Minority and identity in Torne Valley

This essay is a revised version of a presentation held originally in meänkieli, on the Meänkieli Literature Day (Hilja Byström Day), 18th April 2013.

The question of who can be considered to belong to the minority in Torne Valley has been much debated recently. In particular, the critical issue seems to be whether language can be regarded as the determining factor that defines the minority in Torne Valley. My intention in this informal presentation is to shed light on some conceptual problems related to the debate, and to propose ways to approach the minority question more objectively and using more exact concepts.

Traditionally, people in Torne Valley have spoken a language, closely related to Finnish, which is today known as meänkieli. During the recent decades, however, new generations have no longer learned this language. It has been regarded as useless; children have been brought up as Swedish speakers, as this was believed to offer them better opportunities in life. Today, there are still a significant number of meänkieli speakers, and thus the language is not considered to be in danger, but the speakers are predominantly older people. This means that the language is slowly dying –not immediately, but unless the trend is changed, quite certainly. Today’s parents in Torne Valley are mostly native Swedish speakers; making it even more difficult for the children to grow up as meänkieli speakers.

On the other hand, the status of meänkieli today is good. Tornedalingar are an acknowledged minority in Sweden, and meänkieli is one of the official national minority languages. This does not, however, automatically contribute to the survival of the language in practice. Besides this official position, there exist opinions that meänkieli is worthless and deserves to disappear. Apart from this, a new phenomenon has arisen: young adults are protesting that they feel excluded from the minority, if the minority is based on language. These are people that identify themselves with Torne Valley, and feel offended at their identity somehow being rejected for the reason that they don’t speak meänkieli. When the debate moves to this level, and touches the identity and the feelings of individuals, it becomes difficult to see the larger context, and to maintain a debate based on a common set of concepts and definitions.

The concepts that are central to such a debate are minority and identity. Everyone has an identity, which is partly individual, partly social and collective. A human being feels that she belongs to something, and this belonging is a part of her identity. When someone feels belonging to Torne Valley, this constitutes an undeniable part of her identity. But if she simultaneously experiences that her identity is questioned as she is being excluded from the minority, it may indicate that there is a confusion between the  concepts of identity and minority. 

Let us first consider the concept of a minority. I will not attempt to present a definitive definition, but rather a set of tools to allow us to better approach the issues at hand.

Firstly, I proceed from regarding minority as primarily a group. This may sound self-evident, but we should note that it then follows that the primary question is ”why does the minority, in the collective sense, exist and survive” and questions like ”does this individual belong to the minority” become secondary.

Secondly, I am not talking about a mathematical, statistical minority, but rather about a group which is somehow in a weaker position than the majority. The minority shares some characteristics, which separate it from the majority. In traditional minorities these special characteristics have been self-evident to all. Minorities have often been discriminated, and this would not have been possible if one could not differentiate between the minority and the majority. In neutral terms, some factors which define the minority, and which in themselves are positive or neutral, have separated the minority from the majority and formed the basis for discrimination.

A factor on which the minority is based can be linguistic, religious or ethnic. The existence of a linguistic factor, whenever present, is obvious. When a group speaks its own language, this clearly and evidently defines it as a group separate from others. Furthermore, language is not merely a set consisting of words and grammar, it also carries  with it a specific way of thinking. Religion, likewise, is a clear and obvious factor, operative on several levels: in the outward signs of religious practice but also in the inward ways how people make sense of the world around them. We start to discern, how these factors that define a minority include both an external dimension, easily visible to outsiders, and an internal dimension related to how people experience and and understand the world.

Then there are the ethnic factors. Ethnicity is a socially defined category, and members of an ethnic group may be united by e.g. common ancestry, means of livelihood, ways of life, external appearance, food, dress, tradition, symbols, history, language or dialect, or religion. Apart from language and religion, which we have already discussed, most of these factors can be called cultural. Now, when a group has only such cultural factors, can we consider the group a minority? It is normal that geographical areas have a local culture which is characteristic to the area, and there can be a strong local identity attached to this culture, but it does not usually follow that this culture is a minority culture. A local culture implies cultural variation within the majority. To speak of a minority, the group should have some clear and obvious features that differentiate and set it apart from the majority. Furthermore, a minority usually is in need of support to reach an equal position compared to the majority, and in order to preserve its characteric features.

