Monday, September 10, 2007

Sign Language

Just a quick blog entry for now. I'm actually in the process of planning a trip up to Lapland for the next few days... up to Rovaniemi (close to the Arctic Circle) and Oulu. I'm sure I'll have lots more to share upon my return. I'll be very disappointed if I don't see at least one reindeer while I'm up there.

In the meantime, I thought it might be interesting to share a photo of a random street sign, here in Helsinki. As you can see, the name of the street is written twice. The top is in Finnish and the bottom is in Swedish. Like Quebec, all legal documents in Finland have to be written in two languages: Finnish and Swedish. In fact, I think it's in the constitution that Finland is officially bilingual. The presence of the Swedish language partly flows from Finland's having long been a part of the Swedish empire.
All government employees have to pass an exam demonstrating their aptitude in Swedish and everyone has a right to use Swedish when dealing with government authorities. That said, you'll see all road signs, etc. in both Finnish and Swedish. Depending on where you are in the country, you may see the Swedish on the top and the Finnish on the bottom (e.g., if you're in a part of the country where Swedish is the primary language spoken). I'm actually having a much easier time reading the Swedish, given its similarities with German. Finnish is a whole other matter!

1 comment:

EPK said...

Finland is indeed officially strictly bilingual, in principle. Of the popultaion, circa 5 % speak Swedish as their first language. All laws are published in two languages. If you're a MP, you may choose to speak Swedish in the Parliament. The national broadcasting company sends programmes in both languages, etc., etc. Everyone learns "the other domestic language" at school at least for a couple of years, usually more.

However, the degree of bilingualism of local government varies. You would find street signs only in Finnish in most of the towns, and there are a few rural municipalities that are unilingually Swedish, as is the whole of Åland, of course.

Most Swedish-speaking Finlanders speak Finnish quite well, but not all. Some Finnish-speaking Finlanders speak fluent Swedish, some cope, some hardly understand a word. I personally manage very well with Finnish speakers of Swedish, but I have to concentrate a bit to understand what a person from Sweden is saying. There is a distinct difference in pronunciation, and some variation in the vocabulary.

As it happens, the most thouroghly Swedish-speaking place in the world is the municipality of Närpes (in Swedish) / Närpiö (in Finnish) in Finland.

Bilingualism is a matter of controversy to some people, they feel that the time and effort that goes to learning Swedish could be better used. I grew up in Helsinki and Swedish came to me quite naturally, and it is very useful in my work that includes a lot of Nordic cooperation. (You understand written Danish ad Norwegian quite easily, and with Norwegians you can even chat. Spoken Danish is a thing apart!) But I can imagine that a not-so-academically-oriented youngster in Eastern Finland might not find the motivation.

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