I Don’t Fear For The Swedish Language

Year after year, the Swedish language is spoken by a smaller percentage of the world’s population. And year after year, the geographical area where Swedish is spoken shrinks a little. But year after year, Swedish is spoken by an increasing number of people. How does this work?

Although Swedish speakers in Sweden and SW Finland have low nativity figures, and thus lose relative ground locally to Finnish speakers, and globally to the fecund masses of e.g. India, Sweden also receives immigrants who cause the country’s population to grow slowly but steadily. And they all learn Swedish. In my area, which is home to people of 70 different nationalities, you’ll hear Chilean grandmothers talk to Bosnian grandmothers in broken Swedish in the street, while their grandchildren speak fluent native Swedish. In fact, looking at the statistics, I find that about 10 million people speak Swedish daily, and the number is growing. Swedish is thus not a small language, nor one threatened with extinction.

But Föreningen Språkförsvaret (“Language Defence Association”) fears for the future of Swedish. They have kindly sent me a review copy of their new anthology Svenskan – ett språk att äga, älska och ärva, “Swedish, a language to own, love and inherit”, which collects opinion pieces about language issues from the past decade. Specifically, Språkförsvaret fears that Swedish is being replaced or heavily influenced by English.

Swedish is my mother tongue and the language I know best. But I learned English at age four in a Connecticut Kindergarten. I am bilingual, and so are my children. My wife is fluent in three languages. In our house, Swedish, English and Mandarin are spoken and written daily, and with some flair I’m proud to say. I write this blog though, as well as books and papers about my research, in English in order to reach a global audience. I could write them a bit better and faster in Swedish, but few who share my interests would be able to read them.

I’ll just disregard the clearly unfounded fear that Swedish might be going extinct. As for Swedish changing, I’d like to point out that before AD 800, linguists see no reason to differentiate between the Scandinavian languages. That is, the Swedish language originated 1200 years ago as an effect of language change. It has since been heavily influenced by Low German in the High Middle Ages, by French in the Enlightenment period, by High German up until the Second World War, and by English after that war ended. In Forskning och Framsteg 2011:8 (p. 51) Henrik Höjer recounts the exact same fears as Språkförsvaret voices, only regarding the threat from High German, and published in a 1906 book by one O.C. Kjellberg.

Studying Språkförsvaret’s writings, you will find that they are driven by a mainly inclusive, non-xenophobic Swedish nationalism. They want EU parliamentarians to speak Swedish in Brussels. They keep referring to the competitive edge of Swedish industry, which they unsuccessfully try to make hinge upon the qualities of Swedish engineering terminology! (And I must admit that as a rhetorical device, the fortunes of that said industry packs no visceral punch whatsoever with me.)

Språkförsvaret’s rhetoric sometimes brings to mind paranoid extreme right sloganeering, with “high treason, a kind of national suicide initiated on society’s highest levels” (p. 13), “voluntary colonisation” (p. 30), and “… we have many leaders in this country, that is politicians, corporate leaders and others, who completely seem to have lost loyalty with their country when it comes to the language” (p. 30). Also, Språkförsvaret is to some extent motivated by their personal interests as language teachers and interpreters – non-English languages, that is. Not very selfless when you think about it, though many of the members appear to be of retirement age.

No, I don’t fear for the Swedish language. And to tell the truth, I wouldn’t actually care much if it were indeed threatened. Because as an archaeologist and a multilingual citizen of the world, I see the issue in a long-term cultural relativist light. People in my part of the world didn’t speak Swedish 1200 years ago and possibly they won’t 1200 years from now. Swedes didn’t know much English 100 years ago, and possibly they won’t 100 years from now. But they will continue to speak. And that’s what matters.

Lindblom, Per-Åke & Rubensson, Arne (eds). 2011. Svenskan – ett språk att äga, älska och ärva. Stockholm. 152 pp. ISBN 978-91-633-9292-4.

Update 8 November: And Språkförsvaret replies.


Author: Martin R

Dr. Martin Rundkvist is a Swedish archaeologist, journal editor, skeptic, atheist, lefty liberal, bookworm, boardgamer, geocacher and father of two.

30 thoughts on “I Don’t Fear For The Swedish Language”

  1. Nice overview and explication of your personal point of view, Martin! I certainly wish I could speak more than one language, just in case the dominance of English fades.


