All of the Nordic languages; Icelandic, Faroese, Swedish, Danish and Norwegian are descended from Old Norse, the language of the Vikings. These languages have all evolved in different ways over the past 1000 years, so they are very different from each other. Deep in central Sweden, there is another, lesser known Nordic language that is at risk of going extinct.
This very rare Nordic language, known as Elfdalian, was previously regarded as a dialect, but leading linguists now agree it is a separate language. Scandinavian language experts are campaigning to save it from extinction, as it is now spoken by around just 2500 people.
The language sounds like some Elf tongue from the Hobbit but is a real language found only in the forests of central Sweden. The language is believed to date back to Viking times, but recent figures have revealed that less than 60 children can currently speak it.
This is a song in Elfdalian or “älvdalska”
“Often Norwegians, Danes and Swedes can understand each others’ languages and dialects. But Elfdalian can’t be understood by any Scandinavians apart from the ones that grow up with it, and that is why we consider it a separate language,” Yair Sapir, a linguistics expert who lives in Copenhagen and teaches at Lund University in Sweden, told The Local.
The Israeli professor taught himself Elfdalian and is fascinated by the language:
The people of Älvdalen are wonderful but they are different to the city folk I am used to. They are in general less educated but more connected to nature and each other than people in urban areas,” he explained.
This week, Sapir is hosting an international conference on Elfdalian at the University of Copenhagen, in order to raise awareness of the Viking forest language. The language will now be taught at a preschool in the region where it is spoken, Älvdalan.
“It’s a highly threatened language and so it is great that the municipality is going to experiment with teaching it to children in preschool,” said Sapir.
“In the past, children from this area didn’t go far beyond the farms they lived on but now they go to school and consume so much other media that it is hard for them to keep Elfdalian as their main language,” he added.
“The language was suppressed for centuries by the authorities. They need more books on their language and more recognition and validation of their culture. Hopefully the lessons in preschools will be the start of that.”
The Viking forest language has also increased linguistic understanding of the now extinct Old Norse, as the two languages share some words and expressions.
“Elfdalian is a goldmine. It works almost like a linguistic deep freeze, where one can get a glimpse of Old Norse traits that have long since vanished in the other Nordic languages,” says language historian Bjarne Simmelkjær Sandsgaard Hansen, co-organizer of the University of Copenhagen conference.