The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Swedish language

Swedish (svenska ) is a Scandinavian language language spoken predominantly in Sweden, Finland and Åland by over 8 million native speakers. Swedish is closely related to, and usually mutually intelligible with, Danish and Norwegian and to some degree with Faroese.

Swedish began to evolve as a seperate language from Old Norse in the 9th century, around the same time as Danish and Norwegian. Old Swedish is the name for the period from 1225. The earliest texts written in a modified Latin script found so far are fragments of law codes (Västgötalagen) dated to 1250. New Swedish was based to large part on the bible translation of 1526. It was not until the late 18th century that it becamse what is now refered to as Modern Swedish.

Swedish is considered to be a pluricentric language in the sense that several prestige dialects exist with differences chiefly confined to prosody, pronunciation and to a lesser degree to vocabulary. The written standard language of Sweden and Finland is uniform.


Geographic distribution

Swedish is the national language of Sweden, mother tongue for the overwhelming majority of eight million Sweden-born inhabitants and acquired by one million immigrants .

Swedish is also the sole official language of the Åland Islands, an autonomous province under the sovereignty of Finland, where 95% of the 26,000 inhabitants speak Swedish as a first language.

In Mainland Finland, where Swedish and Finnish are the official languages, Swedish is spoken as as a first language for a relatively small minority of about 5.5%. The Finland-Swedish minority is concentrated in some coastal areas and archipelagos of southern and western Finland. In these areas, Swedish is often dominating. In the municipality of Korsnäs 98% of the population is Swedish-speaking. In Korsnäs, like the municipalities of Närpes and Larsmo, Swedish is the sole administrative language on municipal level.

After an educational reform in the 1970s, both Swedish and Finnish are compulsory school subjects in Mainland Finland, until 2004 mandatory in the final examinations. Education in the pupil's own language is officially called "mother tongue" — "modersmål" in Swedish or "äidinkieli" in Finnish — and education in the other language is referred to as "the other domestic language" — "andra inhemska språket" in Swedish, "toinen kotimainen kieli" in Finnish. The introduction of mandatory education in Swedish was chiefly intended as a step to avoid further Finlandization.

There is considerable migration (labor and other) between the Nordic countries, but due to the similarity between the languages and culture expatriates generally assimilate quickly and do not stand out as a an ethic group.

Formerly, there were Swedish-speaking communities in the Baltic countries, especially on the islands (Hiiumaa, Saaremaa and Vormsi) along the coast. After the loss of the Baltic territories to Russia in the early 18th century, many of them were forced to make the long march to Ukraine. The survivors of this march eventually founded a Swedish-speaking village, which survived until the Russian revolution when its inhabitants were deported to Sweden. Today there exist a few elderly descendants in the village of Gammalsvenskby ("Old Swedish Village") in Ukraine, who still speak Swedish and observe the holidays of the Swedish calendar.

In Estonia, the small remaining Swedish community was very well treated between the first and second world wars. Municipalities with a Swedish majority, mainly found along the coast, had Swedish as the administrative language and Swedish-Estonian culture experienced an upswing. However most Swedish-speaking people fled to Sweden at the end of World War II when Estonia was reconquered by the Soviet Union.

There are small numbers of Swedish speakers in other countries, such as the United States. (See also Languages in the United States.) There are also descendants in Brazil and Argentina resulting from Swedish immigration that have maintained a distinction by language and names, also against groups of other European immigrants in the region.

Official status

Swedish is the de-facto national language of Sweden, but it does not hold the status of an official language there.

In Finland, both Swedish and Finnish are official languages. Swedish had been the language of government in Finland for some 700 years, when in 1892 Finnish was given equal status with Swedish, following Russian determination to isolate the Grand Duchy of Finland from Sweden. Today about 290,000, or 5.6% of the total population are Swedish speakers according to official statistics for 2002.

Swedish is the official language of the small autonomous territory of the Åland, under sovereignty of Finland, protected by international treaties and Finnish laws. In contrast to the mainland of Finland the Åland Islands are monolingual — Finnish has no official status, and is not mandatory in schools.

Swedish is also one of the official languages of the European Union.

Regulatory bodies

There is no official regulatory institutions for the Swedish language, the Swedish Language Council (Svenska språknämnden) has semi-official status and is funded by the Swedish government, but does not attempt to enforce control of the language in the same way as for instance the Académie franįaise. Among the many organizations that make up the Swedish Language Counicl, the Swedish Academy is among the most influential. The primary instrument for this is the publication of dictionaries like Svenska Akademiens Ordlista and Svenska Akademiens Ordbok as well as various books on grammar, spelling and manuals of style. The dictionaries are sometimes perceived as an official definition of the language, even though their function is intended to be as descriptive as possible.


Swedish is distinguished by having more than one high-status variety. People speaking the high-status varieties typical for the areas around Helsinki, Stockholm/Uppsala, Malmö/Lund and Gothenburg do not usually consider other varieties of Swedish to be more prestigious, though the Central Swedish varieties tend to be perceived as the most formal.

