Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

"Fork-Tongued like the Best Young Snake": Elmer Diktonius and Finno-Swedish Bilingualism

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

"Fork-Tongued like the Best Young Snake": Elmer Diktonius and Finno-Swedish Bilingualism

Article excerpt

ELMER DIKTONIUS was one of the first generation modernist writers in Finno-Swedish literature in the 1920s and is still an author of importance with a stable place within Finno-Swedish and Finnish literary history. He is an intriguing character, in many ways a stranger and an outsider when compared to the typical Finno-Swedish authors within the literary field of his time.

Bilingualism has been defined as the genuine ability of an individual to use two languages, the individual's actually making use of two languages, and the tendency to change easily from one language to another (Allardt and Starck 119; see also Lindgren and Lindgren 301). Diktonius was truly bilingual. Early on his ancestors had been bilingual for several generations and had married across the language border (Donner 41). His family was Swedish-speaking, but he obtained his education in Finnish. His parents perhaps thought that schooling in Finnish was a social asset although Swedish language had at the time a greater social prestige (Schoolfield 4). In his daily life, he moved fluently between the two languages. Diktonius's first poems and articles were in Finnish, but from 1921 onwards, he wrote poetry and prose in Swedish. His essays and reviews were in both languages, and he translated texts--even his own--from Swedish to Finnish and the other way around.

Many scholars have mentioned Diktonius's bilingualism (Schoolfield, Donner), but they have not discussed the importance of it as a cultural or social asset for him more profoundly nor analyzed its significance in the literary and social context of the time. My central question is: Was bilingualism in the Finno-Swedish literary field an asset or a handicap? I will discuss several of Diktonius's own declarations about his linguistic preferences and language background, shortly describe the linguistic situation of the 1920s, and show how Diktonius's habitus differed both linguistically and socially from the typical members of the literary community. I will also demonstrate how he despite his atypical linguistic and class background, party thanks to his bilingualism, managed to enter the literary community. Here the perspective of Pierre Bourdieu offers, I think, functional concepts of current interest in an analysis of bilingualism in a larger social and cultural context (see also Pavlenko and Blackledge 10-11).

My final answer to the question whether bilingualism within the literary community by the 1920s was an asset or a handicap is both yes and no. On a common level, it was not an advantage; on an individual level, it could be made an asset. Diktonius's bilingualism is, when scrutinized as cultural capital, a handicap, but when seen from the perspective of social capital, an asset.


Language politics was a major issue at the beginning of the twentieth century in Finland, a time characterized by language fights and linguistic purism (see e.g. Wrede, "Om politiska ideer" 174; Tidigs, "Upplosta sprakgranser" 690). There was a small minority (6 percent of the population, approximately 300,000 persons) of Swedish speakers living in Finland. The minority had an especially prominent place in the Finnish political, economic, and cultural life but gradually lost its position and significance as the Finnish speaking population and its expanding culture took over. The change came about gradually during the nineteenth century but became obvious in 1906 when the Swedish population finally lost its earlier political majority, position, and cultural significance because of a parliamentary reform that introduced universal suffrage. The minority positions of the Swedish-speaking populace in Finland, then, became obvious and aroused considerable political and cultural activity in order to protect the Swedish culture in Finland. The Swedish-speaking population rallied around the Swedish language to be defended in Finland.

The consequences of the change in the position and status of the Swedish-speaking population in Finland on people's language use and identity were many. …

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