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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Why a Swedish politician is demanding the right to speak an ancient ‘forest language’ in parliament

Sweden's forest language Elfdalian is at risk of dying out, and this week a politician took the question of its survival to parliament.

Why a Swedish politician is demanding the right to speak an ancient 'forest language' in parliament
Centre Party MP Peter Helander said he would be speaking the ancient dialect in the parliamentary chamber in future. Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT

Swedish MP Peter Helander, who belongs to the Centre Party and comes from the Dalarna region, asked Culture Minister Amanda Lind why the government had not chosen to investigate whether Elfdalian should be classified as a language, as the Council of Europe has proposed.

To make his point, he spoke a phrase in the language.

“This is Elfdalian, the remnant of Old Norse that we still have in Sweden. I have previously asked the minister to recognise Elfdalian as a minority language, and the Elfdalian language community have been working towards this for 15-20 years,” explained Helander.

“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.”

Before the minister could respond, the parliamentary speaker cut in to remind Helander that only Swedish may be spoken in the Chamber.

He responded: “Thank you, then perhaps we can have a debate on whether it was Swedish I was speaking or not, since the government says it is a Swedish dialect and not another language. In the future I intend to speak Elfdalian here, since the government thinks it is a dialect and we can speak dialect [in the Chamber].”

Elfdalian is mutually unintelligible with Swedish, bearing more resemblance to Icelandic and lacking the letters C, Q, X and Z.

The language was on the verge of dying out a few years ago, but has seen an uptick in interest – and speakers – thanks to efforts from the local community. That’s included courses for locals, a bilingual preschool teaching Elfdalian to youngsters, translating books into the language and even using the game Minecraft to make it appealing to the younger generation. As of 2017, only 60 people aged under 18 were believed to speak the language.

National recognition as a language would be an important step for Elfdalian, because it would give a boost to efforts to promote and protect it.

In 2016 it was assigned an ISO language code, which are used to help the internet classify what is or is not a language, but the Swedish government still classifies it as a dialect.

In response to Helander’s question, Culture Minister Amanda Lind said the government judged Elfdalian to be a dialect. Although she praised the work under way to preserve Elfdalian, she said it was not a priority.

Member comments

  1. I live in Alvdalen. Pixie hollow. ( clue in ELF). Many of my farming neighbors speak only the local language. My neighbor, from whom I buy my annual sheep, korv and what ever his wife makes, has hardly any Swedish. We have amusing conversations. But we communicate. Many of the road signs are a bit like driving in Wales. Weird to see. Ween for Vagen . Reading it is impossible.

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For members

SWEDISH WORD OF THE DAY

​​Swedish word of the day: rackabajsare

A word for hitting hard down your throat or up in the net.

​​Swedish word of the day: rackabajsare

A rackabajsare is either a shot of a spririt, or a hard shot in a sport. You might also see a type of strongly-flavoured (smoked or spicy) sausage known as a rackabajsare in some delis.

Rackabajsare according to the Swedish Academy is a word of unknown origin, despite some claiming its origin to be rachenbeisser in German, meaning ‘throat-biter’. Although that might be possible, there are also many other potential origins. 

Like so many other Swedish words, rackabajsare contains the Swedish word for ‘poo’, bajsa. A bajsare would be ‘a person who poos’, and herein lies the crux, because the word racka can have more than a few things to do with poo.

Rackare today is used much in the same way as ‘rascal’ is, but it was not always so, rackare used to be much harsher. It used to mean something more like a ‘scoundrel’, and then somewhere in the 1800s this meaning began to shift and become weaker. 

You may think that this racka is related to the racka in byracka, which means ‘mutt’ or ‘mongrel’. The origin for that racka is the Old Norse rakke, which also has an unknown origin and meaning, though some claim it is a word for ‘dog’. This would give us ‘dog pooer’, which really makes no sense, so this is most likely not the racka we are looking for. 

Another, but now archaic, meaning of rackare was ‘a person whose profession it is to remove dirt and the like [as in poo] from streets and outhouses.’ If the word order was reversed, as in bajsrackare (poo-cleaner), this could be the original meaning, but it seems unlikely.

Racka could also be another way of writing rak meaning ‘straight’, here in the sense as in ‘to the point’ or ‘straight away without thinking about it’, which could then mean something like ‘going straight to the shit’, which could work for both meanings of rackabajsare, ‘a shot of a spirit’ and ‘a hard shot in any sport’. 

There is however yet another couple of confounding meanings of racka. A now archaic meaning of ‘running about’ could give us something like ‘a disorderly hit or shot’. And then there is the perhaps most interesting one. It turns out that racka used to be another way of saying ‘arrack’, the Southeast Asian spirit. This would really explain the first meaning of rackabajsare, ‘a shot of a spirit,’ but it still leaves us with questions as to the second meaning. 

Alas, there is no clear answer to be found! That’s just the way it is sometimes. But though we are unfortunately unable to provide you with the original meaning of rackabajsare, we can leave you a few examples of how to use the word in everyday conversation. 

Example sentences:

Ska vi ta en liten rackabajsare, eller vad säger du?

Should we have a cheeky little shot, what do you say?

Åh jävlar vilken rackabajsare!

Bloody hell, what a canon of a shot! 

Villa, Volvo, Vovve: The Local’s Word Guide to Swedish Life, written by The Local’s journalists, is now available to order. Head to lysforlag.com/vvv to read more about it. It is also possible to buy your copy from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Bokus or Adlibris.

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