Swedish Language Blog

Finland Swedish – Finlandssvenska Posted by on Sep 9, 2008 in Culture

I’m sorry this post is a bit late. But I have a good excuse. I’ve been away. I went to Finland! Oh yes, I can just feel your excitement in the air like static electricity.

But wait a second now! There is a reason why I am writing about Finland here. You see, they also speak Swedish over there. In fact, it’s one of the country’s official languages, the other being Finnish, naturally. Finnish itself is a totally incomprehensible oddity and to me sounds like Klingon spoken backwards. Or, as my friend who lives in Finland says, “I’ll let you in on a little secret, it IS Klingon spoken backwards.”

Fortunately, quite a few people across the Bay of Bothnia do speak something more understandable as their mother tongue. Swedish! There are even several municipalities in Finland that are totally mono-lingual, where the inhabitants speak Swedish and nothing else. The most famous one is Hammarland on the Åland archipelago, and the other is just down a spit across the bay from me – Korsnäs. Korsnäs has the distinction of being the most Swedish municipality in the world, percentage-wise it has more Swedish speakers (around 98%) than any municipality in Sweden. If that’s not impressive then I don’t know what is.

Finland Swedish (finlandssvenska) is one of the many Swedish dialects, just like skånska. But much easier to understand than skånska, if I may be allowed to say so.

As with any dialect, there are differences between “proper” Swedish and the variant of the language spoken in Finland. There are some words that may be used in a different context that mean something else, or there are words that don’t exist in the “mainland” Swedish at all. Or archaic words, but which changed their meaning, are still used. Sometimes the sentence order can be a bit strange as well. Technically correct, but somehow unfamiliar to “proper” Swedes. And then there’s the lack of melody and intonation. Swedish is the only Indo-European language that still retains its tonal characteristics. But not Finland Swedish. The tones are largely gone. (And Swedes always claim that of the two it’s the Finnish Swedish that’s more archaic and backwards. Ha!) For that reason many, if not most, rikssvenska (standard Swedish) speakers wrongly assume that finlandssvenska is just normal Swedish spoken with a Finnish accent.

What is quite impressive is that a country with such a tiny population as Finland, where an even tinier minority speaks Swedish, produced so many famous Swedish-speaking individuals. Have you heard of Tove Jansson? Of course you have! The Moomins! She wrote those stories. And the composer Jean Sibelius? Swedish-speaking, too. And the violinist Linda Brava and her band The Violators? Yep, another Swedish-speaking Finn. And Fredrik Idestam, the founder of Nokia? And Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux? And Karl Fazer, the guy who started the Fazer chocolate company? I’m not going to list more (and there is more, believe me,) because Finnish-speaking Finns will develop an inferiority complex and stand in the corner and pout.

This is just a short introduction to Finland Swedish (finlandssvenska) and Swedish speaking Finns for you. And I think you can clearly see that the topic just warms my heart!

Image: Wikipedia. Predominantly Swedish-speaking areas are marked in yellow.

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  1. Rebecca:


    I am so excited that you are writing about the Swedish part of Finland. My mother’s family comes from the Narpes area and that is how I originally became interested in speaking (and understanding) Swedish. Keep up the good work!

  2. Anna:

    Hi Rebecca!
    I’m so glad you enjoyed this story! There will be more. I’m a HUGE fan of Finlandssvenska, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. 😉

  3. ceci:

    hej again anna! only a question: are you a language teacher? or are you a researcher on languages? i ask you that because the way you explain languages behavior…thanks!
    i am curious because i have a language teacher in my house, so it sounds familiar to me your way of telling facts about it!

  4. Anna:

    Hi ceci!
    I used to be a teacher! You are right! 🙂

  5. Darius:

    I must say that I really enjoy this blog because it approaches me to a nation that I really admire, the Swedish one. But there is a comment in this Finlandssvenska that I did not really like:

    ‘I’m not going to list more (and there is more, believe me,) because Finnish-speaking Finns will develop an inferiority complex and stand in the corner and pout.’

    We must remark that until the independence of Finland at the beginning of the 20th century, the Finnish language was a language of peasants. The cultural languages were Swedish and Russian, and Finnish could never be developed as a national language due to the fact that the Finns were subjugated to other peoples. Therefore, all the important people born in Finland tended to be Swedes and some of them Russians, because until their independence the Finns could not be freethinkers, something that they must thank to their dear neighbours the Swedes. I found that comment quite unfair.
    Besides, the Aland Islands have a special status and, although they are part of Finland, they have their own government and are completely independent. The Finnish government thought that it would be better that way, because those islands had always been settled by Swedes.

