The History of Swedish

May 19th, 2013

Swedish was almost changed forever by Danish influence, but centuries of nationalistic efforts to bolster it has made Swedish a distinct and robust language.

Well, that’s the work I chose, so I’m not complaining. But linguistics can be fun, too, if you’re the right brand of nerd to think so, and I read a lot about language history just for fun and relaxation. Currently I’ve been reading about Swedish, because I’d never really read much about it, and no surprise, its history is fascinating!

Runes

Swedish, like many of the Scandinavian languages, is somewhat mysterious prior to the 13th century. Until about 1225 the chief evidence we have of the existence of Old Swedish is in the form of messages carved in Nordic-style runes in stones that still survive in the area. Beginning in the 14th century, Denmark began exerting a great deal of influence on the country, culture, and language of Sweden, just as it did on other Scandinavian countries during that period. As a result, Swedish began mirroring and borrowing heavily from Danish.

Sweden revolted in 1525 under Gustav I Vasa, and the new government was surprisingly conscious of the Danish influence on the language and took concrete steps to eliminate it. A translation of the bible was done in Swedish in 1526, and the written form used was taken from a writing system developed in central Sweden beginning at the Vadstena monastery in eastern Götaland and extending to Stockholm and Uppsala. This form was very conservative, rejecting many of the recent innovations brought on by Danish influence, and this is where Modern Swedish begins its story.

Modern Swedish

Because of the Danish influence, the Swedish language was seen as a symbol of a resurgent Sweden, and steps were taken to bolster and support the language. The Swedish Academy was founded in 1786 to support and standardise the language, eventually basing what is now Standard Swedish on Svea dialects spoken in Stockholm – Standard Swedish is sometimes called Stockholm Swedish for this reason. Many dialects still remain today, however, many of which are not mutually intelligible. As a result Standard Swedish is a lingua franca within Sweden itself.

Today Swedish is a robust language spoken by almost nine million people in Sweden and 5.5% of the population of Finland (though this percentage has been falling for four centuries and continues to slowly decline). The Swedish diaspora is relatively small compared to some languages, and as a result Sweden has encouraged the teaching of Swedish through official programs that collect funds to pay for teachers of Swedish to travel and take up posts around the world in order to ensure the continued spread of the language.

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