Realities of a bilingual culture

Linguistically, Finland often seems to confuse foreigners. Many think that Finnish is a Scandinavian language and that the country itself is a faint carbon copy of Sweden. (The other view of Finland as a satellite of the Soviet Union is now obviously irrelevant.) The existence of a Swedish-speaking minority is not widely known or understood, and a recent article in The Guardian showed how difficult it is to comprehend the status of this minority.

In his article "Language divide keeps Finns suspicious", Stephen Weizman noted that the Swedish-speaking minority enjoys equal legal status with the Finnish-speaking majority but quoted Swedish speakers who claim that they "are treated awfully on a practical level". The anecdotal evidence produced seemed unpleasant enough, but did make it difficult to understand why the treatment of the Swedish-speaking minority is internationally considered to be among the best examples of a successful solution to a minority question.

It is probably impossible to root out all the chauvinism of the Finnish-speaking majority. Also, in some Swedish-speaking circles there are still echoes of old elitist disdain towards Finnish speakers. However, these unpleasant attitudes conceal a rich interrelationship between the two language groups over the last two hundred years.

When the Russians wrested control of Finland from Sweden in 1809 – during the Napoleonic Wars – the educated elite spoke Swedish, whereas the vast majority of peasants knew only Finnish. The relationship between the two language groups was complicated, sometimes difficult. With the Fennomanian mobilisation, however, the educated classes became interested in the Finnish language as a nationalistic vehicle to distinguish the nation from Sweden and Russia.

Although the relations between the language groups were at times hostile following independence, the existence of two variations of the same national culture was also seen as a source of richness. Swedish as a national language was part of a common national culture. Matti Klinge, a prominent historian, has argued that "all Finns are Swedes", meaning that there is a Swedish element in the Finnish cultural heritage which can be expressed in either language. This heritage, according to many historians, actually blossomed under Russian rule in the 19th century.

What is also difficult to see from abroad is that Swedish speakers consider themselves to be Finns. They do share some traditions with Swedes in Sweden, but to put it like Weizman that "Finnish rites and traditions, while familiar and respected, are not part of their life" is misleading. Most such rites and traditions are actually shared by the two language groups.

The main national symbols are shared by Finnish and Swedish speakers. Finnish public life is full of bilingual institutions even if there are single-language sectors. The Swedish speakers have their own schools, parishes, universities, literature, theatres, radio channels and television programmes. An element of cultural autonomy is a fact of the Swedish-speaking world in Finland. The business world can be described as bilingual.

All is not well with bilingualism, though, if one is to believe Jörn Donner, a Swedish-speaking writer and MEP. Donner recently complained that the Finnish government is not willing to highlight the country’s bilingual status in its dealings with the outside world. Donner wrote: "Our country's solution for coping with bilingualism is exemplary, well worth exporting. But that's not happening." (Hufvudstadsbladet, February 23, 1998)

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