Hyvää itsenäisyyspäivää!

Finland celebrates its independence (from Russia) on 6 December. As a Finn living in Belgium, I will celebrate it today by reflecting for a moment on the language situation in Finland and what it has meant to me.

I grew up in Finland, a Nordic country with nearly 5.4 million inhabitants. Our national languages are Finnish and Swedish. Other language groups recognised in the constitution are three Sami languages, Finnish Romani and the Finnish sign language. At the end of 2010, 4 857 903 (90.4%) people had Finnish as mother tongue, 291 153 (5.4 %) Swedish and 1 832 (0.03 %) Sami (there are three Sami languages spoken in Finland) (Statistics Finland, 18.3.2011). In addition to these, there are of course other foreign language groups, out of which Russian is the largest. In Finnish comprehensive school, pupils learn at least Finnish, Swedish and English. Därför pratar ja också svenska. I don’t, however, get to practise my Swedish very much in Finland because the Swedish speaking Finns, finlandssvenskorna, are a small minority and as a rule speak very good Finnish. In spite of the fact that Swedish is an official language in Finland, most people speak much better English than Swedish. My first foreign language was English, too, which I started learning at the age of nine. Swedish and German came only later.

While Swedish language is only spoken by a small minority, it has retained its historically strong position. In comparison, the situation of the Sami has been far from ideal. As the coordinator of pre-school education of Sami language in Utsjoki community in Northern Finland puts it: “In the past it was forbidden to speak Sami at school. To make up for past suppression, the authorities of Norway, Sweden and Finland now make an effort to build up Sami cultural institutions and promote Sami culture and language. Still, the work has only just started.” (The Network to Promote Linguistic Diversity website). Luckily, several projects, such as the one in Utsjoki, are now running to enhance the language learning of the Sami such as this minority language pre-school education project.

I feel that as a Finn, I’ve been privileged with regard to access to education. The quality of the Finnish education has also been noted abroad, even more so after the good results in the PISA research. I will not analyse the reasons behind this in depth, but I think that at least the small group sizes, individual coaching and a freedom of choice, even at reasonably young age must all contribute to a good quality of education. At university level, if you want to, you can even choose minor subjects that have nothing or very little to do with your main subject (at least at first glance). That gives a very broad look on things.

Now, living in Belgium, I have also learned Dutch (or Flemish, as some might say). Here the language question is still very actual and even problematic. Belgium has now finally, after 541 days of negotiations, appointed the next Prime Minister, the French-speaking Elio Di Rupo, who will take the oath of office today (that’s the latest news anyway!). And, to end on a lighter note, today we also celebrate Sinterklaas in Belgium. Multiple languages, multiple reasons to celebrate!

Some 50 million EU citizens, 10% of the EU population, speak a regional or minority language

Some of my recent posts (Reindeer racing in Sápmi, Lá Fhéile Pádraig Shona Duit, etc.) have been triggered by news items I’ve spotted in the Network to Promote Linguistic Diversity’s  website. The NPLD is a pan-European network which covers regional, minority, indigenous, cross-border and smaller national languages to promote linguistic diversity in the context of a multilingualEurope.  Some 50 million EU citizens, 10% of the EU population, speak a regional or minority language.

The network currently includes representatives from the following languages: Finnish, Basque, Catalan, Breton, Occitan, Cornish, Welsh, Swedish, Lithuanian, Irish Gaelic, Frisian, Estonian, Sami, Corsican, Galician, Meänkieli and Karelian.

Their aim is to facilitate the sharing of existing best practice and the development of new and innovative ideas across the field of language planning in education, the home, the workplace, legislation and the media in the contexts of constitutional, regional and smaller state languages.

NPLD website

According to the network: “as language planners we are aware that many of the issues facing these linguistic communities will be very similar and that sharing good practice is a must if these languages are to survive and flourish.” 

Further information can be found on the NPLD website (www.npld.eu) which includes news stories concerning the network and European multilingualism, which brings me back to where I started.

Reindeer racing in Sápmi

I’ve just been reading about the upcoming Sami Easterfestival in Kautokeino / Guovdageaidnu (Norway) where there will be ice fishing competitions, snowmobile racing and the world lasso throwing and reindeer racing championships. It sounds wonderful, like that song by The Beatles about Mr. Kite’s circus where he promises to  trampoline “over men and horses, hoops and garters, lastly through a hogshead of real fire!” It also sounds like there’s a distinct possibility that it could degenerate into absolute chaos if, for example, the snowmobiles try to race the reindeers, or the lassoers take on the ice-fishers (after all, it doesn’t say what the championship lassoers are meant to lasso). If you’re thinking of heading along, please note that: ‘it’s not allowed to bring […] knifes or any other form of weapon to the festival concerts. If you bring any of this items they will be confiscated’. Which reminds me of this recent exhibition (in French).

Photo of the Sami rap group Duolva Duottar

Sami rap group Duolva Duottar

I realised, while browsing the festival website, that I really don’t know anything about the Sami/Sámi/Saami people. However, I work with two Finns (one of whom will be posting a related article soon), and having heard these people mentioned on more than one occasion I decided to do some research.

The Sami are the arctic indigenous people inhabiting Sápmi, a geographical area which, according to Wikipedia, covers parts of northern Sweden, Norway, Finland and the Kola Peninsula of Russia, but also the border area between south and middle Sweden and Norway. It’s really quite a large area (see map). They are the Nordic countries’ only officially indigenous people and their traditional languages are the Sami languages – apparently there is not one Sami language, but, depending where you look, nine or ten, all of which are endangered. They are classified as part of the Finno-Lappic group of the Uralic language family (you can see the Uralic language family tree illustrated – along with many others – on this nice site: Ethnologue).

Being for the benefit of Mr. Kite - the poster that inspired the song

Being for the benefit of Mr. Kite - the poster that inspired the song

The languages use agglutination extensively — that system of combining affixes to the root of a word which allows words like the Finnish epäjärjestelmällistyttämättömyydellänsäkäänköhän to exist (which to you and me means: “I wonder if — even with his/her quality of not having been made unsystematized”). Also, they have an average of 13-14 cases and use an extended (very extended) Latin alphabet. So, for an English speaker, rather complex.

My ‘research’, i.e. poking around the web and bugging my Finnish colleagues, brings me back to that same old question, that is to say, should we allow and accept that languages die off through a process of natural/artificial selection? Or is it the case that they are so inextricably linked with notions like identity and culture that to lose a language is to lose so much more? Or is there a middle ground where accept that not all languages can last for ever, but pledge to do more to see that they are recorded for posterity? I’d welcome your thoughts.

Thanks to Katri Mäenpää and Kirsi Suutarinen for their advice.