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Help Save Elfdalian, the Ancient Viking Forest Language of Sweden

Help Save Elfdalian, the Ancient Viking Forest Language of Sweden

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The ancient Viking language of Elfdalian has been almost entirely wiped out, with only 3,000 people in a tiny forest community in Sweden currently keeping it alive. People having been fighting to revive the historic tongue by bringing it back to schools before it vanishes completely. However, the Swedish Government still treats it as a dialect only, and campaigners are pushing for the ancient Viking tongue to be officially recognized as a language. A petition in support of its language status is rapidly gaining momentum.

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. Today, only 60 children under the age of 18 are estimated to currently speak the language.

“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 .

However, campaigners are fighting and losing battle. TheLocal.Se reports that while the Swedish Government still considers it a dialect and not a language, children who speak Elfdalian feel a sense of inferiority about their mother tongue.

“Once Elfdalian is recognized as a language the community would have the chance to apply for financial support to help it. The state would feel more obliged than now to fulfill its duty and see that Elfdalian speaking children could develop their language in preschool and school,” Yair Sapir, an associate professor of Swedish language at Kristianstad University, told The Local.

A petition in support of a motion handed in by the Green Party asking parliament to reconsider Elfdalian’s language status is beginning to attract widespread attention. If you’d like to help save the Viking language of Sweden, you can sign the petition HERE. [English translation is provided. Click ‘ Skriv på listan ’ at the bottom of the page to sign your name.]

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

By Liz Leafloor

Comments

The word "älv" might be something of a false friend here, as the name of the language really doesn't have anything to do with elves, "älv" in Swedish meaning "river", with the name of the region Älvdalen deriving from the Österdal River ("Österdalälven").

"Älva" is indeed a Swedish word for a female elf, though an "älva" in later Swedish folklore is generally somewhat different from what is meant by an elf in the more ancient norse mythology. An "älva" might be better translated as a fairy, or a fay.

These words - "älv" and "älva" - may or may not have a common etymology. Possibly they both evolved through Proto-Germanic from a Proto-Indo-European word for white, or bright light. This appears to be the agreed etymology for "älv", anyhow (compare the German river Elbe and the latin "albus", meaning white, possibly refering to the foam upon river waters), though there is seemingly contention regarding the origin of words relating to älvor, alfer, elves, etc. Whatever the case may be, bringing elves into a discussion regarding Älvdalska will - as proven above - only help people into drawing wrong conclusions.

What a beautiful sounding language, and a terrible thing to lose from the world.

Cousin_Jack's picture

Take a look at what was done to encourage the Cornish language, its been thought of as a success. Be warned though, the Cornish language is protected under the Charter but the state now does nothing to support it, funding was once given towards it but the funding has now been withdrawn. The success of the Cornish language was down to people, some with some power, who set about fighting for people to use it more often.

Every single European testament of civilisation must be preserved.

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