Query (Me änkieli)

Ante Aikio ante.aikio at oulu.fi
Wed Oct 31 17:36:24 UTC 2012

We would like to make some remarks on Jaakko Häkkinen¹s reply to Laura
Arola¹s post regarding Meänkieli.

³With most of the Uralic languages these levels agree: the vernaculars,
which the speakers themselves consider separate, are also different at the
linguistic level. But problems arise with the cases like Meänkieli. The
reason, why it is not seen as a separate language from the linguistic
viewpoint, is that there are for
example hardly any(?) sound changes distinguishing it from the
Far-Bothnian dialects of Finland. I don't have Martti Airila's old book
available at the moment, but such sound changes would be crucial in order
to linguistically separate Meänkieli from Finnish across the state border.²

[A.A. & L.A.:]
There hardly is such a thing as ³the linguistic viewpoint² on what is
language and what is a dialect. Different linguistic viewpoints based on
different premises will produce different answers to what count as

What is described as ³the linguistic viewpoint² here is actually a
dialectological viewpoint based on dialect materials mainly gathered
nearly a century ago. On the basis of such material it would, indeed, be
evident that Meänkieli or Torne Valley Finnish is not a language but a
dialect instead. 

But, importantly, even in this case Meänkieli is *not* a dialect of
Finnish, because Finnish is not a language either according to the same
criteria. So if the dialectological viewpoint is chosen, the demand of
consistency implies that Meänkieli is a dialect of Finno-Karelian (which
is a dialect continuum) and not ³Finnish². We have no problem with the
claim that from a *dialectological* perspective traditional Meänkieli is a
part of the same Far-Northern dialect group as the varieties spoken on the
Finnish side of the border. But surely in addition to dialectology also,
e.g., sociolinguistics and sociology of language are parts of the
discipline of linguistics.

As regards sound changes, it is difficult to see why they should play a
crucial role in determining whether Meänkieli is a "language" (in whatever
sense). Sound changes do not even help in solving the "language or
dialect" controversy, as also dialects are distinguished from one another
on the basis of sound changes.

³Swedish and Norwegian, and Swedish and Danish clearly are different
vernaculars with different developments in the phonological level, as well
as in other levels of language. Mixed or intermediary dialects cannot
change this fact: the "nucleus" Swedish is clearly a separate language.
Furthermore, the split of the Nordic languages has occurred long time ago,
during the first millennium AD.²

[A.A. & L.A.:]
This does not appear to be a solid argument. First, that ³nucleus² Swedish
is clearly distinct from ³nucleus² Norwegian is irrelevant for the
question of whether they are separate languages. Notably, ³nucleus²
Swedish and Norwegian are mutually almost fully intelligible. Second, we
fail to see why ³nucleus² Meänkieli and ³nucleus² Finnish would not be
equally distinct from each other than Swedish and Norwegian. Meänkieli is,
after all, an official language in Sweden and has its own literary
standard which is clearly distinct from the Finnish standard. Moreover, it
is generally easy to make distinguish between speakers of Meänkieli and
speakers of Sweden Finnish.

>From the linguistic viewpoint Meänkieli does not appear as an independent
- it is hardly distinguishable from the Far-Bothnian dialects of Finnish
in EVERY level of language
- it has split off from those dialects only since the Medieval times,
after the Old Karelian influence reached the Far-Bothnian dialects.

[A.A. & L.A.:]
There is no reliable description of contemporary Meänkieli, so it is not
easy to show the first claim as either true or false. References to ca.
100 year old dialect materials are not very revealing here, as Meänkieli
has since undergone very rapid language change under the influence of
Swedish. Our gut feeling is that contemporary Meänkieli may actually very
well be different from Far-Northern dialects on the Finnish side on every
level of language. There is some research on specific issues such as
syntax; according to Helena Sulkala¹s studies Meänkieli syntax shows
notable Swedish influence. The dramatic differences in vocabulary are
plain to see. A particularly interesting aspect is pragmatics. Extensive
and seemingly chaotic code mixing is seen as an integral part of
Meänkieli, and it is common to hear Meänkieli speakers say that the
Meänkieli spoken on the radio is not ³real Meänkieli², because there is no
code mixing. This prevalent code mixing also makes spoken Meänkieli very
difficult to understand to a speaker of Finnish who has no knowledge of
Swedish. Thus, contemporary Meänkieli in its normal spoken form is
developing to the direction of a contact language.

