Things we don’t know about our language diversity – revisiting non-dominant language writers’ possibilities in the nordic countries


Last year Culture for All Service published a report about the position of non-dominant language writers in the Nordic organizations that support literature. The question was whether writers who write in other than the dominant languages of the country could apply for the state grants for writers, for translation support and for the membership in the writers’ unions. Some details have changed since then and others keep changing. With Nordic collaboration, the grade of inclusion can be raised by sharing the multilingual practices and expertise. A lot of basic knowledge about our language diversity is still lacking.


We do not know enough about our non-dominant languages

The term used in the report, ‘non-dominant languages’, includes both the officially recognized, traditional minority languages and the languages that have arrived more recently with the immigration.

Some of the traditional minority languages are included in the European Charter of Regional and Minority Languages and have a certain grade of protection, at least officially. The practical situation of these languages varies a lot from one country to another [1] and even between minority languages in the same country [2]. The situation of the immigrant languages is even more ambivalent. In most Nordic Countries, no statistics are available regarding the mother language of the inhabitants [3]. This increases the invisibility and the lack of power of the immigrant languages. In this case, Finland is an exception, probably due to the long history of national bilingualism which has caused political interest in language-related information about the population [4].

Though bilingualism in Finnish and Swedish has been successful in Finland, the supporting practices for other minority languages are more visible in the Sweden’s art support system. A wider look at the cultural support shows that the tasks of art administration are also different in each country. The operations that in some cases are in Sweden in the hands of the art and culture administration, in Finland are or have been taken care of by the Ministry of Education and Culture. Thus, the results can be misleading if one looks only one sector of the cultural field. A positive encounter in the Ministry of Education and Culture showed that the work for Roma language has taken great steps forward, including bilingual publications of children’s literature in Finnish and Roma language [5], even though from the art administration’s side Roma language literature continues being practically invisible.

What can we learn from our Nordic neighbours?

A comparison in a Nordic context was useful for many reasons. Each country had their areas that offered possibilities of learning from others. Doing the report required repeated contacts with representatives of the organizations, and they contributed generously to the work. This, and the seminar Literature without Borders organized in Helsinki on March 18th 2016, promoted information sharing on language practices also directly between the organizations. A surprising observation was that in each of the three areas in focus (state grants, translation support and memberships in the writers’ unions), a different Nordic country was most in need of more inclusive practices.

In several cases the information received from the staff and from the website of the organization was contradictory. This caused important updates in the public communication of the organization, and in some cases, even changes of the rules themselves as the representatives of the organizations became aware of exclusive practices.

Both power and expertise are needed for a change

In many cases, exclusive language practices are not easy to change. The terms of use of the public funds are often partly defined by the government, not by the organizations themselves. In case of the writers’ unions, the private funding can create other problems. An example are the writers’ unions in Finland. Finland is the only Nordic country where the writers’ unions limit the membership based on the original writing language of the literary works. There is a separate union for the Finnish language writers and Finland Swedish writers. Neither of the two accepts writers that write in other languages.  The Finnish Writers’ Union has stated that a great part of their applicable funds come from testament donations that have been defined with a specific language criteria and these wills are impossible to change. The director of the union sees that if non-Finnish language writers were able to join, this would create inequality inside the organization.[6] Now the inequality remains between the ones who can be included and the ones who are completely outside. But what happens when the world changes? If a criterion defined a hundred years ago is not fair in today’s society, what comes first: the last will of the past donator or the actual need for equal opportunities?

If and when the moment of change in the writers’ unions arrives also in Finland, the neighbouring countries have solutions to offer again. The Norwegian Authors’ Union has clearly defined their entrance practices in the cases of non-dominant language writers and generously shared this information [7]. The Swedish, Danish and Icelandic writers’ unions have opened their doors for other language writers and even started interesting interlingual collaborations that have benefited also the national language writers.

The experience of the organizations that have opened their doors to new languages demonstrates that the change towards inclusion is not only a question of power but also a question of expertise. When these two are present and combined with the ideal of equal opportunities, new possibilities appear.

Is there a transit gate for Sámi literature?

