Å is for Åland

Å is for Åland. And here we taking leave both of Sweden’s borders as well as the Latin alphabet. Because Å is one of the three exclusive Swedish letters tacked on after Z.

This is the one that looks like an A with a circle over it. And actually these three letters aren’t exclusively Swedish. In various forms they can be found in other Scandinavian languages, as well as Finnish and Sami, and to some extent in German. Anyway, this A is a circle is pronounced “å”, and most of us who aren’t Nordic think it sounds exactly the same as the English letter “O”. Now the Swedes will tell you there’s a difference there, but interestingly, the word for “and” in Swedish, och, spelled o-c-h, in spoken language is shortened to just “å” and when spoken language is indicated in print, they just use that a with a circle over it. Go figure.

Sometimes you’ll see this letter transcribed in other languages as a little a above a regular A, or more often a double A. That used to be in Danish and Norwegian .

Å is actually a word in Swedish. Nowadays it means river, and the etymological dictionary links it to the Latin “aqua”, or water. And that’s where the Åland islands get their name from, “River land”, although strangely the islands don’t have many rivers. There’s one big island and more than 6000 tiny ones, forty kilometres off the Swedish coast in the Baltic Sea near Stockholm. The people of the islands speak Swedish, but Åland belongs to Finland.

Now going back to the Middle Ages, Sweden and Finland were a single country. During the Napoleonic wars, Finland and Åland got taken away from Sweden and given to Russia. When Finland achieved its independence it kept Åland, and when Finland joined the European Union, so did Åland.

But the islands have home rule, and part of the EU agreement freed Åland from the union’s  tax rules. Which means that today many of the ferries travelling between Sweden and Finland stop in Åland, so passengers can buy duty free goods.