New English words enter Swedish dictionaries every year, and that's only the tip of the iceberg: words become part of everyday speech long before linguists have the chance to document and define them. Over the past decade, there has been a surge in the number of Swedish schools teaching in English, and many hiring managers in Sweden's booming tech industry prioritise English language skills over Swedish.
Swedes are so used to switching between the two that they'll often change how they pronounce their own names depending on whether they're introducing themselves to an English or Swedish speaker, so a David will elongate the 'a' and soften the 'd' sound for Anglophone acquaintances.
Swedish has incorporated elements of English (and other languages) since the 1200s, and America's enormous political, economic, and cultural power after the Second World War increased the dominance of English worldwide. Since then, globalisation and technological advances have improved access to foreign languages as well as strengthening the need for a lingua franca, speeding up the rate of language change.
When people talk about the linguistic impact of English on Swedish, they're usually referring to loan words, a misleading term since the words aren't simply borrowed but often fully integrated into Swedish.
“The amount of loan words is not as enormous as people think, and almost none belong to the basic vocabulary – the top 1,000 words that make up 70 percent of Swedish texts,” says Olle Josephson, Professor Emeritus in Scandinavian Languages and former head of the Language Council of Sweden (Språkrådet).
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English words usually take on Swedish pronunciation, inflection, and sometimes even spelling as time goes on, such as 'dejt' and 'strejk'. It's relatively uncommon that they replace a Swedish word, with many describing wholly new phenomena ranging from cultural concepts to scientific discoveries.
Sometimes Swedish twists the words' meaning to suit new concepts or linguistic gaps in Sweden. The noun 'afterwork' appears English but is wholly Swedish, as is the term 'backslick', referring to a slicked-back hairstyle. The English-inspired verb 'snooza' has not replaced the Swedish term for a short sleep (dåsa) but taken on the specific meaning of sleeping in after an alarm. Swedes say 'after ski' whereas English-speakers typically use the phrase 'après-ski', partly because French is seen as sophisticated in English and because Brits often ski in French-speaking regions (this is itself a mutated loan word; in French, the term refers to snow boots).
Loan words can also be productive, not just adapting but actively contributing to the Swedish language. For example, after borrowing the word 'gym' from English, Sweden developed the definitive form 'gymmet' and the verb 'att gymma' (to train at the gym) – a verb which doesn't exist in English.
But Josephson points out that lexical influence is one of the most 'superficial' changes languages undergo, and that despite the influx of new words, English has caused little to no change to Swedish grammar, structural patterns or the sound system. Those kinds of change would be deeper and more long-lasting. The dominance of English may be only temporary; it's possible that the current influx of English words will slow down in future generations, in the same way that inserting French phrases into English was popular among Brits some years ago as a sign of sophistication, but phrases like 'vis-à-vis' now sound outdated or overdone in everyday speech.
Describing food as “interesting” has slightly negative connotations in English.
Languages are robust and undergo changes all the time, some decreed from above (such as the Du-reform in the 1960s, which simplified a complex system of address) but most evolving naturally through use, as the way we understand the world and interact with each other changes.
A few of the recent trends in Swedish, as outlined by language watchdogs Språkrådet, include a general tendency towards informality; the increasing use of the gender-neutral pronoun 'hen'; and influence from languages such as Arabic and Sweden's national minority languages as well as English.
In the same report, Språkrådet said that the overall language system remains highly stable. Mutual intelligibility with the other Scandinavian languages strengthens its position, as do the many books, films, and songs created in the language each year and the newspapers and broadcasters that use only Swedish. The massive popularity of Nordic cultural exports also inspire foreigners with no other ties to Sweden to learn the language.
“Compared to the influence of Low German around the 14th and 15th centuries, English influence is fairly weak. That German influence really transformed the way Swedish worked. There is no threat to the Swedish language in that it could be successively consumed by English, word for word,” comments Josephson.
“I'd say Swedish is one of the strongest languages in the world, probably in the top one percent globally. The written language is stable, it has a long history, and is still used in all parts of society: laws are written in Swedish, parliament uses Swedish – it passes all the tests,” he adds.
Swedish is further protected by a language law, first introduced in 2009. This states that Swedish is the common language of Sweden and that the population must have access to and be able to use it in all areas of society. Swedes are more or less able to take it for granted that they can use Swedish when they wish to, whether at the doctor, supermarket, or at a restaurant, and foreigners are offered free Swedish language classes.
But despite all that, there are areas where Swedish does run a serious risk of extinction.
English takes precedence over Swedish “above all in the business world, advertising industry and entertainment industry”, says Swedish teacher Per-Åke Lindblom. He set up the website Språkförsvaret (Language Defence) in 2002 and it has grown into a grass roots organisation with the guiding principal that “Swedish should be used everywhere we can use it; English only when we have to”.
“The status of Swedish is no longer totally self-evident; it is losing areas of use,” he tells The Local, explaining the organisation's reason for being.
English has become the working language of many companies, and is increasingly used in academia and education as well as in adverts and branding. The benefits are clear, from a wider availability of teaching materials to international recognition for Swedish researchers, but the potential pitfalls are often overlooked.
Students in Sweden. Photo: Tina Stafren/imagebank.sweden.se
From a linguistic point of view, there's the risk of Swedish terms in certain sectors falling out of use, or that the language won't be kept updated in line with new developments in the field – anyone who knows native Swedish researchers may have heard them say it's easier to talk about their thesis in English.
This phenomenon is known as domain loss, and this is what Lindblom and many like him are anxious to prevent.
He argues that the language law – behind which Språkförsvaret was a driving force – is too weak in its current form, with too limited a scope and no defined penalties. The organisation highlights specific instances when English is used in Sweden unnecessarily, campaigning for example against the obligation to write some applications for academic research funding in English. Getting ordinary members of the population more involved in the fight to protect Swedish and raising awareness of language issues are further key goals.
