Who's whingeing now?

A very personal commentary by Pirkko Hautamäki

It's like the joke about higher education. There's this pub that has a notice announcing "Happy Hour at 7-8 pm". The publican explains: "That's when the higher education lecturers aren't in here whingeing." And it's the whingeing bit that gets me. Every time I hear the Finland-Swedes moan about their plight, perceived or real, I think to myself: "Here we go again. If it's not one thing it's another. Why don't you grow up?"

How could I think otherwise? You see, I was brought up in a little town in the Swedish-speaking part of Finland where Finnish speakers were in a minority. Because Swedish wasn't my first language, I grew up feeling like a second-class citizen. And you remember the snubs remarkably well, even frighteningly so: the arrogant service in the shops and the way you automatically switched to Swedish if you wanted to be treated like any other paying customer; the embarrassment in the offices when your Finnish wasn't understood by the monolingual clerks; or going to the school dentist whose Finnish vocabulary stretched to two words ("Open mouth, open mouth"). The creep left me with a terror of the profession and a less than perfect set of teeth. And what about the Finnish schools that still had toilets in outhouses while Swedish schools were being refurbished at great cost? And what about the fact that you were more likely to get a job in the first place and then promoted if your first language was Swedish rather than Finnish? (This isn't whining, of course. It's just stating the facts...)

Yet I loved my home town. I wouldn't have been without the mix of both Finnish and Swedish speakers. It made the town what it was. Influences came from various quarters: Sweden, the Swedish and Finnish-speaking rural population, and centuries of more or less urban life in the town itself. It was a curious mix of openness and claustrophobia. These were present in both language groups. It was like inbreeding with lots of new blood, if you see what I mean.

Also, having grown up in a language minority, I think I can appreciate something that the Finland-Swedes live with. They may have a well-protected minority status in Finland in general, but it's little wonder that they become both defensive and offensive about their language and identity. If I as a Finnish speaker felt distinctly inferior among the Swedish-speaking majority, why shouldn't they feel that their language rights are threatened in a predominantly Finnish-speaking country? And Swedish is not only being set upon by Finnish. You only have to look around in Finland today to see that the second language - unofficially at least - is English, not Swedish. (Not to talk about those who feel that Finnish, too, is threatened by an onslaught of English, but that's another story.)

It's just that I don't think that the Finland-Swedes are being totally honest about the situation. They can be as bloody-minded and dismissive about the Finnish speakers' rights as they claim that Finnish speakers are towards them. Petty-minded of course, but set that straight and I'll listen to any amount of whingeing with a lot more sympathy.

Pirkko Hautamäki worked as Education Officer at the Finnish Institute until December 1998

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