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.