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DE/DEM: Is Sweden about to carry out its biggest language reform in 50 years?

Becky Waterton
Becky Waterton - [email protected]
DE/DEM: Is Sweden about to carry out its biggest language reform in 50 years?
'De' and 'dem', two words which Swedish schoolchildren often find difficult, could soon be replaced by 'dom'. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

The Swedish words 'de' and 'dem' could be replaced by 'dom' if the new leader of Sweden's Language Council gets her way.


'De' and 'dem' are the cause of one of the most common mistakes in written Swedish, where even Swedish native speakers are often unsure which one they should use.

The reason for the confusion in Swedish is simple: both 'de' and 'dem' are pronounced 'dom' in spoken Swedish, meaning that you'll often see 'dom' used instead of 'de' or 'dem' in informal written Swedish, such as in texts and on social media.

This is the key argument for upcoming leader of the Swedish Language Council, Lena Lind Palicki's plans to reform 'de' and 'dem', officially replacing them with 'dom' in written Swedish. 

"It's part of a natural language development as we've stopped making this distinction in speech," she told public broadcaster SVT.


Are Swedes in favour of the reform?

Well... not really. In a 2022 study by Novus on behalf of Språktidningen, only 26 percent of Swedes wanted to make 'dom' official, with 39 percent preferring to continue to use 'de' and 'dem', and 31 percent having neither positive nor negative feelings towards a 'dom' reform.

Somewhat paradoxically, as the group most often accused of having problems with 'de' and 'dem', Swedes between 18 and 29 were most against a 'dom' reform, with the majority - 58 percent - against.

"You can see that those who can't tell the difference between 'de' and 'dem' are often criticised. People call them lazy and say 'what's wrong with young people nowadays?', 'what do they even learn in school?," Lind Palicki told SVT.

At the other end of the scale, Swedes over the age of 65 were most positive towards a reform, with 28 percent for a reform and 26 percent against.

Language change 'unavoidable'

Lind Palicki described changes in language as "unavoidable" to SVT, adding that it "changes whether we want it to or not".

"Most people agree that language change is a natural process, but few want language to change during their lifetimes," she said.

Anders Svensson, editor of Språktidningen, explained why the debate is so heated in an article in the magazine in 2022. 

"One of the reasons is that 'de' and 'dem' have become symbols for correct Swedish," he said.

"When teachers say that it's hard to teach the difference in school, it's sometimes seen as a sign of a larger societal issue."



Sweden has made major changes to its language before, notably in the famous du-reformen, or "you reform", when people in Sweden stopped using ni, the plural version of "you", as a polite way of addressing others. In 19th century Sweden, du had only been used to address spouses, loving couples and very close friends. Men typically referred to each other with their title, i.e., herr fabrikören, or "Mr. factory owner". 

The change is normally linked to a day in 1967, when Bror Rexed, the incoming head of Sweden's medicines agency, told his employees that he intended to say "du" to all of them. It had in fact been building for some time, with the transition away from "ni" not complete until well into the 1970s. 

"Ni" as a polite singular form is now only strictly used to address Sweden's king, but there have been reports of its use creeping back in some other circumstances. 

What do 'de' and 'dem' mean in English?

For English speakers, it's relatively easy to figure out which one to use, as 'dem' translates directly to 'them', and 'de' to 'they' (or sometimes 'the' for plural nouns).

Here are some quick examples:

De bakar kakor. (They bake cakes.)

Jag vill äta dem. (I want to eat them.)

De goda kakor. (The nice cakes.)


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