The Swedish term for the common standard language, rikssvenska can be ambigous in its meaning. In Finland, it always means Swedish as spoken in Sweden compared to as spoken in Finland, but in Sweden it might also denote the high-status variety spoken in Stockholm/Uppsala dominating in national ethermedia, though controversy of it's usage exists. The most common classification made by linguists is that of one or several regional varieties of Standard Swedish, as well as more localized dialectal variants as well as dialects of the major cities (in some cases even localized to individual buroughs).

Beside the high-status dialects, one can distinguish between a large number of Swedish dialects, often defined in terms of historical divisions, provinces and Lands of Sweden.:

¹ Gutnish, Jamska, Scanian (Skånska) and Dalecarlian (Dalmål) can in their own right be considered as separate languages. Practically all speakers of these languages are bilingual in Swedish, and the consideration here is principally the dialect of Swedish spoken by these individuals. None of them are recognized as separate languages under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. See also: Minority languages in Sweden
² Jamska belongs to the group of (Insular) West Scandinavian languages, as opposed to the other dialects of Swedish which belong to the (Continental) East Scandinavian group. The proper name of the language is Jamska, though the spelling Jämtska is sometimes used.
  • A map with some hundred examples of Swedish dialects is to be found at

Immigrant varieties

Rinkeby Swedish is the common name for varities of Swedish spoken by second and third generation immigrants. Variants particular to Stockholm, Malmö and Gothenburg suburbs with a large percentage of immigrants have developed as a mix between the local variants of Standard Swedish and a number of foreign languages; mainly Arabic, Turkish, Kurdish and to some extent Latin American Spanish. Especially among younger speakers, the varieties show a considerable variation in vocabulary and to some extent in grammar and syntax. A common misconception among native Swedes is that these immigrant-specific varities are merely "accented Swedish", and there is no consensus among linguists whether they should be classified as dialects or sociolects.

Quite recently several novels written in a literary imitation of Rinkeby Swedish have been published in Sweden; Ett öga rött by Jonas Hassen Khemiri and Kalla det vad fan du vill by Marjaneh Bakhtiari.


Main article: Swedish phonology

Swedish is notable for having a large vowel inventory, with 17 different monophthongs, and for a considerable variance in the pronounciation of the /r/ phoneme and some fricative consonants. Many dialects of Swedish, also common in national broadcasts, assimilate /r/ to retroflex consonants. Exceptions are Finland-Swedish and South-Swedish varieties. The Swedish has no known equivalent except in Norwegian and the fricative [ɧ] is not known to exist in any other langauge.

A major problem for students of Swedish is the perceived lack of standardisation of pronunciation. The melodic accent is an unusual feature among the top 100 languages, and as such a problem in itself, that is further aggravated by the difference between the use and realizations of melodic accent in different varieties — including the Standard Swedish. The pronunciation of vowels, and of some consonants (particularly sibilants), demonstrates marked differences in some spoken varieties.


Lexical stress in most dialects and standard variants of Swedish differentiates between to kinds of accents. Often refered to as acute and grave accent, but among linguists also as accent 1 and accent 2. Swedish is a stress timed language and has many words that are differentiated only by their accent.

formel [fɔ́rmɛl]] - "formula"
formell [fɔrmɛ́lː] - "formal"

Much less common, though noteworthy, are two-syllable words that are differentiated by the fact that they use either accent 1 or accent 2. Most variants of Swedish make distinctions between accent 1 and 2, though the actual realizations can be very varied and can be extremely subtle in some cases making the difference very hard to actually describe, even for native speakers. Finland-Swedish does not have this distinction at all.

anden [ándɛn - "the duck"
anden [āndɛn] - "the spirit"

 Sv-anden anden.ogg?

Prosody in Swedish often varies substantially within different dialects as well as regional variations of Standard Swedish. Other than having lexical meaning within words, stress can be applied similarly to set expressions as well as to emphasize certain words in a sentence.


Swedish nouns and adjectives are declined according to gender, number and case. Like most other Germanic languages there is a definitive article (grammar), but indicating the definitive form of a noun is made mainly by a suffix which varies according to gender (-en, -et). The seperate articles are used mainly to emphasize or for more subtle variations of meaning. All Swedish nouns belong to one of two genders; neuter (ett) or uter (en) which also determine the declensions of adjectives. Old Swedish had four genders, and some traces of the old grammar can still be found in idiomatic expressions and a few nouns (människa; "human being" as an abstract idea and ships are generally considered feminine) even if this is not actually reflected in grammar. For contextual purposes, natural gender is used.

Verbs are conjugated according to tense and some verbs have a special imperative form. Participles are common and are used either in perfect or present tense. Until the mid 20th century plural forms of verbs were still used in Swedish, though it is now only exists as a way for stilistic purposes and in some dialects. Subjunctive forms of verbs are still found in set phrases (han leve) some some words (månne), though its use is in decline and few speakers perceive them as seperate conjugations.

