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Swedish fights rearguard action against English behemoth

Christine Demsteader · 18 Apr 2007, 12:04

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

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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.

Story continues below…

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)

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