In 2009, Sweden's Justice Ombudsman ruled in its favour when it reported the government's English-language e-mail addresses. Lindblom also pointed to examples of English used over Swedish in regional instances, for example Umeå Christmas Market and East Sweden. In the latter case, a survey carried out by a local newspaper showed that 90 percent of readers were against the use of English in the region's trademark.
These examples also highlight one of the peculiarities of the use of English in Sweden. Linus Salö, who holds a PhD in Bilingualism and works currently at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, describes English as “the language through which Swedes express modernity” and says that in advertising and business, “the assumption is that English sells”. Companies and schools often announce their switch to English as a point of pride.
This makes sense if there is a goal of appealing to international investors or recruiting and welcoming foreign workers, but in many instances English is used in a way that would be incomprehensible to non-Swedish speakers – so why bother?
Many adverts, such as the one below, include a single English-language slogan or phrase which will mean nothing to Anglophones who don't understand the rest of the English text. And there are lots of brand names in Sweden, such as Stockholm's Hobo Hotel and the Stay Hard clothing brand, whose names have distinctly negative connotations in English.
In this slogan, the language change seems to be meant to convey surprise, so it's interesting that the writers chose to start in English and switch to Swedish.
Salö says the status of English in Sweden is “complex and certainly understudied”.
“Clothing stores that have SALE rather the Swedish version REA are seldom the high-end stores. The posh stores have 'sommarpriser’ or 'realisation'. This means that the question of the status of English begs for more attention,” he notes.
Under the language law, public bodies including state-run universities have “a special responsibility to see that Swedish is used and developed”, but the vagueness of this statement means there's no uniform university language policy. One measure aimed at mitigating domain loss is the requirement to include a Swedish-language summary with English-language research, in place at around a third of universities.
Salö argues that universities need stronger policies to remedy domain loss. He says that it's impossible for a Swedish language summary of an English thesis to achieve the goals of both introducing new terminology to the Swedish language and making the research accessible to Swedish-speaking members of the public.
“I think that state-funded universities in particular should draw up strategies that are sensitive to matters and language and knowledge,” he tells The Local. “The main thing to remember is that language matters are pretty much never about language alone.”
As well as the risk that Swedish could lose its status in some fields, the overuse of English also poses problems for non-natives, even the highly proficient Swedes.
Using a second language takes its toll, and communication is likely to be slower and less effective when Swedish companies and institutions switch to using English. Researcher John Airey found that at several Swedish universities, students asked and answered fewer questions when teaching took place in English, and struggled to obtain as much information. Teachers were affected too, needing more time to prepare materials and sticking more rigidly to them rather than interacting spontaneously in Swedish.
In 2017, Sweden's rural affairs minister at the time was criticised for spending thousands of kronor on English language help, despite the fact he was fluent in three languages already – and that even before his lessons, he spoke better English than higher-ranking politicians in other European countries. Some opponents said fluent English should be a requirement for ministers, a policy which, if ever introduced, would shut out a huge number of people from politics in their own country.
There are also implications for Swedish society. In academia, publishing research in English helps it get a greater international reach, but Salö points out that universities “also have certain national responsibilities”.
“The Swedish state, for example, needs scholarly expert knowledge to sustain and develop important features of the welfare state,” he explains. “In such cases, research published in English could obviously be translated, but the risk is that the pressure to publish in English makes certain nationally important research questions not worth studying. That would be bad in my view.”
No one is arguing for English to be stripped from TV screens and university syllabuses. But it doesn't make sense to use English just for the sake of it.
The leader of the Swedish Moderates faced backlash after stating in his Christmas speech in 2017: “In Sweden, we speak Swedish.” His argument was not extreme – he said “perfect” Swedish was overrated but that immigrants should make an effort to reach a level of comprehension – but opponents were quick to criticise him and point out that 200 languages are spoken in today's Sweden.
Photo: Ulf Kristersson gives the speech in Stockholm. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT
That's true, and it's a great thing, but unless everyone in Sweden learns all 200 of them, there's still a need for a national standard, and it makes sense that should be Swedish.
Over-reliance on English can also create problems for foreigners. Anglophones might find it easier to settle in and find work when they can use their native language, but the omnipresence of English can also be an obstacle to learning Swedish and fully integrating. Meanwhile, immigrants with a native language other than English might find themselves under pressure to learn two new languages in order to get by and find work.
In some settings, there's a clear practical advantage to using English, if the writer or speaker is targeting the international community. But otherwise, it makes sense to make decisions on a case-by-case basis, rather than letting English become the default, as has happened in some areas of Swedish society, or using it as the language of prestige.
“We can't have a one-language society, we have to find a balance between English and Swedish,” comments Josephson. As for how that would best happen, he says there is no general formula.
“You would have to study the special conditions in each field, for example at each level and area of academia, and look at how things are done day-to-day to see what makes sense. That's a hard task. The first condition is awareness of the problem, then it's the task of finding the balance, but this awareness isn't high enough yet.”
Lindblom meanwhile has a solution in mind. He points out that an over-reliance on English has led to dwindling competence in other languages, which is damaging to Swedish business and culture. While Språkförsvaret campaigns against the use of English to the detriment of Swedish, it fully supports a multilingual society and has supported national minority languages as well as encouraging Swedes to learn at least two foreign languages.
“Too many Swedes and too many Swedish companies think it's enough to know one foreign language: English. Knowledge in German and French has become worse. Swedish export companies have worse language skills than many of their most important competitors in Europe, and you can sell best in the buyer's language,” he says.
“Multilingualism, not bilingualism, is the solution.”
Article first published in 2018