Finland's language strife

From Academic Kids

The language strife was one of the major conflicts of Finland's national history and domestic politics. (The others revolving around the relations to Tsarist Russia, to Socialism, and to the Finnic peoples under Russian jurisdiction.)

Following present-day Finland's incorporation into Sweden in the 12th century, the Swedish language became dominant over Finnish in administration and education, although Finnish recovered its predominance after a 19th-century resurgence of Fennomanic Finnish nationalism (also working to assure Imperial Russia of the loyalty of the then Russian Grand Duchy of Finland).

The publication in 1835 of the Finnish national epic The Kalevala first stirred the nationalism that later came to lead to Finland's independence from Russia.

The Finnish national awakening in the mid-19th century was the result of members of the Finland-Swedish upper classes deliberately choosing to promote Finnish culture and language. And they didn't just promote the language. They finnicized their family names, learned the language, and made a point of using it both in the society and at home, giving their children what they missed themselves: the Finnish mother tongue. However, another faction of the Swedish-speaking elite did not wish to abandon Swedish, as they felt it was a guarantee that Finland would remain within the cultural sphere of Western Europe.

In 1892 Finnish became an official language and gained a status comparable to that of Swedish, and within a generation Finnish clearly dominated in government and society. 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.

The last surge of Finnicization frenzy came in the 1920s. 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 to become a prominent feature of domestic politics during the 1920s and 1930s. This time, the Finnicization of surnames was chiefly a middle class phenomenon.

In the newly independent Finland's constitution of 1919, the minority language, Swedish, was given far-reaching privileges. The language strife thereafter centred on these privileges and on the role of Swedish in universities, particularly regarding the number of professors lecturing and examining in Swedish. Then, at the resettlement of over 420,000 Karelians after the Winter War, the Swedish-speaking minority feared that new Finnish-speaking settlers would change the linguistic balance of their neighbourhoods. 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 Finland-Swedes.

Contentious history views

An important process in the creation of a separate Finnish national identity was the perception of Finland's history as separate and different from Sweden's. As in other processes of conceptual changes, this led to rather contentious disputes between the protagonists of the new views and the defenders of traditional truth. Discordant history views between Fennomans and Svecomans are today reflected by differences between Finnish and Swedish understandings of the shared history, but also between academic historians and popular perceptions, the latter being more influenced by the views of profilic 19th century leaders.

From a Fennoman point of view, it may be important to problematize and specify the process of Swedish expansion in today's Finland, pointing out that "Finland" in no way was instantly conquered and incorporated, but that this was a gradual process over several centuries, including many tendencies and attempts to autonomy for the eastern half of Sweden, i.e. today's Finland.

Opponents may argue that the gradual process was no different from the gradual process of colonization and incorporation of other parts of the medieval Swedish realm, notably of Småland, Värmland, and Norrland, and emphasize that one important explanation for the gradual displacement of Finland's border in eastward direction 13231721 was the gradual expansion of the Finnish people colonizing the wilderness — a process with clear parallells in Scandinavia, where many of the colonizers similarly were ethnic Finns. From a Finnish point of view, it may be counter-argued that the Karelians actually existed long before Sweden's border extended to Vyborg in southernmost Karelia, and that only few of them came under Swedish rule until the Time of Troubles in Muscovy.

Dispute sometimes arise on the degree of dominance of Swedish. Debaters representing a Fennoman point of view sometimes stress that Latin, and not Swedish, was the language of academia, and until the Protestant Reformation often also the language of state administration, and hence that the notion of Swedish dominance is misleading for the 14th15th centuries, and also to some degree for the 16th17th centuries. Hence it may be emphasized that, up to the 16th century, French and Latin were the languages Finnish students most often used for their higher education, and to a large extent later as well. A Swedish point of view would be, that this is no different from the situation in any other part of what was then Sweden.

A chief point of contention is when Finns and Finland started to become perceived as different from Swedes and Sweden. While it may be argued, that the earliest documents of Finnish student life can be found from over seven centuries ago. In 1313, the Finnish students at Sorbonne signed a petition to the Holy See. By 1420, their numbers at Sorbonne rivaled those of the largest German bishoprics, and were seven times that of the leading Swedish bishopric of Uppsala. In 1435, Olaus Magni from Turku in Finland became the rector of the school. Historians, particularly Swedish historians, may object that the See of Åbo (Turku) was no less a Swedish bishopric than that of Uppsala, although the latter was an archbishopric; and that denoting Swedes and Finns as somehow opposite concepts is unhistorical.

Fire has destroyed most of the early literature the churches and monasteries in Finland must have produced. The first known author was Jöns Budde, a Franciscan monk who lived in the Brigittene monastery at Naantali in the late 15th century. He chiefly translated from Latin to Swedish, and became the first known author to translate the Bible into Swedish. Martin Luther's first Finnish student, Pietari (Petrus) Särkilahti, was one of the earliest known pioneers of teaching science in Finnish language. In 1538, the first known books in Finnish were published by his student, Mikael Agricola. It's sometimes pointed out, that the promotion of the popular languages, Swedish and Finnish, was a policy of Gustav Vasa, who is the very Swedish king most often perceived as a national symbol for Sweden and Swedishness.


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