The Swedish Language

The Swedish Language as we know it is another Germanic language with approximately twenty currently spoken dialects. The standard form of the language has evolved over time from different dialects, and has been widely recognised since the beginning of the 20th century. Upon first hearing that there are so many different Swedish dialects still spoken in the country today, prospective learners of the language might be put off, especially as one dialect differs hugely from the next. However, although there are many different dialects, they are confined to rural parts of the country and are spoken by relatively few people.

The Nordic countries are geographically proximate and seem to share similar sounding languages. This of course is not down to chance, and a brief exploration into Swedish history reveals to us the common roots of the Nordic languages. Ask many people what they immediately associate with Scandinavia and the most likely answer will surely be the Vikings. It seems reasonable to assume that any commonalities still present in Scandinavian languages today can be attributed to the Vikings, and indeed the link between the ancient Swedish language and the current version is Old Norse, which was the North Germanic language spoken by the inhabitants of Scandinavia and their overseas settlements during the Viking Age, until about 1300. It evolved from the older Proto-Norse, in the 8th century and evolved into the modern North Germanic languages after the Viking Age.

In the 9th century, Old Norse began to diverge into Old West Norse (Norway and Iceland) and Old East Norse (Sweden and Denmark). In the 12th century, the dialects of Denmark and Sweden began to diverge, becoming Old Danish and Old Swedish in the 13th century. All were heavily influenced by Middle Low German during the medieval period. It might seem technical to go into such detail about how the languages have evolved, but these ideas of the subdivision of dialects are still considered relevant today to Swedish linguists, as once the basics have been grasped, it is easier to understand different Scandinavian languages, both in terms of history and tongue. For example, from 1100 onwards, the dialect of Denmark began to diverge from that of Sweden. Up until that point there had been little difference between the two countries’ languages, but gradually intonations spread unevenly from Denmark which created a series of minor dialectal boundaries, called ‘isoglosses.’

The 13th century saw a development in Sweden from Old Norse to Old Swedish. Old Swedish is the term used for the medieval Swedish language, starting in 1225. It is fascinating to find out that the oldest provincial law code, the Vastgotalagen, was written in this tongue, and fragments have been found which date as far back as 1250. This time was the time when Christianity was at its most influential in Europe, influencing everything from law to language. The main religious influence during this time came with the firm establishment of the Roman Catholic Church and various monastic orders, which introduced many Greek and Latin loanwords into Sweden.

This is a clear and logical development, which ties in with what we know of Swedish history. However, the question remains as to how we went from the Latin influences of the 13th century to the Germanic Swedish of today. Well, between the 13th to 17th centuries, trade took off and Sweden with the rise of Hanseatic power in the late 13th and early 14th century, making the influence of Low Saxon more prolific. The Hanseatic league (which was a sort of trading alliance) provided Swedish commerce and administration with a large number of German speakers, many of whom became quite influential members of Swedish medieval society over time. These German immigrants inevitably brought terms from their mother tongue into the vocabulary. Words for areas like warfare, trade and administration were affected by the German influence. These areas were newly developing areas anyway at the time and so required the Swedish tongue to develop to incorporate them. However, general grammatical suffixes and even conjunctions were imported. Almost all of the naval terms were also borrowed from Dutch.

As Swedish developed over time and took on more and more Germanic influences, it became less complicated than its medieval forms, with a more simplified gender system and verb conjugation. In German nouns take one of three genders – masculine, feminine or neuter. In its transition period Swedish did the same, but has now evolved further still and today uses two genders only.

In modern times, as the most spoken language in Sweden, Swedish holds a de-facto national language status but, perhaps surprisingly, not an official language status. This is despite several attempts to make it the official language of Sweden, the most recent of which took the form of a 2005 Bill which ultimately failed. The fact that Swedish is not the official language of Sweden is somewhat hard to reconcile with the fact that in Finland it does hold official language status, along with Finnish of course. It is spoken by about 290,000 people in Finland. Swedish is spoken by about 9.5 million people worldwide in countries such as, Finland, Norway, Brazil, Argentina, Estonia and the USA. In fact, the US alone accounts for approximately 300,000 Scandinavian speakers. Out of the 9.5 million Swedish-speaking people, there are over 7.9 million who access the Internet worldwide in Swedish. The Swedish language belongs to the Scandinavian sub-group of the Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family.

Due to a position of peace and neutrality throughout the 20th century, Sweden enjoys a fairly stable economy with a skilled work force and a GDP of about 238 billion dollars. Although Sweden is a member of the European Union, the country has still not switched from its currency the Swedish Krona to the Euro. In addition, Sweden ranks the top fifth in the world for providing international aid and exporting weapons. The Swedish-speaking population represents an important factor in the Scandinavian markets, which in turn play a vital role in the European markets.