• Sweden edition
 

Swedish fights rearguard action against English behemoth

Published: 18 Apr 2007 12:04 GMT+02:00
Updated: 18 Apr 2007 12:04 GMT+02:00

Discount the (for northerners) impenetrable Skåne dialect and small pockets of Sami and Finnish speakers, and Sweden has been a fairly monolingual society until recent times.

Yet, despite its long heritage, the shortage of expressive vocabulary - decent expletives especially - is a common frustration for Swedish learners.

The same can’t be said, however, for the wealth of phrases used to describe a new wave of Swedish – Förortsvenska, Shobresvenska, Blattesvenska, Rinkebysvenska or indeed the prefix of any large immigrant-dominated suburb, followed by svenska.

In short, all these versions of Swedish are variations on the same theme; Swedish, largely spoken by immigrant youth, with a thick accent and select words of the speaker's mother tongue thrown in for good measure. And it’s been keeping Swedish academics awake at night for the last 20 years.

In an attempt to please the puritans, sociologists and linguists have recently been poring over their empirical evidence to prove that the Swedish language isn't threatened by immigrant innovations.

Lena Ekberg, professor in Scandinavian languages at Lund University, has been involved in a four-year project to examine language use among young people in immigrant-dominated suburbs around Gothenburg, Malmo and Stockholm.

“It’s been a focus of interest since the eighties but there has not been a lot of systematic knowledge to date,” she says. “There is a lot of prejudice based on impressions and guesses. Many people feel threatened by it. They don’t believe these young people will manage in society if they can’t speak Swedish properly.”

But although immigrants are having an impact on the development of Swedish, it’s doubtful that the dulcet tones of Förortsvenska will render the language of Strindberg and Bellman extinct.

“We haven’t found it to be dangerous,” Ekberg says, reassuringly.

“The young people we have spoken to can actually speak standard Swedish. The reason they speak like they do is to belong to a peer group with their own language code.”

Still, a number of immigrant words recently made it past the guardians of the Swedish language, the Swedish Academy. The academy (Svenska Akademien) was founded in 1786 by King Gustav III; a learned monarch and ardent advocate of his nation’s lingo (in contrast to Karl XIV Johan, the French-born king who couldn’t string a Swedish sentence together).

The Academy’s “noblest and most urgent” task was to work for the “purity, strength and sublimity” of the Swedish language. Nowadays, they dish out the Nobel Prize for Literature too.

In 2006, the Academy’s dictionary (ordlista) was updated for the thirteenth time with the inclusion of guzz, (meaning ‘girl’ in Turkish) and keff, (meaning ‘bad’ in Arabic).

But what, perhaps, is more interesting is that aftershave, new age, pep talk, sexist, touch and queer made it through, among many other Anglicisms.

The English language really invaded Sweden in the latter half of the 20th century. One hundred years earlier, Europe had a functional divide when it came to language; English was for commerce, French for diplomacy and German for science. Presumably, Swedish worked solely for Småland farmers.

“English became dominant after World War II,” says Jens Allwood, professor of linguistics at Gothenburg University. “The dominant foreign language taught in schools literally changed overnight from German to English.”

“During the 1950s there was an increase in the use of English globally,” he adds. “It happened mainly through the mass media, film and music. German and French began to lose their grip.”

These days it means I can flick through Swedish TV channels at prime time, guaranteed that I won't have to put my Swedish to the test. And I can daringly crack jokes with Swedes in my native tongue, knowing they will understand, even if they don’t laugh.

On the other hand, it also means I can’t easily dodge charity workers that accost me on the street, or sidestep vagrants wanting a few crowns on the dishonest grounds that “sorry, I don’t speak Swedish.”

English is everywhere in Sweden and with only around 9.3 million Swedish speakers in the world (including the Finns) it’s a case of necessity. “It’s big business,” Allwood says. “It’s all about money and guns; if you want to be rich and famous, you can’t do it by just speaking Swedish.”

But all this is having a detrimental effect on the Swedish language, according to some. “Lots of people are talking about the risk of losing Swedish and it’s true,” Allwood adds. “Especially in the academic and business worlds.”

Indeed, Swedish multinationals rarely use Swedish as the common company language. According to Allwood, 95 percent use English for enterprise. “And in academic circles, we’re condemned to silence as far as written output goes – we have to write in English,”

The multi-cultural make-up of Sweden today naturally means it is also multi-lingual. “There are 150 languages spoken throughout the country today,” says Olle Josephson, director of the Language Council of Sweden (Språkrådet).

