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Exploring Sweden's linguistic history in the United States

Karen Holst · 13 Jun 2011, 10:45

Published: 13 Jun 2011 10:45 GMT+02:00

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Wild myths that solve the mysterious birth of language and its dispersal often include floods, catastrophes or punishment by the gods.

In Hindu stories it was a tree being humbled, in North American Indian folklore it was a great flood, in east Africa it was starvation-induced madness, in the Amazon it was stolen hummingbird eggs and in aboriginal Australia it was a goddess’ gift of play for children.

Regardless of how language really sprouted and then diversified, it is certain that it is not a static or fixed phenomenon.

As the world witnesses an era of unparalleled change and transformation, the question of how languages evolve as words are invented, borrowed or dismissed, becomes ever-more relevant.

To that end, a group of five Swedish researchers are set to spend more than a week in Minnesota, a northerly mid-western state known to be a part of the heartland for Swedish-American communities, to conduct interview with anyone they can find who speaks Swedish.

The researchers are hoping their efforts will help shed light on how the languages spoken by Swedish migrants a century ago has evolved over the decades of being spoken on the prairies of the Midwestern United States.

“When people move abroad and have contact with English in their every day, it begins to affect how their native language is spoken, especially across generations,” says Jenny Nilsson, a member of the research team from Gothenburg’s Institute of Language and Folklore.

“We are interested in how the two languages, Swedish and English, have affected each other and how the Swedish language has changed over time.”

The team will compare their findings to an extensive study carried out in the 1960s and 1970s when two Swedes spent almost a year travelling the US by bus.

The men recorded more then 600 Swedish speakers throughout the country that included first generation Swedes up to third generation.

“They were lucky because they were able to speak with the first Swedes who emigrated to the United States in the late 1800s – they were still alive. And to hear how they spoke after living there for a few decades, well that’s really cool data if you’re into this,” Nilsson says.

During a fifty-year span that began more than 100 years ago, a tidal wave of Swedes, amassing to about 1.3 million, left a country plagued with hardship for the shores of opportunity in the United States.

The mass emigration of Swedes for the United States was depicted in the 1971 epic film 'The Emigrants' (Utvandrarna), staring Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann (pictured above), and based on a series of novels penned by Swedish author Vilhelm Moberg in the 1950s.

The American frontiers, with their inexpensive and fertile land in the Midwest, were a magnet for the poverty-stricken Europeans who were drawn to reports of its earthly paradise, political and religious freedoms and limitless opportunities.

The migration throng reached its peak in the years following the Civil War and by 1890 the US Census reported a Swedish-American population of nearly 800,000.

By 1910, Chicago had become the Swedish-American capital, with more than 100,000 immigrants making it the second largest Swedish city in the world, next to Stockholm.

In fact, the rising Swedish exodus triggered a national alarm back at the Baltic Sea.

In the early 1900s Sweden instituted a parliamentary emigration commission that later advised extensive reforms to reduce emigration by ‘bringing the best sides of America to Sweden.’

Nowadays, according to a US Census report in 2000, about four million Americans claim to have Swedish roots.

The true number is thought to be considerably higher, and self-identified Swedish Americans in the US are expected to soon outnumber the nine million Swedes in Sweden.

Minnesota remains by a wide-margin the state with the most inhabitants of Swedish descent—9.6 percent of the population as of 2005.

The ongoing rush of new words into the English language makes it a rich field for investigation into language change, despite the difficulty of defining precisely and accurately the vocabulary available to speakers of English.

Throughout its history, English has not only borrowed words from other languages but has re-combined and recycled them to create new meanings, whilst deleting out-dated words.

Story continues below…

During their upcoming journey to the United States, the researchers, who either come from the Institute or the University of Gothenburg’s Swedish Language Department, will set out to interview and record as many Swedish speakers as they can find, talking about everyday life.

“We will listen to how they pronounce words, structure sentences, choose words and to how much English is mixed in,” says Nilsson.

For example, the phrase ‘to sit on the fence,’ in regards to having difficulty making a decision, is often translated and used in the US by American-Swedish speakers as ‘sitta på staket,’ but in true Swedish, this phrase can only be interpreted literally, explains Nilsson.

Other such findings include the Swedish word långsam, or slow, which has been substituted for lonesome instead of the accurate Swedish term ensam.

