With only 10.5 million speakers, Swedish is a small language compared to English and other prominent languages. Considering a unified version was formed less than 1,000 years ago, this isn’t surprising. But now, Swedish dialects and the language itself have become much more important globally.
Similar to Norwegian and Danish, Swedish is part of the North Germanic language group. Aside from being recognized as one of the official languages in Sweden, it is also an official language of Finland. Aside from Sweden, Swedish is also spoken in Brazil and Norway, as well as the USA, Estonia, and Argentina.
About the Swedish Language
Nordic countries are considered an entity on their own since they are geographically close. They also share languages that sound similar. Even on the surface of Scandinavian history, it reveals that Norway, Iceland, Denmark, and Sweden share common roots. It is also interesting that these languages may be harder to learn for English speakers.
Old Norse, which is the north Germanic language that is spoken by those who live in Scandinavia and overseas settlements in the Viking ages, including the Vikings themselves, is the mother of Nordic languages. Old Norse was spoken by people until 1300 A.D.
The Major Characteristics of the Swedish Language
Swedish is considered one of the most commonly spoken North Germanic languages. It is composed of the Roman alphabet in addition to other letters.
The word order in Standard Swedish follows the order similar to other Germanic languages. Meaning, the finite verb always appears in the second position. Morphologically, standard Swedish is quite similar to English. This entails that words have lost their inflections apart from a few exceptions. But unlike English, Swedish has feminine and masculine genders.
Just like in English, adjectives are compared similarly but are inflected depending on the definiteness, number, and gender. Unlike English, the definiteness of the nouns is marked not through articles but suffixes. Then, it is complemented with separated indefinite and definite articles.
Swedish Dialects You Should Know
It’s interesting to note that some Swedish dialects sound nearly incomprehensible to those who speak Standard Swedish. This means that you can visit a town in Sweden and not understand a word they are saying despite being fluent in standard Swedish.
Swedish dialects are composed of six different categories. This includes South Swedish, Norrland, Finland Swedish, Gotland, Götamal, and Svealand.
South Swedish is one of the major Swedish dialects. It includes closely related dialects that used to be spoken in Scania, Halland, Smaland, and Blekinge, which all used to be part of Denmark, but became part of Sweden in 1958. The phonology of this dialect is heavily influenced by Danish, especially considering the use of uvular trills instead of alveolar trills, as well as the softening of some consonants.
This is a Swedish dialect that covers most of Norrland. However, it doesn’t cover southern Halsingland and Gastrikland, where the Svealand Swedish is spoken. The parishes in the Medieval days played a role in the division of this dialect.
Similar to other Swedish dialects, it is challenging to define the linguistic traits of this dialect, just as it’s difficult to split this geographically to other subdialects. For the Norrland dialect, the syllables usually have a long vowel sound and a consonant, or a short vowel sound that is followed by a long consonant. Some of the words also have an “SJ sound” that is pronounced with the tip of the tongue is against the alveolar ridge, which is located between the hard palate and the upper front teeth.
This is one of the major Swedish dialects spoken outside Sweden. It’s impressive that a country with a small population like Finland has a lot of Swedish speakers.
Just like with other dialects, there are major differences between Finland Swedish and standard Swedish. Some words are used in a different context, and they may have a different meaning altogether. There are also words in Finland Swedish that are not present in standard Swedish. Some archaic words have also changed their meaning but are continued to be used.
If a standard Swedish speaker listens to people speaking Finland Swedish, the order of words may sound weird. While it is still technically correct, there is no denying that it is strange to the ears of traditional Swedish speakers.
Finland Swedish also lacks intonation and melody, and this is important to note because standard Swedish has retained tonal characteristics. Because of this, standard Swedish speakers assume that Finnish Swedish is simply the normal language that is spoken with a Finnish accent, which is wrong.
Gotland is one of the Swedish dialects which stemmed from Old Gutnish. Some of the notable features of this dialect include the preservation of diphthongs like “ai” and “oy.” There is also the triphthong “iau” in this dialect that is unique in Norse languages.
