As chair of the Norwegian branch of Foreningen Norden – the Nordic Association – it gave me great pleasure to award this year’s Nordic language prize to Martti Ahtisaari, the former President of Finland and Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Mr Ahtisaari has been at the forefront of efforts to reinforce the position of Swedish in Finland, something that’s of great importance to the Nordic language community.
The fact that we have always had such a high level of proficiency in the Scandinavian languages in both Finland and Iceland has enabled Nordic collaboration to take place in the native tongues of the majority of people in our region. It’s for this reason that Nordic cooperation has been such a genuinely popular movement rather than simply a project for the elite.
The exchange of labour, joint school projects, cultural collaboration or political cooperation, whether at a parliamentary or governmental level; all of it can take place without anyone having to resort to English. It should almost go without saying that this eases and deepens our fellowship at one and the same time.
Swedish in Finland
Unfortunately, what we are now seeing is a tendency towards the weakening of this common linguistic understanding between the Nordic countries. Nowhere is this more evident than in Finland, where teaching in Swedish has become less and less popular in certain circles. One of Finland’s largest parties, the Finns Party, has called for the ending of “forced Swedish” in its party manifesto.
For many years Martti Ahtisaari has highlighted how advantageous it is for Finns to be proficient in Swedish. Firstly, he has argued, it strengthens national unity by making it easier to include the Swedish-speaking minority in the country. It also makes the common Nordic labour market more accessible to Finnish citizens. Traditionally speaking lots of Finns have looked for work all over the Nordic region, most often in Sweden, but also in northern Norway. Not least, good Swedish provides better opportunities for cultural and political cooperation.
Scandinavian Languages in the Nordic Cooperation
One arena where this is important is in Nordic interparliamentary work. Today’s Nordic Council is becoming ever more reliant on simultaneous translation, and English has inched its way into more and more of the informal meetings. Of course, in such an international community as ours this isn’t just an evil; after all, English has become a very important language globally, and we in the Nordic region must be part of this development. And this makes it all the more vital that the use of English doesn’t undermine what for so long has been a competitive advantage within Nordic cooperation; namely, that a cornerstone of our collaboration has been a living, popular community based on one’s own mother tongue.
Anything that can help to keep up good cross-border Scandinavian language comprehension should be welcomed with open arms. In this respect, Martti Ahtisaari is a role model and a most deserving winner of the Nordic language prize for 2015.