Minority languages of Sweden
The Swedish language dominates commercial and cultural life in Sweden but did not officially become the country's main language until 2009, when a new language law entered into effect. The need for this legal status had been the subject of protracted debate and proposed legislation was narrowly defeated in 2005.
The minority languages have been legally recognized to protect the cultural and historical heritage of their respective speech communities. These communities are given certain rights on that basis, such as school education in their language, and its use in dealing with governmental agencies.
Criteria for inclusion
These are the criteria established by the Minority Language Committee, influenced by the directives from the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages in 1997.
To be accorded official minority status, a language must have been spoken in Sweden for a significant amount of time. A precise figure has not been revealed, but qualified estimations consider 100 years to be reasonable, based on the included and excluded languages. A significant immigration to Sweden did not start until after World War I, and many languages currently spoken by a large number of people in Sweden are excluded, among them Arabic and Persian.
It is also required that the language be spoken by a significant number of people and be centred in a specific geographical region (the latter, however, not applied for Romani and Yiddish).
Furthermore, it is a condition that the granting of official minority language status should be of cultural benefit to the group speaking it. It is allegedly for this reason that Swedish Sign Language was not included – even though it is a unique language with a history dating back to the 18th century, it was considered to have a sufficiently stable basis already in Swedish culture.
Common culture is yet another criterion for inclusion. A further reason for not granting minority language status to the sign language was that its users do not share a unique cultural heritage since hearing-impaired people come from all backgrounds.
Finnish has been spoken in Sweden ever since the (then provincial) borders were drawn in the 13th century. Sweden has always had a significant migration to and from Finland. As the two languages belong to different language families it is easy to distinguish them, unlike the neighbouring languages Norwegian and Danish. The number of Finnish speakers in Sweden today amounts to over 460,000.
On 11 December, 2007, Finnish Broadcasting Company YLE reported, that in Uppsala, Sweden, speaking Finnish was forbidden from municipal employees, and that this was the case also with small talk during breaks. According to an agreement between the city council and the municipal trade union the official working language is Swedish and two employees were not allowed to speak Finnish with one another in the common work premises or in break rooms. The Equality Ombudsman considered that a ban was permissible in that particular case.
Meänkieli or Tornionlaaksonsuomi or Tornedalian language is spoken by a population in northern Sweden. It is closely related to and mutually intelligible with Finnish and often considered a dialect thereof, with many loanwords from Swedish. Especially in Finland the distinction of Meänkieli as a separate language is seen as language politics not based in linguistics (see Kven language for a similar situation in Norway). Meänkieli is not intelligible to Swedes. The number of speakers amount to 50,000 or so.
The Sami languages are actually not one language, even though they are commonly referred to as such. In Sweden, three Sámi languages are spoken, with the other 7 Sámi languages being spoken in Norway, Russia and Finland. The history of the Sami languages can be traced back at least 2,000 years. In total, they are spoken by a minimum of 40,000 people throughout the four countries.
Romani chib, the language of Romani people (Gypsies), has been spoken in Sweden since the 16th century. Today about 9,500 people speak it in Sweden. It does not have a geographical center, but is considered to be of historical importance.
Yiddish was historically a common language of Ashkenazi (Central and Eastern European) Jews. The first Jews were permitted to reside in Sweden during the late 18th century. As of 2009, the Jewish population in Sweden was estimated at around 20,000. Out of these 2,000-6,000 claim to have at least some knowledge of Yiddish according to various reports and surveys. The number of native speakers among these has been estimated by linguist Mikael Parkvall to be 750-1,500. It is believed that virtually all native speakers of Yiddish in Sweden today are adults, and most of them elderly.
The organization Sveriges Jiddischförbund ("Yiddish association of Sweden") has been the national parent organization for Yiddish speakers and has four local chapters in Borås, Gothenburg, Stockholm and Malmö. It has been active since 1976 and was previously known as Sällskapet för jiddisch och jiddischkultur i Sverige ("society for Yiddish and Yiddish culture in Sweden") which is now the name of the chapter based in Stockholm.
Romani and Yiddish have the position of "historical minority languages" throughout the country, and thus the Swedish state acknowledges a certain obligation to preserve them.
References and notes
- Sveriges officiella minoritetsspråk, Svenska språknämnden 2003. (In Swedish)
- National minorities and minority languages, Integrations- och jämställdhetsdepartementet, Informationsmaterial IJ 07.07e, July 13, 2007
- Landes, David (2009-07-01). "Swedish becomes official 'main language'". The Local. thelocal.se. Retrieved 2009-07-15.
- Svenskan blir inte officiellt språk, Sveriges Television, 2005-12-07. Retrieved on July 23, 2006. (in Swedish)
- Uppsala kielsi suomen kielen käytön (in Finnish)
- Feldt-Ranta frågar om Uppsala-fallet
- Stockholm County Board, Från erkännande till egenmakt, från ord till handling. Rapport från konferens om den minoritetspolitiska reformen. May 2010
- Mikael Parkvall, Sveriges språk. Vem talar vad och var?. RAPPLING 1. Rapporter från Institutionen för lingvistik vid Stockholms universitet. 2009, pp. 68-72
- Sveriges Jiddischförbund, Detta är Jiddischförbundet. Retrieved 13 July 2014.