  6. Anna:

    I meant it in the most of lighthearted, tongue-in-cheek ways. As in “no Finnsvenska were hurt during the writing of this blog, even though some buggers sure deserved it”.

    From the tone of all my posts, I thought it was pretty obvious. But if there are any Finnish readers out there who took also offense at my sense of humor, please let me know and I will revise this post. We’ll put someone else in the corner to pout, OK?

  7. Darius:

    I really thank your attention. I just wanted to remark that if Finnish speakers have not been very important through the ages is just because they could not.
    Once more, thank you very much. And I do really enjoy your blog.

  8. Andrew Waddington:

    Hej alla

    Jag nya här och läst om Finlands Svenska Det mycket interessant,jag tänka på at utvandra til Finland men Jag bare kan liten finsk språk så dereföre kan jag bruk svenska i Finland då

    Skriva til mig om du vil men bara Svensk och en liten finsk ibland.
    Kumpi keili se on kaunis Suomea Ja Ruotsi översetta= käännä Vilket språk är Vackert Svensk och finsk Svensk är lätt berusad finsk är huller om buller

    Tusen takk

  9. Andrew Waddington:

    I agree that Finland is for the finns however Swedish is important to the Finns because Russia will invade Finland again Yes Yes Russia like the US want gobble up everything in the world and bring us down to their level Finland has a unique most beautiful Language and culture moderate and progressive but they should stop drinking Alqohol though

  10. Andrew Waddington:

    Dear Anna

    If you sell some thing and it is different from what you expect then sometimes we can complain to someone about mis representation Swedish Blog is swedes or swedish language
    Please state what the purpose of this blog is otherwise I will complain to you

  11. Kenia:

    Hej Andrew!
    This blog is just about a bit of everything including culture and swedes life style not just about swedish language. Besides I think Anna is pretty careful and chooses very well her words in all her posts.
    Most of readers are satisfied with what they’re getting, the purpose is clear to all of us, comments reflect it.
    Simply enjoy the reading and learn, that’s what this is all about. =)

  12. natasha:

    Andrew, please voice any complaints to blogs@transparent.com

  13. timan:

    Hello, Mr Waddington,
    iam glad that we have u ,be sure no one can mislead us,not TODAY!i think this is a wonderful Blog (bland många) to know the secret of any kind of any language!Dear Kenia, Nata, i appreciate ur patrio_blogtic.Plz,correct me!

  14. Passerby:

    Finns are the biggest racists in Europe. Only finnish swedes are civilised.

  15. Jonas G:

    This was an interesting blog post. I have to say it is always a little sad for us Swedish-speaking Finns to realise just how ignorant so many people in Sweden are of our very existence. I can count several occasions in Sweden where I have been told by Swedes things along the lines of “Oh, your Swedish is so good”, which is rather patronising when it is one’s mother tongue. (I have since learnt to reply, “Thanks, so is yours”). The Swedish-speaking “world” is not a big one, so you would think that the Swedes would learn about the one other place on the planet where you can live your life in Swedish. One can’t imagine a British person being surprised to learn that they speak English also in many parts of Canada, for example.

    As for the issue of melody, I was always taught that this was a later development and that Swedish in Finland is more archaic in that respect compared to Swedish in Sweden (or perhaps archaic is the wrong word, as it suggests that Sweden-Swedish is the natural norm – and who is to say that it is!) We learnt at school that the Old Norse tongues lacked the melody that today exists in modern Sweden-Swedish and also in most Norwegian dialects. If you listen to Icelandic, which is the most faithful to Old Norse, it does seem to back that theory up. The melody of today’s sing song rikssvenska is something that developed later, that theory suggests. I personally do not know which to believe.

  16. Ölänning:

    Jonas G – I feel your pain, man. I remember in high school when we had to do an assignment about minorities in Sweden. Interestingly Finland-Swedes was one of the choices! One of the questions for the assignment was “What do you think the minority have to do to adjust to life in Sweden?” (like an indigenous minority has to adjust to life in their own homeland) and the students who chose Finland Swedes said something like “Well, they have to learn Swedish”. It seemed I was the only one who reacted. Not even the teacher reacted, since the students actually got a pass with distinction (VG) on the assignment! Unbelievable! I would like to apologize on the behalf of my ignorant countrymen. I love your dialect and I think it’s very cool!


