Elfdalian or Övdalsk: A Language of the Trees

Written by Dyami Millarson

Elfdalian is a window into another world, the world of the trees. In my dreams, a little girl, I think she was a skogsrå, came to me and she told me that in Älvdalen, Sweden, the trees whisper in Elfdalian and you can only understand them if you speak Elfdalian. She said it is the language of the trees. Upon hearing this, I told her that I should, for this reason, take upon myself to learn the language of Älvdalen.

She muttered something that I could not understand, but I could feel that I had to keep my oath to her, for bad luck would befall me, should I break my oath. She seemed a little creature with her own rules and powers beyond human imagination. I decided to confide in her my inner thoughts: “I will keep my word. When I say that I am going to learn the language of the trees, I will not break my word. I want to understand the trees of Älvdalen and thus help protect them from harm.” She smiled as she disappeared into the forest, and I heard her voice, singing:

O, young lad, thou sworest

to keep thy word to me;

I will watch thee from the forest,

and punish thee if thou liedst.

Elfdalian, which is locally called Övdalsk and in Swedish Älvdalska, is a North Germanic language spoken in the Swedish forests of Älvdalen. It may have survived thanks to the relative isolation offered by the trees of said forests. There are those who consider Elfdalian a dialect.

However, this is inconsiderate of the feelings of the speakers of Elfdalian, who feel belittled by such assertion. If outsiders say that a small vulnerable community speaks a dialect, that does not only hurt the feelings of the people, but it also makes them feel inferior to the larger community. It may be considered a form of linguistic bullying that has no place in the 21st century. Unfortunately, it is all too common. Respect and understanding are mightily lacking.

Therefore, I see it as my own mission to adopt respect and understanding for the speakers of Elfdalian. I wish to spread this respect and understanding through my own deeds, and what better deed is there than learning to speak the Elfdalian language myself?

I want to learn from the speakers of Elfdalian, and I cannot truly understand their world if I do not speak their language. The spirit of a culture is lost when the language, the communative vehicle of a language, is lost.

It was in the year 2012 when Elfdalian fluent speaker Bengt Åkerberg published his Elfdalian grammar. I contacted him personally on 31st September to buy the grammar. It was an unusual exchange, and he did his best to communicate with me in English. I felt how much love he had for his language and that is why his book would have a very special role in my life in the following years. I planned to learn Elfdalian much earlier. However, my plans were indefinitely postponed when one night an unexpected 8-hour operation, which saw more than half of my small intestine being removed, altered my life. I lay in the hospital and I asked my father to take Åkerberg’s grammar book and put it beside my bed as a treasure.

I felt that the book would give me good luck. This impressed in me the conviction that I should never open the book again until I would feel ready to study the Elfdalian language properly. By properly, I mean that I wished to learn to speak and write Elfdalian someday. After the operation, I had many unpleasant nights of severe pain and discomfort, and I believed that Åkerberg’s grammar book would help me regain my strength. I was, from 2012 onwards, very much aware that I was one of the only ones in the Netherlands, perhaps for a time even the only one, who was in possession of this marvellous book.

To me, it was a sacred book of hope. It gave me something to look forward to, and it gave me a reason to keep wishing for my gradual recovery. I had the book by my bedside for many years, which reminded me of my orginal plan to learn Elfdalian. After my severe operation, I never opened the book just once.

I contained my curiosity, because I had told myself that once I open it, I have to start learning Elfdalian. This worked like a charm for me, which stopped my urge to open the book immediately out of burning curiosity. Now in April 2019, I am finally going to open the book. I never peeked into it once since my operation, so this is a very emotional moment for me.

I built up my life while I kept the book always nearby, and the tears start to well up in my eyes when I realise what a triumph it is to finally be able to ‘reopen’ my old life and fulfill the dream I had before my operation. I had speed-read the book before my operation because I wanted to show my appreciation to Bengt Åkerberg, even though I had not yet found the opportnity to study the language. In hindsight, it was my destiny not to study Elfdalian at that time and to keep the book closed for 6 years.

It was meant to happen that way, because the thought of learning Elfdalian would give me hope, and now I feel overcome with joy that I can finally learn it. I think that after facing all the hardship and having had to wait for so long, I appreciate the language more. Elfdalian has been on my mind for all these years and I did not want to commence learning it until the time felt right, since Elfdalian always meant so much to me; I felt that by waiting for the right time, I could contribute much more to the preservation of Elfdalian. Moreover, I believe that Elfdalian was destined to play a very important role in my self-healing. This makes me imagine a self-healing forest, which I consider a meaningful image.

Looking back on my history, studying Clay Frisian, the language of East Terschelling, the language of Schiermonnikoog, the language of Saterland and the language of Hel(i)goland were all steps towards learning Elfdalian. I have taken gradual steps towards that goal and I have been patient throughout the entire process. It is a continuing journey, and I let destiny bring me to places where I had never travelled before, for acceptance of fate gives me satisfaction in being myself and having a purpose that unites people and brings joy. So after learning Hel(i)golandic last month starting from 1 March which is a special day on Hel(i)goland which marks the return of the island to Germany, this will be my month of the Elfdalian language starting from 1st April which is a day of fun and joy for many people around the world.

In 2018, I had a phone call with Björn Rehnström about Elfdalian. He told me that Elfdalian is at a breaking point and that they were working hard for the recognition of the language. He invited me and Ken Ho to learn Elfdalian. My phone call and brief e-mail exchange with Björn Rehnström later also proved to be quite relevant to the media in the Netherlands. The Dutch newspapers, such as Leeuwarder Courant, also reported in 2018 that the Elfdalian community wishes that we learn their language. This was reported in the context of the historic moment that the community of Hindeloopen had embraced us fully after we had learned the language of Hindeloopen. At first, our project was met with much skepticism in Hindeloopen, but when the first results became evident, the speakers of the language of Hindeloopen were persuaded that we could help them preserve their linguistic heritage, which had been quickly moving towards total oblivion.

After the phone call, Björn Rehnström discussed with Ulum Dalska what they could do to support our future project for the Elfdalian language. I had properly informed him already in 2018 that our Elfdalian project would commence in 2019. He helped to select all relevant materials for us, he gave us a few books of his own for free and Ulum Dalska offered to pay for the shipping costs to the Netherlands. These were understandable symbolic gestures which demonstrated to us that the Elfdalian community is very welcoming towards Operation X and that they are eagerly waiting to see the first results. Due to the challenges of learning endangered languages in a short time, I have unfortunately not been in touch with Björn Rehnström since September 2018 (our upcoming Elfdalian project was first-mentioned in the Dutch media in November 2018). However, I will give him a phone call as soon as possible to inform him with the happy news that our Elfdalian project has finally commenced, and we hope to visit Älvdalen this year after having succesfully learned how to speak and write Elfdalian.

6 comments

  1. I really admire your determination and commitment to preserving languages. So many are disappearing as the last speakers are passing away; it’s a shame. I know that Cornish and several of the other Celtic languages are being lost and this is upsetting to me. Thank you for all that you’re doing to keep the old languages alive!
    Karen

    Liked by 1 person

    • It genuinely means a lot to last speakers that their language is preserved, usually even more so than they realise. I deeply appreciate your understanding words, since it gives the right kind of motivation. Thank you so much for leaving your comment.
      – Dyami Millarson

      Liked by 1 person

    • It is so nice of you to say that. Thank you. I genuinely appreciate it.
      One might say that learning Elfdalian is a ‘Swedish forest experience’, because the vocabulary of a language hints at the natural environment of the speakers!
      – Dyami Millarson

      Like

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