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Elfdalian: a unique language, which was recently written in runes, now is being revived. Interview with its teacher

According to Wikipedia, Elfdalian or Övdalian (övdalsk or övdalską, pronounced /ˈœvdɐlskãː/ in Elfdalian, älvdalska or älvdalsmål in Swedish) is a North Germanic language variety spoken by up to 3,000 people who live or have grown up in the locality of Älvdalen (Övdaln), which is located in the southeastern part of Älvdalen Municipality in northern Dalarna, Sweden.

Mindaugas Peleckis
2021 m. Rugpjūčio 22 d., 13:16
Skaityta: 153 k.
Björn Rehnström
Björn Rehnström

Like all other modern North Germanic languages, Elfdalian developed from Old Norse, a North Germanic language that was spoken by inhabitants of Scandinavia and inhabitants of their overseas settlements during the Viking Age until about 1300. It has developed in relative isolation since the Middle Ages and is considered to have remained closer to Old Norse than the other Dalecarlian dialects.

Traditionally regarded as a Swedish dialect, but by several criteria closer to West Scandinavian dialects, Elfdalian is a separate language by the standard of mutual intelligibility. Although there is no mutual intelligibility between Swedish and Elfdalian, because education and public administration in Älvdalen are conducted in Swedish, native speakers are bilingual and speak Swedish at a native level. Residents in the area having Swedish as the sole native language, neither speaking nor understanding Elfdalian, are also common.

In Älvdalen, Germanic runes survived in use longer than anywhere else. The last record of the Elfdalian Runes is from 1929; they are a variant of the Dalecarlian runes. Älvdalen can be said to have had its own alphabet during the 17th and 18th century.

Due to the great phonetic differences between Swedish and Elfdalian, the use of Swedish orthography for Elfdalian has been unpredictable and varied, such as the one applied in the Prytz's play from 1622, which contains long passages in Elfdalian, or in the Elfdalian material published in the periodical Skansvakten.

A first attempt to create a separate Elfdalian orthography was made in 1999 by Bengt Åkerberg. Åkerberg's orthography was applied in some books and used in language courses and is based on Loka dialect and is highly phonetic. It has many diacritics (Sapir 2006).
As of 2009, Elfdalian had around 2,000 speakers and is in danger of language death. However, it is possible that it will receive an official status as a minority language in Sweden, which would entail numerous protections and encourage its use in schools and by writers and artists. The Swedish Parliament was due to address the issue in 2007, but apparently has not yet done so. The Council of Europe has urged the Swedish government to reconsider the status of Elfdalian on four occasions, most recently in October 2011. The Committee of Experts now encourages the Swedish authorities to investigate the status of Elfdalian through an independent scientific study. In 2020, the Committee of Experts concluded that Elfdalian fulfils the criteria of a Part II language, and asked the Swedish authorities to include reporting on Elfdalian in its next periodical report as the language covered by Part II of the Charter.
Ulum Dalska (http://www.ulumdalska.se), The Organization for the Preservation of Elfdalian, was established in 1984 with the aim of preserving and documenting the Elfdalian language. In 2005, Ulum Dalska launched a process aimed at bringing about an official recognition of Elfdalian as a language by the Swedish authorities.

Råðdjärum (http://www.ulumdalska.se/alvdalskan/radjarum), The Elfdalian Language Committee was established in August 2004 within Ulum Dalska, its first task being to create a new standard orthography for Elfdalian. In March 2005, the new orthography created by Råðdjärum was accepted by the Ulum Dalska at their annual meeting. Råðdjärum consists of five permanent members: linguist Östen Dahl, dialectologist Gunnar Nyström, teacher Inga-Britt Petersson, linguist and coordinator of the committee Dr. Yair Sapir, and linguist Lars Steensland.

As an initiative from Ulum Dalska to encourage children to speak Elfdalian, all school children in Älvdalen who finish the ninth grade and can prove that they can speak Elfdalian receive a 6,000 SEK stipend

An online version of Lars Steensland’s 2010 Elfdalian dictionary (http://xn--lvdalsk-4wa.ordbok.gratis) was published in September 2015.

In March 2016, Swedish Radio reported that the Älvdalen City Council had decided that, starting in autumn 2016, the local kindergarten would operate solely through the medium of Elfdalian.

A new genus Elfdaliana of deep-sea nudibranch molluscs has been named recently after the Elfdalian language in reference to evolutionary basal characters of the new genus never before reported for the family just as Elfdalian preserves ancestral features of Old Norse.

You can learn Elfdalian here:

http://www.ulumdalska.se/alvdalskan/radjarum,

https://www.facebook.com/groups/255718879202880,

https://www.facebook.com/groups/dalskum.  

I talked to Elfdalian language teacher Björn Rehnström about this unique language.

What is the current situation of Elfdalian language in the world? Is it spoken only in Sweden? How many people are fluent and how many are learning it?

About 2 000 – 3 000 persons, most of them in Älvdalen / Elfdalia (Dalarna), Sweden, but there are several from Europe, USA, Baltic countries, Russia, Indonesia, Australia, Haiti and so on. 

I‘ve read that Elfdalian was written in runes even in the 20th century. Is this language at least sometimes written in runes, do some Elfdalian people know them and use?

