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Kven language

Kven language

The Kven language, also known as Kvennish, (suomi, kveenin kieli or recently proposed kainun kieli) is a Finno-Ugric language, spoken mostly by the Kven population in Northern Norway. From a linguistic point of view the Kven language is a mutually intelligible dialect of Finnish, but for political and historical reasons it received in 2005 status of a legal minority language in Norway, within the framework of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.

From the linguistic point of view Kven belongs to the sub-dialect group of Ruija (Finnmark) in the much larger dialect group of Peräpohjola dialects in the Western dialects of Finnish language (see dialect chart).

Geographic distribution

Today, most speakers of the Kven language are found mostly in Northeastern Norwegian communities such as Bugøynes, Neiden, Vestre Jakobselv, Vadsø, and Børselv. Also a few older speakers may still be found in the municipalities of Nordreisa and Storfjord. Bugøynes perhaps remains the most vital of all the remaining Kven communities in Norway.

In Northeastern Norway, mainly around Varanger Fjord, the spoken language is quite similar to the standard Finnish, whereas west of Alta the few remaining Kven speakers speak Finnish with more particularities, due to a deeper isolation from Finland.

In a 2005 government report, the number of people speaking the Kven language in Norway is estimated to be between 2000 and 8000, depending on the criteria used. However, today there are very few young people that speak the language, making it an endangered language.

Language or Finnish dialect?

The Kven language is closely related to the three other official modern-day Finnic languages spoken in Northern Scandinavia: The Meänkieli language (spoken in today's Northern Sweden, also known in English as Torne Valley Finnish), the Karelian language (spoken in today's Northwestern Russia) and the Finnish language. The speakers of Kven, Meänkieli, Karelian and Finnish can understand each other's languages without too much difficulty.

The Kven language is also more distantly related to the Finno-Ugric Sami languages, which are spoken across Northern Scandinavia and in Northwestern Russia as well. However, the speakers of a Sami language and the Kven language are not able to understand each other's languages.

Among the dialects of the Finnish language within the boundaries of the modern day Finland, the Kven language is most closely related to northern Finnish dialects spoken also in Sweden (Meänkieli language). Contrary to popular belief, the dialects spoken by the Kvens and Kainuu peoples are not closely related. The Kainuu dialect is one of the Savonian dialects that was formed from the 16th century onwards, when immigrants from Savonia started to settle in the northern wastelands. Dialects closest to the Kven language are called Western Finnish dialects, while the Kainuu dialect belongs to the group of Eastern Finnish dialects, predominantly of Karelian origin.

The Kven language has come to incorporate many Norwegian loan words, e.g. tyskäläinen (meaning "German" in English) instead of standard Finnish saksalainen. The Kven language also uses some old Finnish words that no longer are used in Finland.

Official status

From the 1860s onwards the Norwegian government attempted to assimilate the Kvens. For example, the use of the Kven language became forbidden in schools and government offices, and Kven town names were replaced by Norwegian names. From 1970s onwards, the Kvens and the Samis in Norway have openly been allowed to use their original mother tongues, the Kven and the Sami languages, and to teach them to their children in schools. Lately, the Kven culture and language have gained in interest and popularity. In 2005 the language was recognized as a legal minority language in Norway, within the framework of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. However, there is still a major discussion between Kven people concerning what written standard they should use, a new Kven standard or the official Finnish standard.

From 2006 it is possible to study Kven language at the University of Tromsø

In 2007 the Kven Language Council was formed at the Kven institute, a national centre for Kven language and culture in Børselv, Norway. The council will work out a written Kven language, but use Finnish orthography to maintain inter-Finnish language understanding.


  • Council of Europe: European Charter for Regional or Minority Language, Third periodical report, Norway. April 2005.
  • Kenneth Hyltenstam & Tommaso Maria Milani: Kvenskans status: Rapport för Kommunal- og regionaldepartement och Kultur- og kirkedepartement. 2003.
  • Norwegian Ministry of Local Government and Regional Development: Second periodic report on the implementation of the Council of Europe's framework convention for the protection of national minorities. October 2005.

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