Minority languages in the Nordics

Linguistic minorities have existed for centuries, such as the Finns and Sami in Sweden. Since 1960s minority languages have often been associated with immigration. Since 2000 and even before, policies with regard to minority languages have ranged from assimilation on the one hand, where the majority language is a necessity, to multicultural pluralism on the other, where minority languages are encouraged.

2019.02.08 | Thomas Hylland Eriksen

The European Council's poster for the The European Treaty of Regional or Minority Languages. Finland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark have all ratified it. Iceland has signed it but is yet to ratify it (as of February 2019).

All Nordic countries are based on an ethno-cultural identity which comprises the bulk of their respective populations, although all of them (except Iceland) have had linguistic minorities for centuries: Germans in Denmark, Finns and Saami in Sweden, Swedish speakers in Finland, and Saami in Norway. Although minorities are often relatively underprivileged, this is not always the case; Swedish speakers in Finland for centuries formed the elite of the country, Finland having been an integral part of the Swedish empire until 1809. Today, the country is officially bilingual, but Swedish is slowly losing ground, as English is becoming the second language of preference and young Finns of Swedish origin increasingly switch to Finnish as their first language. In the semi-autonomous Åland archipelago in the Baltic Sea, however, Swedish is the only official language. Faroese, which could be described as an intermediary language between Norwegian and Icelandic, cannot be regarded a minority language proper since it is universally spoken in the Faroe Islands and used in schools, the press and radio.

Linguistic diversity at risk from nation-building during 1800s and early 1900s

Apart from the Swedish-speaking Finns (finlandssvenskarna), linguistic minorities have found themselves in a precarious situation across the Nordic region since modern nation-building began in the late eighteenth century. Until then, minorities had largely been left to their own devices in matters of language. With the new requirements of national educational systems, obligatory military service etc., there was increasing pressure on the minorities to assimilate. This was felt particularly strongly in the Saami speaking areas from the late nineteenth century until the mid-twentieth century. Several Saami dialects or languages were nearly exterminated, but have since been revived with varying success due to the emergence of a strong Saami ethno-political movement.

In the Danish case, the border with Germany was moved north after the 1864 war. After the First World War, Denmark had the option of reclaiming all of its lost territory, but instead held local plebiscites in the relevant areas of southern Jutland and Schleswig/Slesvig. As a result, the present border traces a middle path between pre-1864 and post-1864 borders, and there are (bilingual) minorities on both sides; Danes in northern Schleswig and Germans in southern Jutland.

Other minority languages traditionally spoken in Scandinavia are Yiddish (no longer in use today), Romanés (Gypsy language) and the travellers’ language sometimes called Romani locally, a mixture of Romanés and local vernaculars (struggling for survival).

A Sami-Norwegian street sign in Norway. Sami is the official language in several Norwegian municipalities. Photo: Flickr.

Greater immigration since 1960s led to increased linguistic complexity

Since the 1960s, immigration has led to a significant increase in linguistic complexity in the Nordic countries. There has been no total language shift in any of the major immigrant groups yet, with the partial exception of Yugoslavs in Sweden. Both the first and the second generation of immigrants tend to be bilingual (as well as often being familiar with third or fourth languages), although the tendency, as one might expect, is for the second generation to be more proficient in the local vernacular than in their parents’ mother tongue. Norway, Sweden and Denmark have several radio stations which broadcast in the main immigrant languages - several dozen languages altogether - and important information from municipal areas with large immigrant populations, in the form of pamphlets, web announcements and adverts, is made available in the main immigrant languages. Printed media in various immigrant languages also exist.

Language pluralism is, as one would expect, politically contentious. However, Northern Sami has become an official language in several municipal areas in northern Norway, and Sami language is gaining ground elsewhere as well. Concerning immigrant languages, the issues are dealt with differently, partly because immigrants cannot claim indigenous status, and partly because immigrants do not live in monolingual areas. Most of them live in extremely diverse metropolitan areas, where 50 or more mother tongues may be present in relatively small local populations.

Continuum from assimilation to pluralism

The question of language is typically debated in the context of schools and the situation of immigrant women. Policy oscillates between assimilationist tendencies – everyone should receive the same language training, and multiculturalism – everyone has the right to receiving instruction in their mother tongue. In the latter case, the Nordic majority language would be taught as a second language. Since the early 2000s, Denmark has followed a more assimilationist policy than Sweden or Norway in this respect, but continues to offer limited mother tongue language training for free.

In the context of gender equality, it has often been pointed out that immigrant women, who are often isolated from mainstream Nordic society, may live in a large city for decades without ever learning the language. Seen as an impediment to their full participation in society, the authorities implement language courses, which are sometimes theoretically compulsory. All newly arrived refugees are enrolled into language courses, but these have often been said to be inadequate.

It may be because the Nordic languages are themselves relatively small, and moreover because their national identities are tied to linguistic identity, perhaps especially in Finland, Iceland and Norway, that their governments have been more inclined to promote diversity than what has been the case in the UK or France. In spite of the evident pluralism, nothing indicates that immigrants and their descendants will not eventually become fully assimilated as majority language users (even if sometimes bilingual) in the third generation. With the indigenous Sami, the situation is different.

Further reading:

Guus Extra and Durk Gorter, Multilingual Europe: Facts and Policies (The Hague: De Gruyter, 2008)