    I am looking for music (songs) that are typical for the swedish-speaking part of Finland. Any good suggestions? (It has to do with a contest were there is a challenge to use music from that part of Finland.) (title of song/music.)
    Appreciate all help! Thanks.

  18. Daniel:

    [quote]As for the issue of melody, I was always taught that this was a later development and that Swedish in Finland is more archaic in that respect compared to Swedish in Sweden […]
    We learnt at school that the Old Norse tongues lacked the melody that today exists in modern Sweden-Swedish and also in most Norwegian dialects […]
    If you listen to Icelandic, which is the most faithful to Old Norse, it does seem to back that theory up. The melody of today’s sing song rikssvenska is something that developed later, that theory suggests.[/quote]

    Hi everyone.
    That was an interesting read though I find it quite strange that something like that (Finland-Swedish being more archaic than Sweden-Swedish regarding pronunciation) would be taught as a near certain fact.

    I should probably add that I am Swedish giving you, if nothing else, a reason of a doubt 🙂

    But I am not writing this as a Swede but rather as a linguist with my main field of research being the Nordic languages, primarily Old Norse.

    There are three general theories regarding the origin and age of the Scandinavian pitch accent generally present in the dialects of Sweden and Norway (yes most dialects in Norway have it 🙂 ).

    #1. One theory suggests that the pitch accent is a truly ancient heritage reflecting (but not fully corresponding to) the original Indo-European musical accent such as we have reconstructed it. We are very certain Indo-European had a tonal system and we mostly believe it to have been musical in quality. The pitch accent system of most of Sweden-Swedish and Norwegian (and older Danish, later supplanted by the Danish “stöt”) is just that… musical.
    But what about the components within, on the one hand Indo-European and on the other Scandinavian? Do they come together and match as Scandinavian is reconstructed backwards?
    In short – no. The answer as to why could be made quite long and thorough but suffice to say – those who proclaim this theory can never prove the reasoning behind it. It plain simply doesn’t add up. Further more, I’ve never read about this being mentioned as a fact or as a serious suggestion in any serious linguistic book or paper regarding the origin of this phenomenon in Scandinavian. The Internet though is a good place to read up on this theory 😉

    #2. The next theory is the one saying that the pitch accent is very new and recent. The substance behind this proclamation is that modern Icelandic as well as Faroese don’t have a pitch accent system – by far the two most archaic modern descendants of Old Norse, especially Icelandic.
    But in which way are these two languages regarded archaic? Well, especially Icelandic has retained most of the vocabulary, grammar as well as sentence build and expressions of Old Norse and most of this language can still be mostly understood by simply knowing Modern Icelandic.
    But there is one more category to consider and it is the most critical for the matter at hand – the pronunciation. Both Faroese as well as Icelandic have seen massive changes to their respective phonetic systems since Old Norse times.
    As a matter of fact, much of the most archaic pronunciation, the one most resembling Old Norse, seems to be found in Norway and Sweden. Icelandic has retained the position of the Old Norse phonemes more accurately than any other dialect/language within the Nordic region. But as to the way these phonemes are pronounced they have drifted quite far from the original.
    So how can we possibly know the pronunciation of Old Norse? Tape recorders and Dictaphones were scares back in the day so what gives? Well, on the one hand we have the other Germanic languages to compare to and on the more distant hand the other Indo-European languages as a whole… all in accordance to linguistic comparative methods.
    But by far the best source for Old Norse pronunciation is the Old Icelandic paper known as “Fyrsti málfræðingurinn” also known as “The First Grammatical Treatise”. The author of this paper speaks a very archaic kind of Icelandic which is believed to be from around or prior to the year 1125. Here the author gives good arguments as to why the Old Norse speaking peoples shouldn’t embrace the Latin alphabet in its original shape but rather add to it to better represent “our language” which and I quote “contains far more sounds than the Latin language on which this alphabet is based”.
    The author then goes on, in extraordinary detail, to describe how all the different vowels of Old Norse sound and how they are produced within the mouth. It’s by far the next best thing to having an actual recording of direct speech. It’s incredible and Scandinavians are unbelievably lucky in this regard. The most important thing though is that what the author describes doesn’t only resemble the more archaic Norwegian and especially the more archaic Swedish dialects still alive and well today. The claims by the author can be directly confirmed by comparing to much more archaic Indo-European languages than Old Norse like antique Greek and Sanskrit. And the claims correspond, phoneme by phoneme, sound by sound to what we as linguists expect to find phonetically in all of these words.
    To sum it up – Icelandic and Faroese are not good or at least not final evidence of Old Norse pronunciation. On a further note. Tonal languages that move from their place of origin have been known to drop their tonal characteristics while the language within the original area retains it. The reason behind it isn’t fully known or, as far as I know, not fully researched yet but research suggests it might have to do with people from different dialects settling together and their individual tonal systems starting to clash and down the road get dropped all together due to confusion among later generations within the new settlements. Iceland and the Faroe Islands are both “new” settlements. We can’t prove it to be true but it’s an interesting theory to something real we see in the actual world.