You have to develop policies to stop stronger languages from oppressing the weaker ones,” he adds. “When it comes to the use of English, there is a threat to Swedish in some areas in society. And that is a threat to democracy and standards of knowledge – if you cannot use your native tongue.”

In December 2005, Parliament passed a Swedish language policy with four objectives.

– Swedish is the majority language in Sweden.

– It should be possible to use Swedish in all areas of society.

– The language of authorities should be correct, simple and understandable.

– Everyone has a right to learn Swedish and foreign languages and to use their mother tongue.

Yet there is no law stipulating that Swedish is Sweden’s official language. It is at present simply the de facto first language of Sweden. The new government has pledged look into giving the language official status, but it could take until 2009 to do so.

Perhaps they’re too busy translating the paperwork into English. “Official government documents require translation and speech technology programmes are expensive to develop for a relatively small language like Swedish,” Josephson adds.

Once again, Swedes have come to rely on their English expertise out of obligation. And the upshot is they have steadily adopted it as their own. Swenglish – or Svengelska if you prefer – is a growing phenomenon. It seems nowadays you don’t necessarily have to speak Swedish at all to get a decent grasp at least.

As Colin Moon writes in his 2005 book: ‘Sweden More Secret Files: Swedish, Swenglish and what they really mean, you can "'chatta' on the internet, send 'ett email', or 'ett mess', and 'printa ut'. You can get 'support from helpdesken', make 'en back-up', phone 'hands-free', 'logga in', 'briefa' somebody, be 'financial controller', suffer 'en backlash', watch 'public service television', eat 'fast food', be contacted by 'en headhunter”' laugh at 'en standup comedian', shop at 'en factory outlet', embark on 'en joint venture' be 'online', 'outsourca' your business, be 'outstanding', wear 'en t-shirt', be 'en skinhead,' watch 'en talkshow', suffer from 'whiplash', make 'en deal', have 'know-how', sing 'live', and then get 'feedback'.

Yet despite the blows being dealt to the language by the forces of globalization, it’s perhaps worth noting that the the Swedish Academy HQ is not quite ready to surrender. New to the latest dictionary edition are recommendations for the use of a Swedish term rather than an accepted loan English expression.

Still, they don’t have the last word, either in Swedish or English. As Jens Allwood says: “We are becoming bilingual, but the big question is monolingualism; we’ll probably all be speaking Chinese in 500 years anyway.”

The World in Sweden Series:The Local is compiling a series of articles on how people and cultures from around the world are influencing Swedish life. Coming soon - Nicholas Chipperfield tracks down the Swedish Cricket Team..

Christine Demsteader (christine.demsteader@thelocal.se)

Don't miss...X
Left Right
Today's headlines
Thunderstorms replace Swedish heatwave
The Viking Lines ferry pictured was ripped away from the dock as a result of the storm. Per Gustavsson / TT

Thunderstorms replace Swedish heatwave

UPDATED: The Swedish summer was brought to a halt on Sunday as thunderstorms caused chaos in Stockholm with further inclement weather forecast for the week ahead. READ  

Cops looking for dead woman's partner
Police carry out a technical examination following the discovery of a woman's dead body in Ystad on July 26th 2014. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

Cops looking for dead woman's partner

Police in southern Sweden are eager to speak to the partner of a 43-year-old woman who was found dead in an apartment on Saturday. Elsewhere in the south a 26-year-old man was arrested in Malmö on suspicion of carrying out a string of shootings. READ  

Gaza crisis delaying case of murdered child
Protesters gather in Malmö for a pro-Gaza demonstration on July 26th 2014. Stig-Åke Jönsson / TT

Gaza crisis delaying case of murdered child

The ongoing conflict in the middle east is delaying the investigation into the death of an 8-year-old girl who was found dead in Sweden in May. Meanwhile, over a 1,000 people attended a pro-Gaza march in Malmö. READ  

Politician reported for selling 'negro ball'
A selection of Swedish chocolate balls. Leif R Jansson/TT

Politician reported for selling 'negro ball'

UPDATED: The Afro-Swedish national association has reported Swedish politician Eva Sidekrans to the police for selling chocolate balls labelled as "old fashioned unprejudiced negro ball" saying it incites racial hatred. She has since apologized. READ  

'Dead' Swede's damages claim killed off

'Dead' Swede's damages claim killed off

A 36-year-old woman in central Sweden who was listed as deceased by the tax office has lost her claim for damages after the Chancellor of Justice rejected her demand for compensation. READ  

Five dead in 'black Friday' drownings
A life ring pictured in Stockholm. Maja Suslin/TT

