a priority.

Member comments

  1. I live in Alvdalen. Pixie hollow. ( clue in ELF). Many of my farming neighbors speak only the local language. My neighbor, from whom I buy my annual sheep, korv and what ever his wife makes, has hardly any Swedish. We have amusing conversations. But we communicate. Many of the road signs are a bit like driving in Wales. Weird to see. Ween for Vagen . Reading it is impossible.

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For members

SWEDISH WORD OF THE DAY

Swedish word of the day: liga

You may have this word in your native language or recognise it from football leagues such as the German Bundesliga or Spain's La Liga. Liga has a similar meaning in Swedish, too, with one crucial difference.

Swedish word of the day: liga

Liga originally comes from Latin ligāre (“to bind”). In most languages, liga means “league”, a group of individuals, organisations or nations who are united in some way.

Similar words exist in many European languages, such as Dutch, Spanish, Czech and Polish liga, Italian lega, French ligue and Romanian ligă.

A league is almost always something positive or neutral in other languages, but in Swedish a liga is something negative – a criminal gang, with the word ligist referring to a (usually young, male) gang member, thug or hooligan.

Political or diplomatic leagues are usually translated into Swedish as förbund (“union” or “association”) rather than liga: one example is the Swedish term for the League of Nations, Nationernas förbund.

The only exception to this rule is sport, where the popularity of international football leagues such as the Bundesliga and the Premier League has lessened the negative meaning somewhat in this context. Fans of hockey will be familiar with SHL, Svenska hockeyligan, and Sweden’s handball league is referred to as handbollsligan.

The history behind liga’negative meaning in Swedish can be traced back to the Thirty Years’ War, which took place largely within the Holy Roman Empire between 1618 and 1648.

Essentially, the Thirty Years’ War began as a fight between Protestant and Catholic states of the Holy Roman Empire, with Catholic states forming the Catholic League and Protestant states forming the Protestant Union.

Sweden was – and still is – Lutheran, meaning that, when they got involved in the war in 1630, their enemies were the Catholic League – or the katolska ligan in Swedish, with its members being referred to as ligister or “league-ists”.

King Gustav II Adolf eventually beat the Catholic League in 1631 at the Battle of Breitenfeld, ultimately leading to the formal dissolution of the league in 1635 in the Peace of Prague, which forbade alliances from forming within the Holy Roman Empire.

Although this may seem like ancient history, Swedes still don’t trust a liga – the word’s negative connotations have survived for almost 400 years.

Swedish vocabulary:

Jag är lite orolig för honom, han har börjat hänga med ett gäng ligister.

I’m a bit worried about him, he’s started hanging out with a group of thugs.

Manchester United har vunnit den engelska ligan flest gånger, men City är mästare just nu.

Manchester United have won the Premier League the most times, but City are the current champions.

De säger att det står en liga bakom det senaste inbrottsvågen.

They’re saying there’s a gang behind the recent spate of break-ins.

Villa, Volvo, Vovve: The Local’s Word Guide to Swedish Life, written by The Local’s journalists, is now available to order. Head to lysforlag.com/vvv to read more about it. It is also possible to buy your copy from Amazon USAmazon UKBokus or Adlibris.

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