Finland's language strife

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The language strife was one of the major conflicts of Finland's national history and domestic politics. It revolved around the question of what status Swedish—the language which since the Middle Ages had been the main language of administration and high culture in Finland—and, on the other hand, Finnish—the first language of the majority of Finns—should have in political, cultural, educational, and other national arenas. The strife began in the latter half of the 19th century, continuing well into the 1920s and 1930s. The language question has today lost its inflammability as Finnish has attained a dominant status, but there is still public debate about issues such as to what extent Swedish-majority administrative units should be kept separate and to what extent knowledge of Swedish should be a prerequisite for different positions.


As the area nowadays known as Finland was gradually incorporated[clarification needed] in the Swedish Realm from the 13th century onwards, Swedish (and Latin) became dominant over Finnish as the most-used language of administration and higher education among the Finns. Immigration of Swedish peasants to Finland's coastal regions also boosted the status of Swedish. In 1809 Swedish was spoken by 80% of the residents of Helsinki but by only 20% of the people in Finland[citation needed].

As a result of the Finnish War, Sweden ceded Finland to Russia in 1809. Finland became an autonomous grand duchy within the Russian Empire, and initially the Swedophone ruling class[clarification needed] retained their status and ancient rights, and Swedish remained[citation needed] the sole language of administration, and, with Latin, the language of higher education. With the autonomous status, forming of a Finnish nation became an important issue[clarification needed] and the political and cultural classes became interested in things truly Finnish[clarification needed], including the language. Some thought that a nation should have a language of its own, thus Finnish, while others thought that Swedish was an important link to Western Europe and feared that losing that language would lead to Russification.

Johan Vilhelm Snellman became a chief initiator of the language strife during the 1850s, with the goal of using the Finnish language in nation building[citation needed]. As a result[further explanation needed], Finnish gained an official language status comparable to that of Swedish, and many Swedish-speaking families changed their language to Finnish. By 1880 Finnish as the mother tongue[citation needed] had increased to about 85% of the Finnish population[citation needed].

Nationalism and the question of language[edit]

Finnish eventually recovered its predominance in the country after the birth of Fennomanic Finnish nationalism in the 19th century. The publication in 1835 of the Finnish national epic Kalevala first stirred the nationalism[citation needed] that later led to Finland's independence from Russia.[citation needed]

A set of graves in Tampere, showing the Swedish surname 'Kyander' as well as the Fennicized 'Kiianmies'.

A significant contribution to the Finnish national awakening from the mid-19th century onwards came from the members of the mostly Swedish-speaking upper classes deliberately choosing to promote Finnish culture and language. Snellman himself was a Swede and later ennobled. These people, known as the Fennomans, Fennicized their family names, learned Finnish, and made a point of using it both in public and at home. However, another group of the Swedish-speaking population, the Svecomans, did not wish to abandon Swedish, and strove against the Fennoman ideology and Fennoman-inspired reforms.

Beginning in 1863[citation needed] Finnish gained an official language status comparable to that of Swedish, and within a generation Finnish dominated in government and society in Finland. This situation made for conflict between the supporters of the two languages[clarification needed]. In the beginning, the conflict involved only the upper social strata, but the population at large was drawn into it after universal suffrage was implemented in 1906[citation needed].

After independence[edit]

After Finland's independence in 1917, relations with Sweden unexpectedly became strained in connection with the Finnish Civil War and the Åland crisis, which further aggravated the language dispute, sharpening it into a prominent feature of domestic politics during the 1920s and 1930s.

In the newly independent Finnish constitution of 1919, Finnish and Swedish were given equal status. The language strife thereafter centered on this and on the role of Swedish in universities, particularly regarding the number of professors working in Swedish. Then, at the resettlement of over 420,000 Karelian refugees after the Winter War against the Soviet Union (1939–1940), the Swedish-speaking minority feared that the new Finnish-speaking settlers would change the linguistic balance of their neighborhoods. These issues were ultimately settled by the Fennoman Prime Minister and later President of Finland Juho Kusti Paasikivi.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


Further reading[edit]

  • Coleman, Michael C. (March 2010). "'You Might All Be Speaking Swedish Today': Language Change in 19th-century Finland and Ireland". Scandinavian Journal of History 35 (1): 44–64. doi:10.1080/03468750903315215.