Finland's language strife

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The Language Strife (Swedish: Finska språkstriden, lit. 'Finnish language dispute') was a major conflict in the mid-19th century Finland. Both the Swedish and Finnish languages were commonly used in Finland at the time, leading to class tensions among the speakers of the different languages. It became acute in the mid-19th century and was considered to have ended when Finnish gained official language status in 1923 and became equal with the Swedish language.


Finland had once been under Swedish rule (Sweden-Finland). Swedish (with some Latin) was the language of administration and education in the Swedish Realm. Swedish was therefore the most-used language of administration and higher education among the Finns. To become a student, one had to learn Swedish, and Finnish was looked down upon as a "language of peasants" by the upper classes.[1][2] Immigration of Swedish peasants to Finland's coastal regions also boosted the status of Swedish. Although Mikael Agricola had started written Finnish with Abckiria in the 1500s, and a Finnish translation of the Civil Code of 1734 was published in 1759 (Ruotzin waldacunnan laki), it had no official status as a legal publication since the official language of administration was Swedish.[3]

As a result of the Finnish War, Sweden ceded Finland to Russia in 1809. Finland became the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland within the Russian Empire.[4] Under Russian rule the laws of the Sweden–Finland era remained largely unchanged, and Swedish continued to be used in administration.[3]

The language strife became more acute in the second half of the 19th century. Johan Vilhelm Snellman, a Swede who wished to increase education in Finland, became a chief initiator of conflict in the 1850s due to his concern about the changing language among the educated classes.[5] He wrote to Zachris Topelius in 1860: "My view is this: Whether Russian or Finnish will win, only God knows. I dare not hope for anything. But that Swedish will lose - that I do know."[5] Elias Lönnrot compiled the first Finnish-Swedish dictionary (Finsk-Svenskt lexikon), completing it in 1880.[6]

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.

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 onward 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 was later ennobled. These people, known as the Fennomans, Fennicized their family names, learned Finnish, and made a point of using Finnish 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.

Finnish gained an official language status comparable to that of Swedish in 1863 by a ruling of Alexander II (AsK 26/1863) allowing Finnish to be used in an official capacity in legal and state office matters.[7][8][9] Within a generation, the Finnish language dominated the government and the society of Finland.

During the Russification of Finland, Tsar Nicholas II attempted to change the official language to Russian (Language Manifesto of 1900), but Russification was halted by the general strike of 1905.

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, further aggravating the language dispute, and 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 as national languages. The language strife thereafter centered on this and on the role of Swedish in universities, particularly regarding the number of professors using Swedish in their teaching. In the interwar period the University of Helsinki was the scene of conflict between those who wanted to advance the use of Finnish and those who wished to maintain the use of Swedish.[10] Geographer Väinö Tanner was one of the most vocal defenders of Swedish.[11] A campaign initiated by the Swedish People's Party of Finland collected 153,914 signatures in defense of Swedish in a petition that was handed to the parliament and government in October 1934.[10] The conflict at the university generated an international reaction when academics from Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Iceland sent letters to the diplomatic representatives of Finland in their respective countries warning that diminishing the role of Swedish at the university would result in a weakening of Nordic unity.[10]

The language decree of 1 January 1923 made Finnish and Swedish equal.[8]

During 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. More recently there has been discussion of whether the policy of mandatory Swedish in schools should continue.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Aleksis Kivi - Kansalliskirjailija". Retrieved 2017-12-10. 
  2. ^ Minna Helminen. "Suomen kielen asema". Otavan Opisto. Retrieved 2017-12-10. 
  3. ^ a b Kaisa Häkkinen. "Suomen kieli vallan kielenä" (PDF). Retrieved 2017-12-10. 
  4. ^ "Sprengtporten, Georg Magnus (1740 - 1819)". Biografiakeskus. Retrieved 2017-12-07. 
  5. ^ a b Matti Klinge. "Snellman, Johan Vilhelm (1806 - 1881)". The National Biography of Finland. Retrieved 2017-11-24. 
  6. ^ "Lönnrot, Elias (1802 - 1884)". Biografiakeskus. Retrieved 2017-12-10. 
  7. ^ "1863 kieliasetus". Retrieved 2017-12-11. 
  8. ^ a b Rita Trötschkes (2013-12-09). "Keisarivierailu vauhditti yhteiskunnan muutosta". Yle. Retrieved 2017-12-11. 
  9. ^ Harald Haarmann. Modern Finland: Portrait of a Flourishing Society. McFarland. p. 211. ISBN 9781476625652. 
  10. ^ a b c Lasse Sundman (2011-04-24). "Universitetsadresserna". Uppslagsverket Finland (in Swedish). Retrieved 2017-11-30. 
  11. ^ Johan Lindberg (2011-08-05). "Tanner, Väinö". Uppslagsverket Finland (in Swedish). Retrieved 2017-11-30. 

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. 
  • Hult, F.M., & Pietikäinen, S. (2014). Shaping discourses of multilingualism through a language ideological debate: The case of Swedish in Finland. Journal of Language and Politics, 13, 1-20.