The largest minority group in Finland was the Swedish- speaking Finns, who numbered about 250,000 in the late 1980s. The first evidence of their presence in the country, dating from the eighth century, comes from the Aland Islands. After the thirteenth century, colonization from Sweden began in earnest, and within two centuries there was a band of territory occupied by Swedish speakers that ran along the western and the southern coasts and had an average width of about thirty kilometers. Cycles of Finnish and Swedish assimilation have changed the linguistic makeup of this strip of land. In Ostrobothnia, for example, the area of Swedish settlement extended inland as much as sixty kilometers and still existed in the late 1980s, while other areas had eventually reverted to being once again overwhelmingly inhabited by Finnish speakers. By the end of the nineteenth century, the areas of Swedish settlement had shrunk to basically what they were in the second half of the 1980s: Ostrobothnia, the Aland Islands, and a strip along the southern coast that included the capital. The settlers from Sweden gradually lost contact with their relatives in the old country and came to regard Finland as their country. They were distinguished from other Finns only by their language, Swedish, which they retained even after hundreds of years of separation from Sweden.
Although most Swedish-speaking Finns worked as farmers and fishermen, for centuries they also made up the country's governing elite. Even after the country was ceded to Russia in 1809, the aristocracy and nearly all those active in commerce, in the courts, and in education had Swedish as their native language. The country's bureaucracy did virtually all its written work in Swedish. Finnish speakers who desired to enter these groups learned Swedish. Only the clergy used Finnish on a regular basis, for they dealt with the bulk of the population who, for the most part, knew only that language. There were no campaigns to force Swedish on Finnish speakers however, and the problem of language as a social issue did not exist during the period of Swedish rule.
Swedish retained its primacy until the second half of the nineteenth century, when, as a result of budding nationalism, it was gradually displaced by Finnish. A good many of the strongest advocates of Finnish nationalism were Swedish speakers who used their own language in the patriotic pamphlets and journals of the time because few of them could write Finnish. By the end of the century, the nationalist movement had been successful in fostering the birth of Finnish as a written language and in bringing about the formation of an educated Finnish-speaking elite. Numbering 350,000 and constituting 13 percent of the country's population in 1900, Swedish-speaking Finns were still disproportionately influential and wealthy, but they were no longer dominant in the country of their birth.
Independent Finland's new Constitution protected the Swedish- speaking minority, in that it made both Finnish and Swedish national languages of equal official status, stipulating that a citizen be able to use either language in courts and have government documents relating to him or her issued in his or her language, and that the cultural and economic needs of both language groups be treated equally. The Language Act of 1922 covered many of the practical questions engendered by these constitutional rights. Despite these legal provisions, however, there were still currents of Finnish opinion that wished to see a curtailment of the Swedish-speaking minority's right to protect its cultural identity. Attempts at Finnicization failed, however, and the advent of the national crisis of World War II submerged disagreements about the language issue. Since the war, there have been occasional squabbles about practical measures for realizing the minority's economic and cultural rights, but none about the inherent value of the policy of equality.
The Language Act of 1922, and its subsequent revisions, arranged for the realization of the rights of the Swedish- speaking minority. The basic units for protecting and furthering the exercise of these rights were the self-governing municipalities. After each ten-year census, Finland's nearly 500 municipalities were classified as either unilingual or bilingual with a majority language. In the 1980s, there were 461 municipalities: 396 Finnish-speaking; 21 bilingual with a Finnish-speaking majority; 24 Swedish-speaking; 20 bilingual with Swedish as the majority language. A municipality was bilingual if the number of speakers of the minority language exceeded either 3,000 or 8 percent of its population. If a municipality had been classified as bilingual, it could not revert to unilingual status until the minority population declined to less than 6 percent.
Language classification had important consequences for the inhabitants of a municipality, for it determined which language was to be used for government business. In bilingual municipalities, all documents affecting the general public--tax forms, for example--had to be published in both languages. In addition, national and local government officials had to be bilingual--a requirement not always met, however--and public notices and road signs had to be in both languages. In unilingual communities this was not the case. Documents relating directly to an individual case could be translated, but otherwise official business was transacted in the municipality's language. If someone were involved in a court case, however, and did not know the prevailing language, translation would be provided.
