When I flip on “Radio Kompassi,” 88.0 FM, what do I hear? Tonight, “The Logical Song,” by Supertramp followed by “Army of Two,” by Olly Murs. Then ads in Finnish. “Halo,” by Beyoncé and more local ads. Then Springsteen and a mailed-in duet by Sir Elton and LeAnn Rimes. Ads (in Finnish) and then, at last! A song in Finnish!
My mind goes back eleven years, when popular musicians in Germany unsuccessfully petitioned the government to create a law mandating a minimum percentage of music on the radio to be in German. France has had such a law since 1994, though it is subject to ongoing controversy and resistance from radio stations.
But I have heard about nothing along these lines in my two months in Finland. I have heard about right-wing groups “patrolling” the streets of Turku or Tampere, but their concern is a small number of poor and socially isolated people. Is there not irony in the fact that these defenders of Finland wear sweatshirts emblazoned with “Soldiers of Odin” in English? It sounds like a joke, but wouldn’t a nativist slogan be in the mother tongue?
David Tow, a Fulbrighter in Finland, has interviewed many young Finns about their ideas of Finnishness. He told the audience at the Fulbright Forum yesterday at the University of Jyväskylä, that young Finns see themselves differently than their parents’ generation. They are millennials, more international and cosmopolitan, less introverted. Add the waves of new immigrants to smartphones, Instagram, and snapchat, and what “Finnish” means seems to be shifting quickly.
Yet I hear little about a threat to some distinct, authentic Finnishness. What I hear from many Finns is this: Finland is a small country so know it must internationalize in order to thrive. Few Finns seem worried about American cultural influence, in part, they say, because Finnish culture is so strong.
One of the pillars at the center of this culture is language. Fluency in Finnish seems to be a crucial marker, though even this is complicated by the fact that Swedish is also an official language and competence in Swedish also qualifies an applicant for citizenship. But the complexity of Finnish and the difficulty of a visitor achieving any kind of comfort with the language makes it a fortress for Finnishness, housing history, belief, shared values, etc.
I wonder if, even as Finland diversifies (a trend treated as a given by people I meet here), the difficulty of learning the Finnish language will become an even more dramatic marker of who is Finnish and who is not. Not in a nativist, anti-immigrant fashion I hope, but as the carrier of inherited ideals and values, a shared past, and so on. Where once “Finnish” meant not Russian and not Swedish, perhaps in the future, the Finnish language will either be an embattled tongue riddled with English words and phrases, or it will function in an affirmative fashion, as the voice of a newly redefined people.