The Swedish Language. From Viking Times to the Present Day: Its Development, Its Peculiarities and Its Status

The Swedish  Language. From Viking Times to the Present Day: Its Development, Its Peculiarities and Its Status
The Swedish  Language. From Viking Times to the Present Day: Its Development, Its Peculiarities and Its Status. 
Swedish people celebrate Walpurgis, or Valborgsmässoafton in Lidingö 2010. It dates back as far as the Middle Ages. In the beginning, it was celebrated by merchants in the cities (the 30th of April marking the end of their fiscal year) but it was also celebrated on the countryside, to mark the passing of spring into summer. Farmers would let their livestock graze late into the evening and lit bonfires to ward off any predators or evil spirits lurking in the shadows. Credit: Baltic Media 

The national language of Sweden is Swedish. It is the mother tongue of approximately 8 million of the country’s  total population of almost 10 million.  Swedish is also spoken by around  300,000 Finland Swedes, 25,000 of whom live on the Swedish-speaking Åland islands.  Swedish is one of the two national  languages of Finland, along with Finnish,  for historical reasons. Finland was part  of Sweden until 1809.  There has been a Swedish-speaking  population in Estonia since the Middle Ages.  Today, only a fraction of it remains.  Since the mid-19th century and up to the present day, more than a million people have emigrated from  Sweden, primarily to North America. It is estimated that Swedish is spoken by several hundred thousand people  worldwide.

Despite the dominant status of Swedish, Sweden is not a monolingual country.  The Sami in the north have always been  a domestic minority, and the country has had a Finnish-speaking population  ever since the Middle Ages. Finnish  and Meänkieli (a Finnish dialect spoken in the Torne river valley in northern   Sweden), spoken by a total of approximately 250,000 people in Sweden, and Sami all have legal status as  domestic minority languages. Romany, Yiddish and sign language for the deaf  also have a form of legal minority- language status.

 As a result of immigration and the   influx of refugees in recent decades, at  least 150 languages are now spoken in  Sweden. Arabic is the most widespread,  with at least 150,000 speakers. No  official statistics are kept on language  affiliation in Sweden.

Swedish and related languages  Swedish is a Nordic language, a Germanic branch of the Indo-European  language tree. Danish and Norwegian  are its siblings, while the other Nordic languages, Icelandic and Faroese, are  more like half-siblings that have preserved more of their original features.  Using this approach, English and German are almost cousins. 

The relationship with other Indo-European languages is particularly clear when we encounter so-called native words that we have from our shared origin.

These are words such as fader (father), moder (mother), hus (house),  mus (mouse), hund (dog), ko (cow),  öga (eye), öra (ear), näsa (nose), blod (blood), dag (day), natt (night), sten (stone), ben (bone), jord (earth), vatten (water), ung (young), ljuv (sweet), äta (eat), dricka (drink), leva (live), (die).

The Swedish alphabet 

The Swedish alphabet has 29 letters and ends with å, ä and ö. V and w are pronounced in the same way, as are s and z.



How does Swedish sound?

The characteristic immediately apparent  to a foreign ear is that Swedish is a melodious language with falling and  rising tones and varying pitch accents:  /´hunden/, /`ra:dhu:s/, /:terställa/,   /pro´ble:m/, /problem´a:tisk/, fotograf´i:/. A sequence of letters such as buren  can be pronounced in two ways. The noun buren (the cage) has accent 1,  with the full emphasis on bur-: /´bu:ren/.  However, the participle form buren   (carried), of the verb bära, has accent 2,  with partial emphasis on the second   syllable: /`bu:ren/.

A particular characteristic of the  sound of Swedish is the many vowel  sounds, a, o, u, å, e, i, y, ä, ö, which can  be both long and short.

Vowel length often determines mean- ing in Swedish: mat (food) pronounced  with a long a, matt (dull) pronounced  with a short a, ful (ugly) pronounced  with a long u, full (full) pronounced with  a short u.

Foreigners also notice the special Swedish u sound. U is pronounced not as in the German word Buch (or the English word boot), but as a sound  somewhere between the vowels in  Buch and grün. The u can be short, as in hund, and long, as in hus.

The letters å, ä och ö are more visually  than aurally distinctive. Å represents  the same vowel sound as in the English words more and hot. Ä is equivalent to  the vowels in care and best. Ö represents  the same sound as in the French words  bleu /-ö/, boeuf /-öff/ and chauffeur /-ö:r/.  

Swedish also contains combinations  of consonants that can be difficult for  many foreigners to pronounce: vrak,  sprängts, östgötsk. The combinations of letters sj, skj and stj are pronounced /∫/, for example  as in the English word she. For example:   sjö (sea), sjuk (sick), skjorta (shirt),   stjärna (star).