  2. Language is often used as a class or in-group marker rather than as a communication device, causing even more language drift. Keeping a language “competitive” requires innovation that makes (for instance) baseline Swedish attractive.

    Sometimes Försvaret (the defence) is good at coming up with substitutes for English phrases. “Head Up Display” (usually just HUD) becomes “siktlinjeindikator (a good, descriptive substitution). I am a bit irritated about how English terms almost automatically displace Swedish, not because they are superior but because English is seen as more “cool”. The results are often more imprecise than Swedish terms.

    We get “swenglish” terms so instead of saying “koncentrera pÃ¥” we get “fokusera pÃ¥” (from “focus”), instead of “yttersta” we get the double translation “ultimata” adopting the anglicazion of latin “ultim”. “Backing up” becomes “backa upp” instead of “kopiera” or “understödja”.

    But I would be more concened by the cultural conformism, with the inclusion of purely commercial stuff like Halloween.
    (here is a more original handling of the Halloween meme: CDC prepares us for zombie attack this Halloween) http://www.newscientist.com/blogs/culturelab/2011/10/this-halloween-the-cdc-wants-you-to-prepare-for-zombie-attack.html


  3. Nice overview, I didn’t even know about ‘SprÃ¥kförsvaret’. Like you I don’t care if swedish goes extinct with time, let people speak the way they want, also with swenglish words.

    @Birger: I don’t mind Halloween much (even though I don’t care much either) except for the begging children. Why would I devalue it because its ‘commercial’, if people thinks its fun I think it is better with ‘commercial’ things than the religious nonsense we celebrate a lot.


  4. The older Swedish tradition of handing out Easter greeting cards in exchange for candy on Maundy Thursday is nicer though than the whole “trick or treat” mob extortion thing.


  5. We get a lot of new terms from the outside, true. Right now it’s from English, a century ago it was German and so on. Other languages do so too – the Japanese language, from an old society not exactly known for its cultural openness, grabs new terms from the outside like a drunk looting an abandoned liquor store. Really; if you know English well, you know about 1500 Japanese words already.

    It’s OK, though. That’s how we get new terms. There’s no real added value in basing your words on your old ones rather than on other languages. “Backa upp” has a specific meaning that is more precise than “kopiera”. And a word like “ultimat” could just as well have been coined as a neologism without that roundabout.

    I’ve also noticed, in Swedish, and in Japanese, that common terms eventually change to conform to the normal structure of the language. They change spelling or pronunciation as needed, and can even get replaced altogether.

    When I was young, we all used “en printer” to print stuff from our nascent personal computers. Today we use “en skrivare”. On the other hand, a computer bit is still “bit” in Swedish, presumably as it works well within Swedish ortography already, and we use “ord” for “word” nowadays too. The outlier is “byte” of course. And “backa upp” is being, in my impression, overtaken by “säkerhetskopiera”.

    A good Japanese example is coffee, pronounced “koohii”. It was always written in katakana as loanwords are: コーヒー. Nowadays, it’s not unusual to see it written with kanji — 珈琲 — that have been appropriated for the word (neither has a meaning related to the drink).


  6. Yes, the fear of language drift might get exaggerated, just like the sixties´ fear that the whole youth were becoming brutish ignorant hooligans… which reminds me of these turkeys: “Beavis & Butthead views Metallica” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IAvgYsRfFbc&feature=related
    But we survived the sixties. And the eighties. And MTV did not turn us into serial killers.

    But for the sake of cultural continuity it would be nice if future generations can read 19th-century books without translations. The current mismatch is limited to comical examples of language drift like “Mr Hardy leaned back in his armchair and soundlessly ejaculated*” (*exhaled).


  7. English itself is notorious for borrowing words and phrases from other languages: Latin, French, and Greek are probably the three most common sources for borrowed words, but others come from all over the world. I don’t recall which Scandinavian language gave us the term “smorgasbord” (at least one and perhaps all of those vowels had accents in the original). I also know of “lutefisk” (and am told I should be thankful I have never actually seen or eaten it).

    As an amusing exercise to see what English would be like if it didn’t borrow so promiscuously, I recommend Poul Anderson’s “Uncleftish Beholding”, an attempt to explain atomic theory using only words of Anglo-Saxon origin (those of you who are familiar with German will recognize cognates of the German names for some elements; perhaps Swedish follows the German tradition). The same page also gives a couple of short speeches in which most of the words (other than prepositions and a few other short words) are of Greek origin. If you can’t understand the latter, don’t feel bad–I am a native English speaker, and those paragraphs are Greek to me.


