The Minority Languages of Sweden

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Did you think all people in Sweden speak Swedish? Wrong! Next to their wonderful official national language, there are five minority languages officially recognised in the country.

In an article in The Local, Isabela Vrba tells us that according to the Langauge Council, Sweden is the home of about 200 different languages, making it one of the most multicultural countries on the European continent.

However, she states that only five of these languages hold the status of an official minority language: Finnish, Meänkieli, the Sami languages, Yiddish and Romani.

Here’s some background on each of these languages:

•    Finnish: Finnish, Vrba says, comes from a completely different language family than Swedish. However, as 70,000 Sweden Finns are living in Sweden, which is mostly located around Stockholm and the Mälaren Valley, the language has been awarded an official status.

•    Maënkieli: this language, which is also called Torne Valley Finish, is closely related to Finnish. According to Vrba, 55,000 Torne Valley Finns live in Sweden and speak the language: 50,000 of them live in the north of the country and 5,000 are based in Stockholm.

•    Sami languages: this language is spoken by the Samis which are mainly located in the northern part of Sweden, Vrba states. The languages are at least 2,000 years old and are spoken by about 20,000-35,000 people.

•    Yiddish: in the 18th century, thousands of Jews relocated to Sweden. Now, Vrba says, this minority mainly lives in the country’s largest cities. Currently, there are about 20,000-25,000 Jews in the country.

•    Romani: in Sweden, there are about 50,000-100,000 Roma. The language consists of different variations, and according to Vrba, the language has been spoken in Sweden since the 16th century.

Vrba states that these five languages were awarded the status of the official minority language in 1999 when  parliament entered the framework convention for the protection of national minorities in Europe.

She also explains that languages can only become an official minority language when they are spoken in Sweden for three generations or 100 years and when they are regarded as a language, not a dialect.

Karin Skoglund, who coordinates the national minority issues in Stockholm, states that when a new law came into effect in 2010, the national minorities were given the right to language and culture protection. Moreover, since that time, they were also  given the right to access political matters. She tells Vrba that in Stockholm, for example, there is a Finnish administrative board, giving the Finns more rights to preschool and elderly care. In addition, Vrba says, the law keeps the languages alive by protecting and representing them. Skoglund does admit that strengthening the position of the minority languages has been no easy task, though, which has to do with the fact that the law is too vague about the guidance that should be provided.

According to Christian Mattsson, who works at the Institute for Language and Folklore as a project leader, measures are taken to keep minority languages from becoming extinct.

Projects concerning the revitalisation of the languages can receive a grant of 3.5 million kronor (509,000 US dollars), for example. In addition to the grant, the Institute is also involved in the creation of Romani and Meänkieli dictionaries.

Vrba states that even though Swedish sign language has also been a minority language candidate, it has not been made a minority language because of European criteria. As Mattsson points out, speakers of the Swedish sign language do not make up a political majority, which is a requirement for an official minority language.

He also states that a language can only become an official language when it is “traditionally” spoken in a country. This means a language such as Arabic, which has only been spoken in Sweden since the 20th century, cannot be awarded this status.

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