Monday, February 1, 2016

Country Profile: The Languages of Finland

In last week's country profile, we looked at the languages of Denmark, the southernmost country in Scandinavia. Today we're going to check out the linguistic diversity of Finland, which may or may not be included in Scandinavia depending on who you ask. In any case, everyone does agree that both Denmark and Finland are Nordic countries, a group that also includes Norway, Sweden, and Iceland.

Suomenlinna, a sea fortress on six islands in Helsinki, Finland.
The Official Languages

Finland has two official languages: Finnish and Swedish. Given the name of the country, it should come as no surprise that the most popular of these languages is Finnish, which is the native language of over 90% of the country's population. Swedish, on the other hand, is the native language of about 5% of Finns.

Finnish is a particularly interesting language because it is a member of the Uralic language family, which means that it is related to Hungarian and Estonian. Swedish, like the other Scandinavian languages, is a Germanic language that descended from Old Norse. While it was the primary language used by the government until the late 1800s, it has since been largely replaced by Finnish. However, both official languages are required subjects in Finnish schools.

Recognized Languages

The Finnish government has also officially recognized the rights of speakers of several other languages used in the country. Three of these are Sami languages which are spoken by the Sami people, Europe's northernmost indigenous group: North Sami, Inari Sami, and Skolt Sami. North Sami is the most widely spoken Sami language, and has about 1,700 native speakers in Finland. Inari Sami and Skolt Sami are both endangered languages, with only about 300 native speakers in Finland.

Karelian pasties, generally filled with
rice, can be found throughout Finland.
The final two recognized languages are Romani and Karelian. There are about 10,000 native speakers of Finnish Kalo Romani in Finland, primarily members of Romani groups that immigrated to Finland from Scotland and England in the 16th century. Finland is also home to approximately 10,000 native speakers of the Karelian language, a Uralic language that is primarily spoken in a region of Russia that borders Finland.

Other Languages

One final language used as a native language by a significant portion of Finland's population is Estonian. There are over 30,000 native speakers of Estonian in Finland, yet another Uralic language that is related to Finnish.

In terms of foreign languages, the most popular choices are English and German. Over 60% of Finns speak English, while over 15% speak German. Since a significant percentage of the Finnish population speaks Swedish, they are also able to understand Norwegian and Danish, since both languages are mutually intelligible with Swedish to varying degrees.