Swedish in Finland
Research Centre of Wales
Version française
Swedish in Finland

1. General information on the language community

1.1. Linguistic, geographic and economic description

According to statistical definition Finland Swedes are those Finnish citizens having Swedish as their mother tongue. They also include the population of the Autonomous Region of Åland (the Ålänningar) who, in reality, may juridically and sociologically be considered an ethnic group apart. However, since a sizeable portion of the Finnish population is bilingual, it does not mean that only Finland Swedes speak Swedish. It is likely that close to 600,000 Finnish citizens use Swedish in their every day lives.

The Swedish-speaking population of Finland lives primarily along the coast in four different areas: Österbotten/Pohjanmaa in the Vaasa/Vasa province, in the archipelago west of Turku/Åbo and in the city of Turku/Åbo (Turun ja Porin/Åbo och Björneborg province), in the southern cost of Finland (Uusimaa/Nyland province, with the city of Helsinki/Helsingfors) and on the Åland Islands. Until the beginning of this century, the settled area was contiguous but the advance of the Finnish population and language has divided it in two. It must be said that the situation of the Swedish-speaking population on the mainland is wholly different from that of the autonomous territory of Åland.

The Scandinavian Germanic dialects spoken in Finland are classified as northern Scandinavian and they are quite conservative in nature. They are closely related to those dialects spoken in northern Sweden and even in northern Norway. They have retained several phonetic, morphological and lexical archaisms found only in the peripheral areas of the Scandinavian linguistic domain. The Swedish of Finland has not been strongly influenced by Finnish because of its higher prestige and because the two linguistic areas have been, until the 20th, century well divided by a clear linguistic border, especially in Österbotten. The Swedish spoken on Åland is very similar to standard Swedish. Even if in Österbotten (Vasa/Vaasa region) the use of non-standard forms ("dialects") is still quite common, the majority of Finland Swedes speak a regional variety of the standard Swedish language (usually called Finlandssvenska): only about 30-40% of the Finland Swedish population uses non-standard Swedish in the everyday life. The differences between Finland-Swedish and Swedish in Sweden (called in Finland Rikssvenska) are similar to those of other languages that have developed different regional varieties in different countries or regions (e.g. English or German). However, Finland Swedes used to follow the same norms for spelling and writing as well as the same dictionaries as in Sweden. Finland-Swedish is also characterised by archaisms and by some finnicisms.

The Swedish-speaking population of Finland represents 5.8% of the whole population. At the end of 1995 they numbered 294,664, distributed by province as follows:

Swedish nameFinnish NameSwedish-speaking%
Åbo och BjörneborgTurku ja Pori27,2573.9%

Virtually all Finland Swedes (excluded those living on Åland) have some knowledge of Finnish (at least passive). The majority of Finland Swedes living in Uusimma/Nyland and Turku/Åbo region are bilingual, especially young people. Around 1/3 of the Finland Swedish population is bilingual. On Åland the population is normally monolingual Swedish: there, Finnish is a foreign language, probably less known and used than English.

Finland Swedes have never consisted of more a fifth of the population of the country and a steady decrease in percentages has been observed. For half a century a decrease in absolute numbers has also affected the Finland Swedish population. This decrease has been caused mainly by a lower birth rate among the Finland Swedes than among the Finns and by emigration from rural areas, especially to Sweden. Immigration of Finns into previously monolingual Swedish-speaking cities has also caused a certain degree of language shift among bilingual families.

YearFinland Swedes%

The Finland Swedish upper class played a crucial role in the history of Finland. Even today it is common to think that Finland Swedes are over-represented in the upper class. It could probably be true for Helsinki, but not for the entire country. In 1975 13% of Finland Swedes (as compared to the national average of 8%) belonged to the managerial, administrative and professional socio-economic group. The occupational structure of Finland Swedes in 1985 was as follows:

Finland SwedesTotal population
Agriculture and forestry13.2%8.4%

Finland Swedish co-operative organisations exist within agriculture and retail trade. Certain banks, insurance companies and publishers appeal especially to Swedish-speaking clients.