The last person who had runes as a living tradition - learned from the parents who learned from their parents and so on, was a woman in Älvdalen. She died in 1931. 

What is the situation of Elfdalian in Sweden according to its language policy?

The local government, the region has recognized our language as a language. So has the European Council. They created and administrate the European council‘s charter of minority and regional languages, which Sweden has signed. We are also recognized as a language of the SIL International, a linguistic organization, seated in Texas, and by many linguists in Europe. But the Swedish government says it is a dialect, and it is forbidden to speak Elfdalian in the parliament, because no one understands it (https://www.pri.org/stories/2021-05-06/small-town-sweden-fights-preserve-elfdalian-dying-forest-language).  

I found very few resources for learning Elfdalian. One of them is online dictionary but it‘s only in Swedish. Are there any textbooks, grammars, dictionaries online and offline, and in which languages? What about radio and TV stations or at least programs / podcasts?And, of course, online courses. What is being done to keep this language from dying out?

For maybe ten years we had a summer course in Elfdalian, but Corona stopped it. Bengt Åkerberg was the teacher.  I have had some local courses during winter time. 

Today there is my course on Facebook - Älvdalska bytes mot armhävningar - in Elfdalian with 1 860 pupils all over the world. 

In 2012, Bengt Åkerberg released a grammar with 700 pages and just a month ago a dictionary of 720 pages came out, written by Lars Steensland. 

Yair Sapir, from Copenhagen, is working on an English grammar of Elfdalian.  

A big project, financed by the Swedish Heritage Fond Allmänna Arvsfonden, is being made. The name of the project is Wilum og Bellum, wich means „We will and we can". 

In the project they are reading for smaller children (when there is no Corona), we are having lessons for pupils in the ninth grade (15-16 years), translated 107 children‘s books from Swedish, transcribing old recordings from 1900 and forwards, dubbing a new children‘s film, arranging summer camps, and much, much more. 

We have also translated the computer game Minecraft to Elfdalian (mostly I did it) and we have translated some famous books: among them Kertin Ekmans‘ „Hunden“ (The dog), „The Little Prince“, „Alice in Wonderland“. We have also published new books for children and young people, written directly in Elfdalian and about ten books are to come. 

There are some YouTube films with Elfdalian speakers.

The organization Ulum Dalska (it means „We shall speak Elfdalian“) is active and has done a lot to increase the status among children and young people. 

However, there are no TV channels or radio channels for Elfdalian. 

We have a common owned big forest (Älvdalens Besparingsskog) and the income from it goes partly to culture. They are financing a scholarship. If you speak Elfdalian and go to 3rd grade, you get a book and a diploma, when you finish 6th grade, you get 500 kronor, and when you finish 9th grade, you get 6 000 kronor – if you succeed making a test.  

What about the legacy of Elfdalian folklore, songs, poems, literature in general and historical sources? Where can people that are interested in it read about the language and its people more? Are there any scholarly studies?

We have a very active Historical society here with a lot of material, houses and items from past days. That is where we alwayscelebrate midsummer. 

The literature heritage is small, but there is written proof from as early as 1622 for the Elfdalian language – in Alexander Prytz comedy about the king Gustav I. 

In later days we have made some children books, Lars Steensland has translated the four gospels of the Bible and he also made a book about names of birds, a book about the names of towns and places and a book about the names of plants and flowers in Elfdalian.

There were also recorded some Elfdalian songs through the years. 

The folk music of Älvdalen is rich and well documented and well known all over. 

There are also several linguistic papers about several aspects of Elfdalian language and we have five scholarly doctors in Elfdalian over the last years. 

Could You please tell Your story as an Elfdalian? You are teaching Elfdalian on Facebook. How about asking Duolingo, Memrise or Mondly to have a course?

About myself. I moved to Älvdalen in 1977 from Stockholm with my wife. After a couple of years I began to realize that the „dialect“ I thought they were speaking really was a rich and advanced language. Since I worked on the local newspaper, I wrote a lot of stories about Elfdalian. But I did not dare to speak it and no one wanted to teach me. We speak Swedish to the children and the dogs, they said, and I felt they were ashamed of their own language since many years – and the same time they were very proud of it, but through the years teachers in schools, priests, policemen and other people with education had told them – even by beating children in schools if they spoke Elfdalian - so in practice there were just a handful persons that really used the language openly. But they used it at home, in the hunting teams and at work.

After some years I „came out of the closet“ and began speaking, „forcing“ people to talk to me. 

In 1984, we had a big campaign in our local paper “Mora Tidning” and invited to a meeting to start an organization to save the language. The organization Ulum Dalska was born, and has been working since then. 

In 2006, I got the Culture price in Älvdalen for my work for the language. I refused to take the money and wished they would be the foundation for a yearly price for people who fight for Älvdalska / Elfdalian. 

These 5 000 kronor I would get has now grown into a much bigger sum of 140 000 and since then money has been given to 14 different persons with a sum of 10 000 kronor every year. The local grocery shop is financing the price today. 

Yes, I am teaching Elfdalian through the course I wrote about above. And it seems to be a very popular course over the world. Short video lessons with one or two words or sentences every weekday and explanations in Swedish and English, since so many of the pupils are from abroad. 

That’s a dream to get a course on Duolingo, too.

I wish that will become true. Tjär tokk fer!


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