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Finland's language strife: Wikis

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The language strife was one of the major conflicts of Finland's national history and domestic politics. It revolved around the question of what status Swedish—the language which since the Middle Ages had been the main language of administration and high culture in Finland—and, on the other hand, Finnish—the mother tongue of the majority of Finns—should have in political, cultural, educational, and other national arenas. The strife began in the latter half of the 19th century, continuing well into the 1920s and 1930s. The language question has today lost its inflammability as Finnish has regained its status as the dominant language of Finland, but there is still public debate about issues such as the fact that Swedish remains a mandatory school subject for Finnish-speaking pupils (see Mandatory Swedish).

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Background

As the area nowadays known as Finland was gradually incorporated in the Swedish Realm from the 13th century onwards, Swedish (with Latin) became dominant over Finnish as the most-used language of administration and higher education among the Finns. Immigration of Swedish peasants to Finland's coastal regions also boosted the status of Swedish. Finnish remained, however, as the mother tongue of the vast majority of the Finnish population.

As a result of the Finnish War, Sweden ceded Finland to Russia in 1809. Finland became an autonomous grand duchy within the Russian Empire, and initially the Swedophone ruling class retained their status and ancient rights, and Swedish remained the sole language of administration, and, with Latin, the language of higher education.

Nationalism and the question of language

However, Finnish eventually recovered its predominance in the country after the birth of Fennomanic Finnish nationalism in the 19th century. The publication in 1835 of the Finnish national epic Kalevala first stirred the nationalism that later led to Finland's independence from Russia.

A set of graves in Tampere, showing the Swedish surname ‘Kyander’ as well as the Fennicized ‘Kiianmies’.

A significant contribution to the Finnish national awakening from the mid-19th century onwards came from the members of the mostly Swedish-speaking upper classes deliberately choosing to promote Finnish culture and language. These people, known as the Fennomans, Fennicized their family names, learned Finnish, and made a point of using it both in public and at home. However, another faction of the Swedish-speaking elite, the so-called Svecomans, did not wish to abandon Swedish, and strove against the Fennoman ideology and Fennoman-inspired reforms.

Beginning in 1863 Finnish gained an official language status comparable to that of Swedish, and within a generation Finnish clearly dominated in government and society in Finland. Inevitably, this situation made for conflict between the supporters of the two languages. In the beginning, the conflict only involved the upper social strata, but the population at large was drawn into it after universal suffrage was implemented in 1906.

After independence

After Finland's independence in 1917, relations with Sweden unexpectedly became strained in connection with the Finnish Civil War and the Åland crisis, which further aggravated the language dispute, sharpening it into a prominent feature of domestic politics during the 1920s and 1930s.

In the newly independent Finland's constitution of 1919, the minority language, Swedish, was given far-reaching privileges. The language strife thereafter centered on these privileges and on the role of Swedish in universities, particularly regarding the number of professors working in Swedish. Then, at the resettlement of over 420,000 Karelian refugees after the Winter War against the Soviet Union (1939-1940), the Swedish-speaking minority feared that the new Finnish-speaking settlers would change the linguistic balance of their neighborhoods. These issues were ultimately settled by the Fennoman Prime Minister and later President of Finland Juho Kusti Paasikivi, in a way that was too generous to attract criticism from the language minority.

See also

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