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This is linguistic ...Finland
by Thanos Kalamidas
2012-03-18 10:27:47
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When I decided to start a column with this headline I was planning to write more often and always keeping in mind that Finland is not any more or less surreal than any other country. I always felt - and I have lived in four different countries the last three decades - that the most surreal thing about every single country is the distance that separates the state and whatever constitutes this state with the people. And when I say the state I include from the government to the politicians and from the national services to the national funded media. There is an invisible line that separates those two elements and don’t worry you can find it in any single country. But here it is one thing in Finland where the state and a lot of people are on the same path even if that means hurting their own national and historic identity. The linguistic issue.

So browsing the Finnish news the last few days I was taken aback – for one more time - with the Finnish linguistic issue and the side problems rising every so often including fields that language should never be an issue. Finland is a country that has officially two languages, Finnish and Swedish; at least in theory. Both languages have a very long historic background and they are part of the country’s identity national and historic. Swedish was the main language spoken in this part of the Swedish empire for centuries and Finnish was the language of the natives; in the beginning only spoken and limited to the working class later written and gradually becoming the main language spoken from the majority of the natives. Still the country has two languages and despite the fact that nowadays only 5.5% of the Finnish population actually use Swedish as their main language (from the 15% in early 19th century) there are whole areas where the Swedish language is the main language. And there is nothing wrong about it and I can insure you that there are a lot of countries that must feel envy for this.

Remember that there are countries in this world forced to adopt a second official language even sometimes with the unbelievable cost of losing their native language. There are countries in Asia and Africa where the colonist powers enforced their language in such level that local idioms and dialects vanished and exist only in anthropology books. In that sense Finland has protect the original languages that constitute the people’s national and historic identity. And when we are talking about the Finnish historic identity Swedish language is a strong element; just think that the patriarch of the Finnish nation, Marshal Mannerheim didn’t speak Finnish and he was actually using a translator to communicate with his own army. Swedish was the language most of the classic Finnish literature is written with and Swedish speaking Finns were some of the nation’s forefathers before and after the independence. And yes I can already hear the argument about the Swedish colonization in Finland but Finland didn’t become a country before the beginning of the 20th century and the Swedes somehow expanded in no man’s land in the same sense you would say that Finns colonized the Lapis people land 15,000 years ago since and most likely they were the natives that time and oddly they have their own language a suppressed issue for the Finnish state.

Please don’t misunderstand me; I don’t try to provoke anybody, start a never ending argument or suddenly defend the rights of the Swedish speakers. This is how the whole thing looks to an outsider and especially to somebody who has seen the struggle of the Finnish people to build a national identity – not always successfully especially when they include to that a monstrous looking hard rock group and formula 1 drivers. And as a foreigner I found it curious from the very beginning. Despite the fact that Swedish is an official language, despite the fact that all official documents are in Finnish or Swedish, despite the fact that in connection with any state service they always ask you if you want the communication to be in Finnish or Swedish when as a foreigner you try to learn the local language you find out that the main option is Finnish and the reaction when you ask to learn Swedish for the simple reason that you speak German so it will be easier and faster to learn the …off the record but loud and clear very persuading answer is …nobody speaks Swedish and if you want to live here and work you have to learn Finnish.

But the case doesn’t stop with the immigrants but it goes even to the army. The last few days a whole issue has risen because despite the necessary cuts in the army (recession, global economy, and euro-crisis) the defence minister kept the one and only Swedish speaking garrison untouched. Suddenly the knives are out with the True Finns leading and Timo Soini giving his usual trash recital attacking even personally the defence minister because he is …Swedish speaker. Actually the attacks are so strong that makes you wander if they are expecting Swedish speakers to wear some kind of sign sew on their cloths, perhaps a yellow cross or something. And if that was not enough the national media broadcaster makes a headline that the foreign language speakers in Finland catching up to Swedish speakers no knowing if they are trying to alarm the dangers immigrants bring (very True Finn) or underrate the Swedish speakers.

In the meantime the people’s arguments are limited to “I prefer learning English than Swedish at school” or “why a Swedish speaker is minister” forgetting or intentionally led to exclude a very important element of their national and historic identity. But hey what do I know, after all I’m a foreigner and this is Finland!

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