Ö represents  the same sound as in the French words  bleu /-ö/, boeuf /-öff/ and chauffeur /-ö:r/.  Swedish also contains combinations  of consonants that can be difficult for  many foreigners to pronounce: vrak,  sprängts, östgötsk. The combinations of letters sj, skj and stj are pronounced /∫/, for example  as in the English word she. For example: sjö (sea), sjuk (sick), skjorta (shirt),  stjärna (star).
 The same is true of sk before the  front vowels e, i, y, ä, ö: skepp (ship),  skinn (skin), sky (sky), skämmas (be  ashamed), sköld (shield).
 The standard Swedish r sound is  an apical r, as in Spanish and Italian (but not as clearly articulated). In the  southern parts of the country, a velar r  is used, as in French.

Grammatical peculiarities

The hardest feature of Swedish for  foreigners to learn is the inverse word  order in sentences that start with some- thing other than the subject. The verb  always comes second in the sentence.  For example, ‘Anna kommer i dag’   (Anna is coming today) but ‘I dag kommer Anna’ (Today, is coming Anna)   (not ‘Today, Anna is coming’).
 A peculiarity of Nordic languages is  the postpositive definite article: man– mannen (the man), hus–huset (the  house), hundar–hundarna (the dogs).  Swedish can also have a double definite  form: det lilla huset (the little house).
The Nordic languages can form a special passive form with -s: ‘brevet skrevs’ (the letter is written), ‘brevet har skrivits’ (the letter was written).The old system of three grammatical genders, han, hon, det(he, she, it), has been reduced to two in standard Swedish: denand det. We now have båten(the boat) – den, huset(the house) – det.
 However, where the gender is important, masculine and feminine pronouns are used: mannen(the man) – han, kvinnan (the woman) – hon, hingsten (the stallion) – han, stoet(the mare) – hon.
References to time are a relic: Hur mycket är hon? Hon är halv två (What time is it? It is one thirty).
 In recent years, people have also started to use a new gender-neutral pronoun, hen, partly to replace the combination han eller hon(he or she) and partly for people who do not want to be categorised as either man or woman.
 In modern Swedish, the verb has the same form in the singular and plural: jag är(I am), vi är (we are); jag tar (I take), vi tar (we take). The old plural forms are now found almost only in hymns and in Swedish drinking songs: ‘Vi äro små  humlor som ta oss en geting’ (We are small bumblebees which take a wasp).
However, Swedish has retained the various plural forms of nouns: kyrka–kyrkor (church–churches), hund–hundar (dog–dogs), gäst–gäster(guest–guests), äpple–äpplen (apple–apples), hus–hus (house–houses), man–män (man–men), mus–möss (mouse–mice).

Runic Swedish 

The runic alphabet is called Futhark  after the six letters in the first group.  The 16-character Viking era Futhark  in its commonest form is shown here.   These are the so-called Swedish- Danish runes or normal runes.
Bokstav (the Swedish word for letter)  means ‘line carved in beech wood.  Wood was the commonest material,  but stone has been better preserved.


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Influence from other languages

Swedish has always been open to loans  from elsewhere but has still survived  as a separate language. The arrival of  Christianity in the 11th century brought  with it a number of words of Latin and  Greek origin such as kyrka (church), 
präst (priest), mässa (mass) and paradis  (paradise).
The influence from the rest of Europe  continued in the Middle Ages. Romances   of chivalry in verse and propaganda  such as rhyming chronicles emerged as  literature around the king and the court.  The monastic system started translating   religious literature. Vadstena Abbey  became a spiritual centre where many  texts were produced.

Influence from other languages Swedish has always been open to loans from elsewhere but has still survived as a separate language. The arrival of Christianity in the 11th century brought with it a number of words of Latin and Greek origin such as kyrka (church), präst (priest), mässa (mass) and paradis (paradise). 

Towns grew up as a result of trade and crafts. Words were borrowed and words were created in Swedish to cope with all these new elements. The complicated sentence structure and long-winded phrases of Latin left their mark on the written language and this has remained to the present day.
 However, the biggest influence of all on the Swedish language came from German via the Hanseatic league.  The old vindögat (window) in the roof was replaced by a fönster in the wall.  Eldhuset became kök (kitchen), mön (maiden) became jungfru, börja became begynna (begin), gälda became betala (pay), mål and tunga became språk (language). In the new towns, there were rådhus (town halls), borgerskap (citizens), väktare (watchmen), fängelse  (prisons), fogde (sheriffs) and bödel  (executioners).

 Köpmän (merchants)  handled varor (goods),vikter (wights),  mynt (coins) and räkenskap (accounts).
Occupations included skräddare (tailor),  skomakare (shoemaker), slaktare (butcher) and krögare (innkeeper).

 The borrowing of German words continued throughout the Middle Ages and the Reformation in the 16th century, when Sweden adopted the Lutheran doctrine, and it continued during the Thirty Years’ War in the 17th century.

