Harold F. Schiffman
haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Thu Apr 19 07:51:12 UTC 2007
Swedish fights rearguard action against English behemoth
Published: 18th April 2007 12:04 CET
That the future of the Swedish language is in danger from the influence of
immigrant tongues such as Turkish or Arabic is a load of hurdy gurdy. So
most experts say. But while academics laugh off any threat posed by
immigrant patois, it seems Swedish has a far bigger vernacular nemesis to
contend with. And its not Finnish.
Discount the (for northerners) impenetrable Skane dialect and small
pockets of Sami and Finnish speakers, and Sweden has been a fairly
monolingual society until recent times. Yet, despite its long heritage,
the shortage of expressive vocabulary - decent expletives especially - is
a common frustration for Swedish learners. The same cant be said, however,
for the wealth of phrases used to describe a new wave of Swedish
Frortsvenska, Shobresvenska, Blattesvenska, Rinkebysvenska or indeed the
prefix of any large immigrant-dominated suburb, followed by svenska.
In short, all these versions of Swedish are variations on the same theme;
Swedish, largely spoken by immigrant youth, with a thick accent and select
words of the speaker's mother tongue thrown in for good measure. And its
been keeping Swedish academics awake at night for the last 20 years. In an
attempt to please the puritans, sociologists and linguists have recently
been poring over their empirical evidence to prove that the Swedish
language isn't threatened by immigrant innovations. Lena Ekberg, professor
in Scandinavian languages at Lund University, has been involved in a
four-year project to examine language use among young people in
immigrant-dominated suburbs around Gothenburg, Malmo and Stockholm.
Its been a focus of interest since the eighties but there has not been a
lot of systematic knowledge to date, she says. There is a lot of prejudice
based on impressions and guesses. Many people feel threatened by it. They
dont believe these young people will manage in society if they cant speak
Swedish properly. But although immigrants are having an impact on the
development of Swedish, its doubtful that the dulcet tones of Frortsvenska
will render the language of Strindberg and Bellman extinct. We havent
found it to be dangerous, Ekberg says, reassuringly. The young people we
have spoken to can actually speak standard Swedish. The reason they speak
like they do is to belong to a peer group with their own language code.
Still, a number of immigrant words recently made it past the guardians of
the Swedish language, the Swedish Academy. The academy (Svenska Akademien)
was founded in 1786 by King Gustav III; a learned monarch and ardent
advocate of his nations lingo (in contrast to Karl XIV Johan, the
French-born king who couldnt string a Swedish sentence together). The
Academys noblest and most urgent task was to work for the purity, strength
and sublimity of the Swedish language. Nowadays, they dish out the Nobel
Prize for Literature too. In 2006, the Academys dictionary (ordlista) was
updated for the thirteenth time with the inclusion of guzz, (meaning girl
in Turkish) and keff, (meaning bad in Arabic).
But what, perhaps, is more interesting is that aftershave, new age, pep
talk, sexist, touch and queer made it through, among many other
Anglicisms. The English language really invaded Sweden in the latter half
of the 20th century. One hundred years earlier, Europe had a functional
divide when it came to language; English was for commerce, French for
diplomacy and German for science. Presumably, Swedish worked solely for
Smland farmers. English became dominant after World War II, says Jens
Allwood, professor of linguistics at Gothenburg University. The dominant
foreign language taught in schools literally changed overnight from German
to English. During the 1950s there was an increase in the use of English
globally, he adds. It happened mainly through the mass media, film and
music. German and French began to lose their grip.
These days it means I can flick through Swedish TV channels at prime time,
guaranteed that I won't have to put my Swedish to the test. And I can
daringly crack jokes with Swedes in my native tongue, knowing they will
understand, even if they dont laugh. On the other hand, it also means I
cant easily dodge charity workers that accost me on the street, or
sidestep vagrants wanting a few crowns on the dishonest grounds that
sorry, I dont speak Swedish. English is everywhere in Sweden and with only
around 9.3 million Swedish speakers in the world (including the Finns) its
a case of necessity. Its big business, Allwood says. Its all about money
and guns; if you want to be rich and famous, you cant do it by just
But all this is having a detrimental effect on the Swedish language,
according to some. Lots of people are talking about the risk of losing
Swedish and its true, Allwood adds. Especially in the academic and
business worlds. Indeed, Swedish multinationals rarely use Swedish as the
common company language. According to Allwood, 95 percent use English for
enterprise. And in academic circles, were condemned to silence as far as
written output goes we have to write in English, The multi-cultural
make-up of Sweden today naturally means it is also multi-lingual. There
are 150 languages spoken throughout the country today, says Olle
Josephson, director of the Language Council of Sweden (Sprkrdet).
You have to develop policies to stop stronger languages from oppressing
the weaker ones, he adds. When it comes to the use of English, there is a
threat to Swedish in some areas in society. And that is a threat to
democracy and standards of knowledge if you cannot use your native tongue.
In December 2005, Parliament passed a Swedish language policy with four
Swedish is the majority language in Sweden.
It should be possible to use Swedish in all areas of society.
The language of authorities should be correct, simple and understandable.
Everyone has a right to learn Swedish and foreign languages and to use
their mother tongue.
Yet there is no law stipulating that Swedish is Swedens official language.
It is at present simply the de facto first language of Sweden. The new
government has pledged look into giving the language official status, but
it could take until 2009 to do so. Perhaps theyre too busy translating the
paperwork into English. Official government documents require translation
and speech technology programmes are expensive to develop for a relatively
small language like Swedish, Josephson adds. Once again, Swedes have come
to rely on their English expertise out of obligation. And the upshot is
they have steadily adopted it as their own. Swenglish or Svengelska if
you prefer is a growing phenomenon. It seems nowadays you dont necessarily
have to speak Swedish at all to get a decent grasp at least.
As Colin Moon writes in his 2005 book: Sweden More Secret Files: Swedish,
Swenglish and what they really mean, you can "'chatta' on the internet,
send 'ett email', or 'ett mess', and 'printa ut'. You can get 'support
from helpdesken', make 'en back-up', phone 'hands-free', 'logga in',
'briefa' somebody, be 'financial controller', suffer 'en backlash', watch
'public service television', eat 'fast food', be contacted by 'en
headhunter' laugh at 'en standup comedian', shop at 'en factory outlet',
embark on 'en joint venture' be 'online', 'outsourca' your business, be
'outstanding', wear 'en t-shirt', be 'en skinhead,' watch 'en talkshow',
suffer from 'whiplash', make 'en deal', have 'know-how', sing 'live', and
then get 'feedback'. Yet despite the blows being dealt to the language by
the forces of globalization, its perhaps worth noting that the the Swedish
Academy HQ is not quite ready to surrender. New to the latest dictionary
edition are recommendations for the use of a Swedish term rather than an
accepted loan English expression. Still, they dont have the last word,
either in Swedish or English. As Jens Allwood says: We are becoming
bilingual, but the big question is monolingualism; well probably all be
speaking Chinese in 500 years anyway.
Christine Demsteader (news at thelocal.se)
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