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They are also sometimes used in other countries, especially as a translation of the Russian word oblast. During the period when Finland was a part of the Russian Empire (1809-1917), when Russian was made an official language alongside Swedish, it was synonymous with the word guberniya.
The word literally means fief. The usual English language terms used are separate for the two countries, where Sweden has chosen to translate the term as "county" while Finland prefers "province". With a shared administrative tradition spanning centuries, ending only in 1809, this is a separation by convention, rather than by distinction. The term matches reasonably well the British term "county", but not so well the American term "county" which is usually much smaller in population, more like Swedish "kommun".
The reason why Sweden has chosen to translate the term to "county" is that in Swedish and English, the word "provins"/"province" has come to mean different things. In the Swedish Empire, all lands conquered became provinser (provinces); Swedish law, which granted the common people much more freedom and influence than any other European law at the time, was not extended to them, remaining confined to the landskap (in plural) which made up the Swedish-and-Finnish heartland (roughly corresponding to present-day Sweden and Finland). Examples of such former Swedish provinser are Estonia and Swedish Pomerania. Another reason for the use of "County" as the English translation of Län is because the subdivisions of most U.S. states and Ireland, which are comparable in population to Sweden, are also called "counties".
In Sweden a län is but an arm of the executive power of the national government, and has no autonomy nor legislative power. The län subdivision does not always match the traditional provinces, which are called landskap (singular and plural) in Swedish (including Swedish-speaking Finland) and maakunnat (singular maakunta) in Finnish. The same situation existed in Finland until län/lääni were abolished in 2010.
- Counties of Sweden — (Sveriges län)
- Provinces of Finland (abolished 2010) — (Suomen läänit / Finlands län)
In every Swedish län (except Gotland) there is a landsting. This is a locally elected assembly, which collects tax and has responsibility for a number of services to the population. The main responsibility is for hospitals.
The governor has the title landshövding (Swedish) (previously maaherra in Finnish). He or she is appointed by the government, and presides over the länsstyrelse (Swedish ; previously lääninhallitus in Finnish) - translated as "County Administrative Board". The governor's office is administrative by nature, which is also hinted at by the now obsolete title Konungens befallningshavande - "the King's Deputy" - and traditionally used as an honourable post for politicians to conclude their careers. In Finland the governor/landshövding/maaherra positions were cancelled in 2010. In opposite to countries like USA, the governor in Sweden is not elected by the people, but represents the central government.
- "New regional administration model abolishes provinces in 2010". Helsingin Sanomat International Edition. Sanoma Corporation. 31 December 2009. Retrieved 1 January 2010.