About the genesis of the Finland-Swedes

Obviously, Finland-Swedes have played an important part in the history of Sweden, Russia and Finland, quite out of proportion to the small size of this ethnic group. How is this anomaly to be explained?

Again we must consider the characteristics that distinguish Finns from Finland-Swedes. A marked difference between Finns and Swedes exists in their aptitude for languages. It seems that the habit of speaking Finnish from childhood works as an impediment to the learning of other languages later in life. This may be due to the fact that Finnish lacks a number of sounds that occur in most European languages, e.g. the sounds b, f, g, sh, ch, and initial consonant groups such as sk-, pr- and str-. There are other obstacles as well for a Finn who tries to learn European languages, e.g. that Finnish uses a number of cases instead of prepositions and that it lacks definite and indefinite articles. These obstacles seem to have caused the truncated or distorted Finnish forms of many originally Swedish place names, e.g. Hamina from Fredrikshamn, Raahe from Brahestad, Porvoo from Borgå and Helsinki from Helsingfors.

About the end of the 16th century thousands of Finnish settlers were brought to the Swedish borderland facing Norway. In some parishes there were up to 25 percent Finns. Although all the ecclesiastical, educational and trade contacts of these settlers have been with Swedes, many of the descendants persisted in speaking exclusively Finnish for up to eight generations. Similar, though less drastic, examples are notorious among descendants of Finnish immigrants in the United States. Actually the Finns in America stand out from practically all other immigrant groups of comparable social status in this respect.

This inaptitude for languages among the Finns manifests itself in many other ways as well. Let us first look at the answers given by Finns and Swedes on this matter when asked in a poll.

In the census of 1950 all inhabitants were questioned about their knowledge of the "other domestic language". At that time 19 percent of the Helsinki population was Swedish and 81 percent Finnish. About 25 percent of the Finns probably had learnt Swedish at school and 33 percent considered that they knew Swedish. About 30 percent of the Swedes would have learnt Finnish at school, but as many as 83 percent reported knowledge of that language--apparently after having picked it up from constant confrontation with the majority population. That is to say, 8 percent of the Finns and 53 percent of the Swedes picked up on their own the minority and majority language respectively.

Let us now compare with the situation in a sample of ten rural and urban districts in the country where the Swedes constituted the majority (of 70 percent when all are taken together). In these municipalities it was the Finns who had the chance to pick up Swedish from dealings with the majority population. Just as in Helsinki, 33 percent of the Finns reported knowledge of Swedish, in this case considerably more than the round about 8 percent who could have learnt it at school. Out of the Swedes, however, who met in most cases other Swedes in the daily life, as many as 39 percent reported knowledge of Finnish, half of them probably having learnt it at school. In this reversed situation then 20 percent of the Swedes and 25 percent of the Finns seem to have picked up the other language outside school.

Answers in a poll people are of course non-committal and may not represent the whole truth. To "know" a language may mean different things to different persons. It is striking that both educated and uneducated Finland-Swedes a rule speak Finnish rather fluently, while even Finnish ministers and professors often a heard speaking Swedish with a conspicuous accent and wrong word order. It would be more rewarding to get a measure of how well people are able to make use of their knowledge of a language they are supposed to "know".

Let us consider the university students, the group with a certified knowledge of both the domestic languages. We may note for example, that out of those who in the 1930s qualified for university studies in Finland, some 18 to 19 percent were Swedish and 81 to 82 percent Finnish. Many subjects could be studied in Swedish as well as in Finnish at university level, but for those who wanted to become Masters of Engineering there was just one university in Finland, the Finland Institute of Technology with lectures only in Finnish. This did not deter the Swedish undergraduates from studying there. The (compulsory) Students' Club at the Institute had 1033 members in 1938. Of these nearly 20 percent (203) belonged to the Swedish section (Suomen Teknillinen Korkeakoulu and Teknologföreningen)

For those who wanted to become veterinarians there was no domestic option in the 1930s, all had to study abroad. Almost all went to the Royal Veterinary Institute in Stockholm, where there was a group of 43 registered students from Finland in 1939. Among these "Finlanders" only 42 percent were Finns, instead of the expected 80 (Kungl. Veterinärhögskolan). Obviously the all-Swedish teaching had deterred many Finnish students from applying. It should be remembered that qualification for university studies required the same high level of syllabus for the "other domestic language" for both Finns and Swedes in Finland in the 1930s. I.e. the Finnish students had to learn just as much Swedish as the Finland-Swedish students had to learn Finnish. And although all must have passed their examination in order to get qualified, few Finns seem to have had confidence in their ability to follow academic instruction and tuition in Swedish.

It would also be informative to look at the background of a number of prominent Finns. We have already mentioned such well known "Finns" as the presidents Ståhlberg, Relander and Svinhufvud, who were all born Finland-Swedes, but would hardly have been elected for this office if they had appeared as such.