  8. The “Swedish engineering terminology” thing baffles me. I’m a technical writer who works with engineering software, and my writing is regularly translated into a half-dozen or so languages. As near as I can tell, there’s only one “engineering terminology,” most of it from 19th c. German and French sources, expressed either through borrowings or direct calques.

    I’d be astonished if a uniquely Swedish engineering vocabulary existed.

    . . . and a quick glance through the Languages sidebar in Wikipedia confirms it. English tensor, French tenseur, German tensor, Swedish tensor. English deformation, French déformation, Swedish deformation, German verformung. Etc., etc., on down the line.


  9. Swedish is far from threatened, I don’t think its something to be worried about. Like Martin said, Swedish has a lot of influences from german and french before English, and it seems that SprÃ¥kförsvaret include those influences as “Swedish”, it’s just the English influence that they’re bothered with.

    “Nationalist values” shouldn’t really be an issue to be bothered with these days, the advancement of communication and transportation today has made places previously considered as far away become “next door”. It takes like two hours to get to London or Paris from Stockholm by flight, so there’s lots of room for influence.

    Also, I must say that I prefer my course literature in English (something they critisize on their site). Swedish authors of engineering/mathematics literature are very good at being unpedagogic and vague, in my opinion (which is shared by many in my class). Then again, that might not have much to do with the language, more with the authors…


  10. It’s quite fascinating for you to bring up immigration as the main reason why there is no fear of Swedish going extinct. I also notice that you chose individuals from western countries as examples of these assimilating immigrants, as opposed to the main sources of immigration to Sweden, which are from various Muslim countries. There are already places in Sweden where you simply do not need Swedish to communicate, places where native Swedish culture and language is arguably in the minority for its members (in favour of various Islamic syncretisms). And considering that this is a trend that’s showing no signs of reversing itself, and indeed is showing the opposite as immigration from former Yugoslavia and South America dwindles, I would argue that the future of the Swedish language in the coming century is quite uncertain.

    As for historical changes in language that do most certainly happen, incremental changes due to cultural exchange (new ideas and technology bring their native terminology with them) is a far cry from wholesale change in the demographics of unique languages spoken due to immigration.

    Cue for accusations of cultural supremacism.


  11. I am more concerned about the Scanian dialect that is east Danish blended with Swedish. Classical words like ‘Klydderöv'(cumbersome) and ‘Mögtocke'(conceited ass) will die out.


  12. I’d go one step further, though, and tell such cultural essentialists and SprÃ¥kförsvaret to stick their racist ideas where the sun doesn’t shine. As you rightly point out 1000 years ago Swedes didn’t speak Swedish, nor Norwegian, Danes, Dutch and Britons, Norwegian, Danish, Dutch and English. If I had been born back then I would’ve called the English Midlands city of Derby – Daer-by. Or the villiage over there. As a non-native speaker of Swedish, may it long continue to function as a lingua franca for the different nationalities that make up Sweden’s multiculturalism.


  13. Simo

    Assimilating immigrants!

    Immigrants don’t assimilate. They are not integrated. They are not modelling clay to be moulded into the image of their new country. This mode of thinking is far too exaggerated in Sweden, where it’s common to hear the phrase “Det svenska samhaellet” spoken prefixed by the definite article as something concrete; a monolithic idea of community to which new additions can be included (but more often excluded). It’s the same as Martian society. And if it does not exist there is nothing immigrants can be assimilated into …


  14. This is off-topic but I post it because of the coolness factor:

    “Viking ‘sunstone’ more than a myth” http://www.physorg.com/news/2011-11-viking-sunstone-myth.html
    — — — — — — — —
    “Integration” is probably something that takes two-three generations. It is about more than language. And in a perfect world the cultural influences is a two-way street.

    BTW we do not demand the people along Piteå river to give up their distinct dialect nor people in Skåne, so if traces of the original syntax remains it is no big deal as long as it is not an obstacle for understanding (and thus employment).


  15. I don’t think I would worry too much about absorbing words from other languages. Surely that’s a characteristic of vital languages as well as dying languages. At least I think that’s the case with English. There are two Swedish things that I, an American, kind of regret losing as things we have seen as peculiarly Swedish – Volvo and Saab. Volvo survives, but not as a Swedish-owned company. Poor Saab. I’m afraid Saab will not survive.

