Finnish in Sweden (Tornedalen)
Institut de Sociolingüística Catalana
Version française
Finnish in Sweden (Torne Valley)

1. General information on the language community

1.1. Linguistic, geographic and economic description

The bilingual area of Tornedalen is located in the northernmost part of Sweden, in Norrbotten province (270,000 inhabitants). Tornedalen Finnish is spoken in five communes located in the most northern part of Norrbotten: there, approximately 25-35,000 people or 35% of the population speak it. In the county capital of Lulea, where a high percentage of Tornedalians live, about 10-15,000 people use Tornedalen Finnish or Finnish as their everyday language. In addition, there are some 5-10,000 people who speak the language in the rest of Sweden. Therefore, between 40,000 and 60,000 people have Tornedalen Finnish as their everyday language. Moreover, there are about 10-25,000 people who have receptive competence in the language. Since the 1930 census no official attempts have been made to count the number of speakers of various languages in Sweden. The main cities and towns in the area are Haparanda, Övertornea, Kalix, Kiruna, Gällivare and Pajala.

Tornedalen Finnish is currently spoken mainly in small villages and its linguistic area is steadily shrinking, except in border villages where cross-marriages - where one spouse comes from Finland (predominantly the female) - are quite usual (about one-third of all marriages). The dominant population under the age of 30-35 has poor competence in Tornedalen Finnish, while Finnish is the dominant language within older people. There are large differences between the Western and Eastern dialects while the Northern and Southern dialects are very close to each other. There is a short distance between the spoken and written local standard language.

It is worth pointing out that between 1900 and 1930, and later, during the 50s and 60s, a lot of Finnish-speaking people (about 20%) legally replaced their Finnish family names by invented Swedish family names. The official reason given was the difficulty Swedish-speakers had in pronouncing and transcribing correctly the Finnish names. But according to experts, there was a deliberate intention on the part of Tornedalians to merge with the overall Swedish society and to identify themselves as fully Swedish. From a general point of view there are striking differences between the north of Sweden and Finland: while in Sweden there is a sparse population, on the other side of the border there are big urban centres like Rovaniemi and Oulu, with universities and a strong and dynamic cultural life.

The high rate of unemployment in Tornedalen and the whole of the Norrbotten region (more than around 25%) and the lack of regular jobs imply that social progress is linked to an excellent command of the Swedish language or to leaving for Norway (whose economy is rapidly developing thanks to oil development). Lulea and Kiruna are the only urban centres with factories and job opportunities. The main employers are in the public sector. Mining industries (around Kiruna) are also important.

Other socio-economic figures are also considerably worse, both in Norrbotten and Tornedalen, than the national average: State expenditure for unemployment, sickness leave, early retirement pensions, social transfers in the family budget, crime and violence rates, death-rate from alcohol and drugs-related diseases, life expectancy, etc.

It can be argued that both Tornedalen and Norrbotten are really at the periphery of Swedish economic development and depend heavily upon social subsidies. People in Tornedalen itself have a weaker socio-economic position than those living in neighbouring localities of Norrbotten. They depend more than others upon the welfare State. As early as in the 30s there was a strong migration of young women leaving Tornedalen for central and southern Sweden in search of jobs (cleaning women, maids, etc.).

Emigration towards southern regions of Sweden was and still is a common phenomenon in Tornedalen. In the late 60s, nearly one-third of the population of the area stated that it intended to emigrate. Among the age group 15-29, of those having Swedish as their best language, 68% planned to move, whereas 53% of those with Finnish as their best language were planning likewise. This was the dominant pattern up to the end of the 70s but now both those having Swedish as their best language and those having Finnish as best language are looking for emigration to urban centres in southern Sweden. Furthermore, the level of education is also correlated with the inclination to move: nowadays it is especially academically qualified people (both women and men) who tend to move to the southern parts of Sweden, where they can more often find a suitable job corresponding to their skills. Less qualified people tend to stay behind. Thus, for example, Pajala and Överkalix communes have the higher rate of inhabitants in Norrbotten with only primary school education.

