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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: dryg

The story of long-lasting dishwashing liquid via a 14th century manuscript, the Swedish word for 'queen', and someone acting a little bit cocky.

Swedish word of the day: dryg

Dryg has two meanings in Swedish, perhaps three:

1. Something that lasts, like concentrated dish soap.

2. To be cocky or haughty.

3. Just about or a little more than – as in drygt en halvtimma, “just about half an hour”. 

The relation of the two first meanings is actually interesting, and connected to the Swedish for queen. Dryg in the sense “something that lasts” is the oldest. Svensk ordbok, the dictionary of the Swedish Academy, traces it back to the latter half of the 14th century and the Old Swedish parchment hagiography, the Codex Bureanus, one of the oldest manuscripts in Swedish.

You might ask, what in the name of the Lord is a hagiography? Well, the name of the Lord would be proper here, as a hagiography is a text about the lives of saints. You could call it a sort of legend of the saints, which is what it is called in Swedish, a legendarium. The text is called Bureanus simply because it was gifted to a certain Johannes Bureus in 1634. Bureus later donated it to the National Archives, but today it resides at the Royal Library. 

In the Codex Bureanus, dryg appears as drygher ‘durable, who is enough’. This word is itself related to drott, which is even older, dating to at least the 11th century. A drott was an Old Norse lord with his own court. It is not hard to see the reasoning behind linking the meaning ‘durable’ or ‘lasting’ with the title of a lord. 

Drott is found on rune stones in the runic form trutin, it morphs to Old Swedish drotin, and here, the Swedes among you might immediately see where this is going. Have you ever wondered why ‘queen’ is drottning in Swedish, whereas ‘king’ and kung are nearly identical? This is why. 

This could perhaps also be why dryg in the second sense exists. Who better than a queen to think herself better than others?

But there is yet another possibility. Moving backwards in time the word drótt means ‘(the king’s) warrior retinue’. Perhaps the attitude of the king’s warrior retinue was drygt? In the Gothic that predates it the word driugan meant to ‘do military service’. 

Think of that the next time you use your dryga diskmedel – that is concentrated washing-up liquid. And be advised that the primary meaning of dryg is for a person who is acting arrogantly.

Example sentences:

Hur kan man vara så dryg?

How can one be so haughty?

Jag älskar det här diskmedlet, det är sååå drygt!

I love this washing-up liquid, it’s sooo concentrated!

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 US, Amazon UK, Bokus or Adlibris.

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