[Top of page]

1.2. General history of the region and the language

The history of Finland Swedes is the history of Finland, since they live in the core area of the country. It is not sure when the first Germanic languagespeaking population first settled territories now belonging to Finland. Between the 5th and the 9th century AD they already inhabited the Åland Islands. It is generally agreed that the origin of the present Germanic-speaking settlement in the coastal area dates from the 13th century. Since that time the community has been divided in two groups: the rural population (farmers and fishermen in the villages of the coast) and the urban upper class (first nobility, then bourgeoisie) who ran Finland as part of the Kingdom of Sweden, of the Russian Empire and finally at the time of the independent (since 1917) Republic of Finland. Social distinctions have always been more important than ethno-linguistic ones and very few contacts (if any) existed between the rural population (of both languages) and the Swedish-speaking élite until the end of the 19th century. Furthermore, it is important to recall that political movements in favour to independence of Finland and recognition of the Finnish language (and later also the movement in favour to a complete finnicisation of the country) were created and led by the Swedish-speaking bourgeoisie.

Until 1863 Swedish was the only official language of the territory that constitutes today's Finland. Only since the independence of the country in 1917 has Finnish gained enough strength to be considered the majority language. Swedish was earlier the only usable language at the official level while Finnish juridicallyhad a minority status (Russian had official status for a short time).

It is difficult to differentiate between ethnic Finland Swedish organisations and non-ethnic ones since Swedish is one of the state languages. In fact, what can be observed is a continuous finnicisation of all kinds of organisations at least in an unofficial way. This is especially true in South Finland where the most used language in all kind of organisations as well as in social life is Finnish.

The educational structure of Finland, with its schools and educational centres, can be considered as a sort of organisation for the language group. It is especially true in the case of the 30 civic adult education institutes (medborgar-och arbetarinstitut), which organise all kinds of courses and cultural activities related with education, from foreign language teaching (Finnish include), to arts, cuisine or theatre, for the Swedish-speaking population or for everybody who will learn through the medium of this language. However, it is not a peculiar structure of the Finland Swedes, since the same kinds of centres exist for the Finnish speaking Finns.

The only important organisation devoted only to Finland Swedes, outside the education system, is the Swedish Assembly of Finland. It is a consultative body composed of 75 delegates representing six different political trends, from right to left. The Assembly, which meets once a year, has the task of looking after and furthering the rights and interests of the Finland Swedish population, in particular those regarding language, education and information. There is no corresponding Finnish-language organisation.

The political party called Svenska Folkspartiet (Swedish People's Party) could also be considered as a kind of organisation working for the Finland Swedish population. It has 12 MPs in the Finnish Parliament and it is voted by the majority of the Finland Swedes (except on Åland).

[Top of page]

1.3. Legal status and official policies

Article 14 of the Constitution of Finland states that Finnish and Swedish are the official languages of the Republic and that the State guarantees the right of all citizens to use their mother tongue (Finnish or Swedish) in any official relation with State and public administration. The State is also responsible for the equality of rights between the two official languages.

Article 22 states that all laws of the Republic shall be published in both languages.

Article 75 declares that in the army both languages are official and that military instruction shall be given in the language chosen by the citizen.

The language law (Språklag 1.6.1922/148) governs the use of the two official languages (LL). It was enacted in 1921 and modified in 1935, 1971 and 1975. Finnish and Swedish should be used in each body depending from the government according to the language of the citizen concerned (Art. 1 LL). It means that, at least in theory, each citizen has the right to be served in his/her language. However, the only official language of the Islands of Åland is Swedish.

The official language of the municipalities or of their constituent parts shall be the language spoken by the whole population, or both languages if the speakers of one of them exceeds 8% of the population or are more than 3,000 in number. Any administrative unit including more than one municipality is monolingual if all municipalities are monolingual in the same language, otherwise it shall be bilingual. The government determines the official languages every ten years according to the result of the population census. A bilingual municipality is declared monolingual when, according to the census, the minority language does not exceed the 6% of the population. However, bilingualism can be maintained on request of the municipal administration. (Art. 3 and 7 LL) Presently there are 26 monolingual Swedish municipalities (16 of which on Åland) and 39 bilingual ones (22 with a Swedish majority and 17 with a Finnish majority).

