Markku John Rainer Suksi
Legal implications of the constitutional principle of two national languages in Finland: symmetry ...
Revista de Llengua i Dret, Journal of Language and Law, núm. 67, 2017 9
According to Section 17(1) of the Constitution of Finland, Finnish and Swedish are the national languages
of Finland. The provision gives two points of departure for the regulation of linguistic matters, namely
the principle of the ofcial bilingualism of Finland and the principle of equality between the two national
languages. In addition to Finnish and Swedish, other languages are also recognised in the Constitution and
in the laws of Finland, such as the Sami language, the Roma language and sign language,1 in a non-exclusive
listing in Section 17(3) of the Constitution, but they are not accorded the same elevated status as the two
national languages. It is, however, also possible to state that there is one ofcial language constitutionally
designated for a part of the country, namely Swedish for the purposes of the Åland Islands. Additionally, it
is possible to state that there is one ofcial language recognised for a group of persons, namely the Sami,
an indigenous group whose homeland lies partially within Finland. These statutory references to ofcial
languages are differently fashioned both in relation to the two national languages and between themselves.
Because of this rather multifarious regulatory framework, it is possible to assume that ofcial recognition
matters, the issue being in which ways such recognition matters, that is, what the legal implications of
such recognition are. A set of general implications can be collated from various constitutional provisions,
international treaties and academic writings. These include the right to use one’s own language in civil
society (in the sense of linguistic existence); protection from language-based discrimination; the right to
linguistically equal treatment by public authorities; the right to a linguistic identity; the right to education
and other forms of information in one’s own language; and the right to political and societal participation in
one’s own language.2 Below, more specic legal implications will be outlined on the basis of the Constitution
of Finland. Although the fundamental rules owing from the principle of two national languages are of a
constitutional-law nature, an important area of implementation of linguistic rules is probably administrative
law, of which language law is a sub-set, while at the same time being relevant in other elds of law, such as
Generally speaking, states can, with a view to their constitutional relationship to languages, be placed in three
different categories (see table 1, below).3 Starting from the third category, the attitude towards languages is
based on the concept of the nation state, which in its pure form goes on to hold that there is ‘one language,
one people, one state’, leading to situations where languages other than the one ofcial one are more or
less excluded and not even recognised as minority languages. States such as Greece and France, and in
practice also Turkey, belong to this third category. The second category contains states which recognise the
presence of minority languages within their territory and grant such languages certain rights, whilst at the
same time operating upon the basis of the principle of the nation state. States such as Slovenia, Romania,
Sweden and Hungary belong to this second category. The rst category contains states which recognise, in
a constitutionally relevant manner, two or more national or ofcial languages. By doing so, these countries
depart from the concept of the nation state and create another structure and fabric for the state, while not
excluding the possible existence of other languages that would constitute minority languages.4 States such as
Finland, Switzerland, Canada, Ireland, Belgium, Singapore, and South Africa belong to this third category.
1 See also the Act on Sign Language (359/2015), which is based on the idea that there are two different sign languages in Finland,
the Finnish sign language and the Finland-Swedish sign language, the latter being different from the sign language used in Sweden.
2 Antero Jyränki, ‘Oikeus omaan kieleen – demokratia – oikeusvaltio’, in Antero Jyränki (ed.), Oikeuden kielet – Oikeus ja
oikeudellinen ajattelu monikielisessä maailmassa. Turku: Turun yliopisto, 1999, p. 92.
3 See Markku Suksi, ‘Kahden kansalliskielen järjestelmä: tausta ja rakenteet’, pp. 332-345 in Oikeus 2014(43):3. For other
classications, see Amy H. Liu, Standardizing Diversity: The Political Economy of Language Regimes. Philadelphia: University
of Pennsylvania Press, 2015, pp. 22-48, who focuses, from an economic-political perspective, on language(s) of public education,
and distinguishes between four types of languages regimes from the point of view of policy, at 48: ‘One concentrates linguistic
power in the mother tongue of the politically dominant; another shares linguistic power across multiple mother tongues; the third
neutralizes linguistic power with the use of a lingua franca; and the fourth is a hybrid that recognizes a lingua franca and some set
of mother tongues.’ The Finnish linguistic system is probably best placed in the second category alongside Canada and Switzerland.
See also José-María Arraiza, Making Home Rules for Mother Tongues. Åbo: Åbo Akademi University, 2015 (at http://bibbild.abo./
ediss/2015/arraiza_jose.pdf), where the Finnish system is placed in comparative frames from a public law point of view.
4 This, in fact, is an observation that could (and should) be taken into consideration when states in category I are reviewed before
international treaty bodies such as the Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention on National Minorities or the Committee of
Experts on the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages about the performance of these states in relation to the minority
or language provisions in the conventions. The national or ofcial languages should actually be counted together to constitute ‘the
majority’ in relation to the true minority languages. For instance, in Finland this would mean that the application of language law in