A Swedish parliamentary representative is calling for action to preserve an extremely vulnerable language spoken in Sweden’s forested countryside: Elfdalian (älvdalska in Swedish and övdalsk in the language itself). Currently, the Swedish government only recognizes Elfdalian as a dialect of Swedish, despite the two languages sharing very little mutual intelligibility. Peter Helander, who hails from the region where Elfdalian is spoken, has called for the government to give the language minority status and determine whether or not the language is truly a dialect of Swedish more objectively.
“Even the Council of Europe has taken the position that Sweden should have an independent investigation into whether Elfdalian is a language or not. It is a language that is at risk of dying out and Sweden should take responsibility to protect this remnant of the Old Norse language,” Helander said in a recent parliamentary meeting, according to Swedish news outlet The Local.
Although Elfdalian and Swedish are both members of the North Germanic family of languages, Elfdalian shares more similarities with conservative members of the language family such as Icelandic, as the language has historically been spoken in rural communities that are isolated within a densely forested region of the country. On the grounds of mutual intelligibility alone, Elfdalian is a separate language from Swedish. Helander has asked Sweden’s Culture Minister Amanda Lind to reconsider the language’s status as a dialect of Swedish, considering the two languages’ distinct historical development and usage.
Acknowledging Elfdalian’s status as a language, rather than a dialect, could be key to boosting preservation efforts. Currently, Elfdalian is spoken by a very small community, with most recent estimates of the speaker population ranging between 2,000 and 3,000. There have been some revitalization efforts in recent years, contributing to more interest in the language, however it is still mostly spoken by an older population—only around 60 individuals under the age of 18 have been reported to speak the language fluently.
School programs have been developed to increase the population of younger speakers, and since 2016, local kindergarten programs in the municipality of Älvdalen have been conducted entirely in the language. When Älvdalen students reach the ninth grade, they can also receive a government stipend if they are able to prove their proficiency in the language, as part of a program to incentivize the younger generation to learn and use the language regularly.