Minority languages of Sweden

Minority languages of Sweden

In 1999, the Minority Language Committee of Sweden formally declared five minority languages of Sweden: Finnish, Sami language, Romani, Yiddish, and Meänkieli (Tornedal Finnish).

The Swedish language dominates commercial and cultural life in Sweden but did not officially become the country's main language until 2009, when a new language law entered into effect.[1] The need for this legal status had been the subject of protracted debate and proposed legislation was narrowly defeated in 2005.[2]

The minority languages have been legally recognized to protect the cultural and historical heritage of their respective speech communities. These communities are given certain rights on that basis, such as school education in their language, and its use in dealing with governmental agencies.


Criteria for inclusion

These are the criteria established by the Minority Language Committee, influenced by the directives from the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages in 1997.

To be accorded official minority status, a language must have been spoken in Sweden for a significant amount of time. A precise figure has not been revealed, but qualified estimations consider 100 years to be reasonable, based on the included and excluded languages. A significant immigration to Sweden did not start until after World War I, and many languages currently spoken by a large number of people in Sweden are excluded, among them Arabic and Persian.

It is also required that the language be spoken by a significant number of people and be centred in a specific geographical region (the latter, however, not applied for Romani and Yiddish).

Furthermore, it is a condition that the granting of official minority language status should be of cultural benefit to the group speaking it. It is allegedly for this reason that Swedish Sign Language was not included – even though it is a unique language with a history dating back to the 18th century, it was considered to have a sufficiently stable basis already in Swedish culture.

Common culture is yet another criterion for inclusion. A further reason for not granting minority language status to the sign language was that its users do not share a unique cultural heritage since hearing-impaired people come from all backgrounds.

Affected languages

Standard Finnish

Standard Finnish has been spoken in Sweden ever since the (then provincial) borders were drawn in the 13th century. Sweden has always had a significant migration to and from Finland. As the two languages belong to different language families it is easy to distinguish them, unlike the neighbouring languages Norwegian and Danish. The number of Finnish speakers in Sweden today amounts to over 460,000.

Finnish and Meänkieli can be used in the northernmost municipalities of Gällivare, Haparanda, Kiruna, Pajala and Övertorneå and its immediate neighbourhood.

On 11 December, 2007, Finnish Broadcasting Company YLE reported, that in Uppsala, Sweden, speaking Finnish was forbidden from city employees, and that this was the case also with small talk during breaks.[3] According to an agreement between the city council and the trade union "The official working language in the workplace is Swedish. Employees may speak another language privately - even in the workplace. However, it is important to take into account other employees (with different language backgrounds) being present." The Delegation for Sweden Finns has asked The Council of Europe to determine if the employer has a right to force employees to speak only Swedish.[4][5]


Meänkieli or Tornionlaaksonsuomi or Tornedalian language is spoken by a population in northern Sweden. It is closely related to and mutually intelligible with Finnish and often considered a dialect thereof, with many loanwords from Swedish. Especially in Finland the distinction of Meänkieli as a separate language is seen as language politics not based in linguistics (see Kven language for a similar situation in Norway). Meänkieli is not intelligible to Swedes. The number of speakers amount to 50,000 or so.

Sami languages

The Sami languages are actually not one language, even though they are commonly referred to as such. In Sweden, three Sámi languages are spoken, with the other 7 Sámi languages being spoken in Norway, Russia and Finland. The history of the Sami languages can be traced back at least 2,000 years. In total, they are spoken by a minimum of 40,000 people throughout the four countries.

As a minority language, Sami is an official language and may be used in government agencies, courts, preschools and nursing homes in the municipalities where it is most common.


Romani chib, the language of Romani people (Gypsies), has been spoken in Sweden since the 16th century. Today about 9,500 people speak it in Sweden. It does not have a geographical center, but is considered to be of historical importance.


Yiddish was historically a common language of Ashkenazi (Central and Eastern European) Jews. The first Jews were permitted to reside in Sweden during the late 18th century. The population has since grown to 20,000, of which an estimated 3,000 speak Yiddish. The organization Sällskapet för Jiddisch och Jiddischkultur i Sverige (Society for Yiddish and Yiddish Culture in Sweden) has over 200 members, many of whom are native Yiddish speakers, and arranges regular activities for the speech community and in external advocacy of the Yiddish language.

Romani and Yiddish have the position of "historical minority languages" throughout the country, and thus the Swedish state acknowledges a certain obligation to preserve them.[1]

See also

References and notes

  • Sveriges officiella minoritetsspråk, Svenska språknämnden 2003. (In Swedish)
  • National minorities and minority languages, Integrations- och jämställdhetsdepartementet, Informationsmaterial IJ 07.07e, July 13, 2007
  1. ^ Landes, David (2009-07-01). "Swedish becomes official 'main language'". The Local. thelocal.se. http://www.thelocal.se/20404/20090701/. Retrieved 2009-07-15. 
  2. ^ Svenskan blir inte officiellt språk, Sveriges Television, 2005-12-07. Retrieved on July 23, 2006. (in Swedish)
  3. ^ Uppsala kielsi suomen kielen käytön (in Finnish)
  4. ^ Förbjudet eller inte att tala minoritetsspråket finska på en arbetsplats Sverigefinländarnas delegation, 15 november 2007
  5. ^ Feldt-Ranta frågar om Uppsala-fallet

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