    #3. And finally, the last theory (the one that I prescribe to) is the one that says that the pitch accent is the development of a course of events that began during the end of the Ancient Norse period and ended during the Viking Era. Thorough details aside – the way the Scandinavian pitch accent works seems to follow a phonetical structure not present since the Viking Age. What ever its origin, the actual rule at play says that when ever a word contains multiple syllables the pitch has to start low on the first syllable and get raised on the second or later syllable(s) if the word has more than one. In modern Scandinavian this means that in single syllable words the pitch is high. If more syllables are present the high pitch of the first syllable gets pushed further down the word leaving the first syllable with a low pitch. The interesting part here is that modern Scandinavian doesn’t include multiple syllable words to the rule if the second syllable consists solely of the attachable definite article, or when the second syllable is the result of a post Viking support vowel. So what’s interesting about that? Well… both instances were introduced shortly after or at the very end of the Viking Age. So what am I saying?

    Here are two archaic Old Swedish (but post Viking) word examples: takin/takin ‘the grip/taken’ (feminine singular/neuter plural), fäþer/färþer ‘fathers/journeys’ (the /r/ in ‘färþer’ has no influence on the final reasoning here).
    These words correspond exactly to modern Sweden-Swedish ‘tagen/tagen’ and ‘fäder/färder’ where the former in each of the two examples has a falling pitch (single syllable pitch) and the latter a rising (multiple syllable pitch). There is nothing in Modern nor Old Swedish that can tell us what’s going on here. Where do the different pitches come from? The word structure within each example looks exactly the same syllable wise.
    In the older Viking Swedish how ever the corresponding examples were: tak( h)in/takin and fäþr/färþir. So what’s the deal? Well, the first word in each example used to be monosyllabic in Viking Norse. And here is the point in case… there is no way a modern Swede can know by criteria based on the modern language (or even Old Swedish for that matter) that the first word in both examples used to be single syllabic during the Viking Age and those happen to be the words that modern Scandinavians still treat as if we were still speaking Viking i.e. they’re treated as mono syllabic. So here we are… all of the three Scandinavian modern languages mark a difference with either the more ancient pitch accent (Norwegian/Swedish) or stöt (Danish) where no post Viking difference can be found lexically speaking – in exactly the same places where Viking Age Norse in fact did have a difference. Even Old Swedish had lost the phonetic difference but yet something seems to have remained – the pattern of the Viking Age linguistic (assumed but never the less well attested) custom of raising the pitch/tone on following syllables in a multiple syllable word. In other words a pitch accent system.

    To sum it up. The pitch accent system seems to be a Viking linguistic phenomena still preserved in modern Scandinavian of today but lost within all of the still alive settlement areas of the language (Iceland, Faroe Islands, Finland-Swedish).
    When I attended University in Iceland to learn linguistics regarding (Old) Icelandic I learned from the Icelandic teachers that the pitch accent seems to be Old Norse in origin and that Icelandic as well Faroese seem to have lost it while Scandinavian has retained it. The reasoning behind the claim was some of the points I brought up here above.

    So where does Finland-Swedish seem to fit in all of this? Well these dialects follow the pronunciation patterns of Finnish regarding vowels, consonants and not to forget… pitch (no pitch accent – begin high and end low). They look like a typical stratum of the Finnish language, pronunciation wise (stratum = a language that gets influenced by the neighbouring language). This is typical in the world of languages where one of the most famous examples is that of Hindi in India where much of the most characteristic parts of Hindi (as well as several more Indo-European languages in India) have received some very “pronounced” (pun intended) parts of the pronunciation from an at the time of introduction already existing language within the area, the Dravidian languages of primarily Southern India… “birdie nam nam” 🙂 Indo-European languages were introduced to India much later than the Dravidian – instability among the Indo-Europeans while stability among the Dravidians – Dravidian influence as a result. These characteristics in pronunciation of Hindi are unknown to other Indo-European languages but has it in common with an unrelated language with which it happens to be a neighbour. Coincidence?

    Any way. I find this to be a nice blog so thank you 🙂