Maja Daniels: The River Valley Vernacular

One of Älvdalens many forest roads at dusk.
Early evening by the Älvdalen river.
Two young roe deers appear at the edge of the forest at dusk.
River Valley Vernacular - Sweden 2012

A classic American car is parked on the yard of a house located next to the river. The Älvdalen community is known for their passionate love for old cars and they arrange an annual motor festival in the summer that attracts motor enthusiasts from all over Europe.

It has been historically documented that the famous witch trials that began to take place in Sweden in the 1600’s started in Älvdalen. A great number of people were interrogated and tortured and 18 girls and women were accused of witchcraft and later executed. The first girl to be beheaded and burned at the stake was Märit Jonsdotter. These events that took place from 1668 to 1676, triggered what has been called “The big Swedish witch hunt”, also known as the “The big noise”. The movement continued to spread and influenced similar events in Germany as well as in Salem, America.
Children played an important role in the witch trials. They were often the key witnesses and since it was a sin to mistrust a child when it came to tales about the devil, the stories about how the locals socialized with witches in hell spread quickly. Some children even accused their own parents. During Easter in Sweden it has become tradition for children to dress up as witches and walk from door to door, collecting sweets and money from neighbours who seek to ‘remain friendly with the children’.

A dried up maypole from midsummer’s summer solstice celebrations remains on many yards in Älvdalen throughout the summer. Summer solstice is the longest day of the year and it has been celebrated for thousands of years. In the northern parts of Sweden, like in Älvdalen, the sun does not set during this evening.

Joacim Alm (L), 20 years old and Johan Berglund (R), 33 years old are friends and both share a passion for rock music. Joacim listens to death metal while Johan prefer hard rock. Joacim’s father and one of his brothers speak Älvdalska but he never learned himself. Johan grew up with everybody speaking the language around him yet he never spoke a word himself until he was 17 years old. “I had heard that it was threatened and might disappear so I just thought I might as well start speaking. In the beginning it must have sounded very odd since I made it up as I went, thinking to myself ‘how would grandma have said this'?’. When I went to school nobody spoke about Älvdalska. I only have one friend that I have completely shifted to Älvdalska with. I think it’s fun to speak it and I do everyday, even with people who don’t understand. It is so unique and I want to take part in preserving it.”
Johan has participated in several events that have highlighted the language and he also took part in a meeting with younger Älvdalska speakers where he performed a song and showed them a humorous video that he made with a friend about the language.
Joacim says he wants to move away. “Anywhere but here… apart from Stockholm”. Johan on the other hand enjoys the life in Älvdalen. He describes it as easy and spontaneous. He says that he thinks the youth is pressured to leave the small town and move into the cities much more today than before. “If you stay here and become a peasant bohemian you are a failure in other people’s eyes. But I don’t care, I like it here and I take the day as it comes”.

An impressive collection of scented air fresheners decorates the car of a local Älvdalen resident.

Hampus Nyberg (L), 15 years old and Jens Persson (R), 16 years old have fun with their friend Fredrik Fornstedt (in the car) and their ‘forest toy’. The car used to belong to Jens grandfather but now it stands in the woods near Fredrik’s house that has a workshop attached to it. Fredrik’s father, uncle and brother are all car mechanics. Since none of the boys are old enough to drive yet they mainly take it apart and put it back together again. Occasionally they burn a bit of tyres so they can put new ones back on. All three boys speak Älvdalska and they speak it together most of the time. “It is great to have a secret language, Fredrik says. “When we go to parties in other parts of the region, we have a lot of fun with it”. All three boys have learned the language from their fathers and they all have siblings who do not speak. They think their friendship might have pushed them to keep speaking. Last year Jens was studying forestry but he is about to swap programme to become a plumber instead. “It is easier to get a job here if I change programme. What matters the most is not what kind of job it is, but that I get one here”, Jens adds. Hampus wants to become a carpenter and Fredrik wants to refinish cars. He knows he might have to move away from Älvdalen for a few years – “but only to learn and then come back home to start my own business”.

Sandra Gjervaldsaeter, 16 years old received the Älvdalska bursary this year. Her dad and grandmother always spoke the language together and with the money from the bursary as a motivation, she went from understanding it but not speaking to using it fully. “Now that I have learnt more about the language, I understand better how unique it is and how important it is to preserve. I’m now pushing my siblings and my cousins to start speaking it too.” Sandra is moving away by the fall to study but she says that she will always want to keep one foot in Älvdalen. “Hopefully, I will find a job here after I graduate from veterinary school. I think boys are more prone to stay here. We girls we have to go away to study and we might be more open to try out the bigger city lifestyle.” Sandra is interested in music, she sings and plays various instruments and she also writes her own songs.