This dialect is still under the heavy influence of the Swedish standard language. But because of the location where the dialect is spoken, there are influences from German and Danish.
This Swedish dialect is mostly spoken in northern Småland, northern Halland, Dalsland, Östergötland, Värmland, and Bohusiän. The examples of Götamal features are vowel shortening in front of endings, as well as the loss of “r” in suffixes. This dialect also has vowel reduction.
This is one of the Swedish dialects that has a clear distinction from Finnish Swedish. One of the factors that make Svealand Swedish unique is it has the coalescence of alveolar trill, following alveolar and dental consonants.
More About Swedish Dialects
Traditionally, the languages that are part of the North Germanic group were divided into
East and West Scandinavian. The East Scandinavian languages consist of Danish and Swedish, while West Scandinavian consists of Faroese, Norwegian, and Icelandic.
More recently, the classification was changed to Insular Scandinavian, which includes Icelandic and Faroese, and Continental Scandinavian, which consists of Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish. This division was made to reflect the mutual intelligibility of the languages better.
The varieties of language vary from a linguistic perspective in terms of commonality. The differences of the six Swedish dialects have decreased now, thanks to the advanced media and transport. Now, most exist in a spectrum of rural dialect and standard language.
Spoken Swedish has become more consistent in the 20th century, and this was influenced by the standardization of written language that was increased through access to radios, movies, and television.
Dialectal markers are present between people who speak standard Swedish, such as a “thick L” of the Götaland, Norrland, and Svealand dialects, and the “French R,” which is present in the South Swedish dialects.
Another obvious marker of Swedish dialects is prosody, which includes rhythm, tone, intonation, and stress.
Important Details About the Swedish Language
Swedish has nine vowels, which include a, e, i, o, u, å, y, ä and ö. However, many researchers claim that short vowels should be considered distinctive. This suggests that the language has 17 or 18 vowels depending on the dialect. Regardless of whether this theory is true or not, the vocal quality in the vowels can change depending on the word, even when speakers assume that it’s just the same vowel.
Aside from these vowels, the language also makes a distinction between short and long vowels. In writing, this distinction is not marked by adding extra vowel letters. Instead, it doubles the consonant that is written after the vowel. For example, “tal” means speech, and “tall” means pine tree. While the two may be spelled almost similar, it has different meanings.
It is also essential to note that the short vowels in Swedish are pronounced laxer than their long counterparts. This gives it a different vocal quality.
Swedish has become quite informal today. In the past, the language used honorifics like “fru,” “fröken,” and “herr,” which are similar to the words Mrs., Miss, and Mr. when people address someone formally.
Additionally, Swedish also makes a distinction between the familiar “you” or “du” and the formal “you” or “ni” when talking or addressing another person. This distinction does not exist in English, but people who speak French or German may be familiar with the same rule, with the words “du” and “sie,” and “tu” and “vous.”
The usage of these words changed from the 1960s to the 1970s, when the reform began. Because of this change, speakers have moved away from formal honorifics and words, whatever the situation is, and regardless of their profession, age, relationship, and gender.
This change is not only evident in the language but also the society. Eventually, this led to a significant decrease in formality registers. The reform has also affected Swedish translation. Now, clients need to give detailed instructions if they want the document to be in this format. While this is a concern for other languages, it’s a minor issue for Swedish translators. It is also common for Swedish companies to update original translated documents to have the right register.
However, this reform was not prominent in Finnish Swedish compared to standard Swedish. Although those who speak Finnish Swedish are aware of the reform, the habit of addressing everyone with “du” without regard to their social status was never established at the same level in Finland.
Swedish Dialects Are More Interesting Than You Think
You may think you already know a lot about Swedish dialects, but we only scratched the surface. While it’s not the type of language you’ll need to be fluent in if you want to travel the world, it’s still an interesting language to learn, especially if you want to leverage it in marketing. Undeniably, Swedish offers a lot of rewards for people who want to explore their linguistic capabilities, especially in the translation industry.