Why is the Finnish language so conservative

Finland also has a language problem

The government in Helsinki is kept busy. The failure of the Nokia company, which at times generated half of the export income, and the collapse of business in Russia due to the sanctions decided by Brussels are causing an economic downturn. The “True Finns” of the populist Timo Soini suddenly increased their share of the 200 parliamentary seats from 5 to 39 in the last elections by polemicising against EU membership and immigration policy.

Gustav Adolf and the “Hau-drauf” riders

Now they are mobilizing the young voters by calling for the compulsory school subject Swedish to be abolished. Anyone who follows the current lukewarm enthusiasm for French in our schools can understand the reaction of young Finnish voters. Everyone should learn Swedish, although this language is only 5.4 percent mother tongue.

In the blogging columns one finds the defiant statement “Whoever wants to live in Finland should speak Finnish!“ History has taught us that the Swedish King Gustav Adolf got involved in the Thirty Years' War in the 17th century and made European history.

In class I did not understand why people called their feared warriors "Hakkapelites". Only later did I come across the Finnish expression “hakka pälle”, which can be translated as “hau drauf”. The reputation fits at a time when noise, speed and force were decisive during cavalry attacks. In this case, the battle cry also reveals that the Swedish king paid for his victories with Finnish blood.

Mannerheim's language skills

In Finland today, every discussion about Swedish as a school subject begins with an appeal to be proud of the Finnish language. The ritual repetition raises the suspicion that the colonial past under the Swedish king and the Russian tsar still weighed on the national consciousness. In the middle of the last century, customers of Stockmann, the largest department store in Helsinki, were asked about their wishes first in Swedish - a fact that offended many Finnish speakers.

The young generation no longer feels much of the pride in the bilingual nature of their country. The mother tongue of famous Finns is often kept secret. This is also the case with the world's most famous Finn with an equestrian monument in Helsinki, Field Marshal Carl Gustav Mannerheim. The baron, who is a Swedish mother tongue, spoke Russian, German, French and English as a long-time courtier in Saint Petersburg. Finnish always remained his weakest language, in which he could never express himself fluently.

The mother tongue is also kept secret from the writer Tove Jansson, whose Mummi-Trolls became known worldwide; also with the national poet Johan Ludwig Runeberg and with the national composer Jan Sibelius.

How Sweden feels about Finnish

Like Switzerland, Finland also has to ask which foreign languages ​​are indispensable in a globalized world. The western economy demands English. Finland's important trading partner in the east and the many tourists from the large neighboring country want to be addressed in Russian. And German would be useful again for an EU member. Is it worthwhile to have Swedish as a compulsory school subject because of a minority of 5.4 percent? Many in the younger generation find this superfluous. They also mention that the culturally and economically influential Swedish speakers all understand Finnish anyway. And then comes the reference to Sweden, which has a comparable minority of 5.5 percent Finnish speakers, without Sweden's students having to learn Finnish.

Sweden is content to classify municipalities with more than 5,000 Finnish speakers as bilingual. There officials have to be bilingual and the schools have to offer Finnish in their classes. According to the Finnish constitution, municipalities with more than 3000 Swedish speakers or those with at least 8 percent minority are considered bilingual. They also have to offer lessons in Swedish and you should be able to get from kindergarten to university with this language.

The difference to Sweden begins with the fact that Swedish is the second national language in Finland. This did not bother much until the 1970s, because the language was only taught in high school. When Swedish became a compulsory subject in elementary school, resistance arose. However, English can also be the first foreign language, with Swedish becoming the second foreign language. Swedish is now no longer required as a Matura subject, which means a considerable reduction in the number of students.

Swedish speaking unit fighting the Red Army

In January 2013, due to the constitution, the government rejected the request from 8 municipalities on the eastern border that wanted to replace the second official language Swedish with Russian out of consideration for the many Russian tourists.

Couldn't Finland just introduce the Swedish regime for its Swedish minority? Although the two minorities are almost the same size after a considerable decline in Finland-Swedes in the last few decades, the comparison is limping. Finland's Swedish speakers formed the upper class for centuries and bilingualism was part of the tradition that also determined the culture of Finland, which navigates between west and east.

Swedish speakers in Finland have always felt like Finns. In 1917 you participated in the bloody civil war that followed the declaration of independence. Swedish-speaking soldiers fought the Red Army in the Winter War and the Continuation War. During the hasty retreat of the Finnish army in 1944, it was even a Swedish-speaking unit that was able to stop a Soviet attack in the Bay of Wiborg for the first time; a fact that is not always mentioned in the history books because, as in Switzerland, there is a certain rivalry between the language groups.

Swedish-Finnish approximations

The relationship between Finland-Swedes and their Swedish neighbors is comparable to the relationship between the German-speaking Swiss and Germany. They are of Finnish nationality, although the language facilitates their access to Swedish reading and culture. When Finland fought the Red Army in World War II, Sweden remained neutral. But Swedish volunteers took part in the Finnish defense. In the Finnish emergency after 1944, Sweden provided generous help and also took in emigrants from Finland.

The better standard of living in rich Sweden at that time attracted Finns from both language groups anyway. High-ranking Finnish officers also fled to neutral Sweden because they feared they would be prosecuted by the Soviet Monitoring Commission for war crimes. However, Swedish is the only national language, and caring for Finnish minorities in bilingual communities is all about a good neighborhood policy.

Globalization makes many things possible in Scandinavia today that would have been unthinkable just a few decades ago. The standard of living in the euro country Finland has often been higher in recent years than in Sweden. The largest Finnish book publisher (WSOY) was taken over by the Swedish Bonnier Group without noticeably affecting Finnish literature. A merger of the Swedish and Finnish naval forces is currently being discussed, which could make a common language of command necessary.

The Swedish-speaking University of Turku is countering this

The protest of the “True Finns” does not make governing Helsinki any easier. The political situation that arose in 2011 forced the former opponents “Conservative Collection” and “Social Democrats” to form a joint government and also to involve small parties. This includes the Finland-Swedes party, which made it a condition that the position of the Swedish national language should not be further reduced. It is precisely this requirement that the “True Finns” are now making. According to her down-to-earth notion, classes should be voluntary for all foreign languages ​​anyway. When it comes to Swedish, however, they target the concerns of a coalition partner in the government and at the same time try to attract young voters.

As a journalist, I have always experienced the Swedish minority in Finland as a pleasant balance. When talking to the editorial office of the Huvudsstadsbladed (daily newspaper of the capital) in Helsinki, I often received more rational answers than from the Finnish-language media. When the Finns erected an equestrian monument for Mannerheim in 1964, the Swedish-speaking University of Turku appointed General Karl Lennart Oesch, who was of Swiss origin and who was sentenced as a war criminal on orders from Moscow in 1945, an honorary doctorate because he had contributed to saving Finnish independence as a competent strategist. And the University of Turku deliberately countered the Lenin cult of President Kekkonen in the 1970s in historical seminars and conferences.