• 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

That the future of the Swedish language is in danger from the influence of immigrant tongues such as Turkish or Arabic is a load of hurdy gurdy. So most experts say. But while academics laugh off any threat posed by immigrant patois, it seems Swedish has a far bigger vernacular nemesis to contend with. And it’s not Finnish.

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
Students to keep paying off debt beyond 67

Students to keep paying off debt beyond 67

The Swedish government has proposed scrapping the 25-year span for repaying student loans, by suggesting those who attend higher education should keep paying the money back well into retirement. READ () »

Drowned puppies found in crayfish cage
The crayfish cage in the picture is not the one mentioned in the story. Photo: Christine Olsson/TT

Drowned puppies found in crayfish cage

Police in eastern Sweden have launched a preliminary investigation of animal cruelty after two puppies were found drowned in a crayfish cage. READ () »

Three rescued after cruise ship sinks boat
Rickard Rundgren Björk of the coastguard services speaks to the media after the rescue operation on April 19th 2014. Photo: Maja Suslin /TT

Three rescued after cruise ship sinks boat

Three Saturday morning sailors had a lucky escape after their small boat collided and sank after it crashed into a cruise ship whilst sailing in the Stockholm archipelago. READ () »

Missing Swede found alive and well in UK
Sofie Marie Jansson. Photo: Metropolitan Police

Missing Swede found alive and well in UK

British police have found the missing Swedish girl Sofie Jansson in London, exactly a week after she was last seen, with authorities saying she is doing well. READ () »

Social Democrats make tax pledge to elderly

Social Democrats make tax pledge to elderly

Sweden's opposition party has stepped up its efforts to secure the pensioner vote by pledging to lower taxes for the elderly and make higher earners pay more. READ () »

Malmö Nazi attack victim on the mend
Showan Shattak pictured in Malmö before his attack. Photo: Facebook

Malmö Nazi attack victim on the mend

The 25-year-old man, whose stabbing by neo-Nazis sparked mass demonstrations across Sweden, has made a strong recovery in hospital and took to social media to thank supporters for campaigning against fascism. READ () »

Police seeking missing Swede in London

British police have issued a plea for tips in the search to find Swedish national Sofie Marie Jansson who hasn't been seen for almost a week. READ () »

University applications rocket to record high

University applications rocket to record high

Swedish universities continue to draw vast amounts of applicants with the number of prospective students seeking a third level education increasing for the seventh year in a row. READ () »

Man jailed in US over Lars Vilks murder plot
Swedish artist Lars Vilks pictured in New York in 2012. Photo: Linus Sundahl-Djerf/TT

Man jailed in US over Lars Vilks murder plot

American authorities have sentenced a 20-year-old accomplice of 'Jihad Jane' to five years in prison for an attempted terror plot to kill Swedish artist Lars Vilks, after getting involved with the murder plans when he was a teenager. READ () »

Sweden scraps 'new start zones' after EU input
Integration Minister Erik Ullenhag visits a school in Tensta, one of the neighbourhoods mentioned when he and his colleagues first floated the new start zone proposal. File: TT

Sweden scraps 'new start zones' after EU input

Sweden has abandoned a plan to ease taxes for small companies in blighted areas after the European Commission challenged its legality. READ () »

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
TT
Society
Kids in Victorian garb mark Swedish Easter
Shutterstock
National
Swedish MP ordered chemtrail probe
Society
Swedish supermarket Ica pulls contested Easter commercial off air
Kungahuset
Society
Swedish royals set baptism date for princess
finest.se
Gallery
People-watching April 16
Politics
Who's the prime minister's heir?
Alfie Atkins
Society
Are children's books the key to families integrating in Sweden?
National
'Sweden Dem protests cater to party's martyr image'
National
'Swedish research grants were fantastic, but now it's like Australia'
Society
Only in Sweden: The ten problems you'd never encounter elsewhere
National
Swedes stopped to take my picture, but didn't look me in the eyes
Business & Money
A swipe of the hand replaced cash and cards in Lund
Advertisement:
YouTube
Features
Video: Oliver Gee finds out how to embrace The Swedish Hug
TT
National
Abba duo hints at reunion
Private
National
Flash mobs hug it out across Sweden
Finest.se
Gallery
People-watching April 11-13
TT
Politics
Swedes to give six-hour workday a go
TT
Society
Aussie choir member wows Abba in Sweden
YouTube
Society
Stockholm magic a surprise YouTube hit
Fastighetsbyrån
Society
Gallery: The Local's Property of the Week
Private
Society
Swedes find 200-year-old gravestone in living room
Stockholm School of Economics
Sponsored Article
Why a bachelor's degree is no longer enough
Deepti Vashisht
Features
Deepti Vashisht dissects the magic of Sweden's personal ID number
Shutterstock
Society
Ten signs you've been in Sweden too long
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 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

Blog Update: The Diplomatic Dispatch

28 October 15:16

The Green Growth Group Summit »

"Today on the 28 October in Brussels, a large group of key EU Ministers and business people, including UK Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Edward Davey, and Swedish Environment Minister Lena Ek, will meet to discuss green growth. They all have a stake in resolving a challenge which, although it is crucial..." READ »

740
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