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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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SWEDISH WORD OF THE DAY

Swedish word of the day: skitkul

Today’s Swedish word of the day is a word you use to affirm how fun something was, or with an ironic tone, how boring something is or was.

Swedish word of the day: skitkul

And it’s got the word for “shit” in too, which always makes for a great word in Swedish.

Swedish is a language that lends itself well to building new words, and often some colourful prefixes can be found appended to many different nouns. One of those prefixes is skit-, which, you guessed it, means ‘shit’. Skit- is used both negatively and positively, and should be seen as emphasizing whatever the word it is attached to is trying to convey. It is less offensive than “shit” would be in English. You can happily use skitkul in conversation with your mother-in-law (or in a headline on a news website).  

Skit- should also not be pronounced as the English ‘skit’, but sounds more like a boiling kettle trying to say ‘shit’. If you can imagine that. Here’s the phonetic spelling /ˈɧiːt/ in case anyone knows how to read it. 

Another lovely example of the ever-present skit- prefix is skitfet. It literally means ‘shit-fat’, but is used in somewhat the same sense as ‘phat’, which as most of you know means ‘cool’, but naturally in a cooler way.

As previously mentioned, skit- can be found in many words, like, skitnära (shit-near), skitful (shit-ugly), skitäckligt (shit-disgusting), skitunge (shit-kid), skitbra (shit-good), skitrolig (shit-funny), skitstor (shit-big), skitball (a shit-good time), and so on and so forth. In fact, a good way of becoming more integrated into Swedish society might be trying to build new words with the prefix skit-. Many Swedes, I am sure, will be more than happy to assist. 

Then there is the second part of our beloved word skitkul, which is -kul. And kul is kul, and generally understood to mean ‘fun’, as in something being fun.

The origin of this word, however, is a bit murky. Some say it originates in the Finnish word kyllä, meaning ‘yes’ or ‘sure’, but another possible origin can be found in the Romani word ‘kul’ which means ‘completely’. That is then supposed to have merged with a Swedish word for something being ‘successful and excellent’, kulan, which can be seen in the expression ‘kulan i luften’, meaning either ‘the ball’ or ‘the bullet in the air’. 

We can only guess where that phrase originates. Perhaps a reference to gambling, as in the ball is flying into the roulette wheel, or maybe to war in the case of it meaning bullet. But that might be the stuff of another article. 

It’s been skitkul to examine this wonderful word with you. Best of luck putting it to use!

By Alex Rodallec

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 USAmazon UKBokus or Adlibris.

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