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Alphabet soup: Sweden's many languages

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Alphabet soup: Sweden's many languages
15:53 CET+01:00
Learning Swedish is a noble pursuit. When in Rome and all that. But mastering the majority mother tongue is only the beginning, as many more languages loom large on the horizon, writes Alec Forss.

If you thought Swedish was the only language of Sweden, then think again. Not including English and languages such as Kurdish and Serbian that have grown in prominence with immigration over recent decades, there are in fact some fifteen languages and over a hundred dialects considered “native” to Sweden.

Some of these languages are healthy with tens of thousands of speakers, while others are more marginal and count among the world's most endangered. Among Sweden's “other languages”, the Swedish government today recognizes five minority languages: Sami, Yiddish, Romani, Tornedalen Finnish, and Finnish.

Tornedalen Finnish, for example, is spoken by over 80,000 people in the north of the country along the border with Finland, and although closely related to Finnish, it is different enough that speakers can have difficulties in understanding one another. Romani, meanwhile, spoken among a smaller number of persons by the country's Roma population, has been present in Sweden for over four hundred years.

Sami – the language of Sweden's indigenous population in the north – is in fact is made up of several languages that are not necessarily mutually intelligible. Of these, South Sami is considered a “seriously endangered language” with less than three hundred speakers left in Sweden. “It will likely disappear”, says Louise Bäckman, one of the few remaining native speakers. Ume Sami, meanwhile, with less than twenty speakers, is already heading for extinction. On a more optimistic note, North Sami displays a cleaner bill of health counting some 5,000-6,000 speakers in Sweden and many more in Norway.

Considered to be a dialect rather than a separate language, arguably the most well-known – and famous for its rolling r's – is Skånska spoken by up to one million people in Sweden's southern province of Skåne. Jämtska is another, which is spoken by some 50,000 people in the north-western province of Jämtland.

More of an oddity is Älvdalska from the northwest reaches of Dalarna, which some claim to be a separate language; largely unintelligible to most Swedes, there have been efforts to accord it official minority language status.

Sweden's mosaic of languages and dialects can in large part be traced to geography. While proximity to Denmark, Norway and Finland has influenced speech in the south, to the west and north-east of the country, river valleys and waterways have historically served to spread the currents of dialect. For instance, “it is more likely that one speaks the same dialect as a person further downstream than someone from a closer village that is not on a river or lake,” says Bert Edström, formerly from Vilhelmina in Västerbotten.

Immigration and “ghettoisation” is having a greater impact, too. Known as Förortssvenska, or suburb Swedish, various dialects of Swedish – or more accurately, sociolects – are spoken in suburbs such as Rinkeby in Stockholm or Rosengård in Malmö by immigrant populations.

In spite of the diversity, “dialects are getting weaker and weaker as older speakers die”, says Laura Enflo, a researcher on Swedish dialects at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. Television and migration to larger cities are also serving to homogenise the way people speak.

Then there is a language that no one actually speaks, and yet some 8,000 people in Sweden claim it as their first language. It is Swedish sign language, of course, which just like any other spoken language varies from one country to another.

And what about the future of Swedish itself? Peculiarly enough, it has up until now not been deemed necessary to designate Swedish as an official language in Sweden. But with some people now advocating that classes be taught through the medium of English in schools, could it be that Swedish becomes a minority language in the future? Or that Swenglish becomes an official language in its own right?

Finally, while mastering Swedish may seem daunting enough, why not take up the cause of learning Ume Sami or one of the other endangered languages or dialects – you could be helping to preserve the country's multilingual heritage.

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