Agriculture in Tornedalen (the most typical work in the region even up to the 70s along with mining and forestry) changed dramatically after World War II: small farms disappeared in favour of concentration of activities in bigger farms (20-40 head of cattle). The remaining small farms disappeared in the 70s because young people could find jobs in forestry activities (although this is no longer the case). Furthermore, there are conflicts between Sami people and Swedish/Finnish people regarding the ownership of the land, hunting and fishing.

A space research centre in Kiruna is currently expanding its activities. In some localities the most important private activity is forestry (along with farming). In recent years, small private companies are developing (computers, telematics, tourism), even though the tourist industry as well as entrepreneurship are still poorly developed in comparison with other regions.

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1.2. General history of the region and the language

The Finnish-speaking people in northern Sweden have inhabited the Torne river valley for centuries. The Finns, who were from Western and Eastern Finland, colonised this area from the 11th and 12th centuries onwards. Until 1809 the Tornedal constituted a coherent cultural and economic system. After the Russo-Swedish War (1808-09), a peace treaty was signed in Hamina in 1809 with the subsequent new border between Finland (now ceded to Russia) and Sweden. The Russians wanted the border to follow the Kalix river whereas the Swedes wanted it further east. The borderline proposed by the Russians would have preserved the homogeneity of the area, but with the consequence that part of the Swedish-speaking people in the Kalix river valley would have become citizens of the Russian Tsardom. Finally, a compromise was reached in order to establish the new border along the Torne river and half of the population (the Finnish-speakers) found themselves on the Russian side of the border.

According to the 1860 census, the number of Finns in Norrbotten was 13,739 (about 90% of the whole Finnish population in Sweden). In the last census of 1930, the Finns in Norrbotten were 32,736.

Throughout the 20th century and up to the 60s/70s, political and economic conditions forced Finnish-speakers to emigrate from the area. The economic development of Finland, coupled with the crisis of the Swedish economy, balanced the situation between the two countries during the 80s and 90s.

Finnish-speaking people in Sweden do not, in general, like to be considered as Finns, because Finns have been traditionally perceived in Sweden as backward immigrants. Moreover, most Tornedalians consider that their language (called meän kieli, "our language") is not the same language than "real or standard" Finnish. The differences between Tornedalen and standard Finnish are a controversial issue. This is due not only to prestige and identity (a lot of standard Finnish-speakers tend to see themselves, firstly, as Finnish, while Tornedalens feel Swedish) but also to power and economical fights. In a recent government committee's proposal, for example, Finnish (including Tornedalen) is expected to be given an official Minority Language status; this has provoked protests, since many Tornedalens wish an special status for their language.

There were Finnish-speaking companies and officers in the Swedish Army before World War II. Since 1994/95 Finnish courses have been offered at the Swedish Army Academy: 50% of those choosing to study Finnish come from Tornedalen.

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1.3. Legal status and official policies

During the 19th century, the Swedish language policy was directed against the Finnish language to avoid the Russian influence in the area, insofar as Finland formed a part of the Russian Empire. There was a general linguistic policy within the general political framework (latent ideology of penetration of the Swedish language in all domains). It generated a negative attitude towards Finns. Finnish was not allowed to have a visible role in society: there were no street signs in Finnish, no place-names, etc. Although the use of Finnish was neither officially encouraged neither prohibited in informal exchanges, in practice there was a discrimination in schools (Finnish-speakers marked with a "F" in roll-call list, punishments for using Finnish in the classroom and playground) until 1957 when the Swedish National Board of Education withdrew the unofficial local regulation forbidding the use of Finnish.

The basic principles of the Swedish Constitution state as follows: "Opportunities should be promoted for ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities to preserve and develop a cultural and social life of their own". This has meant that Finnish has been promoted, i.e. it is taught at school; so its existence has been recognised. However, Finnish has not been given full official status in Sweden, except that of an immigrant language: Finnish-speakers cannot deal with the Administration using their own language.

