June 1998

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       The Language Situation in Finland

        by Kenneth McRae

Finland's contemporary language situation has been shaped by key events in the country's history: the separation from Sweden in 1809; Tsar Alexander's decree of 1863 recognising the Finnish language; the Diet reform of 1906; the Constitution of 1919 and the Language Law of 1922.

It has also been influenced by population changes: internal migration to the cities; linguistic intermarriage; emigration to North America and Sweden; differential birth rates, and wars and Karelian resettlement.

To deal with these factors Finland developed a detailed language policy in the turbulent years after 1917 that provided equal treatment for its two main language groups – Finnish speakers and Swedish speakers – across all secotrs of Finland's public life.

After eight decades, the essentials of this language policy are largely intact, though adjustments are being made for an evolving populations and a changing international context.

In comparative context, Finland's recent language experience has emphasised peaceful adjustment to linguistic change over fixed language territories.

Kenneth McRae is professor emeritus of political science at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. He has written on language and politics in several countries, including Conflict and Compromise in Multilingual Societies, volume 3, Finland, 1997.

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