Civil servants working exclusively for one of the two language communities shall use the language of the community concerned. The elected members of councils and of the parliaments can always use their mother tongue in official meetings. Translations may be requested.

Finland Swedes conscripted constitute a monolingual brigade in the Army. However, only Finnish is the official language of the highest commands.

Juridically, Swedish in Finland cannot be considered as a minority language.

The state is bilingual but due to the small size of the Swedish-speaking population it happens that some civil servants, even in bilingual areas, are monolingual Finnish.

This situation is reflected in the attitude of the state towards the two language communities: the higher spheres of the state seems to consider both communities as equal and to favourable to give them the same rights, but in the lower degrees of the public administration in bilingual and monolingual Finnish areas, a certain anti Swedish ideology is diffused.

Finland is actually a much-centralised state: the language policy of the regions is completely regulated by the Language Law.

There is no self-government at the provincial level in Finland, nor are the governmental agencies divided according to the ethno-linguistic principle. The only exceptions are the autonomous region of Åland, which is a self-governed territory with a very large degree of autonomy, and the Central Board of Education, which is divided into two units, one for each language community.

On the other hand, Finnish municipalities enjoy a considerable amount of autonomy. They raise taxes and receive state subsidies for the administration, among other, of schools, social security and health care.

[Top of page]

2. Presence and use of Swedish in various fields

2.1 Education

Finland Swedes have their own public, free and independent education system, as do the Finns. These schools have native speakers of Swedish as teachers and the language of instruction is Swedish. All Finnish citizens have the right to receive education in their mother tongue (Finnish or Swedish-regarding Sámi, see Glyn Williams) from kindergarten to university. The parents have the right to choose the language of the education for their children.

The language right in education is based on the principle of personality. Each municipality, independently from its official languages, has to organise schools in the minority language (Swedish or Finnish) when at least 18 pupils ask for them. All bilingual municipalities have schools for both linguistic groups but there are many public Swedish-speaking schools in monolingual Finnish towns where there are enough Finland Swedes to ask for them. On Åland only Swedish-speaking schools are allowed.

The first University of Finland, the Åbo Akademi, in Turku/Åbo is completely monolingual in Swedish. It is worth to notice that it is located in a city, Turku/Åbo, in which Finland Swedes represent about only 5% of the resident population. Swedish-speaking are also the School of Economics of Helsinki (Svenska Handelshögskolan) and the College of Social Work and Public Administration (Svenska Social- och Kommunalhögskolan). Helsinki/Helsingfors University is officially bilingual (but is de facto nearly monolingual Finnish, excluded the official chairs in Swedish) as is Vaasa/Vasa University. Some other universities offer courses in Swedish. All other universities (out from 21 universities in Finland) are Finnish-speaking.

Swedish-speaking schoolsBilingual schoolsImmersion schools Swed.*
Pre-school ed.ca. 200.....**.
Primary school33833,7355.7%17440.1%ca. 14ca. 3,000.
Secondary ed.336,6596.1%13550.3%---
Sec. ed. for adults*65102.1%-..---
Vocational ed.35*9,3444.9%8*.---

Notes regarding table (*):

Data valid for 1996 received from the Central Statistical Office of Finland

Data pertaining to immersion schools includes pre-school and primary school education

*6: 2 secondary schools for adults + 4 lines for adults in normal secondary schools

*9,344: includes also students from Swedish-speaking classes in bilingual schools

*37.9%: the data includes all students registered in official bilingual universities but it does not mean they study, use or even speak Swedish (actually, they normally do not)

In some Swedish-cities it is possible for Finnish-speaking children to take part in immersion classes in Swedish, both at pre-school and primary school level. There is also one Finnish immersion school for Swedish-speaking children.

Textbooks and other instructional material in Swedish are widely available in Finland. They are mainly produced in Finland, but some times they are imported from Sweden.