Nevertheless, a government committee working in two sections has published (7-1-1998) its proposals concerning Sweden's possibilities to ratify both the European Council's Convention on Regional or Minority languages and the European Council's Frame Convention for the protection of minorities. The social demand in favour of that recognition seems to exist amongst the minority language groups. Finnish (including Tornedalen Finnish) is proposed to gain official status as a minority language and both Swedenfinns and Tornedalians are proposed to become official minority groups (in addition to Sami, Romani and Jews). This is causing some conflicts in the Torne Valley because Tornedalen Finnish has not been given the status of a language different from standard Finnish. The Swedish government has stated that all changes in the current situation will have to be inexpensive: it is out of question to increase the general budget. This also provokes polemics, since these restrictions leave many of the demands from minority organisations without legal backing. However, the report might not be accepted by the Parliament, although this is unlikely.

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2. Presence and use of the language in various fields

2.1. Education

Although Tornedalen Finnish and Sami are the original languages of the area, Finnish was banned from folk and primary schools from the last decade of the 19th century up to the 70s. In 1842, compulsory education was introduced in each parish of the region. The first school was established in Tornedalen in the 1854, and only Swedish was taught there, twelve years after Sweden had passed its law concerning compulsory elementary school for the people. Later on, the Swedish education system became bilingual. There was no State regulation imposing the exclusive use of Swedish in education; instead, this came through local and regional recommendations, which were supported by parents due to the feeling that Swedish was more useful in order to achieve higher social status. One of the main consequences was that few Tornedalians have developed literacy in their mother tongue and the language is therefore used mainly as an oral language.

In 1888, the creation of public schools (supported by the State) was only allowed if the language of instruction was Swedish. Even in Haparanda, which is the main city in the area, the bilingual schools shifted to monolingualism. A small part of clergy was willing to continue with the teaching of Finnish even though the bishop of Lulea was one of the main actors in the committee of swedification of the educational system. In that process, boarding schools were an efficient tool of swedification insofar as pupils living in rural areas (most of them were Finnish-speakers) often could not return home at week-ends (due to bad weather conditions).

In 1921, an official report was issued regarding the usefulness of teaching in Finnish in the Tornedalen area. In the late 20s, the Swedish minister of Education was favourable to the teaching of Finnish, which became possible through the introduction of Finnish courses after the compulsory learning schedule.

The number of people involved in such programmes increased throughout the 30s, 40s and 50s. At that time, girls spoke more (and more often) Swedish outside the classroom than did boys. The former were the first to shift language.

In the 1969/70 school year the optional home language courses (2 hours per week) started in Swedish general schools. These two hours had to be exchanged at the expense of two hours of other subjects. During the 70s, teaching was in standard Finnish (some 700 pupils were enrolled in such courses). After the introduction of Tornedalen Finnish in the classroom during the 80s, the number of pupils studying Finnish in primary schools increased to 2,000, as the teaching of standard Finnish was perceived as foreign and alien to the local language. Some problems arose between those defending the use of Tornedalen Finnish in schools and those preferring the introduction of standard Finnish, and these were solved in favour of the majority who preferred to use the local variety.

In Haparanda, Finnish is used as the language of instruction in only one primary school and is a compulsory subject in two other primary schools for 1-3 hours per week. All other schools only have Finnish as optional as "home language instruction".

Regarding the figures, about 1,400 pupils in primary education (approximately 35% of all pupils) study Finnish as a home language for 1-2 hours a week. There are also a few Finnish courses in the special residential folk colleges, called Folkhögskola.

There are also Tornedalen Finnish courses in the High Technical School of Lulea and in some open distance learning courses, as well as at the Department of Finnish at Stockholm University.

The production of schooling materials started in the 80s in the local dialect (with the main text in Swedish, and with short pieces both in standard and regional Finnish) in order to give didactic ideas to teachers. The language used in these texts is the central dialect of Tornedalen Finnish, based on the works of William Snell (author of short stories and novels). The first text book Meänkieltä (with Finnish texts sent from Finland and Sweden) was published in 1986. The initiative started as a literature prize (the first prize was published separately). The development of teaching materials was made by interviewing elderly people, collecting old texts, tales, etc. This initiative was supported and approved by Finnish linguists at the University of Tampere. In-service summer courses for teachers of Finnish used to be held both in Lulea and Rovaniemi, but they have disappeared now.

