By Guus Kroonen.
When I visited the remote Swedish town of Älvdalen, I was immediately struck by the tranquil splendour of the undulating, forest-covered valley in which it is situated. The river Österdalälv, which runs to the valley and has given it its name, was still partly frozen, and the gleaming ice resonated with the last patches of snow that were strewn across the landscape. Here, in this Swedish Shangri-La, I was set to meet the last speakers of Elfdalian, a tiny and well-hidden linguistic gem that only very few know about.
in Swedish and övdalsk
in the language itself) sounds like something you would more likely encounter in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings rather than in a remote Swedish forest. But the small town of Älvdalen, which gives the language its name, is not an Elven outpost. It is one of the last strongholds of an ancient tongue that preserves much of Old Norse, the language of the Vikings. And it is now to be taught in the town’s preschools for the first time in September
, marking a small victory for a group campaigning for its preservation.
Elfdalian is currently used only by about 2,500 people, but is a treasure trove for linguists. Hidden between the trees and hills, it has preserved linguistic features that are to be found nowhere else in Scandinavia, and that had already disappeared from Old Norse by 1200AD.Unique among Nordic languages
Elfdalian has, for instance, preserved nasal vowels that disappeared elsewhere. Nasal vowels are well-known from French, as in un bon vin blanc
(“a good white wine”), but not from the modern Nordic languages. In Old Norse, nasal vowels are only found in a single manuscript from 12th-century Iceland, but linguists never thought much of it – until it was discovered that modern day Elfdalian has nasal vowels in the exact same words. More...