Elfdalian, the Ancient Viking Forest

Elfdalian, the Ancient Viking Forest Language of Sweden, Set to be Revived

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The ancient Viking language of Elfdalian has been almost entirely wiped out, with only 2,500 people in a tiny forest community in Sweden currently keeping it alive. Now people fight to revive the historic tongue by bringing it back to schools before it vanishes completely.

The Conversation reports that the ancient dialect of Elfdalian ( älvdalska in Swedish and övdalsk in the language itself) was a vigorous language until well into the 20th century. Sounding to listeners like a beautiful and complex language as spoken by the Elven race in fantasy epics, Elfdalian is actually derived from Old Norse, the language of the Vikings. However, it is radically different from Swedish, writes University of Copenhagen linguist Dr. Guus Kroonen.

He explains that it “sounds like something you would more likely encounter in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings rather than in a remote Swedish forest.”  It can be heard on the video below.

Elfdalian is unique among Nordic languages, expressing itself with different tones and sounds. Even the grammar and vocabulary are unlike Swedish. So while speakers of Swedish, Norwegian and Danish are able to have simple conversations and understand each other, not so with Elfdalian. So far removed from Swedish, (even while originating from the same region,) it is completely unintelligible to non-local Swedes.

Viking patterned woodwork.

Viking patterned woodwork. Hans Splinter/ Flickr

The language originated in the forested region of Älvdalen, Sweden, and remained robust for centuries. Elfdalian served the people of Älvdalen as trade and economic networks were mostly local, and no other languages were necessary.

However, in the last century the dynamic shifted. As mobility, mass communication, and even mass media increased, the Swedish language became more widespread, crowding out Elfdalian. Soon it was actively suppressed.

“Speakers of the language were stigmatized, and children were actively discouraged to use it at school. As a result, speakers of Elfdalian shifted to Swedish in droves, especially in the past couple of decades. At present, only half of the inhabitants of Älvdalen speak it,” Dr. Kroonen writes.

In order to save the swiftly-disappearing language, activists started a campaign of awareness and preservation. The group of language activists, called Ulum Dalska (“We need to speak Elfdalian”) have seen some success in attempts to revitalize the language. Several children’s books have been translated into Elfdalian, and programs have been introduced in schools encouraging and incentivizing the learning of the language, reports news site The New Daily .

Elfdalian will now be taught in the town’s schools starting in September, and this month an international conference on the language was held in Copenhagen, raising awareness of the language that serves as a window into history. Dr. Kroonen and other Elfdalian supporters are seeking a path through the Council of Europe to grant it the status of a regional or minority language .

The preservation of ancient languages is of importance not only to the Älvdalen locals who risk losing their heritage, but also the global community which benefits from the wealth of historical information old languages provide.

Language historian Bjarne Simmelkjær Sandsgaard Hansen, co-organizer of the Copenhagen University conference said, “Elfdalian is a goldmine. It works almost like a linguistic deep freeze, where one can get a glimpse of Old Norse traits that have long since vanished in the other Nordic languages," writes The Local .  

He added, “It has preserved many old features, which we may not even know existed if we didn't have Elfdalian.”

Featured Image: The forests of Sweden. Activists fight to preserve the ancient forest language of Elfdalian. Daniel Sjöström/ Flickr

By Liz Leafloor     


My first thought was, THERE IS AN ELVISH LANGUAGE!!
How amazing to have such a cultural treasure, would love to know more.

It has nothing to do with elves. At all. What so ever. I made a full comment explaining this further down in the comment field.

It may not be what elves actually spoke, but it's at least based on it.

Justbod's picture

What a beautiful language! Many thanks for the article – it’s great that steps are being taken to help preserve this beautiful link to the past.


Sculptures, carvings & artwork inspired by a love of history & nature: www.justbod.co.uk




I'm more Swedish than I am anything else (with Scottish coming in at a close second), and I've always been told I look rather elven. I would LOVE to learn this language!

Sorry, it has nothing to do with elves. At all. The so called translation is wrong. Elf/Älv means "RIVER". It has nothing to do with elves.
Regards, Swede from Älvdalen.

Sounds like one a Saami language. They were enslaved by the Swedes at one time and are just now regaining their heritage.

How lovely to listen to the Christmas story in that almost-lost language. I know quite a bit of Swedish, but I had no idea that such a language as Elfdalian even existed. Good on the townspeople for keeping it alive.

PLEASE create an online dictionary & language course. I have no doubt that Elfdalian would appeal to people all over the world. Don't just recover it, spread it!

I am interested in this language though I am of Irish descent. Who isn't interested in Elf-anything??? Please keep me informed of any dictionaries or self study groups in this language! Thank you for your time.

Elf/älv means "River" in swedish. It has nothing to do with elves what so ever.

(Övdalsk or Övdalską in Elfdalian, Älvdalska or Älvdalsmål in Swedish)
Elfdalian or Övdalian is a North Germanic language spoken by c. 2,000 people who live or have grown up in the parish of Övdaln, which is located in the southeastern part of Älvdalen Municipality in Northern Dalarna, Sweden.

Like the other Nordic languages, Elfdalian developed from Old Norse, a North Germanic language that was spoken by inhabitants of Scandinavia and inhabitants of their overseas settlements during the Viking Age, until about 1300. It developed in relative isolation since the Middle Ages and is considered to have remained closer to Old Norse than the other Dalecarlian dialects.
Example: Oller so og ų og neve ð åvå. all who eyes and nose have...

Elfdalian has little if anything to do with elves. However, it is quite a strong candidate for the Voynich manuscript, a strange medieval manuscript no one has been able to read.

I am a Swede, with roots from Älvdalen. Honestly, reading these comments and this article, watching non-Swedes loose their shit over this "elven" language... It's cracking me up, honestly. "Elfdalian" is the most inacurate translation ever. Let me explain.

In swedish it's called "Älvdalen" (the region) and "Älvdalska" (The so called language).
Just 300 years ago, we didn't have the letters Ä and V. Instead E and F were used.
This means that "Älvdalen" was spelled "Elfdalen".
Now, here's the thing: Älv/elf DOES NOT MEAN "Elf"!
Älv/elf = RIVER.
Correct translation is Riverdalian, NOT elfdalian.
It has NOTHING what so ever to do with elves!

But, I bet some American or Englishman found "elfdalian" to be far more cool because people will think it has something to do with elves so they just didn't give a shit about the actual meaning.

The article gave the 'elf' connotation, and you should be glad of it. Because that's probably what will draw people to try and learn the language and keep it from going into oblivion. The people trying to keep the language alive know this. So chill out!!

Thrilled to read this. Was not aware of this language before and hope it can be protected.
I live on the Isle of Man, which has a Gaelic language which evolved from both Celtic and Norse roots.
I'd be interested to see what common features there are between the two languages.
Good luck.

You didn´t care much about facts in this article, did you? Älvdalska is quite easy to understand for a Swedish speaker, and it is not an original Viking language.

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