Another initiative was the publication of Finnish folklore texts (both in Tornedalian and standard Finnish) in order to be broadcasted on the radio and with the aim of spreading knowledge of the local situation.

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2.2. Judicial authorities

The use of Finnish is absent from the courts. Interpretation services are available for Finnish immigrants and Nordic people with no-Swedish citizenship, but not for Swedish Tornedalians (although being available for Finnish Tornedalians). The Minority Languages Committee suggests that, in the five municipalities where Tornedalen Finnish is spoken, its speakers should be allowed to use it orally when performing in courts.

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2.3. Public authorities and services

Finnish is not frequently used by public authorities. With regard to the central government, it only uses Finnish in the social services in some large cities and some information is published in Finnish as a service to the newly arrived immigrants. With regard to the local government, it is worth mentioning that a motion to the City Council of Haparanda, written in Finnish, suggests that all City Council meetings should be bilingual. This caused affection, since all City Council meetings in the region are in Swedish, even in those towns were Tornedalen Finnish is widely spoken. However, the language is used during breaks and informal discussions, although never formally.

The web sites of some municipalities are bilingual, although they use Finnish and not Tornedalen Finnish. The later is used now more openly in contacts with people by some civil servants, but has never been officially declared to be a formal official language. There are no campaigns or written information in Tornedalen Finnish, and there is very little information in standard Finnish.A good command in Finnish is not a requirement to be appointed as a teacher or a civil servant in the area but a special allowance is granted to those appointed to work in Tornedalen.

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2.4. Mass media and information technologies

There are two weeklies entirely published in Finnish. Haparanda bladet/Haaparannanlehti is the only bilingual newspaper in Sweden (two issues a week, formerly three), with 4,000/5,000 readers in the area (Haparanda has approx. 9,000 inhabitants). Some one-third of the newspaper is written in standard Finnish and half a page in Tornedalen Finnish. The pages in Finnish are a translation from Swedish of news (two or three days old) while the page in Tornedalen Finnish is a "folklore corner". The newspaper is devoted to regional news of Tornedalen.

A newspaper from Finland, available in the area, is Pohjolan Sanomat which is mainly read by Finnish immigrants and deals with Finnish matters.

A magazine published by the STR-T, MET-aviisi ("met" means "we", in local Finnish), edits four issues a year and is mainly written in regional Finnish. It can be bought both by subscription and at newsagents.

The Swedish State Radio station broadcasts in Tornedalen Finnish for a few hours a week. There are no TV programs although the inhabitants of the region have access to Finnish television. The total support from local, regional and national authorities for the promotion of the Sami language is approximately 350,000 ECU a year, including the expenditures for the local radio station, but this does not include expenditures for home language instruction.

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2.5. The arts

In 1992 the first Tornedalen Finnish/Swedish bilingual dictionary was published. It has no normative pretension and it is focused on phraseology. Recently, the first Tornedalen Finnish grammar was published. About thirty books have been published in Tornedalen Finnish, mainly dealing with poetry, psalms, a few novels, short stories and some children's books. The Gospels of St. Mark and St. John have been translated into regional Finnish from Swedish (the other two are due to be published in 1998).

The Cultural Council of Norrbotten has shown some interest in the language by issuing some bilingual booklets (for both Swedes and Finns coming from Finland) explaining the aims and initiatives of Finnish-speaking people in Sweden. These kind of attitudes are rather unusual, although in the last years they have been more frequent: in the early 80s a revitalisation movement started thanks to the foundation of the Swedish-Tornedalian Association STR-T (Svenska Tornedalingars Riksförbund-Tornionlaaksolaiset) which is carrying out the task of publishing books, organising activities regarding the language promotion and starting awareness-raising campaigns.

Another relevant organisation is the Academia Tornedaliensis (Meän Akateemi) which functions as a kind of people's academy and a summer university at the same time.