Thus, when dealing with a minority, as opposed to a local culture, we need to consider these factors. Which features constitute the special nature of the minority? How, and to which extent, they separate it from the majority? Do they put the group into a weaker position or subject to discrimination? Is the special nature of the minority, i.e. the features that define this minority, under a threat to disappear, does the group have a will to preserve its special character and does it need help for that?

The people of Torne Valley (tornedalingar) are a minority recognized by the Swedish law, but the law does not specify on which ground. As meänkieli has also been recognized as a minority language, it may be assumed that this minority status was established on linguistic basis. Recently, differing opinions have been raised concerning the question whether language is the decisive factor which makes tornedalingar a minority. This issue divides people: there are those who do not understand what else could there be if not the language, and there are those who feel that their identity is questioned if membership in the minority depends on the language.

I suggest that the issue is best examined along the axis of time. Historically, the people of Torne Valley have without doubt been a minority on the basis of their language. The question then is, how much of a special character remains to define a minority, if the distinct language is no longer there. Are there still enough features to set it apart from the majority, and is the difference based on features strong enough to survive to new generations.

Using this approach, it can be seen that not all factors are equally strong. Language and religion are usually quite strong factors in defining and maintaining a minority. The ethnic factors related to making a livelihood and to a specific way of life are sometimes also quite strong. Most cultural features, if not supported by the stronger factors, are usually relatively weak. They may survive from generation to generation but often merely as features of a local culture. If we think of Värmland, there is not much left of the old Finnish culture there outside museums. In the 1920s, Ernst Lampén, a visitor from Finland, wondered whether the Finnish culture there will survive when the language disappears. Today, we know what happened. Someone suggested to me, that the people in Värmland lacked the will to preserve their culture. But we can also raise the question, whether those people in Torne Valley that are willing to give up the language, really demonstrate a strong will to maintain the minority culture, either. Language, as we have seen, is one of the strongest factors which defines a minority and maintains it. Shouldn’t the special nature of a minority be viewed as consisting of pillars supporting it. What happens if the strongest pillar is removed? Is it valid to think that we can dismiss the language, and hope that what remains will still be strong enough to live on. Giving up elements of the minority culture is, after all, an indication of a process of assimilation. Does it not follow, then, that without the support from the language, the next generation will receive a weaker heritage, and thus be prone to dismiss even further elements of their heritage. It seems that this is what has happened in Värmland and elsewhere, where the old minority culture lives on only in museums.

To sum up, I proceed from examining minority as a group with a strong special character, which both separates it from the majority and unites it internally. Dismissing major features of the minority’s special nature implies a process of assimilation through which the distinctness of the minority is lost. Then, without this distinctness, there is no minority.

Next, I will return to the problem that people have experienced discrimination by being excluded from the minority for not speaking the language. Firstly, everyone has the right to her own identity, which also includes her own cultural heritage. In saying this, I differentiate between the identity in Torne Valley and the minority in Torne Valley. It is possible to have a tornedalian identity while displaying the characteristics of the Swedish majority culture, but belonging to both a minority and the majority at the same time is a contradiction in terms.

Furthermore, with regard to the minority, I see it more fruitful to consider how each individual contributes to the special character of the minority and its survival, rather than whether she belongs to the minority or not. The relevant question is whether the minority survives, rather than whether a specific individual has the honor to belong to the last generation of this minority.

I have seen someone surprised and annoyed at finding out that he might not belong to the minority in Torne Valley. He further reasoned that it would be funny if his children would learn meänkieli at school. Then, his children would belong to the minority, while he would not. It would be as if the minority jumped over him to the next generation. This paradox results from placing the emphasis on individuals rather than on the group where it properly belongs. Furthermore, the scenario is purely hypothetical. There are no schools in Torne Valley where children would learn to speak meänkieli. Still, it appears typical of the younger generation to assume that someone else will take care of transferring the language to a new generation. That is an illusion; learning a native language must start at home. And if this person would, even if he does not speak meänkieli himself, start taking action that his children would become meänkieli speakers, then he would make a real, substantial contribution to the survival of the minority. And this is what matters. It is not important whether this or that person belongs to the minority. What matters is what is being done to preserve the minority as defined by its special character.   

Hannu Töyrylä  (2013) 

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