Nilsson agrees that it's easier today for people to maintain contact with the language through online news sources, buying Swedish books, listening to Swedish music and online chats, all things unavailable to the first few generations.

She and her other US-bound colleagues will compare their findings to that of the data collected during the previous decades and will use it to determine new leads that further their research.

“We have no idea what we’ll find. I would think the variation in Swedish is even greater today after ten to fifty years has passed,” explains Nilsson.

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Karen Holst (kholstmedia@gmail.com)

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Your comments about this article

15:10 June 14, 2011 by philster61
I would like to visit these Swedish areas in the US. See how much of the old traditions they have held onto. I believe that they also speak the old Swedish dialects as well....
15:50 June 14, 2011 by eltechno
Found a recent essay on how Swedish immigration impacted the politics and economic development of Minnesota.


As for what the linguists will find in Minnesota--I believe my mother's experience is instructive. She only spoke Swedish until she was six, spoke Swedish at home until she was about 18, and yet when she traveled to Sweden in her late middle age, she found being understood difficult. Of course, some of this was due to the "Americanization" of her Swedish but most was due to the fact the modern Swedish has evolved significantly from how it was spoken in 1899 when my grandfather emigrated.
01:50 June 15, 2011 by idun09
I don't think they will find many native speakers of Swedish in Minnesota any more. I used to live there and was involved with the American Swedish Institute, and the grandchildren of the emigrants needed to learn it from scratch as I did. My grandmother left Sweden around 1930 and spoke Swedish when she visited the old country. She got along fine, but a relative told me that she spoke in a way that you don't hear any more (he called it 'den gamla fina Malmbergstakten' which I took to be more about the cadence than word choices).
08:49 June 15, 2011 by karex
The first Swedish emigrants were not in the late 1800s, there were Swedes settling in America during the colonial area (early to mid 1600s) in "New Sweden" which was a Swedish colony along the Delaware River, alongside Dutch settlers of "New Netherlands" (New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Connecticut and Pennsylvania).

In any case, fascinating stuff. I live in a little village from where quite a few people emigrated to the US (entire families sometimes) and have just started photographing and recording graves in the nearby cemetery. I have already discovered one descendant (great grandson) in the U.S. of a family from there. He doesn't speak Swedish, but said his parents did even though they were born in the US.
09:24 June 15, 2011 by wabasha
go to lindstrom minnesota. its like a cartoon of sweden.
11:41 June 15, 2011 by uunbeliever
All those dirty immigrants coming into the US, bet they cause problems and take other peoples jobs.
14:49 June 15, 2011 by wenddiver
@Unbeiliever- I don't know if you would want this period of immigration to compare to modern days.

Minnesota took in millions of Swedes, Norwegians and Germans pretty smothely, compare and contrast that with the more recent immigrants from Somalia and the ever growing crime section of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

A big difference.
15:02 June 15, 2011 by millionmileman
Nebraska has the only other Gothenburg in the world. I learned at their museum that the German immigrants spelled it this way overruling the Swedish immigrants who wanted Göteborg.

The local High School sports team are "The Swedes" and this pleasant town by I-80 an Route 30 has typical late 1800s style Swedish architecture.

When American say Hi, I believe it came from Hej in Swedish and was not used in Britain until after WWII, after the many US troops who introduced it.
15:20 June 15, 2011 by svenskamerikansk
@wabasha - "go to lindstrom minnesota. its like a cartoon of sweden."

There's nothing 'cartoonish' about Lindstrom. It's just a quiet, pleasant small town of people going about living their lives, minding their own business.

@wenddiver - you are quite right - especially about Minneapolis. If one were to visit American-Swedish Institute housed in the beautiful Turnblad mansion there, it's immediately apparent that it is not a very Swedish neighborhood at all. The tall steel fence surrounding it is not part of the original property. For a preview of the future Sweden has signed itself up for, Swede's should Swedes should visit it. One can see evidence of what once was and what now is. It's instructive. And sobering.
18:49 June 15, 2011 by uunbeliever

Were you there? Watching "utvandrare" the film doesn't really count as a reliable source. Does Sweden take in "millions" of immigrants? No, the problem is coming to an openly racist country like this one. Canada and the states do actually take in far more immigrants than Sweden but seem to manage to not be afraid of brown people who don't dance around a maypole singing about small frogs...

