There are more than 6,000 languages on the planet but we're losing them at rate of one every two weeks. Globalization and mass communication made the world smaller and English, Mandarin, and Arabic have become lingua franca, pushing out smaller languages that connect minority communities. With a little help, some of those communities are fighting back.
Elfdalian is an ancient Scandinavian language spoken by around 3,000 people in the Älvdalen region in the middle of Sweden. It's a descendant of old Norse that developed in isolation throughout the Middle Ages. The Elfdalian people lived a semi-nomadic life traveling from a small town to country farms during the Summer. Here's what it sounds like.
The language is having a hard time in Sweden. Despite international recognition and support, Stockholm considers Elfdalian a dialect of Swedish and not its own official language. Despite its small native speaker base and status with the government, Elfdalian is experiencing a renaissance online. Thanks to the internet and the passionate Ulum Dalska—the Organization for the Preservation of Elfdalian—the language has managed not only to survive but thrive in recent years.
Chris Pennington and Emilia Stjernfelt hope to give it another boost with Minecraft. Pennington is passionate about languages and passionate about helping. “A people's history and culture is wrapped up in the language they speak,” Pennington told me over Discord chat. “So, one of the most important things you can do is pass that language along to your children.”
Pennington and Stjernfelt are using Minecraft to build a virtual world that'll make it easier for Elfdalian speakers to pass that language on to their kids. Stjernfelt is Swedish and Pennington is American. Neither are native Elfdalian speakers. The pair met and fell in love in a Swedish Minecraft server. Soon, the two had married and he'd moved across the ocean to be with her.
Minecraft helped Pennington learn Swedish so he could better communicate with Stjernfelt and his other friends and now he thinks it could help people learn Elfdalian. “Most language learning methods it involves some rote memorization” he explained. If you've taken a foreign language class you know the drill—flash cards with pictures and labels, constant practice, and repetition. Minecraft, instead, offers virtual immersion, which is a much better way to learn.
The Elfdalian village of Älvdalen in Minecraft is complete with quests designed to help players learn about the culture as well as the language. “We plan to have one where the player goes to help out in one of the summer pasture farms, and another where they are tasked with picking up items from a grocery store,” Pennington said.
The project has excited the Elfdalian community. Ulum Dalska even flew the pair to town to put them through a Summer course on the language. The project is further proof that the language is unique and distinct from Swedish, something Elfdalian speakers have had a hard time making Stockholm understand.
Pennington and Stjernfelt hope to release their Minecraft Elfdalian game next year. They're looking for skilled Minecraft builders. Interested digital architects can apply here. To learn more about Elfdalian, visit Ulum Dalska's website.