Alphabet soup: Sweden’s many languages

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.

Alphabet soup: Sweden’s many languages

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.


Ten essential Sámi words that you might not have heard before

There are about ten Sámi languages alive today, spoken across the northern parts of Scandinavia and eastern Russia. But they are among the many Indigenous languages around the world that are at risk of disappearing. 

Ten essential Sámi words that you might not have heard before

You might have heard that there are over 200 words for snow in Sámi languages, which is unsurprising, given the climate of the Sámi homeland in Northern Europe. But there’s a lot more to the languages than snow. 

The Swedish Sámi parliament website says that “language is the bearer of cultural heritage and reflects our people’s common view of life and values. Language transfers knowledge about nature and the world.”

But Sámi language fluency has been declining rapidly for decades. Pite Sámi is critically endangered, with fewer than 50 living speakers, all in Sweden. Today, Northern Sámi is the most widely spoken. 

Due to assimilation policies in all the countries the Sámi found themselves in, older generations of Sámi people were not allowed to speak their own language in school, meaning some languages have already been lost. 

The Local spoke to speakers and researchers of the languages to find out some of the most unique and beautiful words still in use.

1. Sápmi  

Sápmi is the Northern Sámi word for the traditional dwelling place of the Sámi people, which encompasses the northern parts of Scandinavia and the Kola peninsula of Russia. Since the 20th century, national borders and state policies have divided Sápmi and the people who call it home. 

Location of Sápmi in Europe

A map of where Sápmi in northern Europe. Map: Wikipedia

Elle Rávdná Näkkäläjärvi is part of the Sámiskeveivisere, Sámi Pathfinders, a group of young Sámi people who visit high schools and teach students about Sámi culture. She says Sápmi itself is one of her favourite words. 

“The word means a Sápmi without borders, it means relatives, sisters and brothers, and community,” she says. 

2. Eadni 

Eadni means ‘mother’ in Northern Sámi.

“It’s one of the first words that children learn,” says Berit Anne Bals Baal, a lecturer of linguistics at the National Centre for Sámi Language in Education at the Sámi University College, who chose it as her favourite word.

It has a complex phonology (sound system), and is similar to the Northern Sámi word for Earth, which is eanan

3. Guohtun  

Guohtun is a Northern Sámi word that describes the ideal conditions for reindeer to find lichen to graze under a covering of snow. But it’s more complicated than that. It’s one of those words that resists simple translation.

Lars Miguel Utsi, the Vice President of the Sámi parliament of Sweden, says, “Guohtun is a very complex word. It encompasses geography, plants, lichens, snow, and reindeer. It exemplifies the language and its connection to land and water.”

“It’s a very soothing word because it means that there is food and the reindeer can reach it,” he said. 

4. Giitu  

Giitu means ‘thank you’ in Northern Sámi.

Anyone who knows some Finnish might notice that it sounds quite similar to the Finnish word for ‘thank you’, kiitos. That’s because Sámi languages have more in common with Finnish than with Swedish, Danish or Norwegian, coming from the same language family: Finno-Uralic. 

You can respond to giitu with leage buorre which means ‘you’re welcome.’

5. Čáiddas 

This means snowball. We couldn’t have a list of Sámi words without having something specific to snow, could we? 

6. Vuovdi 

This means forest in Northern Sámi. Vast swathes of Sápmi is covered in forest. Sámi reindeer herders rely on old-growth forests to let their reindeer graze; they eat the kind of lichen that only grows in older forests. 

7. Boazu

Reindeer husbandry is a vital part of Sámi life. Photo: Image Bank Sweden

In all Sámi languages, there are two different words for reindeer. In Northern Sámi there is goddi and boazu.

Boazu means a reindeer who has been tamed and can be milked. Goddi is the word for wilder reindeer.  

Reindeer herding is an important aspect of Sámi culture and a vital source of income for many Sámi people. The Sámi parliament estimates that about 2,500 people are dependent on income from reindeer husbandry. 

8. Bures

An easy one! This is how you say “hello” to another person in Northern Sámi. 

9. Goahte  

Goahte is a type of hut in Lule Sámi. It’s a traditional Sámi home that can be built in several different ways, depending on what material is available, like with wooden panels or a construction of wooden poles covered with peat or cloth.

10. Sámediggi 

This is the Northern Sámi word for the Sámi Parliament. There’s a Sámi parliament in each country that divides Sápmi.

In the Scandinavian countries, it’s essentially a government agency with the aim of representing the Sámi people and increasing opportunities to participate in public debate.