Lighten up racist.
20:13 June 15, 2011 by karex

I'm afraid that you might be overlooking things a bit. I can't speak for Canadians but quite a lot of Americans are at the very least still "wary" of darker-skinned people, only nowadays lawsuits scares them even more. Oh, BTW, the KKK was not founded in Sweden...
21:39 June 15, 2011 by mibrooks27
I live in Oregon and we have a lot of Swedish speakers, albeit more people speak Danish. Every year, throughout the Willamette Valley we have Scandinavian Festivals. One of the larger ones is in Junction City, about 5 miles from where I am writing this. In that town there are stores that offer Swedish food, books, magazines, you name it. We also have several Scandinavian and, in partcular, Swedish museums. You can even get a degree in Scandinavian Literature at the (local) University Of Oregon. Now this is a rough estimate, but there are several THOUSAND local people who speak at least some Swedish and most of us read it well enough to fumble our way through online newspapers (I like the Goteborg Posten....sorry for the missing unlauts, one thing we don't have are Swedish comuter keyboards!)
22:01 June 15, 2011 by karex

You're right. Many people associate Swedish immigration with Minnesotta but there are other places where entire communities were established. I believe that in Texas there are quite a few Swedish descendants as well.
02:42 June 16, 2011 by MichiganLady
An area where I have some level of expertise--a Swedish-American with an PhD in English. :) Lower Ontario and Michigan are said to be the geographic norm for English-speaking in North America, the dialect to which TV announcers, etc. now aspire. And it's universally accepted that this particularly Michiganian "un-dialect" was heavily influenced by the Scandinavian settlers.

My great-grandparents emigrated to the lumber industry areas of Michigan from opposite sides of Southern Sweden (Båstad and Öland) in the 1890's. This was typical of the large Swedish populace here.

But of course, at the time, losing your native language and your accent was desirable. If you said "Hey" instead of "Hi" (which so many of us do here-abouts), my grandpa would quip back, "Hay is for horses" or "Straw's cheaper, grass is free." Always made me wonder if he was repeating the shots that Swedish kids like him got while growing up from non-Swedes....
04:15 June 16, 2011 by Smiling Canuk
Not just Minnesota. Lots of Swedish immigrants also settled in western Canada.
08:02 June 16, 2011 by wenddiver
@Unbeliever- Good idea if you can't support your position with facts, call the other side a racist. The pure Third World attack on Logic that has made those cultures so advanced that so many Americans and Swedes want to move to Somalia.

By the way I know it's not as wonderful as the culture of Rape, theft and Drug dealing your side advocates, but some of the best memories of youth were spent at Maypole Dances, and I thank the Lutheran Church in General and Pastor Anderson in particular for preserving these traditions and teaching me about men like Martin Luther, Gustavus Adolfus, and St. Olaf. I am sure there are worse ways to spend a day than help a bunch of Swedish and Norwegian girls sing songs about little green Frogs. We could be like you, but nobody sees any point in preserving that, feel free to Americanize as quickly as possible Unbeliever as I doubt your beliefs ill be missed.
18:46 June 16, 2011 by motti
Disgusting colonialists. They should be returned back to Sweden. They took the land from the ethnically cleansed AmerIndian. Shame upon you Sweden for encouraging this type of behaviour. Most unbecomng of you.
18:54 June 16, 2011 by mkvgtired
There are a lot in the Upper Peninsula in Michigan as well. I dont live there but love visiting for the natural beauty. I have been through towns where flags on the light poles alternated between US and Norwegian or Swedish (or both). They are always fun to stop in and explore. I did find it funny that Swedes move to parts of the US with very long summer days and very short winter days. I guess old habits are hard to break.
21:41 June 16, 2011 by wxman
My maternal grandfather emmigrated to Chicago in 1919 from a rural area outside of Stockholm. He married a first generation born American Swede from northeast Wisconsin who had come to Chicago for work opportunities. He represented many of those Swedes who opted for the urban environment rather than the farming communities of Wisconsin and Minnisota. Many, if not most, went into the building trades. My grandfather started out as a day laborer on construction sites and went on to retire as a successful senior forman in the late 1960s. He was part of the crew on mostly large skyscrapers across the country from Chicago to San Francisco. As a kid, I can remember him being gone for weeks on end. He got his start as many immigrants still do today. He was instructed by a Swede in New York City who he should contact when he got to Chicago. They told him, "He'll get you a job". He jumped on the train to Chicago with only a couple of dollars in his pocket. That took guts.
20:12 June 17, 2011 by Nordland88
Hej, I think the Swedish immigrants came over in waves, no doubt largest numbers came as the article indicates in the late 19th, early 20th century. The famed Utvandrarna book by Vilhelm Moberg is set in pre-civil war times when emigration to America was much more difficult taking many weeks to cross the Atlantic on sail powered ships. In those times many of the Swedes settled in the Midwest, particularly in central Illinois near Galesburg. Carl Sandburg, the famed poet who grew up there had Swedish emigrant parents. There is a small town in the area, Bishop Hill, that still holds an annual Swedish Heritage festival.
02:00 June 18, 2011 by jayseah32
I was born and raised in Central Minnesota. My dad and his sister emigrated from Linkoping about a hundred years ago. l still have contact with relatives in Linkoping and visited them about ten years ago.

