A small town in Sweden fights to preserve a dying forest language

By Bianca Hillier, The Weeek, 9 May, 2021

An organization called Ulum Dalska, based in a small Swedish town called Älvdalen, is on a mission. For decades, members have been working hard to help save a language called Elfdalian, a remnant of Old Norse.

“We had our first meeting on the 1st of June in 1984,” said press secretary Björn Rehnström. “And the biggest hall in Älvdalen was filled with people.”

Elfdalian sounds nothing like the country’s national language, Swedish, which Rehnström said destabilized the language about 100 years ago. At that point, Elfdalian became stigmatized.

Ulla Schütt, also a Ulum Dalska member, saw the impact firsthand while growing up in Älvdalen.

“My parents spoke Elfdalian with each other, and with my grandma and my aunts and uncles and everyone around,” Schütt said. “But when they turned to me, they spoke Swedish.”

Schütt said her parents spoke Swedish with her because that’s what was spoken in schools. Students were even discouraged to speak Elfdalian in the classroom. Now, there’s only about 2,500 speakers left. But people are getting creative in the fight to change that trend.

The language is getting a boost on Minecraft. Musicians are releasing new songs with Elfdalian lyrics. Several children’s books were also translated into Elfdalian, including “Le Petit Prince,” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

Additionally, Rehnström helps run a popular Facebook group that offers courses in the Elfdalian language, where he posts lessons to the group’s 1,800 global members.

“[People are from] America, Australia, South America, Indonesia, Haiti, Cape Verde,” he said. “People read it. People are saying they want to go to Älvdalen to help the language survive. It’s fantastic, because it’s not only these language nerds from all over the world, but it’s also people from Älvdalen who have lost it, and want to take back the language.”

The local government supports the teaching and preservation of Elfdalian. Rehnström said they eagerly paid for a sign that reads: “Welcome to Älvdalen” in Elfdalian.

The language is also recognized on an international level. In 2016, it was assigned an ISO language code, which helps the internet distinguish one language from another.

But the national government of Sweden is a different story. They currently consider Elfdalian a dialect of Swedish, not its own language.

Speaking in Elfdalian, Swedish MP Peter Helander recently asked Parliament why that’s the case. But before Culture Minister Amanda Lind could answer the question, the parliamentary speaker interrupted them both to say that only Swedish may be spoken in the chamber. Helander said the “only Swedish” remark proves his point, that Elfdalian should be considered its own language.

That stance is shared by linguists across the country, said Yair Sapir, an associate professor of Scandinavian linguistics at Kristianstad University in Sweden.

“The distance is so large between Swedish and Elfdalian that it should be recognized as a separate language,” he said. “Älvdalen is quite remote, so Elfdalian hasn’t been that influenced by Swedish. Due to this distance, it has kept a stronger character, and also a stronger feeling, among its speakers, that they have something that is very different and very important to preserve.”

Schütt said every time a language dies — which some research suggests is as often as once every two weeks — it is a sad moment. To her, losing Elfdalian would be an especially tragic loss. “It’s a part of our identity. It’s part of our culture,” she said. “And if part of your identity and culture dies, a part of yourself dies.”

Getting Elfdalian recognized as a language by the Swedish government, she added, is key to making sure that death doesn’t come.

“If we get the recognition, it would be a lot easier to get into the school system,” Schütt said. “And if we are going to succeed with our goals to revitalize our language, we have to teach our younger generation.”

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