Teacher training in Swedish for Swedish-speaking schools is provided by the Faculty of Education of the Åbo Akademi located in the Ostrobothnian campus in the city of Vaasa/Vasa, in the centre of the most intensely and compactly Swedish-speaking region of Finland. No official data are available about the number of teachers in Swedish schools. The are supposed to be about 1,000 for primary schools and 1,000 for secondary schools.

The overall situation of Swedish-language education in Finland is very good. However there are some symptoms of social minoritisation even in the educational system. One is the fact that Finland Swedes study Finnish at school as a "foreign" language (actually as "the other national language") more than Finns study Swedish, and consequently Finland Swedes speak much better Finnish than Finns speak Swedish. Another fact is that about a quarter of pupils and students in the Finland Swedish education system come from Finnish-speaking families. In certain schools of southern Finland students coming from bilingual or monolingual Finnish families exceed the 90% of the school population. It is a symptom of the difficulty of getting a complete and exhaustive knowledge of Swedish through society and media in the urban areas presently dominated by the Finnish language. But it means also that Swedish still has a high prestige, especially among the upper urban classes. The fact the Finland is know part of the EU has probably also raised the prestige of the Swedish language as a communication medium for international or inter-Scandinavian relations. This situation is also changing the way of teaching in many Swedish-speaking schools, since in many cases Swedish is no longer simply the language of education, but has to be taught as a foreign language to many students who are supposed to be native Swedish-speakers.

On the other hand in many rural Swedish-speaking villages in which children are completely monolingual in "Swedish", standard Swedish must be taught as a kind of foreign language (or as a foreign but "Dach-sprache") because it is very different from the Swedish ("dialect") spoken by pupils at home.

The number of non-monolingual Swedish-speaking students in Swedish-medium schools is expected to rise in the future with the educational consequences mentioned above. However, a Finnicisation of the Swedish school system in Finland is absolutely not possible, at least as long as the Language Law remains unchanged.

[Top of page]

2.2. Judicial authorities

Swedish has legally and practically the same rights as Finnish in the justice administration. Trials are in Finnish as well as in Swedish, according to necessities.

[Top of page]

2.3. Public authorities and services

Even though the law does not admit any discrimination between the two languages and guarantees the right of all citizens to use their own language when dealing with administration and civil servants, the actual reality is not always as stated. Southern Finland is predominantly bilingual with Finnish as the majority language. In that region, it may be difficult, if not impossible in some cases, to obtain services in Swedish. Even though civil servants in bilingual municipalities are theoretically obliged to know both national languages, their knowledge of Swedish is often so weak that Finland Swedes prefer to use Finnish. It seems that only where the overwhelming majority of the population is Finland Swedish it is always possible to get service in Swedish (e.g. Österbotten (Vasa/Vaasa region). Civil servants working on Åland are not supposed to know Finnish.

Nevertheless, the Language Law is carefully observed in the field of written official texts and laws: all bilingual municipalities publish all kinds of official written material in both languages.

The knowledge of the Swedish language is important to apply for public jobs in the bilingual areas. Although the law requires a certain knowledge of Swedish to work as civil servants in bilingual areas and in the central administration, many civil servants, especially in the central administration, do not know the language to a sufficient degree to provide services in Swedish to the citizens. In the private sector Swedish is much less important. Conversely, Swedish is the main language on Åland.

[Top of page]

2.4. Mass Media and Information Technology

Daily press

there is one national daily newspaper in Swedish (Hufvudstadsbaladet) and many local ones. Swedish language newspapers represent 5.1% of all newspaper publications in Finland.

Swedish language newspapers in Finland 1996Issues per weekCopiesNotes
Hangötidningen - Hangon lehti32,435Bilingual
Jakobstads Tidning611,972
Nya Åland47,577
Pargas Kungörelser - Paraisten Kuulutuksia14,872Bilingual
Västra Nyland610,823
Åbo Underrättelser56,928
Östra Nyland34,377year 1995


One national channel and 6 local ones broadcast in Swedish. The National Swedish-language Radio of Finland broadcasts about 19 hours of programmes a day, 40% of which are music (1994 data).

