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Number of Speakers: Approximately 8 million (7.7 million in Sweden, 300,000 in Finland)
Key Dialects: Sydsvenskamål (southern Swedish), Götamål (southcentral Swedish), Sveamål (central Swedish, including Stockholm area), Nordsvenska (northern Swedish), Gutamål / Gutnic (on island of Gotland), Östsvenska (Swedish spoken in Finland and Estonia).
Geographical Center: Kingdom of Sweden. An official language in Finland also.
Swedish is the official language in Sweden. It is also (along with Finnish) an official language in Finland. Outside of the Nordic countries, a very small community continues to speak Swedish in the US and Canada, mostly children or grandchildren of immigrants.
Swedish belongs to the Northern branch of the Germanic language family of Indo-European. Other Northern Germanic languages are Danish, Icelandic, Faroese, and Norwegian. Historically Old Swedish is classified as an East- Scandinavian language (along with Danish). Swedish has been more conservative than Danish in its morphology, thus there are more endings which make a more complex system. In judging internordic oral comprehension, a recent survey reported that 92% of Swedes claim that they understand Norwegian ‘very well.’
The relatively long history of Swedish as a national language has ensured a fair amount of standardization throughout Sweden. A printing press was established in Sweden in 1484. The Bible was first printed in Sweden in 1526. Sweden’s role as a world power solidified the language’s national role.
Further stabilizing and standardizing Swedish, the Svenska Akademien, the Swedish Academy, was founded in 1786, in order to “to work for the ‘purity, vigor and majesty’ of the Swedish language.” While several dialects exist, a standard language is now maintained and cultivated through the Svenska språknämnden, the official Swedish language board, which advises correct use of the language.
Swedish uses the standard 26 letters of other European languages, plus three additional vowels å, ä, and ö which follow z in the alphabet. The letters q, w, x and z are used almost exclusively in borrowed terms and names. Double consonants signify longer sounds, while vowel length is usually predictable from consonant length (short or no consonant precedes long vowel). Various letter combinations are used to increase the ways sounds are differentiated and represented. For example <sj, skj, stj, sch>, and <ch> represent a palatal-alveolar voiceless fricative
Stressed syllables in Swedish are long, and have a pattern of either long vowel + short consonant (eg., tak ‘roof’), short vowel + long consonant (tack ‘thanks’) or long vowel followed by no consonant (ta ‘take’). Each stressed syllable in a multi-syllabic word has one of two tonemes: either rising – falling (called tone or accent 1), or double raising - falling (called tone 2). The tones are suprasegmental, extending beyond a vowel or consonant, and often shape an entire phrase. They vary throughout the Swedish-speaking area, and are completely lacking in native speakers of Finland Swedish.
There are nine long and nine short vowels in standard Swedish (each vowel has a long/short contrast) (a, e, i o, u, y, å, ä and ö). Standard Swedish in the central areas of the country (Sveamål and neighboring dialects) use only monophthongs. While some dialects (especially Gutamål) conserve older diphthongs.
Consonants include sounds spelled <ch, skj, stj> that are similar to the English sh sound. Before front vowels (e, ä, ö, i and y), the otherwise hard velar stop /g/ becomes /j/ so that <ge> is pronounced /je:/ ‘give.’ Likewise <k> before front vowels is pronounced as a velar fricative, so that <köpa> ‘buy’ is pronounced /çö:pa/. The letter <g> after <r> or <l> is pronounced /y/ as in älg 'moose' /älj/. Consonant clusters include /bj/ /kn/ and /nj/.
Nouns in Swedish are either common gender [sometimes called utrum] (approximately 75% of all nouns) or neuter.
As in the other Scandinavian languages, the definite form of nouns is postposed, so that en katt ‘a cat’ has the definite form katten ‘the cat.’
Verbs are classified as either weak (having a -d or -t ending in the past tense (att kasta ‘to throw’, kastade ‘threw’) or strong (with characteristic root vowel change and lack of dental ending) (e.g., att få ‘to get’ fick ‘got’). Adjectives agree with the gender and number of the nouns they modify. Numbers are formed along the English lines (as opposed to German and Danish), putting the tens before the units (tjugoen ‘21’).
The formal 2nd person pronoun (Ni) continues in use in Sweden, but has somewhat of a limited use among many people. The informal singular (du) is acceptable in almost all social settings. Second person plural informal is ‘ni.’
ROLE IN SOCIETY
As a highly literate society, the Swedish language plays a strong role in education, government, and all forms of culture in Sweden. Sweden boasts 99% literacy among its inhabitants. New immigrants and residents of Sweden are given free Swedish language classes. In Finland, the linguistic minority (approximately 6% in 1990) maintains a strong literary and political presence, with official language status, and compulsory language training in all primary and secondary schools.
Runic inscriptions (using the futhark) are the oldest records of writing in Sweden (with very few Swedish-specific characteristics differentiating the forms from Common Scandinavian). The younger futhark (with fewer characters than the older futhark) flourished in Sweden, with more than 2,500 preserved inscriptions. The famous Rök stone from Östergötland, carved in approximately 800 CE, is the longest and most complex runic text.
Latin letters were introduced to manuscript writing before the twelfth century CE.
Old Swedish, on East Scandinavian reflex of Common Scandinavian, showed traits of monophthongization of original diphthongs, long o vs long u in the west, and lack of umlauted forms, for example takenn ‘took’ vs tekinn in the west.
Earliest East Scandinavian texts show relatively few clear differences between Old Swedish and Old Danish, but after 1300, Old Danish began to record a weakening in both intervocalic consonants (current ‘ude’ out vs ‘ute’) and in morphological endings, where the original weak vowels a, i, and u were merged to æ or e.
Swedish still maintains a larger inventory than Danish of weak vowels in morphological endings. The Modern Swedish period is generally dated from 1526 (although such precise dating of large and slow movements in language change should be regarded with skepticism) with the publication of the New Testament. The first volume of the historical, descriptive Svenska Akademiens ordbok over svenska språket (the Swedish Academy’s dictionary of the Swedish Language) began publication of volume 1 in 1893, and currently aims to be completed in 2017. It is now available through the word talkumera at the internet site: http://g3.spraakdata.gu.se/saob/.
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Haugen, E. 1976. The Scandinavian languages : an introduction to their history . Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press
Molde, B. and Karker, A, (eds). 1983. Språkene i Norden. Nordisk språksekretariat.
Ruhlen, M. 1987. A Guide to the World's Languages, Vol. 1: Classification. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.
Vikør, Lars. 1993. The Nordic languages: their status and interrelations 1993. Oslo : Novus Press.
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