 The language of science and higher education had long been Latin, the  international language. However, in  the 17th century, when France under the  ‘Sun King’ Louis XIV became the leading nation of Europe, French started to be-come a status language and even more so during the 18th century, the century of culture and the Enlightenment.

 The loan words show what sort of culture was being borrowed: möbel (furniture), balkong (balcony), garderob (wardrobe), salong (salon), mustasch (moustache), parfym (perfume), sås (sauce), kastrull (saucepan), balett (ballet), ridå (curtain), pjäs (play), journalist, roman (novel), modern.
 In the 19th century, English began to flow in with the vocabulary of industrial-isation, travel and sport: jobb (job), strejk (strike), bojkott (boycott), räls (rail), lokomotiv (locomotive), turist (tourist), sport, rekord (record).

 When, at the start of the 19th century, the Nordic countries ended their last war with each other, a strong sense of solidarity emerged, giving rise to the Scandinavism movement, followed in the second half of the century by the Modern Breakthrough in literature.

Authors and artists mingled freely across borders and borrowed words from each other. During this period  the following words arrived from  Danish and Norwegian: hänsyn (con-sideration), spydig (malicious), underfundig (sly), förälskelse (love), rabalder (tumult).

The 20th century was the century  of English more than anything else.
Since the Second World War, English has been about the only language from which words have been borrowed but there have been a great many such words. Immigrants’ languages have  had little impact on Swedish, although kebab, pizza and couscous are now everyday Swedish words.

Words loaned to other languages 

During the Viking era, several Nordic words were loaned to English. Window (fönster in Swedish), vindue in Danish and Norwegian, from an older  Nordic word vindauga, Swedish vindöga, (opening in the roof). Starboard, from steer and board, from the Nordic styrbord, the side of a ship on which the steering oar is attached.

A couple of Swedish words in other languages are ombudsman and smörgåsbord, the latter becoming smorgasbord in English.

Similarities between languages 

Björken, a tree with Indo-European roots, is birk in Danish, bjerk in Norwegian, björk in Icelandic, birch in English, Birke in German, berk in Dutch, bereza in Russian, brzoza in Polish, bērzs in Latvian, beržas in Lithuanian and bhurja in Sanskrit.
The missionary Ansgar came to the trading place Birka in Lake Mälaren, Sweden, in the 9th century. The island itself is now called Björkö.

Standard Swedish and dialects

Standard Swedish developed out of the language spoken in Mälardalen and around the capital, Stockholm. This was the seat of the administration and where the upper class lived. The first translation of the Bible in 1541 (Gustav Vasa’s bible) also contributed to the stabilisation of the written language and was of great importance to standardisation of the language and to literature. Another contributing factor was that a higher proportion of the population were able to read. From the end of the 17th century, ministers were obliged to ensure that people knew important passages from the Bible and Luther’s catechism.

 The 18th century saw the emergence of an educated middle class and with it the start of the journalistic Swedish we have today. A scientific Swedish was also created and Sweden’s success in this field, with representatives such as Carl von Linné and Anders Celsius, was also shared with the people.

 The development of standard Swedish continued in subsequent centuries with inward migration to the cities, the  growth of the press, public education   (compulsory primary school was   established in 1842 with Swedish as a separate subject), literature for the educated public (August Strindberg,  Selma Lagerlöf, etc.), folk high schools and popular movements (where generations of politicians learned to speak and write in public), standards for the written language in the Swedish Academy  
Glossary and eventually the broadcasting media.
 Standard Swedish and its regional variants essentially have the same vocabulary and inflections. The differences are primarily in pronunciation and intonation. The most distinctive variants are Southern Swedish and Finland Swedish (which also has a number of variant words). However, people raised in Gothenburg, Stockholm, Gotland and Norrland are also usually easy to identify. The way a person speaks often reveals which part of the country they come from.

 Pure dialect is spoken less and less. The few people who speak a genuine local dialect in their home district usually switch to a variant closer to standard Swedish when they encounter people 
from elsewhere.

Finland Swedish

The Swedish used in Finland is not a separate language, but it has features that differ from standard Swedish, above all in speech. Like the Swedish used in Sweden, it also has a number of different dialects. Swedish is spoken on the Åland islands, which are Swedish speaking, in the coastal areas of southern Finland and further north in Österbotten.

A characteristic feature of the Swedish used in Finland is that it does not distinguish between accent 1 and accent 2.  
Speakers of standard Swedish think that Finland Swedish sounds ‘singsong’, while speakers of Finland Swedish say the same about standard Swedish.

 In general, Finland Swedish is pronounced more literally than standard  Swedish. The last two letters of   Helsingfors (Swedish for Helsinki) are pronounced by many as a separate r and a separate s, and not as a ‘sh’ sound, as in standard Swedish. Djup (deep) and djur (animal) retain the d when pronounced, where standard Swedish says /ju:p/ and / ju:r/. The u sound is also different.

