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: lathund

This Swedish word is a lazy dog that will help you do something.

Swedish word of the day: lathund

Lathund, which literally means ‘lazy dog’, is listed on the website of the Swedish Academy – an independent institution responsible for regulating and promoting the Swedish language – as having two meanings. The first is ‘a lazy person’, and the second is a mnemonic device or easy guide for doing something. 

The first use is rather unusual, and perhaps verging on archaic. The second, however, is widely used, and is perhaps yet another sign of Swedish pragmatism.

So, what does a lazy dog have to do with mnemonic devices or how-to guides? Perhaps the meaning can be found in the history of the word.

The original meaning of lathund was ‘a lazy person’, attested as far back as 1623. There was even a feminine version of the word: lathynda.

Lathynda today has a more offensive ring to it which it most likely lacked in the 1600s, since hynda today carries the same meanings as its English homologue, bitch, although it might even be harsher still in Swedish.

Good advice is to stay clear of hynda altogether, except perhaps if you work in a kennel and are referring to a female dog, and even then most people would probably use hona, which is used to mean ‘female of a certain animal’. But enough of that.

The second meaning, as a tool or how-to guide to explain how to do something, appeared in the mid-1800s, which could also provide some information on why an insult used to accuse someone of being lazy took on this new meaning.

An example of a lathund in this context could be a piece of paper with clear lines for putting under unlined paper when writing to aid with neat handwriting, a counting table for calculations, or a tool for helping with translations at school.

If one is slightly familiar with the disciplinarian approaches to pedagogy that preceded the 20th century’s realisation that hitting kids doesn’t make them learn better, it will come as no surprise that some people in the 1800s could initially have considered these new learning aids tools for the lazy. 

Today the word has a more positive ring to it, and is well-established as an easy guide for doing a certain thing. Lots of workplaces have several lathundar (the plural of lathund) for doing different things that might require a bit of instruction – similar to a “roadmap” in English. It is an easy way to train new workers in the basics of a particular task. One example is the procedure for turning on the alarm system when you are the last person to leave. 

Are you good at explaining how something works? Are you good at doing a certain thing at school or at work? Why not make a lathund for it? Post it on Instagram or Twitter and tag us @thelocalsweden.

Example sentences:

Har ni en lathund för hur man gör det där?

Do you have an easy guide for how to do that?

Lena, kan du visa hur man larmar på? Kolla lathunden, den ligger vid entrén.

Lena, can you show me how to activate the alarm? Check the easy guide by the entrance.

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