The question of how to deal with the unknown is relevant to all expert organizations. One example is from Norway. When comparing the situation of the export organizations, it appeared that NORLA, the export organization of Norwegian literature, does not include the literature written in Sámi in its regular support forms even though Norway is the country were clearly most of the Sámi literature is published. NORLA has shown willingness to change this policy in a meeting where we discussed the importance of this rule [8]. But how can an organization whose expertise is specifically in literature and language, work with a language that the experts do not understand? Could the neighbouring countries offer solutions? The literature export organizations in both Finland and Sweden include Sámi language literature in their work. Still, as the lit-export organizations support the literature published in the specific country, especially in case of Finland this inclusion remains an (officially) unreachable possibility as there are no more publishing houses that publish in Sámi in Finland. Even in the case of Sweden, many of the Sámi writers publish in Norway. Awareness of the co-effects of the different organizations is not easy to reach nor resolve inside one organization.

Rationally and ethically based exceptions of the rules are one way to make space for inclusion when these kinds of dead ends appear. A better way for all the parties involved is to change the rules, or at least the way of communication, so that all the possible applicants know that there is margin for the exceptions. In the ideal situation, a decision-maker should also be able to give feedback for the organization’s governing body or, if necessary, the monitoring organization, if individual cases show problems that cause unequal treatment of the applicants.  The changes of exclusive rules should be done and approved in all the necessary levels.

Languages, state grants and compensation for public lending

What comes to state funds, most Nordic Countries offer state funds that are applicable for non-dominant language users as well. Here, the exception to the rule is Denmark, where Danish language is a necessary criterion to receive the state grants for literature, excluding a small fund for migrant writers. Contrary to common international practice, the limitation concerns even the Public Lending Remunerations, funds that are paid for writers for the use of their works in the public libraries as a compensation of the respective loss of income from the book market. In a report from 2002, European commission mentions Denmark and other Nordic Countries in their PLR report: “In Denmark, Sweden and Finland, there are concerns that the PLR may be applied in a discriminatory way, granted only for national or resident authors (Sweden) or for items published in the national language (Denmark, Finland)” [9]. Since then the PLR rules in Finland and Sweden have been changed, but Denmark still maintains the national language rule [10].

These examples show that the situation varies across countries and organizations. In most of the cases the borders that exclude language diversity are not caused by ideologies  or intentional action, but by co-effects between different organizations or sectors, or lack of multilingual expertise and practice. We can learn a lot from our neighbouring countries by sharing the successful solutions of structural inclusion of language diversity. We should also work harder to find the expertise that lies in the different language speakers among us, but still too often outside the decision-making organizations.

outi_korhonen_verkkoonOuti Korhonen is the coordinator of the project Multilingualism and diversity as a resource in the cultural field – employment and integration through literature in the Nordic Countries. The project supports the inclusion of non-dominant language literature in the Nordic literary field from the point of view of both authors and readers. The project is run by Culture for All Service.



[1] Sweden is the only Nordic Country that has included a language-specific support for literature written in all the official minority languages both for state funds and for books. The support system has got good results; see e.g. Maria Ågren, Kulturrådet, 2015.

[2] Differences between languages; see e.g. European Council’s report on the application of the  EUROPEAN CHARTER FOR REGIONAL OR MINORITY LANGUAGES in Finland (pdf), available on Finnish Foreign Ministry’s website.

[3] Statistics Norway: no statistics on the amounts of language speakers. Lack of statistics confirmed by Elsa Granvoll, Statistics Norway’s Information Centre (e-mail January 18th 2017).
Statistics Denmark: no statistics on the amounts of language speakers. Lack of statistics confirmed by Dorthe Larsen, Senior Head Clerk, Population and Education (e-mail January 19th 2017).
Sweden, see e.g. Mikael Parkvall 2016: Sveriges språk i siffror: vilka språk talas och av hur många?

[4] Statistics Finland 2013: Population with foreign background 2013, p. 19

[5] Newly published collection of three children’s books in one edition: and newly published children’s poems:

[6] Jyrki Vainonen, director of Finnish Writer’s Union, YLE Radio interview with Jani Tanskanen June 20th  2016.

[7] Thanks to Kerstin Bennett’s help, see Outi Korhonen and Rita Paqvalén 2016: Wandering Words – Comparisons of the Position of Non-dominant Language Writers in Nordic Organizations,  p. 14-17

[8] Meeting in Oslo in January 11th 2017, Director Margit Walsø and Senior Adviser Oliver Møystad from NORLA and Rita Paqvalén and Outi Korhonen from the project Multilingualism and Diversity as a Resource in the Cultural Field.

[9] European Commission’s Press Release. Brussels, September 16th 2002: Public lending right applied inconsistently across the EU, says Commission report.

[10] PLR International 2012: PLR in Denmark.


Photo: Sarah Scicluna (CC BY-ND 2.0)

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