The seventh president of Finland, known as Juho Kusti Paasikivi (1870-1956), was originally named Johan Gustaf Hellstén. Both his parents were of Swedish families, but young Johan was sent to a Finnish school and became a Finn. When he was 15, his father changed the family name to Paasikivi.

The famous Finnish linguist and collector of folk poetry, Elias Lönnrot (1802-84), was a pure Finn and did not learn any Swedish before his school days. His grandparents, however, had assumed the Swedish surname Lönnrot (replacing another Swedish name) and they had given their son (Elias's father) the Swedish name Fredrik. Lönnrot's mother's family name was Wahlberg, a Swedish name taken by her father, who could of course have chosen a Finnish name if he had wanted to. It seems that Lönnrot's parents were descended from Swedish families, who had at some stage changed their language from Swedish to Finnish, probably because they were living in a wholly Finnish neighbourhood.

Alexis Stenvall (1834-72), who is known by the name of Aleksis Kivi (an expansion of his pen name "A. Kivi") was not of pure Finnish descent either. As "Kivi" he is considered the great classic of Finnish literature, with his birthday celebrated as an official flag-flying day, but actually his Finnish was faulty and mixed up with Swedish sounding expressions. His Swedish, on the other hand, is said to have been perfect. The Stenvall parents, like the Lönnrots, spoke Finnish at home, but apparently knew Swedish as well. Kivi's father Erik was even noted as Swedish-speaking when a candidate for confirmation. Kivi's maternal grandfather had changed his Finnish surname to the Swedish Hamberg, and he gave his daughter the Swedish name Kristina, which became Stina for short (Meri).

The early Finnish author, Juhani Aho (1861-1921), was apparently descended from Swedish families since his father's name was Theodor Brofeldt, and his mother was of the Snellman family, related also to the noted Anders Chydenius (Niemi). His colleague Vihtori Peltonen (1869-1913), who used the pen name "Johannes Linnankoski", was christened Johan Viktor, which hints to a Swedish tradition. Peltonen's grandfather was called Henrik and his mother Maria, i.e. in all cases the Swedish forms of the names at issue.

The parents of the Finnish writer Teuvo Pakkala (1862-1925) bore the Swedish names Johan Erik Frosterus and Anna Sofia Turdin.

The father of the Finnish writer Eino Leino (1878-1926) was a certain Anders, who had assumed the Swedish surname of Lönnbohm in place of the Finnish Mustonen. The name "Leino" was originally only a pen name for Eino Lönnbohm.

The lineal paternal ancestors of the noted, more recent author, Väinö Linna (1920-92), were baptised Viktor, Carl, Vilhelm, Johan, and Gustaf, respectively. Linna's mother's name was Johanna Nyman, all clearly Swedish forms, indicating a Swedish tradition and probably Swedish language in the family right up to Linna's grandfather Carl.

The two renowned Finnish composers Oskar Merikanto (1868-1924) and Erik Gustaf ("Erkki") Melartin (1875-1937) were both sons of Swedish parents who sent their sons to Finnish schools. Merikanto's father, Frans Mattsson, abandoned his Swedish family name in favour of a Finnish one.

The famous architect Alvar Aalto (1898-1976) had a Swedish mother, just like Eliel Saarinen. Both were at Finnish schools; as grown-ups Aalto chose Finnish as his language, Saarinen Swedish.

This survey of notable Finns of mixed breed or of Swedish parenthood indicates that mixed marriages and changing of one's "native" language might have been rather common phenomena in Finland, at least in the nineteenth century. Even Swedes moving from Sweden to Finland in some cases adapted themselves to Finnish. An example is the Swede Gustaf Israel Larsson who gave his son Karl Gustaf (1873-1948) an entirely Finnish education so that he could establish himself as a Finnish author (of exquisite style), using the pen name of "Larin Kyösti". Mr. Larsson and a great number of educated Finland-Swedes obviously followed the program of Johan Vilhelm Snellman and converted themselves to Finns.

Because of the difficulties for Finns to learn Swedish, the process of acquiring another language probably has been rather unsymmetrical through the ages. That is to say, many more Swedes have become Finns than vice versa. And while it became something like a vogue among upper class Finland-Swedes in the late nineteenth century to "go Finnish", this must necessarily have been a lower class trend during all the previous centuries.

As long as Swedish, German and Latin were the only languages for education, none among the cultivated could possibly have converted to become a Finn. Finland-Swedish artisans and solitary farmers, on the other hand, who lived and worked among Finnish farmers, farmhands, smallholders and maids were forced to speak Finnish with their customers and employees, who were not prone to learn any Swedish. The next step was to abandon their mother language altogether, which may have taken one or two generations to accomplish. This is probably what happened in the families of e.g. Lönnrot and Stenvall, a little before the birth of the authors in question. Finland-Swedes who themselves were farmhands or leaseholders must have been even more prone to appropriate the language of their environment already in the period when most freeholders remained Swedish. The process of language change would certainly have been much more common in families where hereditary disposition for literary creativity was totally absent--unlike the examples given.