The lack of cases in Swedish is compensated by a wide variety of prepositions, similar to those found in English. Like in modern German, prepositions used to determine case in Swedish, but remains only in idiomatic expressions like till sjöss (genitive, "at sea") or man ur huse (accusative).

The written language is uniform, with very few exceptions: Adjectives are typically declined according to natural gender in Southern Sweden, not at all in high-prestige varieties in the rest of Sweden, but sometimes according to numerus in Finland.


Swedish is a Germanic language and its vocabulary is almost entirely Germanic. Examples of Germanic words in Swedish are mus (mouse), kung (king), and gås (goose). Some words are borrowed from Latin and French. Cross-borrowing from other Germanic languages is also common, at first from Low German, the lingua franca of the Hanseatic league, later from High German, and English. New words are often formed by compounding, and like many Germanic languages, Swedish compounds words freely and frequently. Compound nouns take their gender from the head, which in Swedish is always the last noun. New verbs can also be made by adding an -a to an existing noun, as in disk (dish) and diska (do the dishes). Some compounds are translations of the elements (calques) of German original compounds into Swedish, e.g bomull from German Baumwolle, cotton (lit. tree-wool).

A significant number of French words were imported into Sweden around the 18th century. These words have been transcribed to the Swedish spelling system and are therefore pronounced quite recognizably to a French-speaker. (This is seldom the case when English borrows French words!) Examples include nivå (fr. niveau, "level"), ateljé (fr. atelier, "studio"), and paraply (fr. parapluie, "umbrella").

Vocabulary (or rather lexicon according to linguist jargon) is rather uniform in Sweden, at least in the style of prose seen in newspapers, and in higher styles. Finland-Swedish has a set of separate terms, being close cognates of their Finnish counterparts, chiefly terms of law and government.

Writing system

The Swedish alphabet is a twenty-eight letter alphabet: the standard twenty-six-letter Latin alphabet with the exception of 'W', plus the three additional letters Å / å, Ä / ä, and Ö / ö. These letters (not considered diacritics) are sorted in that order following z. 'W' is not considered as a unique letter, but a variant of 'v' used only in names (such as "Wallenberg") and foreign words ("bowling"). Diacritics are unusual in Swedish: é and occasionally other acute accents and, less often, grave accents can be seen in names and some foreign words. German ü is considered a variant of y and sometimes retained in foreign names. Diaeresis is not considered necessary, although it might exceptionally be seen in elaborated style (for instance: "Aīda", "naīve").

The runic alphabet (the futhark) was used before the Latin alphabet for Old Norse and early Swedish (Old Swedish), but this ancient script was gradually overtaken by the Latin alphabet during medieval times, although use of various futharks continued in certain rural districts at least until the 17th century.


Swedish is closely related to, and usually mutually intelligible with , Danish and Norwegian. All three started diverged from Old Norse around 800 and were heavily influenced by Low German during the medieval period. Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian Bokmål are all considered East Scandinavian languages; Swedes usually find it easier to understand Norwegian than Danish, since Norwegian pronunciation is closer to that of Swedish.

Until World War II, Swedish was spoken by a notable minority in coastal Estonia, though today the native speaking population is down to only a handful of older individuals and the dialect is facing extinction. A small community of 1000 speakers existed in north Crimea, in modern day Ukraine, until 1929 when they were deported to Sweden in the purges of the Stalin era.


  • Swedish: svenska
  • hello: hej (hey)
  • good-bye: hej då (hey-doh)
  • please: snälla (snell-ah)
  • thank you: tack (tahck)
  • you're welcome: varsågod (var-show-good)
  • where is...? var ligger .... (var ligg-ehr)
  • that one: den där (den dehr)
  • how much?: hur mycket (huwr muwk-eh)
  • English: engelska (eng-el-skah)
  • yes: ja /ja/ (ya), jo¹
  • no: nej /nEj/ (neigh)
  • generic toast: skål /skOl/ (skaal or skol)
  • dangerous: farligt (far-ligt)
¹ Jo is used instead of ja for "yes" when answering a negative statement/question, such as Ska du inte äta? (Won't you eat?), Jo, det ska jag. (Yes, I will.) or Du kommer inte hinna [med bussen]. (You won't make it [to the bus]), Jo, det kommer jag. (Yes, I will.). Ja in this context would be ambigous (felt to be incorrect, but probably interpreted as agreeing), while mm would agree with the speaker (won't eat, won't make it). This can be somewhat of a problem for native Swedish speakers learning English, as they search for an equivalent word coming up emptyhanded. ("How do you say jo in English?" "Yes" "But that's ja!")

See also


  • Bolander, Maria Funktionell svensk grammatik (Liber AB, Falköping 2002) ISBN 91-47-05054-3

External links

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