Unfortunately Dad always spoke his broken English rather than teaching us Swedish. But I'm sure those researchers will find several families who maintain their Swedish roots. I wish them success.
16:02 June 18, 2011 by grr
My mother and her siblings, the first born in America, all spoke fluent Swedish from their rural district. However, they could not spell or write in Swedish. They learned English when they went to first grade in the country school.

For the most part, with some few exceptions, the unique dialects brought by their parent emigrants have now totally disappeared. My old dialect works in the north, both in Norway and Sweden. I can buy a cow and order a beer (what more could one ask?), so the researchers will be hard pressed to find too many of the "old" words.

Many Swedish emigrants came to The Dakotas, Wisconsin and Minnesota in the 1880/1890s, fleeing persecution from the Swedish Church (which was nearly as strong as the government). In the USA they worked in cities as factory laborers and house maids, saved their money and often then paid to bring other family members over. My grandfather and his brothers worked in the North Woods to pay for their farms, harvesting the last of the USA's virgin timber, some eventually working all the way to the Washington coast. Later, many who had become citizens, homesteaded when the land became available.

My families' group founded their "new" form of "free churches" but then promptly proceeded to belabor their membership with the same form of strict persecution as they had suffered in Sweden, sometimes even more strict.

Perhaps people are the same, wherever they go and for whatever reason they leave?
23:38 June 19, 2011 by MichiganLady
"But I'm sure those researchers will find several families who maintain their Swedish roots. I wish them success."

---that's my point, Jayseah! It seems like anyone Swedish-speakers they find in America will have a bit of artificial about it--someone like me only learning it now, or people learning it from the Swedish Institute.

It would have been very uncommon for the immigrant Swedes to go out of their way to teach their children much Swedish. There was SO much pressure for my grandpa and his siblings to speak English, and well. Last names were Anglicized, --sson's lost the extra "s", Nilsson became Nelson.
11:39 June 20, 2011 by just-saying
Many, many Swedes (and other Scandinavians) in Alaska since 1900's...

16:06 June 20, 2011 by james7
Many Swedish immigrants came to the Philadelphia area. Across the Delaware River from Philadelphia in South New Jersey there is the small town of Swedsboro where Swedish farmers settled. In a park in South Philadelphia there is the American Swedish Historical Museum to keep the heritage and customs alive of the Swedish immigrants.
18:10 June 23, 2011 by TheOneWhoTravels
Yeah Minnesota wasn't the only place Swedes went in North America, though it was of course highly concentrated there.

Here's a map showing the distribution of Swedish Americans according to the 2000 census (the darker the red the higher the concentration):

03:25 June 25, 2011 by Rockford Robert
My mother's family emmigrated from around Gothenberg and my father's family from the Jönköping area. I grew up in Rockford, Illinois. This was a city largely built by Swedish industrialists. My grade school and a number of others were named for them. When I was in high school in the '60s one of the languages that was taught was Swedish. That no longer is the case. The largest restaurant in the city features Swedish food and decor. Most of the industrial base is gone, lured away by lower taxes and employee costs or sold to China.
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