If large parts of Finland were in the past populated by both Finns and Swedes (as much evidence indicates), we can imagine that hundreds of thousands of Finns were born to Swedish fathers and mothers in the manner described.

This would mean that the offspring of the original stock of Finland-Swedes has come to be divided in two groups, one adhering to Swedish and the other having given up Swedish and as a consequence mixed genetically with the Finns. Right up to the point when the Snellman programme started to effect another alignment, the first group would have been highly selected insofar as the hereditary disposition for literature, art, science, leadership etc. is concerned. We should therefore expect to find a disproportionate share of prominent authors, artists, etc. among the Finland-Swedes--i.e. just the situation that we have seen in the foregoing. And quite naturally, the disproportion was especially marked in the nineteenth century, when the selection process had been working for centuries in one and the same direction.

The social structure of the Finland-Swedes in relation to the Swedes and the Finns about the year 1870 can be illustrated by the table below. It shows the urban population as percentage of the total population in 1870, the percentage of nobles about the same year and what a historian (Bonsdorff) calls the "educated stratum" in the latter half of the 18th century:




The Finns

The Finland-Swedes

Urb. pop. %





Nobles %





Educated %





Of all the Finland-Swedes featured in the reference book Uppslasgsverket Finland born in the period 1600-1850 a good half were born in the countryside and only 12 percent in the only university town, i.e. Turku. Those born in the countryside were often sons of vicars, parish clerks, enforcement officers, school teachers and the like, and it seems likely that about two thirds of all distinguished Finland-Swedes born 1600-1850 came from the more or less "educated stratum", while the rest came from families belonging to the uneducated bourgeoisie or the peasantry. An indication of the exchange of social class among the Finland-Swedes can be obtained by counting the "exogamic" marriages among the Nobility. Of all the 73 married counts and barons registered in the 1872 Book of noble families in Finland (Pinello) 42 percent had an untitled spouse, while the 396 marriages of ordinary noblemen included 70 percent untitled and 30 percent noblewomen.

Since about 1870, when Finnish high schools had been established in several towns, it was not unusual for Swedish families to send their children to such schools, especially if there was no Swedish school in the home district. Some such pupils like Sibelius and Saarinen, remained Swedish; others, like Relander and Svinhufvud, went on as Finns.

The above line of argument would imply that the Finns in Finland are to some extent descendants of Swedes. From a genetic point of view the Finns could with some justification be called "Finnish-speaking half-Swedes". The Finnish historian Matti Klinge went even as far as to caption a chapter "Alla finnar är svenskar" ('All Finns are Swedes') and to declare that the Germanic part of the ancestry of the present people of Finland represents "perhaps three quarters" (Klinge 1983, p. 220). That the Finns are genetically more Scandinavian than Uralic has been known for the past few decades only, but not all have agreed with Klinge in equating the Swedes with the Germanic portion of the gene stock of the Finns. The present writer, however, has found that this stock can be imitated fairly well by a mix containing genes from precisely the Swedes, the (ancestral) Estonians and the (eastern) Samis (formerly called Lapps), i.e. the three nearest neighbours of the Finns.

If these components are mixed as 1:1:1 the result will resemble the gene stock of the East-Finns, while a mix of 2:1:1 mimics the stock of the West-Finns. To represent the Finland-Swedes one would have to concoct a gene cocktail with the recipe 25:5:1, i.e. almost devoid of the Sami element, but with a palpable strain of proto-Estonian genes (Nordling). It seems likely that by now most Finns would find a Swede among their ancestors if these could be traced a sufficient number of steps backwards. The Finland-Swedes of the late nineteenth century probably represented the most "cultural" fifth of the hypothetical Swedish population that would have existed in Finland without the process of language change.

On top of it all, the Finland-Swedes have also received contributions of cultural elements from various directions. For instance, the mother of the talented Järnefelt brothers was a German. One of Johan Ludvig Runeberg's great-grandparents was French by birth. Anders Ramsay was descended from a 16th century Scottish immigrant, as were also the Wright brothers. Johan von Schantz's ancestor was a German nobleman. Actually, many members of the German-Swedish Nobility in the Baltic Provinces moved to Finland and became Finland-Swedes. Gustaf Mauritz Armfelt was descended from the famous General Carl Gustaf Armfelt (1666-1736) who came to Finland from the Baltic Provinces Baltic (although descended from a Norwegian peasant). Among the Nobility we also note the French name Charpentier, the Russian Aminoff and the Polish Schatelovitz. Among untitled distinguished families we note such foreign names as Fazer, Paulig, Sinebrychoff and Stockmann.

The overwhelming majority of the Finland-Swedes are, however, descended from other Swedes (natives of Finland or Sweden) as far as their trail can be followed. The genealogical tables by Alcenius, Gadd and Wilskman show some stray cases of ancestors from Sweden and very rare cases of Finnish forefathers. This corresponds with the results of the genetic analysis (Nordling).