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Endangered languages: The perseverance of Elfdalian

Dying Languages

Somewhere deep in the forests of Sweden, an old language has managed to survive the threat of modernisation. Once banned by Swedish authorities, Elfdalian can now even be linked to a member of the Swedish Royal House, but what is the story behind this strange language?

As a language and translation company, GlobaLexicon mostly works with those languages that are not endangered; Spanish, Arabic and Chinese to name a few. However, we do take an interest in endangered languages, so much so that we are devoting this blog post to one in particular: Elfdalian. Although sounding like a dialect J. R. R. Tolkien or J. K. Rowling might have invented, it is in fact a real language that is spoken in the municipality of Älvdalen, located in Sweden.

Until as recently as the 1970s, children in Älvdalen were forbidden to speak Elfdalian at school, owing to the fact the Swedish authorities preferred one core language. Children would speak Elfdalian only at home and even there, it had to compete with the mass media which was, naturally, in Swedish. In 2016, only sixty children under the age of 18 were recorded as being able to speak the endangered language.

When is a language endangered?

According to UNESCO, a language is considered endangered when “its speakers cease to use it, use it in fewer and fewer domains, use fewer of its registers and speaking styles, and/or stop passing it on to the next generation.” Following this definition, 43% of all languages are endangered.

However, the Elfdalian language is not included in this percentage. This is not to say that it isn’t endangered, but simply that the Swedish government does not recognise it as a language, rather a dialect. Despite this, not all linguists agree, pointing out that Swedish and Elfdalian are mutually incomprehensible and, thus, it should be considered as an endangered language all the same.

Elves, Vikings and Princesses

Elfdalian may seem like “something you are more likely to encounter in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings,” as one linguist points out in The Guardian, but many linguists have a good reason for wanting an official recognition of the language.

“Elfdalian is a linguistic treasure trove,” he says. “It is one of the last strongholds of an ancient tongue that preserves much of Old Norse, the language of the Vikings.” According to another linguist, “some of the cases of nasal vowels go back to before the birth of Christ.” He adds “Elfdalian is the only language to preserve those nasal vowels.”

A recent glimmer of hope for the linguistic enthusiasts among us, is Princess Sofia of Sweden, who grew up in Älvdalen, and can understand the language due to the fact her grandmother speaks it. Her 2015 marriage to Prince Carl Philip has led some academics to believe that the language could “benefit from a little royal stardust” and be brought forward in status from dialect to language.

Perhaps with more of a public interest and buzz around Elfdalian, it will be able to prosper once more.

If you want to hear what Elfdalian sounds like, you can do so here:

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