The Swedish language we know today has been developed and preserved thanks to immense efforts on the part of Sweden’s people and governing bodies.
From King Gustav Vasa's order to translate a Swedish-language bible in the 15th century to King Gustav III's establishment of the Swedish Academy in the 18th century, Sweden's history reveals the immense efforts which were made to help develop the modern Swedish language.
Classification and Early History of the Swedish Language
The Swedish language is classified as one of the East Scandinavian languages of the North Germanic language group. Along with other Scandinavian languages, such as Norwegian and Danish, Swedish developed from the Old Norse language of the German Viking peoples who once roamed Scandinavia.
The Old Norse gradually split into two distinct groups in the 9th century: Old West Norse and Old East Norse. Old West Norse became the basis for the languages of Norway and Iceland, while Old East Norse became the basis for those languages spoken in the areas of modern-day Sweden and Denmark. It was not until the 12th century that Old Danish and Old Swedish began to develop as distinct languages.
As far as written languages, until the early 13th century, these Scandinavian languages worked primarily with the runic alphabet used in the Old Norse. Swedish began significant development as a distinct spoken and written language in the 14th and 15th centuries.
Early Development of the Swedish Language
A long period of linguistic change in the Middle Ages resulted in the emergence of Old Swedish as a separate language further removed from its Norse roots and distinct from other Scandinavian languages. Most historians date written Old Swedish from the 13th century.
The oldest known example of Old Swedish language literature was found in the "Västgötalagan," or "Law of West Gotland," which dates from the 1220s. Part of a legal code, the document makes use of literary devices such as alliteration and imagery.
Swedish Language in Medieval Literature
A number of anonymously authored ballads believed to date from the 14th and 15th centuries reflect the romantic genre of the Middle Ages in the Swedish language. These ballads form the core of what most scholars classify as Swedish medieval literature.
An intriguing characteristic of these ballads is the fact that many of them combine the foreign imported ideals of chivalry and courtly love with pagan themes and local historical events unique to the area of Sweden.
Liberation from Danish Influence and the Modern Swedish Language
Denmark exerted a significant influence on the Swedish language until 1525, when the Swedish revolt led by Gustav Vasa brought a new government to Sweden. A birth of nationalistic sentiment led the new Swedish government in attempts to purify the Swedish language by eliminating the Danish language's influence.
Written Swedish and the Gustav Vasa Bible
Most linguists date the first appearance of the modern Swedish language from 1526, when the first Swedish language translation of the New Testament was printed by the order of King Gustav Vasa. After taking the throne, the king ordered a Swedish translation of the Bible, which ended up becoming so influential that it remained in use until 1917.
The Vasa Bible made use of both the Old and New Swedish languages, mixing colloquial spoken Swedish with more formal written Swedish, and contributed greatly to the development of a standardized written Swedish language.
Cultivation of a National Language Under King Gustav III
From 1526 onwards, Sweden made an active effort to cultivate and promote the Swedish language as a representation of national strength and unity. In 1786 King Gustav III established the Swedish Academy, which he modeled after the Academie Francaise.
Still active to this day, the Swedish Academy publishes dictionaries to maintain the purity of the Swedish language and, interestingly, is also responsible for the selection of the Nobel Laureates in Literature.
The Swedish Language in Finland
The region of modern-day Finland was part of the Kingdom of Sweden from the 13th to the early 19th centuries. Understandably, the Swedish language was disseminated in the area and became a significant part of Finnish culture.
Sweden ceded Finland to the Russian empire in 1809, resulting in a decreased significance of the Swedish language in the area. However, since Finland declared independence from Russia in 1917, the country once again has become more accepting of the Swedish language. As one of Finland's national languages, Swedish is now taught in the country’s school systems.
Swedish-Speakers in Estonia
Prior to World War II, Swedish also was commonly spoken in Estonia and Latvia. Swedish-speaking communities in these areas were distinct minorities, although they were guaranteed representation in parliament where they were permitted to use the Swedish language.
Today, Swedish-speaking communities in Estonia and Latvia have almost fully disappeared. With the loss of Estonia to the Russian Empire in the 18th century, some 1,000 Estonian Swedish were forced to relocate to southern Ukraine. A second wave of migration occurred during World War II, as most Swedish-speakers fled to Sweden before the invasion of the Soviet army.
Swedish Language and Dialects Today
Spoken by approximately 8 million people, the Swedish language currently serves as the official language of Sweden, and as one of the official languages of Finland (along with Finnish).
Standard Swedish used today evolved from Central Swedish dialects of the 19th century and is the predominant form of Swedish used in the country. Distinct regional dialects do exist. These dialects, however, have declined over the past century.
Changes in the Swedish Language in the 1960s
Significant linguistic changes came to the Swedish language in the 1960s, paralleling social movements of the era. Prior to this time, very particular distinctions were made in the formal vs. familiar addressing of individuals; it was considered proper to address people of the same or higher social status by a formal title and surname.
In the 1960s, a wave of liberalization swept Swedish society and prompted the "du-reformen" or "you-reform," which removed the importance previously placed on formal class distinctions in speech. Instead of using formal addresses, "du" (the less formal "you") became part of standard use, often even in formal contexts. Although this shift was not the act of any government body, it is considered a significant part of Swedish language history.
Swedish Quick Facts
Alternate Names & Spellings: Svenska, Ruotsi
Language Family: Indo-European, Germanic, North, East Scandinavian, Danish-Swedish, Swedish
Spoken by Approximately 9,000,000 people
Also Spoken In: United States
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