The same points go with Kven, although it split off even later. Especially
Meänkieli has borrowed heavily from the majority language, which of course
makes it rather unintelligible. Still, it is a matter of definition
whether this kind of situation is seen as a separate language or special
jargon etc. ­ similarly I don't understand spoken Teekkari, although it
has no sound changes distinguishing it from my native Finnish. ;)

[A.A. & L.A.:]
To compare Meänkieli to a jargon is bizarre. A jargon is a type of
terminology, and a terminology cannot be any person¹s native language.

Also, we must remind that Meänkieli is simply not ³Finnish² that has
borrowed heavily from Swedish. A clear difference between Finnish and
Meänkieli can be established at least on the levels of vocabulary, syntax,
pragmatics, and literary standard. It must be underlined here that it has
been conscious decision by the Swedish government to treat speakers of
Meänkieli and speakers of Sweden Finnish separately in terms of

Moreover, Meänkieli also does not share with Finnish modern vocabulary
developed since the separation. Meänkieli speakers with no knowledge of
Finnish generally face major problems in understanding the latter, as they
do not know words such as tutkia 'study', haastatella 'interview', tulos
'result', tiede 'science', etc.

Revitalization attempts provide an illuminating perspective on the issue.
No one has ever attempted to revitalize "Finnish" in the Meänkieli area,
and this would indeed be impossible, as modern Finnish is not the language
traditionally spoken there.

I emphasize that this is not contradicting the separate identity of the
speakers of Meänkieli, because the identity and the linguistic status are
independent factors. The separate identity of the Meänkieli speakers is
for certain affected also by the political situation: they live in another
country, not in Finland, so it is hard for them to feel a connection to
Finns at the level of identity.

It is important to understand that we are talking about different levels
here. Anyone who wants to present numbers of speakers should explicitly
tell which level (s)he is applies: the linguistic viewpoint or the identity

[A.A. & L.A.:]
It is important to note that Meänkieli speakers are not a Finnish-speaking
group with a separate Meänkieli *ethnic identity*. Instead, they generally
consider themselves as ethnic Swedes with a Meänkieli *linguistic
identity* distinct from both Finland Finnish and Sweden Finnish. The
experienced border between ³Finnish² and ³Meänkieli² is one of the main
topics discussed for example in ELDIA interviews of Meänkieli speakers.
Linguistic self-identification is clearly an issue whose study belongs to
the field of linguistics, and to exclude it from consideration certainly
is a narrow linguistic viewpoint.

It should be emphasized that the numbers of speakers presented in the
quote from the Case-Specific Report of Meänkieli refer to speakers of
Meänkieli - not e.g. speakers of Finnish in Sweden, or people who identify
with a Tornedalian minority, as these would be completely different

To summarize our main points:

1) From a dialectological perspective, traditional Meänkieli was a dialect
belonging to the Far-Northern dialect group of the Finno-Karelian dialect

2) However, a realistic "linguistic viewpoint" on Meänkieli certainly must
be based on more than a dialectological analysis of the situation 100
years ago. The structure of contemporary Meänkieli, sociolinguistic and
pragmatic issues, as well as linguistic self-identification and language
policies must all be taken into account.

3) Because there is no extensive description of contemporary spoken
Meänkieli, many claims concerning the linguistic features of the language
are on a shaky basis.

4) Meänkieli speakers are a vulnerable minority that is experiencing rapid
language shift and suffers from very low linguistic self-esteem. In such a
situation it is especially important that people in status positions, such
as linguists and speakers of a high prestige variety, are careful in their
strong statements regarding the status of the language. Regardless of
whether such statements are meant to be interpreted in a strictly
dialectlogical sense, they very easily end up having language political
implications read into them - as would also the decision  to leave
Meänkieli out of the list of Uralic languages.

Ante Aikio
Laura Arola

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