Swedish tongue, Finnish heart

Swedish-speaking Finns make up a small minority of Finland's population, yet their influence on the country has been great. Their identity has often been the cause of confusion, and at times a little prejudice. Helsinki Times talks to Kjell Herberts, a sociologist and expert on the topic.

"It is very important for us to stress that we are Finns. We are Swedish- speaking, but we are Finns by identity. The term finlandssvenskar, or even suomenruotsalaiset in Finnish, is not really accurate. I prefer Swedish-speaking Finns. The phrase is a little longer, but it is more correct than finlandssvenkar," explains Kjell Herberts of Åbo Akademi University in Vaasa. "In Swedish, finländare is how we refer to all the people of Finland - ourselves included."

Kjell Herberts, a native of Ostrobothnia, is a Finland-Swedish sociologist. He has been a researcher at the Institute of Finland- Swedish Social Research in Åbo Akademi University since 1982, and president of the Swedish-Ostrobothnian Society since 1999.

The Swedish-speaking Finns, who make up about 5.5 per cent of the population, are a minority group in this country, but take their sense of Finnishness very seriously. Swedish, alongside Finnish, is one of the two official languages of Finland. The major political organisation representing the Swedish-speakers in Finland, the Swedish People's Party and Folktinget, has defined the Swedish-speaking Finns as a people who express Finnish identity in the Swedish language. But who are the Swedish-speaking Finns, where did they come from and where do they live?

"Researchers have different opinions on the history of the first settlers in Finland, but I think if you look at historical migration from the west you didn't speak about languages at that time of course. A fisherman was a fisherman, a hunter was a hunter, he didn't see himself as Finnish or Swedish because these entities didn't really exist - he went where there was fish or game," says Herberts.

"The Åland Islands and west coast are where the main concentrations of Swedish-speakers are. Most research now thinks that Finland was settled by both populations around the same time. I don't think anybody can claim ‘we were first here.' Maybe the Sami population are the only ones who can really make this claim."

One third, about 100,000, of the Swedish-speaking Finnish population live in Ostrobothnia, and 200,000 living in the south and south-west, from Loviisa and to Raseborg as well as the Åboland archipelago and the Åland Islands.

Metropolitan area

Helsinki itself was once predominantly Swedish-speaking, but over time, as people gravitated towards the capital in search of work from other parts of the country, the population diluted, and now in recent years there are more and more foreigners, which also diminishes the proportion of finlandssvenkar in the metropolitan area. The Swedish-speaking population was once around 17 per cent in the country at the turn of the last century.

"Also when the Common Nordic Labour Market came about in 1954 large numbers of young men and women from small farms left Ostrobothnia, and elsewhere in Finland, to seek work in Sweden. The closeness between Ostrobothnia and the east coast of Sweden made this easier," says Herberts. In 2008 there were over 675,000 people in Sweden who were either born in Finland or have at least one parent or grandparent who was born in Finland.

"I'm responsible for the Finland-Swedish Barometer and these opinion polls about Swedish-speakers in Finland every year. Curiously when we asked about Sweden and how close Swedish culture is for Swedish-speakers here we found that in Ostrobothnia and Åland there are very strong ties because they still have family members there, but in the Helsinki region many Swedish-speaking Finns do have close ties, but because of their jobs - they have the Nordic contacts and are able to always speak Swedish with their counterparts there."

The proportion of Swedish-speaking Finns is currently about 5.5 per cent of the population and the decrease in numbers has tapered off in recent years due to reduction in emigration, and increasingly these days about two-thirds of bilingual families will register their children as Swedish-speaking - these kids often go to Swedish-speaking schools, and having a Swedish-speaking as well as a Finnish-speaking parent they grow up bilingual.

More opportunity

"For practical reasons and to support their kids, bilingual families' parents give more opportunity to Swedish - because Finnish is there in any case. Many parents who struggled with either language in school themselves will want to give this opportunity to their kids - it can make studying the other Germanic languages much easier also," explains Herberts.

"As a Swedish-speaker you can understand Norwegian, at least written Danish and German, and I've even managed to get the meaning from some Dutch texts - it can be a key to other languages."

One charge often levelled at Swedish-speakers by their fellow- Finns is the lingering concept that Swedish is somehow the language of the upper-class - particularly they can be seen as the ‘old money' in Finland.

"There are still such views, in Swedish it is bättre folk, the better folk. But this is not true when we look at the demographic situation today. You have to understand that the elite in Finland - the economic elite and cultural elite - have been Swedish for centuries. But the vast majority have been the same as regular Finns - farmers, fishermen and so on, although the ‘visible' Swedish-speaking Finns have been upper-class. They have always been the visible ones and people unfortunately judge the whole group," says Herberts.

The simple fact was that for the centuries of Swedish control of the country, the Swedish language was the language of the Church and the universities, and the spoken language of the leading lights of the artistic world. This was hardly the choice of the Swedish-speaking Finns, though it may have made climbing the social ladder somewhat easier.

Many of those who defined Finnishness and the Finnish national identity had Swedish as their mother tongue. None of this made them any less proud to be Finnish - the same can be said of the current Swedish-speaking Finns, whether they ply their trade from a fishing boat in the Gulf of Bothnia, or in the boardrooms of Helsinki.

Some notable Swedish-speaking Finns

Karl Gustaf Mannerheim, (1867-1951). Military commander and reluctant politician, who led the Finnish defence against Soviet invasion in 1939, bringing the offensive to an unlikely halt and giving Finland room for negotiation. Voted The Greatest Finn of All Time in 2004.

Kaj Franck, (1911-1989). One of the leading figures of Finnish design - his works are seen in many Finnish homes. The Design Forum Finland awards the yearly Kaj Franck Design Prize to a designer or team of designers working in the spirit of the late Kaj Franck.

Marcus Grönholm, (born 1968). Finnish former rally driver. Driving for Peugeot, he won the World Rally Championship in 2000 and 2002. Grönholm also won the 2002 Race of Champions, taking home the Henri Toivonen Memorial Trophy and earning the title Champion of Champions.

Tove Jansson, (1914-2001). Finnish novelist, painter, illustrator and comic-strip author. She is best known as the author of the Moomin books. In 1966 Jansson won the Hans Christian Andersen Award for her contributions to children's literature.

Linus Torvalds, (born 1969). Software engineer and hacker, best known for having initiated the development of the open source Linux kernel. In 2000, Helsinki-born Torvalds , was listed 17th in Time Magazine's Time 100: The Most Important People of the Century poll.

Niklas Bäckström, (born 1978). Finnish professional ice hockey goaltender currently playing for the Minnesota Wild in the NHL. Has amassed nearly 20 awards in a 16-year playing career, including an Olympic Silver Medal as a member of Team Finland.