Ted Urho column: Celebrating the Swedish king who fell off his horse in Germany

On Swedish Heritage Day, Ted Urho reflects on what it's like to be a Swedish-speaking Finn and some of the challenges that poses in modern Finland, being a minority with a foot in two camps.

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Ted Urho (L) being interviewed by SPT reporter Henri Forss (R) undated / Credit: Niklas Gerkman

Being a Swedish-speaking Finn means you’re just like everyone else, but at the same time not. In my language it’s known as being finlandssvensk, a person who is Finnish, but speaks Swedish as their first language. Let me try to open that up for you.

In very broad strokes: Finland has a population of 5.5 million people, out of which approximately 5%, or around 300 000 people, are Swedish speakers. We’re formally a bilingual nation, which is why many cities, especially the major ones and those along the coastline, have two names. Sorry about that, we know it can get confusing when it says Villmanstrand (Swedish) on your ticket, but everyone on the train is talking about going to Lappeenranta (Finnish).

If you already know the history, you can skip this next part and scroll ahead!

Why we speak Swedish in Finland

The reason we speak both Finnish and Swedish is quite simple: Finland and Sweden used to be the same nation, from the 12th century until 1809, when Finland became an autonomous part of Russia. And yes, there was a war. Being previously a part of Sweden (as opposed to being a Swedish colony) we had developed our own civil service, academia and an adherence to the principles of Rule of Law. All of these things combined helped us maintain our autonomy during the Russian rule, rather than being absorbed as just another fiefdom in the mighty Russian empire.

During the mid-19th century, when nation states were founded left and right all over Europe, the notion of an independent nation awoke here as well. Up to this point, the ruling classes had conducted themselves mainly in Swedish, with the addition of Russian and French. As a counterpoint to this, many leading Finnish senators, professors, authors and journalists started advocating for the use of the Finnish language in matters of the state. Curiously, many of these leading voices were in fact Swedish-speakers themselves.

Although Swedish-speakers have always been in minority in Finland, it wasn’t until the late 19th century that we began identifying ourselves as a language minority, in part as a response to land winnings of the Finnish language.

File picture of Aleksanterinkatu, Helsinki, showing pedestrians and trams / Credit: iStock

The upside of being finlandssvensk

Let’s fast forward to the year 2020, and see how life has played out for the Swedish speakers of Finland. On average we live a few years longer and are a bit healthier than the general population. This is linked to among other things strong social ties to the community and, possibly less scientifically, a love of choral singing!

Compared to other language minorities around the world we are very privileged: the government doesn’t oppress us, we have the right to use our own language in dealing with officials, we have the right to health care in our own language and we even have access to our own educational system, from primary school to university. It is even possible to serve as a conscript in the military at a Swedish speaking brigade or play sports in Swedish speaking clubs.

The same goes for art and culture: there are several Swedish-speaking theatres, one which was recently made an official national stage. Not to mention our own media, both commercial and public service, that covers all aspects of Swedish life in Finland. If you wanted to, it would be possible to live your entire life in Finland, in Swedish.

The downside of being finlandssvensk

However, as soon as I set foot outside our own little bubble, life becomes very different. Although practically bilingual, I lose a lot of my edge and wit when speaking Finnish (Editor: And English, Ted!]. It’s not easy to make a quip at a social function, when you have to translate it on the go.

Those are the easy situations: imagine trying to explain to a healthcare professional where it hurts, when you’re not even sure what all the parts of your intestinal tracts are called in your own language. Or trying to explain the nuances of the pain you are feeling. These are actual answers from a survey that the think tank Agenda conducted among a thousand Swedish-speakers during the autumn of 2018. The same survey showed that only 28% found that public health care works well in Swedish, whereas over 80% were happy with how primary education works.

The difference between these two public services is that one is organised according to language, and the other one isn’t. In all honesty I don’t advocate a system of public health care based on language, but I am curious about how you can learn all the intricate details of the human body, but not Swedish.

File photo of a chalkboard with the question talar du svenska?, do you speak Swedish? / Credit: iStock

The benefits of being finlandssvensk outweighs the negative

I believe the issue at hand is visibility. Swedish has become a private affair, a language we communicate in at home, with family and friends, people we know for sure speak the same language. Especially in the greater Helsinki area we as Swedish-speakers have become lazy: we’re fairly fluent in Finnish, we assume that the person behind the till probably won’t speak Swedish, so we switch to Finnish from the start. Efficiency over proficiency, but also highly unfair to all those Finnish-speakers who truly want to learn and practice their Swedish.

There are historical reasons why we hide our Swedish heritage outside the home. Just a generation ago kids could get beaten up if they spoke the “wrong” language in the “wrong” neighbourhood. The mandatory Swedish lessons in Finnish primary education aggravates some people, and there are even those who, misguidedly, see all Swedish-speakers as some sort of societal elite, based on centuries old assumptions.

This, however, is a prejudice: when it comes to socio-economic backgrounds, we Swedish-speakers are a very heterogenous group, consisting of both professors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, fishermen, farmers, nurses, teachers and the unemployed. For many, the only common denominator is the language.

Belonging to a minority can be tiresome: one is involuntarily an ambassador for the entire group, those who hold public office are often forced to focus only on the language aspect in policy making and our commitment to our country is often questioned.

Marie-Bad sauna, Mariankatu Helsinki 1913 / Credit: Helsinki City Museum

Simultaneously, Swedish has disappeared from the commercial cityscape: shop signs, catalogues, adverts and billboards all used to be in Finnish and Swedish, in equal sizes. Today, they’re mostly in Finnish, or in Finnish and English. One of the oddest examples today is the IKEA website: although a Swedish company, their website in Finland is in Finnish only. And this is just one of many examples.

Yet personally, I feel that the upsides outweigh the downsides. Being a minority gives you a unique understanding of what it’s like to belong in two camps. It heightens your sense of empathy, because you can relate to what it feels like to be on the outside. From childhood we learn to reflect on who we are in relation to others, which is a good skill when learning to come to terms with who you are as a person. Speaking Swedish fluently opens up the possibility to study, work and do business in the Nordics like a native speaker, and not having to resort to English as a lingua franca. Being a Swedish-speaking Finn, you’re neither intimidated by the Finnish silence, nor scared of continental small talk.

Painting of King Gustavus Adolphus / Credit: Wikipedia

The story of the dead king and his horse

This day is called Swedish Heritage Day in English, which is a much better name for it, than the Swedish or Finnish names. The name in my language roughly translates to Swedish Day, and in Finnish we talk about the day of being Swedish. In a young, independent nation, which occasionally struggles with its identity, the remembrance of being conjoined with another country for centuries, can be tough.

But it is, without a doubt, thanks to our Swedish roots that we can call ourselves a Western democracy today. And that’s where the dead king on the horse comes in. We think. On this day in 1632, the Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus led his troops at the battle of Lützen, got shot, got lost, ended up behind enemy lines, fell off his horse, got shot again, and eventually died. Our folklore is a bit sketchy on exactly why we celebrate Finnish Swedish Heritage Day on exactly this day, but in our culture, tradition sometimes outweighs reason, so we just go with it.

Glad Svenska dagen!

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