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: dom

Today's word of the day has a number of different meanings, one of which is not technically correct when used in written Swedish - at least not yet.

Swedish word of the day: dom

Dom has a few different meanings in Swedish. First up is the Swedish word for a court verdict (from the Old Norse dómr meaning ‘judgement’), which you can also see in the words domare (judge or referee), and att döma (to give a sentence or a verdict), in this sense related to the English word ‘deem’.

Other words related to att döma or dom in the sense of a verdict or judgement include att bedöma (to judge) and en fördom (a prejudice).

The word dom can also mean ‘dome’ (from Latin domus), as well as the word for cathedral, where it is actually a shorter version of the word domkyrka (literally: ‘dome church’). Another Swedish word for ‘dome’ is kupol.

The final meaning of the word dom, and the one this article will focus on, is the spoken form of the words for ‘they’ and ‘them’ in Swedish, de and dem, which you may also see in informal writing, such as on social media or in text messages.

Dom is our word of the day today, as it looks like it may soon become official correct Swedish, replacing de and dem in written Swedish.

It’s been around for a long time – according to Språktidningen, it existed in certain dialects of Old Swedish, and examples of the precursor to dom, þom, exist in texts as early as the 1300s.

In 1954, the agency responsible for sending radio news, Tidningarnas telegrambyrå (which later became TT newswire) asked the Authority for the Protection of the Swedish Language how de and dem should be pronounced on air, as the use of dom in speech was becoming more and more popular.

They were told that di – a version of dom which has all but disappeared nowadays – and dom were acceptable “when speech flows freely and uncontrolled”, but that de and dem should be used when reading news items. The authority further said that di was “rural” and dom was “vulgar”.

Over the following decades, dom became more and more common in news broadcasts, both on the radio and on television, when TV broadcasting started in Sweden. This culminated in a call for a dom reform in the 1970s, by which time it had thrown off the shackles of its lower-class reputation.

Nowadays, no one is arguing against the use of dom in speech, but many Swedes are still against the use of dom in text, preferring instead to write de or dem.

In a 2022 study by Novus on behalf of Språktidningen, only 26 percent of Swedes wanted to make ‘dom’ official, with 39 percent preferring to continue to use ‘de’ and ‘dem’, and 31 percent having neither positive nor negative feelings towards a ‘dom’ reform.

Somewhat paradoxically, as the group most often accused of having problems with ‘de’ and ‘dem’, Swedes between 18 and 29 were most against a ‘dom’ reform, with the majority – 58 percent – against.

At the other end of the scale, Swedes over the age of 65 were most positive towards a reform, with 28 percent for a reform and 26 percent against.

What do you think? Should Sweden bring in a dom reform so the written language better reflects the spoken language, or should Swedes stick to what they know and keep writing de and dem, despite pronouncing both words dom?

Please leave a comment under the article. 

What do de and dem mean in English?

For English speakers, it’s relatively easy to figure out which one to use in text, as dem translates directly to ‘them’, and de to ‘they’ (or sometimes ‘the’ for plural nouns). Note that the correct pronunciation of both words is dom, regardless of the spelling.

Here are some quick examples:

De bakar kakor. (They bake cakes.)

Jag vill äta dem. (I want to eat them.)

De goda kakor. (The nice cakes.)

If Sweden were to carry out a language reform, these sentences would instead be written as follows, but still pronounced the same:

Dom bakar kakor.

Jag vill äta dom.

Dom goda kakor.

Villa, Volvo, Vovve: The Local’s Word Guide to Swedish Life, written by The Local’s journalists, is available to order. Head to to read more about it. It is also possible to buy your copy from Amazon USAmazon UKBokus or Adlibris.