Five dead in 'black Friday' drownings

Five people died in drowning related incidents on Friday, further raising the death toll of those lost in the water in July. READ  

Swedes insist EU prioritize environment

Swedes insist EU prioritize environment

An EU public opinion poll released on Friday revealed that Sweden is the only nation which thinks the environment should be a top priority for the union. READ  

Police turn blind eye to Swedish 'slave trade'
File photo: TT

Police turn blind eye to Swedish 'slave trade'

Police in Gothenburg have confirmed that sex trafficking in the city has developed into a full-blown slave trade - but that they lack the resources to do anything about it. READ  

Pirate Bay inmate claims religious persecution
Photo: TT/The Missionary Church of Kopimism

Pirate Bay inmate claims religious persecution

Peter Sunde has complained that his religious rights have been impinged after he was refused permission to meet a representative of a church inspired by the keyboard shortcuts for cut and paste. READ  

Stockholm 'bomb man' jailed and deported
Police at the scene of the threat in June. Photo: Bertil Ericson/TT

Stockholm 'bomb man' jailed and deported

The 43-year-old man who threatened Stockholm's Gamla Stan with a bomb in June was sentenced on Friday to two years in jail, followed by deportation. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Gallery
Top ten Swedish taboos
Society
Seven-year-old Swede cycles to Berlin
Politics
'Gaza conflict needs help, not empty rhetoric'
Society
Swedes voted 'most beautiful' in the Nordics
Business & Money
Sweden demands EU clarity on Bitcoin tax
Blog updates

24 July

Sharing our Pride: Celebrating Love & the LGBT Community! (Stockholm in my American Heart) »

"It’s mid- July in Stockholm, and with much of the city on vacation, things can seem a little quiet – the streets, the bus, and the grocery store. One thing that has not paused for a summer break, though, is preparation for Stockholm’s Pride Festival, which will take place from July 28 to August 2...." READ »

 

22 July

Det (The Swedish Teacher) »

"Hej! “Det” is a personal pronoun that can be used in many ways, and it might me confusing if you always translate “det” to English “it”. In this article I will do my best to guide you to how to use “det”. Det replacing a word, a phrase or a clause Let us begin with the less confusing..." READ »

 
 
 
National
Swedish organic sales enjoy 'amazing' growth
Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT
Society
What's On in Sweden
Gallery
People-watching July 23
National
Swedish cops elect not to shoot 'angry elks'
Business & Money
New alcohol retail rules threaten micro-breweries
Gallery
People-watching Båstad
Business & Money
Sweden falls to third in global innovation index
Society
Swedish ornithologists keep webcam watch
Photo: Andreas Nordström/Image Bank Sweden
Gallery
Top ten Swedish beach hot spots
Tech
Swedish Wiki vet sets new content record
Photo: Fastighetsbyrån
Lifestyle
In Pictures: The Local's Property of the Week
Photo: Finest.se
Gallery
People-watching July 15-16
Photo: Ola Ericson/Image Bank Sweden
Society
What's On in Sweden
Photo: Lisa Mikulski
National
Hope springs eternal for expat pet shop owner
Gallery
Princess Estelle steals limelight at mum's birthday
National
Swedes risk infants' lives by covering up prams
National
Swede runs for office just using Bitcoin funds
Gallery
People-watching July 11-13
Sponsored Article
Introducing... Your finances in Stockholm
Sponsored Article
Introducing... Housing in Stockholm
Latest news from The Local in Austria

More news from Austria at thelocal.at

Latest news from The Local in Switzerland

More news from Switzerland at thelocal.ch

Latest news from The Local in Germany

More news from Germany at thelocal.de

Latest news from The Local in Denmark

More news from Denmark at thelocal.dk

Latest news from The Local in Spain

More news from Spain at thelocal.es

Latest news from The Local in France

More news from France at thelocal.fr

Latest news from The Local in Italy

More news from Italy at thelocal.it

Latest news from The Local in Norway

More news from Norway at thelocal.no

723
jobs available
Swedish Down Town Consulting & Productions
Swedish Down Town Consulting & Productions is an innovative business company which provides valuable assistance with the Swedish Authorities, Swedish language practice and general communications. Call 073-100 47 81 or visit:
www.swedishdowntown.com
If you want to drink, that’s your business.
If you want to stop, we can help.

Learn more about English-language Alcoholics Anonymous in Sweden. No dues. No fees. Confidentiality assured.
AA-EUROPE.ORG/SWEDEN
PSD Media
PSD Media is marketing company that offers innovative solutions for online retailers. We provide modern solutions that help increase traffic and raise conversion. Visit our site at:
http://psdmedia.se