What it's like being a Swedish-speaking Finn in Finland

Finland is a country in northern Europe that people tend to know little about, except for the common facts that Finland ranks high in education and equality. Even fewer know that Finland has not one but three languages spoken within its borders: Finnish, Swedish and the indigenous language, Sami. But here’s how life for Swedish-speaking Finnish youth, being part of a minority language group, is different.

In Finland, about 5.4 percent of the total population of around 5.5 million people are called Swedish-speaking Finns, or ‘finlandssvensk’ in Swedish and ‘suomenruotsalainen’ in Finnish.

These about 300,000 people have registered Swedish as their mother tongue, but being a Swedish-speaking Finn is about much more than just the language.

“It’s a cultural thing, we share cultural heritage with both Sweden and Finland,” Anna, 24, a Swedish-speaking Finn from Helsinki told Global Young Voices. “We celebrate holidays that are not common within the Finnish-speaking communities, like [Saint] Lucia on the 13th of December (sic) and crayfish parties in August, but I do feel more Finnish than Swedish, but in Finland I’m definitely a real ‘finlandssvensk,’ since most of the time I speak my first language, go to a Swedish-language university, most of my friends are Swedish-speaking and I participate in things that could be seen as typically Swedish-Finnish,” she added.

Due to historical reasons, both Finnish and Swedish are official languages. Finland was part of the Kingdom of Sweden for around 700 years, before the country became the Grand Duchy of Finland as part of the Russian empire. The Swedish language survived the Russian rule and in 1908 the first Finnish-Swedish Heritage Day was celebrated in Finland. Every year since then, Nov. 6 has been celebrated as a sort of national day by the Swedish-speaking population of Finland. The day was inaugurated to strengthen the Swedish-speaking communities and to create a sense of connection to each other. The flag day is in fact older than the actual Swedish national day, founded in 1916, and the Finnish independence day was declared Dec. 6, 1917. But today some people seem to feel a bit confused about what being a Swedish-speaking Finn really means, especially if they do not match the description of the stereotypical Swedish-speaking Finn.

The stereotype is that all Swedish-speaking Finns are supposed to know Swedish TV shows and movies, are imagined as rich(er) than the general Finn, every Swedish-speaking person are “friends” with each other because of the language, are said to be more privileged and pampered than other Finns, have their stereotypical material possessions such as a sailing boat and maybe a summer cottage in the archipelago, they sing schnapps songs and are jolly, they celebrate the typical Swedish holidays that are celebrated in Finland and so forth. Let me remind you that these are only stereotypes and do not depict a homogeneous picture of a Swedish-speaking Finn. Some people question if they really are a part of this “community” or not, when they do not fit into these specific characteristics or clusters.

Rofa, 30, who is a Swedish-language teacher, raised an interesting thought in one of his blog posts: “I don’t know how many times I’ve heard my underage, as well as adult, students apologetically say that they don’t feel like real Swedish Finns because they don’t have all the required characteristics. That they don’t think they fit in.” He is saying that he himself doesn’t particularly like crayfish parties, nor does he specifically love the Swedish People’s Party, one of the governmental parties, but does this make him less of a Swedish-Finn?

“I see it as something divided, it’s like a sort of sub-culture of Finns”, Niclas, 27, who lives in Turku, said. He continues to say that sometimes he’s is not really feeling like a “real” Finn, because the Swedish-speaking Finns still have their own cultural things and also have a sense of community that is called the “duck pond” or ‘ankdammen’ in Swedish. The duck pond is a nickname for the Swedish-Finnish community, because it is said that “everybody knows everybody,” as in a pond of ducks. Niclas says that it’s like one of those schnapps songs; “one feels like half-foreigner,” and especially when hanging out with non-Swedish-speaking Finns, one gets more conscious about the stereotypes and prejudices.”

Lisa, 23, is from Pietarsaari, which is a majority Swedish-speaking city, says that she has experienced some language-racism in Finland. She told about an instant in a majority Finnish-speaking city where she and her friends were for a weekend. “We were talking Swedish to each other as we usually do, and then a small group of guys in around the same age as us, shouted at us when we passed them on the street. They were shouting something along the lines of “ ‘Hurrit’ (a derogatory nickname for Swedish-speaking Finns), go back to Sweden, go back where you came from.”

This is definitely not a daily occurrence, but it happens once in awhile, and especially around election times when the question about the language status of Swedish as an official language in Finland is circulating in the news. It is a hotly debated topic during those times, and in the Swedish-Finnish community some express fear for the status and the future of the language in Finland. Right now they still have the right to services like social security and health care in Swedish, they have Swedish-language media, education on all levels in Swedish, and also the strained attitude against the language can be felt.

Some Finnish-speaking people have prejudices toward Swedish-speaking Finns because of the stereotypes and also because a lot of people do not see the point of teaching Swedish in schools as a mandatory part of the curriculum. There are also people like Ville, 25, from Helsinki, who is born and raised as a Finnish-speaker, but wanted to learn Swedish and was generally quite good in class. He was interested in languages from an early age and has said now that he probably learned German easier because of his Swedish-language skills and also sees the employment opportunities both in Finland and abroad because of his language skills. Furthermore he says that on the other hand he does understand why Finnish-speaking people see it as unnecessary to learn Swedish, most are probably not going to use it anyway and the general argument is that they should be given the choice to learn it or another language they deem more useful for their future.

Finland has set a good example worldwide on how to treat minorities and this is something that the country and its people should be proud of. Even if Swedish-speaking Finns consist of a small part of the Finnish population the “rivalry” with Finns is very amicable and not even noticable in daily life. Swedish-speaking Finns are not geographically bound to one area, even if most of them live on the southern and northwestern coasts, they are integrated in everyday life and has their own party in the government that drives forward the interests of the Swedish-Finns.

So what is the cultural identity of a Swedish-speaking Finn? Well, it seems like it’s a mix of being Finnish, with a throw of Swedish traditions and having to deal with some stereotypes because of speaking Swedish in a country where the languages’ status is questioned by the majority population, but also within the government. Lisa also said that she loves to be a Swedish-speaking Finn and says that she definitely feels like a Finnish national who only happen to speak the other official language. “I think the culture and our identity is a mix of the best of both worlds,” she finishes.

Cover cartoon credit: Sergio Algeri/GYV