The method used to classify municipalities had to be regarded as successful because, although the overwhelming majority of municipalities were unilingual Finnish-speaking communities, only 4 percent of the Swedish-speaking minority lived in municipalities where their language was not used. Finnish- speaking Finns fared even better, for less than 1 percent of them lived where their language was not used officially. Some of the Swedish speakers who lived apart from their fellows did so voluntarily because they had management positions at factories and plants in regions that were nearly entirely Finnish-speaking areas. Because they were educated, these managers knew Finnish. They were also representatives of the tradition of "brukssvenskar" (literally, "factory Swedes"), and were sometimes the only Swedish speakers their brother Finns knew.
On the national level, all laws and decrees had to be issued in both languages, and the Swedish-speaking minority had the right to have Swedish-language programs on the state radio and television networks. Swedish-language schools had to be established wherever there was a sufficient number of pupils. There were several Swedish-language institutions of higher learning, and a specified number of the professorial chairs at the University of Helsinki was reserved for Swedish speakers, as was one brigade in the army. A drawback for the Swedish-speaking minority, though, was that because of its small size, the national government could not, for practical reasons, publish in Swedish all parliamentary deliberations, committee reports, and official documents.
The Swedish-speaking minority was well represented in various sectors of society. The moderate Swedish People's Party (Svenska Folkpartiet--SFP) got the votes of most Swedish speakers, with the exception of workers who more often than not voted for socialist parties. The SFP polled enough support to hold a number of seats in the Eduskunta that usually matched closely the percentage of Swedish speakers in the country's total population. It very often had ministers in the cabinet as well. An unofficial special body, the Swedish People's Assembly (Svenska Finlands Folkting), representing all members of the minority, functioned in an advisory capacity to regular governing institutions. Most national organizations, whether economic, academic, social, or religious, had branches or separate equivalents for Swedish speakers. Because of its long commercial and maritime traditions, the Swedish-speaking minority was disproportionately strong in some sectors of the financial community and the shipping industry. In general, however, with the exception of the upper middle class, where there were more Swedish speakers than usual, the class distribution of the minority matched fairly closely that of the larger community.
The size of the Swedish-speaking minority increased fairly steadily until 1940, when it numbered 354,000 persons, or 9.6 percent of the country's total population. Since then it has declined, dropping to 296,000, or 6.1 percent of the population, in 1987. In relative terms, however, it has been in decline for centuries, dropping from 17.5 percent in 1610, and it was expected to go below 6 percent by the end of the twentieth century. The decline stemmed from a variety of factors: a slightly lower birth rate than the rest of the population during some periods; a greater rate of emigration to the United States before World War I; a large loss of some 50,000 persons who settled permanently in Sweden in the decades after World War II; and frequent marriages with Finnish speakers.
By the 1980s, more than half the marriages of Swedish- speaking Finns were to persons from outside their language group. In urban areas, especially in Helsinki, the rate was over 60 percent. This was not surprising because the members of the minority group were usually bilingual, and there were no legal constraints (although there were sometimes social and familial constraints) against marrying those speaking the majority language. The bilingualism of the minority was caused by compulsory schooling in the majority language from the third school year on, and from living in a society where, with the exception of some rural areas, speaking only Swedish was a serious handicap because the majority group usually had a poor knowledge of Swedish, despite compulsory study of it for several years. Swedish-speaking Finns were easily able then to cross from one language group to another. However highly they valued their mother tongue and their group's cultural identity, they were not bound by them when selecting friends or spouses. A survey of the late 1970s found, for example, that Swedish-speaking natives of Helsinki felt they had more in common with natives of their city who did not speak their language than they did with Swedish speakers from other regions. More often than not, Swedish- speaking Finns married outside their group. These marriages posed a danger to their language community in that the resulting offspring were usually registered as speakers of the majority language, even when they were truly bilingual. Thus the Finnish practice of counting speakers of a language by the principle of personality, that is on an individual basis, rather than by the principle of territoriality, as was done only for the Aland Islands, was leading to a decline in the size of the Swedish- speaking minority.
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