Sweden’s lost forest language now has international speakers

Elfdalian (Övdalian/Älvdalska) has a name that sounds like it came straight frm a Tolkien novel, but it’s a real, North Germanic tongue spoken by 3,000 people in the Älvdalen area of Dalarna County in Western Sweden.

The language has its roots in Old Norse like Swedish, but developed in isolation since the Middle Ages and retains a number of archaic features not found in other Northern Germanic languages, including even Icelandic. It was written in rune form until 1900.

This summer, a course was offered in Älvdalen to help introduce newcomers to the language, and among the 26 participants were people from the USA, Czech Republic, Germany, Norway and Denmark.

Marc Volhardt from Copenhagen was one of the learners:

“It’s a very complex language. It has a lot of the tones and grammar from Icelandic. It was a different, strange language up there I couldn’t understand. Even more archaic in some ways than old Icelandic, so it was nice from a historical linguistics purpose, to be able to see further back than Icelandic, which was cool”.

“I have a Masters in linguistics and studied in both Copenhagen and Iceland, and learned Icelandic. I already had an interest in Nordic languages, and that gave me a nice insight into western Nordic languages. I’ve been going around the Nordics since I started studying and studied some Faroese at a summer course, so I got a feel for all the different Nordic languages but the last Nordic language I didn’t understand was Elfdalian, so that was kind of frustrating. That led me to wanting to know more about it,” he explained about his motivation to learn the tongue.

The introductory course was a week long, and involved grammar, exercises, and speaking sessions, while older Elfdalian speakers also came at the end of each day to hold conversations with the students:

“They were positive and happy about it. They seemed to think it was good that we wanted to learn. There was no ‘this isn’t your language’, they liked it”.

“When foreigners come to Denmark a lot of Danish people ask ‘why would you learn Danish when you can speak English?’, but I didn’t feel that in Älvdalen. The older generation want to preserve the language, they think it’s a shame it’s disappearing. I’m not sure the younger generation feels the same way yet,” Volhardt elaborated.

In the future he hopes to advance his skills and use them to try and research possible links between Elfdalian and the Sami languages. The latter tongues have a history dating back to around 1,000 BC.

Read more: The Local

This forest language from the age of Vikings may soon disappear

In a remote part of Sweden surrounded by mountains, valleys and thick forests, the community of Älvdalen is desperately attempting to preserve its unique heritage.

Up until the mid-20th century, the town of some 1,800 inhabitants spoke a language called Elfdalian, believed to be the closest descendant of Old Norse, the language of the Vikings. The beautiful and complex tongue, likened to the fictional languages of “The Lord of the Rings” or “Game of Thrones,” remained preserved throughout the centuries because of the area’s natural isolation.

“Älvdalen lies extremely deep within the Swedish forests and mountains,” Michael Lerche Nielsen, an assistant professor at the Department of Nordic Research at the University of Copenhagen, told ScienceNordic. “You can get there by boat up the river, Dalälven — a journey of more than 100 kilometers — and getting there and back used to be quite an expedition. So people in the area weren’t particularly mobile and were able to preserve this very special culture, considered in Sweden to be extremely traditional and old fashioned.”

Even the practice of using runic script, another vestige of Old Norse that otherwise died out during the Middle Ages, was still in use in Älvdalen as recently as 100 years ago.

Read more: Mother Nature Network

Swedish nursery to teach rare Viking-era language

Elfdalian will be the sole language spoken to children attending the pre-school in the town of Alvdalen, which is the only community that still uses it, Radio Sweden reports. Elfdalian is believed to be the closest descendant of Old Norse, which was spoken by Scandinavians more than 1,000 years ago.

At the moment, only about 2,500 people can speak the language, fewer than 60 of them children, reports The Local website. To help preserve Elfdalian, councillors in Alvdalen on Tuesday voted unanimously to build the new nursery school.

The Local quotes the town’s mayor, Peter Egardt, as saying that officials were aware of their responsibility to “get a new generation to speak our unique language, thus giving the language more of a chance to survive in the long term”.

Read more: BBC News

The 1967 Revolution That Allowed Swedes to Finally Call Each Other “You”

Excerpted from Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages by Gaston Dorren. Out now from Atlantic Monthly Press.

The year 1967 was the height of the hippie era. The Beatles, with “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” are singing the praises of LSD. And, almost equally shocking, a top Swedish executive is calling for unprecedented levels of informality. Bror Rexed, the incoming director-general of the Medicinalstyrelse (Public Health Board), announces that he intends to address all employees by their first names and would like them to do the same for him. And he gets his way.

So, ever since July 3, 1967, Rexed’s name (particularly his surname, ironically enough) has been linked to the du-reform. Du, in Swedish as in German, is the informal version of the English “you.” French has the equivalent tu and English, between the 13th and 18th centuries, had thou. Which is not to say this was all Rexed’s doing. There had been signs already that the tide of public opinion was turning, and a short time later even Prime Minister Olof Palme endorsed the new trend: upon taking office in 1969, he publicly dealt with journalists on a first-name-and-du basis. Nevertheless, in Sweden’s collective memory, Rexed’s announcement has remained the symbolic turning point.

Read more: Slate