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24 October 2018

BBC Radio 3’s fascinating exploration of the disappearing Swedish language Elfdalian

This is a topic perfect for radio - the spoken form affords layers of understanding the written word could never provide.

By Caroline Crampton

“To me, it sounds like home. It’s soft, and it’s kind, and it’s full of humour.”

These words were uttered gently, in barely accented Scandinavian tones, by an unnamed woman. She was speaking to the Swedish photographer Maja Daniels about Elfdalian, a dying language that clings on in an ancient forest in an area near the Norwegian border called Älvdalen. Daniels’s grandparents are among the 2,500 or so remaining speakers, and in The Last Elfdalians (BBC Radio 3, 9.30pm, 20 October), she has tried to document not just the sound of the language, but the feeling and atmosphere of this strange place where it still resides.

Elfdalian is linguistically distinct from modern Swedish, with its own grammar and sound. The impression that this programme creates is that its speakers feel separate, too. Daniels’s interviewees talk about not being allowed to speak it at school – and of allowing it to reach the point of extinction, because of a lack of pride in the peculiar heritage of this forest-based micro-culture.

The language is closer to Icelandic and Old Norse than it is to the modern Scandinavian or north Germanic languages, and has developed virtually in isolation since the Middle Ages. The archive recordings of Elfdalian speakers that are woven into this programme are fascinating. The clipped vowels and sing-song intonation blend with the sustained strings and gentle rainfall that make up the soothing soundscape, showing clearly the connection this speech has with the place in which it originates.

Learning about Elfdalian on the radio affords layers of understanding the written word could never provide: it is a particularly compact language, able to express complicated concepts in very few words, and as such is especially suited to song-writing. “It’s a singing sort of language, it has its own melody,” one speaker remarked to Daniels. The snatches of Elfdalian songs played in the show float among echoes of the ancient trees, eerie and unreal amid the noises of gently springing moss and distant birdsong. All together, it’s a transporting, bewitching sound.

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This article appears in the 24 Oct 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit crash