This Forest Language From the Age of Vikings May Soon Disappear

The beautiful countryside outside the town of Älvdalen in central Sweden. (Photo: pekuas [CC BY-ND 2.0]/Flickr)

In a remote part of Sweden surrounded by mountains, valleys and thick forests, the community of Älvdalen is desperately attempting to preserve its unique heritage.

Up until the mid-20th century, the town of some 1,800 inhabitants spoke a language called Elfdalian, believed to be the closest descendant of Old Norse, the language of the Vikings. The beautiful and complex tongue, likened to the fictional languages of "The Lord of the Rings" or "Game of Thrones," remained preserved throughout the centuries because of the area's natural isolation.

“Älvdalen lies extremely deep within the Swedish forests and mountains," Michael Lerche Nielsen, an assistant professor at the Department of Nordic Research at the University of Copenhagen, told ScienceNordic. "You can get there by boat up the river, Dalälven — a journey of more than 100 kilometers — and getting there and back used to be quite an expedition. So people in the area weren’t particularly mobile and were able to preserve this very special culture, considered in Sweden to be extremely traditional and old fashioned."

Even the practice of using runic script, another vestige of Old Norse that otherwise died out during the Middle Ages, was still in use in Älvdalen as recently as 100 years ago.

You can hear the Elfdalian in this video:

Like other isolated regions of the world, the arrival of greater mobility and mass media began to overcome the natural barriers that had guarded Älvdalen from change for centuries. Guus Kroonen, a post-doc researcher of Nordic studies and linguistics at the University of Copenhagen, says the ancient language of Elfdalian began to give way to modern Swedish.

"Speakers of the language were stigmatized, and children were actively discouraged to use it at school," he shared on The Conversation. "As a result, speakers of Elfdalian shifted to Swedish in droves, especially in the past couple of decades."

According to the most recent estimates, fewer than 2,500 people speak Elfdalian. More disconcerting, less than 60 children under the age of 15 are fluent in it.

Preservation efforts

Älvdalen, however, isn't about to let its unique bridge to the past collapse without a fight. Earlier this year, local politicians voted to take measures to save Elfdalian by building a preschool specializing exclusively in the language. Slated to open this fall, those attending the school will have the language included in their curriculum until they turn 18. To sweeten the deal, the town also kicked in a scholarship worth $700 for those students who embrace Elfdalian through to graduation.

In a press statement, Älvdalen Mayor Peter Egardt said the decision reflected a responsibility of town officials to "get a new generation to speak our unique language, this giving the language more of a chance to survive in the long term".

According to The Local, efforts are also underway to have Elfdalian recognized by Sweden's government as a separate language. Doing so would clear the way for the town to apply for financial aid to support long-term teaching efforts.

"For linguists it's very fascinating. It has a mixture of very archaic features and very innovative features ... and we can see some aspects which have been preserved in Elfdalian which have died out in all other Scandinavian languages," Yair Sapir, associate professor of Swedish Language at Lund University in Sweden, told The Local.

"We can go back 2000 years in time," he added.