Query (Me änkieli)

jphakkin at mappi.helsinki.fi jphakkin at mappi.helsinki.fi
Wed Oct 31 23:54:03 UTC 2012

> To say that one SHOULD IGNORE peripheral dialects in deciding whether
> Swedish and Norwegian are separate languages (because "the "nucleus"
> Swedish is clearly a separate language") and then to say that we
> CANNOT IGNORE the peripheral Far-Bothnian dialects of Finnish in
> deciding that Meänkieli is NOT a separate language is a bit
> inconsistent.

Good point! However, not accurate in this situation: my point was that  
the case of Meänkieli vs. Finnish is different from the case of  
Swedish vs. Norwegian.

In the latter case we have two different vernaculars (developed from  
the common protolanguage), which then have developed mixed dialects  
between them. Similar to that is the case of Finno-Karelian dialect  
continuum (mentioned by Aikio & Arola): we have two different core  
vernaculars (developed from the common protolanguage), Old Tavastian /  
Old West Finnish versus Old Karelian, and then mixed/intermediary  
dialects developed between them.

The important thing here is that the mixed/intermediary dialects are  
SECONDARY; I take it that neither you nor Aikio & Arola refute the  
PRIMARY existence of the mentioned old dialects, or Old Swedish vs.  
Old Norwegian.

In the case of Meänkieli versus Finnish we do not have that kind of  
parallel status of two sister vernaculars developing from the common  
protolanguage. Instead we have a situation where one part (that which  
remains in Sweden) of one secondary dialect group (Far-Bothnian  
dialects) claims an independent status. It would be a similar  
situation if the Uppland dialect of Sveamål claimed a status as a  
language of its own, if it was separated by a state border from the  
rest of Sveamål. That kind of claim would be political and has nothing  
to do with the linguistic reality. (ACHTUNG! I do not deny the  
independent status of Meänkieli! I only emphasize that this status is  
sociological, not linguistic in nature.)

> Also, length of time since separation does not, in an of itself,
> determine whether two languages should be considered as separate or
> not (if it did, then we would probably all be doing glottochronology
> still!).

Length of time is relevant here: after 500 more years we could see  
that the situation of Meänkieli would no longer be the one subordinate  
to the Far-Bothnian dialect group as a whole, but it would probably be  
parallel to it: the dialects in Finland would have developed to their  
own direction, and the dialects in Sweden would have developed to  
their own direction. They would be sister languages descending from  
the common protolanguage – but at the moment they are not.

Then to the answer by Aikio & Arola:

Aikio & Arola:
> There hardly is such a thing as "the linguistic viewpoint" on what is
> language and what is a dialect. Different linguistic viewpoints based on
> different premises will produce different answers to what count as
> "languages".

I agree.
I only made a rough distinction between linguistic versus  
identity-political (= non-linguistic) level.

Aikio & Arola:
> What is described as "the linguistic viewpoint" 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 "Finnish". 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.

Good points.
Sociolinguistics belongs to the non-linguistic category in my rough  
classification (see above), because it does not base its  
classifications purely on the language but considers the identity.

What comes to the extreme dialectological viewpoint: only on the  
purely synchronic level it would see a chain of "equal" Finno-Karelian  
dialects reaching from Olonetsian to Meänkieli. But on the diachronic  
level it would distinguish the descendants of Old Tavastian and the  
descendants of Old Karelian as separate groups (~ languages). The  
classification of mixed dialects would apply either  
temporal-qualitative or quantitative aspect. For example, the  
Far-Bothnian (I like this term because of consistency) dialects would  
be counted as part of the West Finnish language, as traditionally they  
are seen as part of the western dialects of Finnish.

Still, Meänkieli would at the present be subordinate to the  
Far-Bothian dialect group of West Finnish, although after 500 years  
from now it could possibly be seen as a daughter language of the  
Far-Bothnian protolanguage, parallel to the future-Far-Bothnian  
dialects in Finland (= another daughter language).

I think the literary language is a level of its own. Literary  
languages are often artificial, they come and go, and there can be  
competing literary languages based on political motives. We could talk  
about separate West Finnish and East Finnish languages and develop  
different literary languages for them just as easily as we can talk  
about separate Võro-Seto language versus Estonian.