Local radio stations broadcast about 10,000 hours of programmes yearly. Though Åland has had autonomy for radio and TV since 1993, the Finnish Broadcasting Corporation still manages broadcasting for the islands.


The Swedish programme unit (FST) of the Finnish Broadcasting Corporation produces programmes for radio and TV. It transmits on the same channel as the Finnish-speaking TV, sharing times (not peak times) and frequencies. Programmes in other languages are subtitled. For several years it has been possible to receive TV programmes from Sweden.

Finnish teletext also has its own Swedish language pages.

Out of an annual total of 845 hours of transmissions in Swedish, FST produces 545 hours itself. In addition to these, approximately 200 hours of sport news are transmitted yearly as bilingual programmes.

For some time there has been talk of giving FST an independent channel for its transmissions.

Computer-Hardware and Software

All kind of computer software in Swedish available in Sweden is probably also available in the Swedish-speaking regions of Finland, but the main language of computing is without any doubt English.

[Top of page]

2.5. The Arts

Finland Swedes have a lively cultural activity. The Finland Swedish cultural foundations are relatively wealthy.

Theatres: There are four active and lively permanent Swedish language theatres in Finland and numerous "summer theatres". The Swedish-speaking theatres are located in the main cities of the Swedish-speaking region and they are the most prestigious ones, like the Swedish Theatre of Helsinki/Helsingfors or the Swedish Theatre of Turku/Åbo

Books: In the Swedish-speaking regions it is as easy to find books in Swedish as in Finnish, especially for children. About 200 new books are annually printed in Swedish in Finland, though most books in Swedish are printed in Sweden. Finnish publishers also publish books translated from Finnish to Swedish.

Out of the 13,104 titles printed in Finland in 1996, about 2,000 were translations, 111 of them into Swedish, representing about 6% of all the translations.

Music: Anglo-American music is dominant, in original language or translated in Finnish. Swedish-speaking modern music is under-represented but receives public financial support. In any case, the anglicisation of modern music does not seem to be stronger than in the majority of western European countries.

Comment: The cultural situation of Finland Swedes is quite good for such a small population representing less than the 6% of the country, a population which is not geographically compact.

[Top of page]

2.6. The business world

Swedish is frequently requested for jobs, especially in the bilingual areas, for international jobs and for civil servants, even if knowledge of English is today probably more important than that of Swedish in the economic world. However, Finnish is the predominant language at work even in the Swedish-speaking regions (excluded Åland, where the only requested and used language is Swedish). Street advertisements are mainly in Finnish or, in few cases, bilingual. In monolingual Swedish municipalities (small villages) street publicity does not exist. On Åland it is only in Swedish. TV ads are only in Finnish. Newspaper advertisments are in the language of the newspaper. All products on the market must be bilingual. On Finnish products texts in Finnish are much bigger than those in Swedish. Imported products may be labelled in Finnish and in another Scandinavian language instead of Swedish (Danish, Norwegian(s)). This is due to the international agreement regarding language equality among Nordic Council countries.

[Top of page]