The log cabin located by the Älvdalen river is a popular nocturnal meeting point for the local youth.

Veronika Westerling and Patrik Andersson stand outside their house with their children Alma, three years old and Malte, two years old. Veronika and Patrik are both from a part of Älvdalen called Brunnsberg. They recently moved in to Veronika’s grandmothers old house. Patrik’s grandmother was a close friend to Veronikas grandmother as they grew up. Their big sisters were best friends too and their mothers were work colleagues and friends. Veronika and Patrik are very interested in old traditions. Apart form speaking Älvdalska, Veronika makes traditional clothing. She also has a working horse that she takes on long distance sleigh rides along with Patrik and a group of like-minded friends. Patrik has a rather specific and traditional profession - he makes ‘gärdsgårds’ - traditional wooden roundpole fences. Roundpole fences were traditionally used to fence off animals rather than marking property boundaries.

Distant figures running around a bonfire during Easter time in Älvdalen. The last day of April marks an important date in the Swedish calendar. An old pagan tradition related to the dead has merged with a more recent ‘spring festival’ that celebrates the lighter times that are to come. The original pagan purpose of the event was to light bonfires and to use fireworks and crackers to scare away witches and ghosts who were thought to be more active and closer to the humans during this night. This is a tradition that has remained to this day.


The isolated valley of Älvdalen (‘River Valley’), in Dalarna, semi-north Sweden, is not stereotypically Scandinavian. Both landscape and lifestyle seem to have more in common with a 1950s vision of the United States, where hillbilly meets rock-androll.

The community has come to be seen as a mystical and odd place. Not only is it the birthplace of the Swedish witch hunt that took place in the 16th century but, significantly, the community has also managed to preserve a unique language variety; Älvdalska (Elfdalian) – an ancient language with strong links to Old Norse; the language once spoken by the Vikings.

None of Älvdalen’s neighbouring villages have a similar language or accent and they are all unable to understand the vernacular. Scientists believe that the language has survived because of the community’s long-term isolation, but how it has managed to persist to this day remains an unsolved mystery.

Some 3,000 people in Älvdalen speak Älvdalska but only about 45 of these are teenagers. Today, the community of Älvdalen is dealing with the threat of the extinction of their language in an unusual way. Knowing that the key to revitalization is to encourage a new generation of speakers, local authorities in Älvdalen give grants of 6,000 krona (about £600) to young school-leavers of 15 and 16 years old, if they show that they can speak the language.

The community is facing the challenge of how to manage to get its younger generations – teenagers who are often preoccupied with being normal and fitting in – to get interested in local tradition and history. This local initiative of offering grants provide an interesting modern twist of how to preserve tradition in a changing social climate. Globalization and urbanization affect Älvdalen youth, who despite a love for their hometown, struggle with the scant opportunities on offer.

My project focuses on the relationship between generations as a small community negotiates the tensions between modern lifestyles and tradition. But, how could I go about photographing something so abstract as a language? People I met saw Älvdalska as part of their unique identity. The act of speaking play into a larger context of being and of living. The language became my entry point rather than the visual focus as I documented the lives of the young people who had received the local grant and hence been entrusted with the responsibility of keeping the vernacular alive.

This project is also a very personal engagement since Älvdalen has been, and still is, a big part of my life. Important moments of my youth were spent there since my grandparents are both born, and live in Älvdalen. They speak Elfdalian although due to the social stigma that haunted the language for years, they never taught my father nor me and my brothers how to speak it. We also have a log cabin next to the Älvdalen River that has – after having spent the last nine years living abroad – come to signify the notion of my Swedish home.

With this series I also embark on the intimate and introspective challenge to investigate the notion of home.


MAJA DANIELS studied journalism, photography and sociology. Her work focuses on social documentary and portraiture with an emphasis on human relations in a western, contemporary environment. By using sociology as a frame of research and approach to her photographic work, she finds it a successful combination when trying to focus on the interaction between man and society.

Her work was included in the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize 2011 and exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery in London. She participated in the 2012 Joop Swart Masterclass organised by World Press Photo and she won second prize in the 2012 Sony World Photography Awards. She was also selected as one of the 2012 and 2011 Magenta Foundations Flash Forward Emerging Photographers and shortlisted for the 2010 PhotoVisura Grant for an outstanding personal photography project. She has exhibited in Paris, London, New York and Bilbao.

Dividing her time between long-term personal projects and commercial work, she is regularly commissioned by the weekly and monthly press. She also collaborates with social scientists in academic projects.


Watch a video interview with Maja here.