Old Norse, mystics and race cars
January 8, 2020 6:44 AM   Subscribe

The village of Älvdalen is the place where Swedish witch hunts began – and it still boasts its own language and strange rituals. Photographer Maja Daniels relives three freezing years in a rural cabin for The Guardian. More photos available via The Washington Post.

From the Financial Times: One of the most telling of Maja Daniels’ pictures from Älvdalen, a river valley in central Sweden, shows two boys of about 16 seated on the rear window of an ancient Volvo hatchback canted over on a forest trail. One back wheel is buried in a pothole. Both are swathed in dirty smoke as the driver guns the engine till the tyres burn. He isn’t trying to free the vehicle. He’s just burning rubber for the hell of it. The smoke isn’t an obstacle. It’s the whole point of the burning rubber game, a popular one in all of deep rural Sweden.

This is a world away from the sleek bright façade of Stockholm. In the cosmopolitan cities of the coast, you can live for years without speaking anything but English but in Älvdalen the longing for American culture, American cars and music is expressed in Swedish. In fact, there are still 3,000-4,000 people there who speak a language that isn’t even Swedish, but a descendant of Old Norse known as Elfdalian, which seems to have split off from Swedish in about 1300.

Fun fact about the area: "Most people associate runes with the Viking age but in Älvdalen in western Sweden, the local population continued to use runes for centuries after the ancient written language had been abandoned by the rest of Scandinavia." Which is to say, they only stopped using runes about 100 years ago.
posted by Bella Donna (9 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
So, I learned something from this -- that Runes were alphabets. I had always assumed they were logographic like hieroglyphics or hanzi.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:05 AM on January 8, 2020 [1 favorite]

Some background about the Swedish witch-trials.
posted by misteraitch at 7:27 AM on January 8, 2020 [1 favorite]

The Swedish witch trials took place in Mora, the finish town of the famous Vasaloppet ski race. The race itself passes just outside the village of Älvdalen.
posted by St. Oops at 8:12 AM on January 8, 2020 [1 favorite]

Kept looking for a wicker man under construction...
posted by jim in austin at 11:46 AM on January 8, 2020

All the Scandinavian languages are descendants of Old Norse, and it isn't impossible to understand. I think Icelandic is harder. I hope they succeed in restoring and preserving the language, though.
BTW, Älvdalen has nothing to do with elves, it means the River Valley. Of course, Tolkien's elves live in Rivendell, so there is a literary connection.
posted by mumimor at 1:27 PM on January 8, 2020 [2 favorites]

And whaddya know, a rune stone in the news.
posted by St. Oops at 4:34 AM on January 9, 2020 [2 favorites]

Thanks for the links, Joe in Australia and St. Oops. I am a wee bit skeptical about the Elfdalian article, however. Perhaps St. Oops or other Swedish speakers can weigh in here but that article includes this sentence, "while speakers of Swedish, Danish and Norwegian can easily understand each other in simple conversations, Elfdalian is completely unintelligible to Swedes who are not from the area."

Hmm, for reals? I ask because the article includes a link to a performance by a Swedish artist who tells a story in Elfdalian. The subtitles are in Swedish and I swear that some of the words are the same. Maybe some of the words are the same because Elfdalian does not have all of the same words as Swedish and thus the story borrows a couple of words. Like, skattskrivas is what the subtitle says several times and that is sure the hell what it sounds like she is saying. Of course, I am not a linguist, do not speak Elfdalian (nor Swedish, my kid might argue) so I have no idea what is going on.
posted by Bella Donna at 12:20 PM on January 9, 2020 [1 favorite]

In my experience (from teaching loads of Swedish students, in Danish) Swedes from the big cities don't understand any dialects or the other Nordic languages. Typically, we'd have some students from big cities and some from the Scanian country. They had a very hard time talking with each other. Which isn't surprising, I think that's a universal thing: anywhere, people speaking whatever standard language there is find it hard to understand the language spoken out in the boondocks.
And Älvdalsk is definitely more difficult to understand than other the dialects in Sweden. In the video, some of the words are the same, but many of them are pronounced in a very different manner, there are some sounds that don't appear at all in modern Swedish (as not a linguist, I don't know how to explain that technically).

Actually, Norway is an exception from the rule. They do a lot of work to protect the dialects and make sure people can manage using dialect. There are many reasons for that, but one is that they actively use some of the oil money to keep the whole country populated, despite being only about 5 million people.
posted by mumimor at 7:01 AM on January 10, 2020 [2 favorites]

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