The history of the Swedish language is one of active defence against erosion and decline, and represents one of the most fascinating stories in linguistics.
Sweden and Denmark went through a long, rocky period of almost constant conflict and warfare, dating back practically to the originating tribes that eventually coalesced into these two countries. War was almost continual between them for centuries, often with little or no political or strategic reason – succeeding kings of Sweden and Denmark often warred on each other simply because it was, apparently, what kings of Sweden and Denmark did back in the day.
Knowing this, it’s surprising to learn that Danish had such a strong influence on Swedish for a while that it threatened to subsume Swedish entirely. The explanation is in what’s known as the Kalmar Union, which combined the separate and sovereign kingdoms of Denmark, Sweden (which at that time included Finland), and Norway under one monarch. The countries remained separate legally, but were ruled by one King or Queen over a period of 126 years. These sorts of monarchical unions were common throughout history as royal houses are often branches of the same family. During this period, Danish had an immense influence over Swedish as the more influential part of the union.
This changed in 1523 when Sweden broke away and declared its independence from this union under King Gustav Vasa. King Gustav Vasa saw the need to re-establish and ‘purify’ the Swedish language, and order the elimination of Danish influence as well as the translation of the Bible into Swedish – an important step towards re-establishing Swedish as the national language.
This was the first of many steps taken throughout history in an attempt to defend and promote Swedish. In 1786 King Gustav III took another major active step by establishing the Swedish Academy, which strives to preserve and monitor the Swedish language by publishing official dictionaries – not to mention selecting the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature.
The key to Swedish survival is partly due to these efforts, but also due to a practical willingness to change with the times. Unlike France, which seems obsessed with preserving French as an unchanging, presumably perfect language, Swedish has been allowed to shift and change over the years. This has culminated in the modern day efforts of Sweden to export the language in the form of teachers acting as language ambassadors – a very successful strategy.