Languages of Sweden

May 24, 2010 by

As promised, this week’s postings will deal with languages of Scandinavia, where I’ve recently travelled. Today I will review the linguistic situation in Sweden, the first country I’ve visited.

The official language of Sweden is, of course, Swedish. But it must be noted immediately that Swedish is far from being uniform. To the contrary, people in different parts of the country speak it somewhat differently. These differences concern mostly the way words are pronounced. For example, long a becomes å (pronounced /o/) everywhere except in Gotland; and the /r/ in the plural is dropped in the south (Skåne, Västergötland) and in the northeast (Västerbotten), but not elsewhere. Other dialectal differences go deeper and involve grammatical features other than pronunciation. For instance, in northern Swedish dialects adjectives in definite noun phrases are incorporated (i.s., becomes part of the noun together with the definiteness marker, which is a suffix), so that ‘the new house’ is ny-hus-et (literally, ‘new-house-the’), whereas everywhere else the so-called “double definiteness” occurs, so that ‘the new house’ is det nya hus-et (literally, ‘the new house-the’). Other dialectal features include the position of particles in particle verb constructions, plural forms of verbs and archaic case inflections.

The Swedish dialects are often so localized that they are limited to individual parishes and are referred to by Swedish linguists as sockenmål (literally, “parish speech”). These dialects can be near-incomprehensible to Swedes from other areas, and most of their speakers are also fluent in Standard Swedish. The great diversity of local dialects (up to a hundred diverse dialects, according to some accounts) is determined in part by the topography of the land: the great rivers in Northern Sweden and the mountains separating Sweden from Norway, as well as by historical and cultural factors. In general, the various dialects can be grouped into six dialect groups: Sydsvenska mål (dark blue; spoken in the south: Skåne, Perstorps socken, N. Åsbo härad); Götamål (red; spoken in Västergötland, Korsberga socken, Vartofta härad, Skaraborgs län); Sveamål (dark green; spoken in Uppland, Håtuna socken, Håbo härad); Norrländska mål (light blue; spoken in Västerbotten, Skellefte socken, Löparnäs); Östsvenska mål (orange; spoken in Finland, Österbotten, Sideby socken); and Gotländska mål (light green; spoken in Gotland, Lau Socken, Gotlands södra härad). The dialects in the western parts of the country exhibit a fairly strong influence of Norwegian; in fact, many Swedish dialects near the Swedish-Norwegian border are more similar to Norwegian dialects across the border than they are to other Swedish dialects.

In addition to the local dialects, most Swedes also speak (and write) Standard Swedish, which is derived chiefly from the dialects spoken in the capital region around Stockholm. The Swedish refer to this linguistic variety as rikssvenska (“National Swedish”) or sometimes as högsvenska (“High Swedish”). Although Standard Swedish is meant to be the language of education, administration and the media, one can hear journalists speak with a distinct regional accent, and high school teachers are concerned about the pupils writing in their local dialects as well.

In addition to Swedish (Standard and local dialects), we find other languages in Sweden, most notably Finnish (spoken by some 300,000 people in Sweden) and Saami. Both of these languages are members of the Finno-Ugric language family, unlike Swedish, which is a North Germanic language, closely related to Norwegian and Danish and somewhat more distantly to other descendants of Old Norse: Icelandic and Faroese.

Tomorrow’s posting will deal with Saami.

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