Non-dominant language literatures and equal opportunities; writers’ or readers’ needs?

Katarina Taikon
Katarina Taikon (1932-1995) wrote books in Swedish for both adults and children and defended the rights of Romani community.
After her times, language-specific support has contributed to the development of literature written in Romani language in Sweden.
The state support structures of the Nordic Countries for literature written in minority languages vary considerably. How should the concept of equal opportunities be understood in this case?
Photo: Björn Langhammer, press material from

Equal opportunities for writers

One way of understanding equal opportunities in case of state grants and subsidies for literature is that each writer should be evaluated with the same criteria. If a writer’s writing language is not understood by the evaluators, a fair evaluation requires exterior experts that have the sufficient language skills.

Most of the Nordic public funding bodies accept the idea of opening their support forms also to literature written in other than the dominant languages. The Arts Councils have adjusted their application criteria to welcome language diversity at least theoretically or partially. Still, there are many questions to be resolved in the multilingual practices.

If there are no applicants who write in other than the dominant languages, the question of non-dominant languages may seem to be irrelevant. But what happens if we think of the readers and language communities?

Equal opportunities for language communities and readers

Books in Sami at Turku Book Fair
Books in Northern Sámi at Turku book fair 2015. Photo: Outi Salonlahti

Arts Council Sweden offers specific support forms for the literatures written in regional or minority languages. These languages are only part of the non-dominant languages, being languages that have a historical presence in the country. Their position is defined in the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages and they are different in each Nordic country. Recently arrived immigrant populations’ languages are not included in this charter, so many of the biggest language populations remain outside this special protection. This is the case of Arabic, Somali, Kurdish and Estonian, among hundreds of other languages all over the Nordic Region.

The idea of language-specific support focuses more on the language communities than individual writers. Literature is then recognized as a necessary tool in the maintenance and development of a language. Language-specific support makes sure that these literatures – and languages in their maximum richness of expression – can exist. Here, the way of understanding ‘equal opportunities’ emphasizes the point of view of the readers. Each child, independently of the language, should have a possibility to read and listen to literature in their mother language and thus develop a rich language. Taking it further, the same applies to adults. Considering the real language diversity in the Nordic Countries today, this objective is hard to reach but worth pursuing.

Literature uses language, a collective creation of expression, as its material. At the same time, literature recreates the language, renews its toolkit of expressions and develops its richness.

Intrinsic or instrumental values?

But if literature is considered a tool for developing languages and maintaining language communities, is its evaluation then based on instrumental criteria instead of understanding literature as an art form with an intrinsic value?

In Sweden’s case it seems that the solution to this question has been to accept different parallel logics that respond to different needs

The state grants for individual writers are administrated by another organization, Swedish Authors’ Fund (Författarfond) that receives its funds from Swedish Arts Council. In its work the emphasis is on individual writers and their work’s artistic quality. Also the languages in which the organization informs about their support forms reflect more the sizes of the language populations than the historical presence of the languages in the country. Information is offered in Swedish, English, Spanish, Persian and Arabic.

A successful example of language-specific support: the case of Romani language in Sweden

Covers of Books in Romani language available in Sweden

Seeing the situation from outside, it seems that the results of the Swedish policy have been successful. For example, in case of Romani language, a great amount of books has been published thanks to the language-specific state support. These books are also used in the mother language classes for Romani speaking children.

A growing literary tradition creates possibilities for individual artists to raise from this language community. The literary pioneers in Romani language may as well be translators who work to widen the expressions of the written forms of a language that has mostly been used orally.

Part of the essence of literature is always its collective nature. Even in case of writers who more or less fit into the old times’ stereotype of an individual artist immersed in their own creation, the writer always works with language which is a collective, permanently changing, both historical and contemporary creation formed by the past and actual language communities.

The parallel logics that support both the language communities and individual writers, can work for the benefits of both readers and writers, crossing from one side to another. There is no literature without a rich written language. There is no rich written language without literature.



Text: Outi Korhonen 14.7.2016

Blog post in Finnish at Culture for All Service: Vähemmistökieliset kirjallisuudet – eroavatko kirjailijoiden ja lukijoiden oikeudet?


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