2.7. Family and social use of the language

Endogamy used to be quite high, especially in Österbotten, but today is less common. It is calculated that today circa half of the marriages in the bilingual area of Southern Finland are exogamous. Children in bilingual families living in the Swedish-speaking regions tend to be bilingual. In the Finnish-speaking regions they become monolingual Finnish. But in the last years information campaigns have arisen a greater interest in language questions and the number of bilingual children in bilingual families seems to have increased. The higher the social status, the higher the rate of bilingualism (or knowledge of the other national language) for both Finland Swedes and Finns, especially in the Helsinki/Helsingfors region. Swedish is the language of social life wherever Finland Swedes are in the majority. In bilingual municipalities with a high number of Finns, Finnish is also used for social life (Vaasa/Vasa, e.g., where about a quarter of the population are Finland Swedes, is socially bilingual: both languages can be used in a socially neutral way. There is no special social marking of the use of languages, even if it is quite clear for the population, which are the Finland Swedish shops or meeting places). In bilingual municipalities with a Finnish-speaking majority Finnish is the main language of social interaction. Anyway the two language communities are everywhere in Finland, where both coexist. They are quite clearly differentiated and each has a more or less independent social life (see schools, theatres, cultural centres and adult education centres). The only language of social interaction on Åland is Swedish. Finland has two official languages and two official state religions. The main religion is the Lutheran state church of Finland; the other is the Christian Orthodox Church, which has very few adepts, mostly in some villages on the border with Russia. The Orthodox are Finnish-speaking and do not constitute the majority of the population in any municipality of Finland. Like the educational system, the Lutheran State Church is divided on linguistic grounds, so that usually the Swedish-speaking population in a municipality forms its own parish(es). All Swedish-speaking parishes come under an autonomous Swedish-speaking bishopric. In the field of sports activities Finland Swedish organisations seem to have some difficulties. Sporting life, especially in urban areas, has been finnicised. Normally sports organisations were and are not ethno-linguistically divided. This means that the use of Swedish inside them has diminished according to its use in the social context in which they act.

[Top of page]

3. Conclusion

It has been said that Finland Swedes are the most privileged minority in Europe. Many members of the community do not agree completely with this definition either because they think there are better situations in Europe or just because they think that, even being the most privileged one, they are not sufficiently protected. But it probably depends on definitions and the first problem is to define if Finland Swedes are or are not a minority: should they be compared with language groups like the Basques in France, the Turks in Greece or even the Catalans in Spain, or with Francophones and Flemish in Belgium or Swiss-French and Swiss-German in Switzerland? It is undoubtedly possible to find within Finland Swedish society some elements of "minoritisation", first of all the absolute demographic exiguity of Finland Swedes regard to the entire population of Finland. But even this undiscussed element can just disappear in a larger European perspective in which they are just one of the Scandinavian people sharing a common language with the Swedes of Sweden (to a certain extent also with Norwegians and Danes). Sociologically it is also true that there is pressure from the Finns on (or against) Finland Swedes. But this pressure can be analysed as a question of language borders more than a question of minorisation (see e.g. the problem of the language borders in Belgium and in Switzerland). It has also been said that the Finnish language law is the best in the world. Be that as it may, the main positive point of the Language Law is that it protects the right of the citizens to use their own mother tongue and not the right of the language as an abstract entity (as is the case, for example, in Belgium). Furthermore, it is not only a question of personal or territorial rights. It could mean, however, that one of the two languages, losing prestige or merely demographic importance, could find itself in a dangerous situation without any kind of specific protection. In concluding, it can be said that Finland Swedes live under a certain, though not too strong, Finnish ethnic and linguistic pressure and, due to their demographic weakness, the mere equality of rights with the Finns does not guarantee their existence forever. On the other hand, a special minority protection, a kind of positive discrimination of Finland Swedes, as requested by many members of the community, would discriminate against the Finns, at least in the bilingual or in the Swedish-speaking areas. The aforementioned details pertaining to the Finland Swedes do not apply, however, to the autonomous province of Åland: Swedish on Åland is without any doubt not a minority language. It is the only language of the community. However, seen from a national point of view the 25,000 Ålänningar represent a very small minority inside the Finnish state, being just 0.5% of the entire population. The Åland Islands do indeed enjoy a large degree of autonomy defined by the Finnish constitution. The islands enjoy autonomy in, among other fields, education, culture, health care, social issues, municipal administration, postal services, radio and television, and local business and industry. The Finnish Language Law is not valid on the islands, where the only official language and the only language of the education is Swedish. In practice the minority language of Åland is Finnish, spoken by about 5% of the population (probably all bilingual) - cases of prohibition of the use of Finnish on Åland have been reported. The special status of Åland has its historical background in the separatist movement that arose just after the independence of Finland: Ålänningar wanted to become part of Sweden. The conflict was solved by the League of Nations in 1921. Finland got sovereignty over the islands but had to give Åland a large level of autonomy in many fields and guarantee for the Swedish language the status of sole language of the region. Åland can be defined as a proto-state.

[Top of page]