The national language of Sweden is  Swedish. It is the mother tongue of   approximately 8 million of the country’s  total population of almost 10 million.
The national language of Sweden is  Swedish. It is the mother tongue of   approximately 8 million of the country’s  total population of almost 10 million. 

Immigrant words 

Established everyday words that   arrived with immigrants include tjej (girl) and jycke (dog) from Romany and kola (die) and kul (fun) (from Finnish).
Guz (girl) from Turkish and jalla! (hurry up!) from Arabic are two of the more widely known words used in the Swedish spoken in immigrant areas.

Gender equality in linguistic usage Sweden is one of the countries in the world in which gender equality work and the attitude to gender equality have advanced most. In linguistic usage, this work is expressed in the fact that previously very masculine derivative endings are now gender neutral, while female derivative endings have gradually become uncommon. As a result, the previously masculine ending -are now designates both genders. Lärare (teacher), författare (author) and bagare (baker) have replaced lärarinna, författarinna and bagerska for women who have these occupations. The same is true of konduktriser, direktriser and ambassadriser, who are now konduktörer (conductors), direktörer (directors), ambassadörer (ambassadors). 

However, the transition has not been fully completed. 
We still have servitriser (waitresses), skulptriser (sculptresses) and aktriser (actresses).
 The suffix -man is replaced in some cases. A female riksdagsman is called riksdagsledamot (member of the Riksdag) and a female forskare (researcher) is known as that and not as vetenskapsman (literally man of science). Talesman is sometimes talesperson as in English (spokesperson). But ombudsman and nämndeman (lay judge) are unchanged, and they are often women.
 Women are no longer given a title according to their husband’s occupation. Överstinnor (colonels’ wives) and professorskor (professors’ wives) are now an extinct species.

The female sexual organ has been given a respectable new name after not having had one for a long time. Snippa is the word, and it is used in particular by children. (The word snopp has long been used for boys’ sexual organs.)

Does the Swedish language have a soul?

The contrast between Swedish and other European languages becomes clear in the translation of EU legislation. Where French and German official language excels at producing complicated long sentences, Swedish prefers short sentences with simple subordinate clauses. Of course, it is possible to produce incredibly complex sentences in Swedish, and they are produced, but the Latin influence on Swedish legal style has always been counterbalanced by the Nordic heritage from the provincial lawrolls, with their oral narrative style.
Some users of foreign languages find this Swedish syntax rather basic, at least for argumentation, while others love its directness and simplicity. The Swedish word formation system, with its wealth of potential compounds, creates long words that are sometimes hard to understand and may replace en-tire sentences or phrases. Words such as resursallokering (resource allocation), ståndpunktstagande (standpoint), kvittblivningsproblematik (problems getting rid of something), känsloidentifikation (emotional identification) are favoured in official and specialist language.

Does Swedish have a future?

The Nordic language planning bodies today express concern about what they call domain loss, which entails one language losing terrain to another. The other language is, of course, English, and the domains at risk are primarily scientific language and some other areas of specialist language. Many companies with subsidiaries abroad now have English as their corporate language. Most scientific dissertations are now written in English. Some university teaching even takes place in English as part of globalization. However, the situation is serious if those who are in charge of the development of society are unable to take part in public debate in their mother tongue because they lack Swedish words. This presents a risk to the Swedish language, which is not universally fit for purpose, and it presents a risk to democracy.

 This risk has been taken seriously and resulted in 2009 in a Language Act establishing that Swedish is the primary language of Sweden, and its official  language in an international context.
Swedish is the language that it must be possible to use in all areas of society. This means that everyone resident in Sweden has a statutory opportunity to learn Swedish. Swedish must be the common language not only for Swedish natives but also for the 20 percent of residents who were born abroad.

 The Swedish Language Act also establishes that Swedish must be a complete language that supports society; that is, it must contain all that is required, in particular specialist terminology, for it to be possible for the various functions of society to be discussed in it. The language of public agencies, public sector Swedish, must be cultivated, simple and comprehensible.

The Swedish Language Act also establishes the right of every individual to language, to develop and acquire the Swedish language, to develop and use their own mother tongue and their own national
minority language and to have the opportunity to learn foreign languages. However, whether you fear or hope that English will one day replace Swedish, you will have to wait. 

Despite internationalisation, most Swedes have their roots in a society that English cannot cover. They live in a rich linguistic tradition, with literature on all levels and with stories and songs, jokes and figures of speech. And most of those born abroad do not come from an English-speaking culture either.

Even if young people today intersperse their language with phrases and expressions in English, it is Swedish they speak and write in their daily lives. The influence of English is growing, but the Swedish language will still continue to exist in the foreseeable future.