"Swedish fights rearguard action against English behemoth"

Don Osborn dzo at bisharat.net
Wed May 16 14:12:50 UTC 2007

FYI, from The Local - Swedish News in English...

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 it’s not Finnish.

Discount the (for northerners) impenetrable Skåne 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 can’t be said, however, for the wealth of phrases used to describe
a new wave of Swedish – Förortsvenska, 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 it’s
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

“It’s 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
don’t believe these young people will manage in society if they can’t speak
Swedish properly.”

But although immigrants are having an impact on the development of Swedish,
it’s doubtful that the dulcet tones of Förortsvenska will render the
language of Strindberg and Bellman extinct.

“We haven’t 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 nation’s lingo (in contrast to Karl XIV Johan, the
French-born king who couldn’t string a Swedish sentence together).

The Academy’s “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 Academy’s 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 Småland 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 don’t laugh.

On the other hand, it also means I can’t easily dodge charity workers that
accost me on the street, or sidestep vagrants wanting a few crowns on the
dishonest grounds that “sorry, I don’t speak Swedish.”

English is everywhere in Sweden and with only around 9.3 million Swedish
speakers in the world (including the Finns) it’s a case of necessity. “It’s
big business,” Allwood says. “It’s all about money and guns; if you want to
be rich and famous, you can’t do it by just speaking Swedish.”

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 it’s 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, we’re 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

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

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 Sweden’s 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 they’re 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 don’t 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, it’s 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 don’t have the last word, either in Swedish or English. As Jens
Allwood says: “We are becoming bilingual, but the big question is
monolingualism; we’ll probably all be speaking Chinese in 500 years anyway.”

The World in Sweden Series:The Local is compiling a series of articles on
how people and cultures from around the world are influencing Swedish life.
Coming soon - Nicholas Chipperfield tracks down the Swedish Cricket Team..

Christine Demsteader (news at thelocal.se)
Christine Demsteader is a freelance writer based in Stockholm.

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