It is important that we keep these different levels strictly apart: I  
could and can rationally classify two different Finnish/Finno-Karelian  
languages in the linguistic level (even though there is no single  
linguistic level), but I find it both practically and  
identity-sociologically unnecessary and futile at the moment.

Aikio & Arola:
> 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.

Yes, that is why I emphasized the differences in EVERY level of  
language. I find it contra-rational to classify a vernacular as a  
language of its own, if it does not show any distinctive phonological  
innovations, no matter how much foreign words it has adopted.  
Therefore I compared the situation of Meänkieli humoristically to the  
situation of Teekkari jargon.

Aikio & Arola:
> This does not appear to be a solid argument. First, that "nucleus" Swedish
> is clearly distinct from "nucleus" Norwegian is irrelevant for the
> question of whether they are separate languages. Notably, "nucleus"
> Swedish and Norwegian are mutually almost fully intelligible.

Almost. Still, they
– have differences in every level of language, including the  
phonological level
– are parallel vernaculars descended from the common protolanguage,  
not from each other.

In these respects their situation differs from the situation of  
Meänkieli; see the beginning of the message.

Aikio & Arola:
> Second, we
> fail to see why "nucleus" Meänkieli and "nucleus" 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.

1. Literary standard is a political convention which has not much to  
do with the linguistic reality; therefore it does not count as an  

2. It is true that Meänkieli is easily distinguishable because of the  
huge amount of Swedish loanwords. But here we meet the same problem as  
we did with the intelligibility: are the incomprehensible words enough  
to justify the status as a language on its own, if there are no  
differences in EVERY level of language?

Hmm... If we would look Meänkieli as a creole-kind or something, then  
there would be no problem to see it as an independent language. Such  
is the power of special status... :)

Aikio & Arola:
> 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.

Yes, that is exactly the direction my thoughts were going, too!

Aikio & Arola:
> To compare Meänkieli to a jargon is bizarre. A jargon is a type of
> terminology, and a terminology cannot be any person¹s native language.

Jargon had earlier wider meaning, see Chinook jargon.
My point with that humoristic comparison to Teekkari jargon was, that  
to be a true language, a vernacular should ideally differ from other  
languages in every level. If it does not, there may be alternative  
interpretations and classifications instead of an independent language.

It would be interesting to see the sound history of Meänkieli; I find  
it possible that there could already be some separating sound changes  
compared to the Far-Bothnian in Finland. But after few centuries there  
would probably be those enough to see the differences immediately.

Aikio & Arola:
> 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 "Finnish" and "Meänkieli" 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.

That is part of sociolinguistics or sociology, in contrast to "pure"  
linguistics. You may call it "narrow" linguistics if you like, but it  
is important to distinguish between the results we gain from the  
language alone, and what we gain from the opinions of the speakers  
(identity and other sociological stuff). One cannot disprove another:  
they are different disciplines studying different objects.

As I said, I have nothing against the independent status of Meänkieli,  
as long as it is recognized as a result from a sociological level.  
Purely or narrowly linguistic classification is the one I'm interested  
in, because Meänkieli is a borderline case.

  Aikio & Arola:
> 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
> continuum.

My point is, that from the diachronic dialectological perspective  
Meänkieli is a subordinate part of Far-Bothnian dialects, not yet  
parallel to it. When it becomes parallel (= not descended from the  
Far-Bothnian dialects but from the same protolanguage as they), it  
could be seen as an independent language from every viewpoint. At the  
moment it is a borderline case.

Aikio & Arola:
> 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.

I see no point to mess all the different levels together. Sociological  
level tells one thing, but "pure" linguistic level must not necessary  
tell the same thing. Meänkieli may well be seen as an independent  
language, but that is based on sociological arguments. There is  
nothing wrong with sociological arguments – all I'm saying that  
sociology should not affect linguistics, nor vice versa. They are two  
separate levels.

Aikio & Arola:
> 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.


Aikio & Arola:
> 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.

I mostly agree.
But there are no "holy cows" in linguistics. Meänkieli is a borderline  
case compared for example to Udmurt, which is an independent, coherent  
language from every viewpoint. Finnish is also a borderline case, but  
different from Meänkieli and similar to Estonian versus Võro-Seto.

I strongly support the independent status, preservation and  
revitalization of Meänkieli in Sweden. Still, I might now and then  
sport considering its linguistic status. :)

Jaakko Häkkinen

jaakko.hakkinen at helsinki.fi

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