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2.6. The business world

People with a Finnish accent are reported to have problems finding a job (both Tornedalians and Swedish Finns) since a perfect command of Swedish language is always required. It seems that the perceived socio-economic status of Finnish-speaking people is slightly lower than that of the other working class groups (even though the gap is decreasing). Within the Finnish speaking population, Tornedalians have the lower status. In a business context, Tornedalens will use their language if everyone speaks it, passing to Swedish if someone does not speak it. The more formal the situation is, the less Finnish Tornedalen is spoken. Proficiency in the Finnish language is never explicitly valued by local employers, except for the tourist industry and in some stores and business along the border. However, the language is used quite often, although its use is not officially backed and companies do not have any policy with regard to it. Thus, depending on each case, Tornedalen Finnish can be heard in banks, shops, restaurants, etc., if the shop assistant speaks it and the customer uses it. This kind of situations is frequent, given that a high number of workers along the border speak the language.

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2.7. Family and social use of the language

All experts point out that there is a large gap between the language proficiency and use of older and younger generations: old people can speak but not read or write the language while youngsters can speak, read and write it, although they use the language less than their elders.

During the 50s and the 60s language transmission broke down: parents were bilingual and children became monolingual in Swedish. This decrease in the transmission and in the use of Finnish in Tornedalen was mainly due to the loss of population and the influence of the nation-wide mass-media. The local church played a fairly important role in the preservation of the language: sermons and masses continued to be in Finnish, and the only public officials who spoke Finnish were the Swedish clergy (both Swedes and Finns). The Swedish Church and its Finnish-language section has always paid a special fee to its bilingual ministers and employees serving in the Tornedalen area.

In the 60s, Swedish became the language of the household of most young families. Today, only a minority of parents within the educated middle class (teachers, journalists, social workers) speak Finnish with their children. Finnish is spontaneously used to talk with strangers only in small villages. It is also used with members of the family and with friends. There is a negative perception of bilingualism (both for Swedes and Finns).

Tornedalians strongly believe they are different from the other Finnish or Swedish people; they defend their own characteristics, even if this implies keeping away from other cultures. Swedish Tornedalen do not usually like being associated with Finnish, not even with Finnish Tornedalen, because of the stigma still associated with Finns in Sweden: a strong anti-Finnish attitude is deeply rooted among Sweden Tornedalen. Thus, for Swedish Tornedalen people, the defence of their identity includes claiming their being Swedish.

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2.8. Transnational exchanges

There is an interesting initiative of transborder co-operation between the towns of Haparanda and Tornio (Finland), trying to strengthen regional identity through the setting up of a common local administration (joint meetings of the city councils for common problems), although there is a clear awareness of State boundaries from a national point of view (it seems to be stronger in Finland due to the felt need for strengthening the national identity after independence).

There is a strong contradiction between the official discourse of local authorities regarding transborder co-operation (setting up common infrastructures and institutions) and the will of people, for historical and cultural reasons (mainly amongst young people). 25% of the population of Haparanda are Finns, and this causes some conflicts between them and the local population (even with Finnish-speakers).

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3. Conclusion

Finnish is generally associated with low status (both cultural and socio-economic) whereas Swedish is regarded as the prestigious language, and about half of the population claims that bilingualism is associated with stigma and thus a burden for the speakers.

The main problem for the survival of Finnish is that there is no harmonic relationship between the cultural environment and the use of languages. There is no perceived practical reason for learning Finnish, and no incentives. The main idea is that only Swedish is useful to get a job and for studying. Youngsters think more globally regarding their future, so that most display no interest in speaking or learning Finnish. Another aspect of the negative attitude to Finnish is that it is a fairly common view among Tornedalians that their language (called meän kieli, "our language") is not "real Finnish" because it differs from standard Finnish (the so-called "Finland Finnish").

All the experts say that the slight decrease of the Finnish language will go further in the next years but they are confident in the survival of the language because of the official status to be given to Finnish next year and the constant flow of new Finnish-speaking immigrants to Sweden.

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