    On a slightly different note, I’m reading Lindqvist’s “Let the Right One In” and wish there was a better English translation. This one seems more like a word-for-word translation, when what it needs is a colloquial translation. It’s interesting that a lot of Swedish seems to be almost, but not quite, understandable to an English speaker if you know a little German. Even the title of this book looks almost readable in English, especially if you already know what it says.


  16. Martin, I think I have figured out what has been irritating me about some of your posts. You often imply that as a cultural relativist, you shouldn’t value and fight for some things (not littering in public, the hobby of reading fiction, the Swedish language). That is a fallacy: being a relativist just means that you believe those values are subjective and contingent. For an extreme example, I don’t think I could convince a career criminal to become honest through pure reason, but I don’t have any problem with using a series of increasingly harsh penalties to do this; for a mild one, you enthusiastically critique colleagues who have different ideas about the purpose of archaeology than you do.

    Your comments on the history of Swedish are quite interesting, and it seems like there isn’t much reason to fear that Swedish will die out. Its likely that English speaking cultures will be much less dominant in 50 years anyways, and computer translation may reduce the need for English as a lingua franca (although there is a big difference between having a translation and understanding a text in another language!) As an Anglophone, I find this vaguely regrettable, but it doesn’t tug at my emotions enough to do anything about it even if I thought I could.


  17. Translations are an art unto themselves -Swedish (state) television has built up a good reputation of good translations for the subtitles, but the private (cable) networks apparently hire the first schmuck to turn up at the HR office… You can tell a lot about the values of a company by how much they prioritize translations.

    I am not at all surprised that publishers in an English-language country do not give good translations high priority. With a world-dominant language it is easy to slip into language solipsism and assume nothing of importance is “out there”. You may recall the attitude of the ancient chinese rulers to non-chinese…

    The books by muckraking German journalist Gunther Wallraff have still not been translated to English.
    Even today, Stanislaw Lem’s “Summa Technologia” (Krakow 1966) has not found an English publisher, even though Germans and others who have access to translations consider it a marvel of futurology.


  18. SM, I see no practical reasons to fight against littering, for fiction reading or for the Swedish language. They’re all matters of taste.

    As for archaeology, I’m fighting an academic turf war. Every theoretical archaeologist with an academic job worsens the prospects of myself and the empiricist colleagues I respect.


  19. The only kind of language that does not change is a dead language. As a general rule, I would say that the faster a language is changing, the more robust it is and the more likely to survive.


  20. The only place I’ve ever been told off (in fact lectured, quite severely and tediously) for incorrect english usage was in Lund. By educated University types.

    WTF do I know? Mum’n’Dad’s famblys ain’t only just bin livin’ in the same piggin’ parish since .. like tha 12th century or summink .. speaking that there english (according to their court appearances, on various charges).

    Mind ye, as a celt, the abolition of the english tongue would not dishearten me too much .. 🙂

    And there’s yer problem Martin, I reckon.
    There’s any amount of stupid cunts in the world, that fancy themselves as idiomatic speakers of that there english.


  21. There is nothing to fear as long there are more Wallander or other Swedish detective stories around. I enjoy watching and listening Wallander on BBC4. Freshens up my school Swedish a bit and reminds me of Finland, too!


  22. I’m still reading “Let the Right One In” and I still think it needs a new translation. In the part where Oskar is visiting his father, one of his father’s friends visits and they start drinking. They reach a state at which they are “packed.” I wondered at that for a moment, and then it hit me: they were “loaded”. I haven’t checked to see who the translator is, but I suspect a native Swedish speaker, or at least a non-native English speaker. It’s hard enough to understand some colloquialisms in a langauge other than one’s own, but far harder, I suspect, to translate a native-speaker’s colloquialism correctly into a colloquialism in that language.


  23. Despite the less-than-stellar translation, I’m enjoying the book so much that I just got Kindle versions of two of his other books. He’s an original and creative writer. This is the first vampire story I have seen that attempts a reasonably physical explanation for vampirism.


  24. AFAIK he’s the only horror writer of note in the language. We do have excellent fantasists though: Lindgren, Granström, T. Jansson, Sandman-Lilius, Nobel laureate Lagerlöf.


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