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About Swedish Language

Swedish (svenska) is a North Germanic language, spoken by approximately 10 million people, predominantly in Sweden and parts of Finland, especially along the coast and on the Åland islands. It is to a considerable extent mutually intelligible with Norwegian and to a lesser extent with Danish (see especially "Classification"). Along with the other North Germanic languages, Swedish is a descendant of Old Norse, the common language of the Germanic peoples living in Scandinavia during the Viking Era.

Standard Swedish, used by most Swedish people, is the national language that evolved from the Central Swedish dialects in the 19th century and was well established by the beginning of the 20th century. While distinct regional varieties descended from the older rural dialects still exist, the spoken and written language is uniform and standardized. Some dialects differ considerably from the standard language in grammar and vocabulary and are not always mutually intelligible with Standard Swedish. These dialects are confined to rural areas and are spoken primarily by small numbers of people with low social mobility. Though not facing imminent extinction, such dialects have been in decline during the past century, despite the fact that they are well researched and their use is often encouraged by local authorities.

The standard word order is Subject Verb Object, though this can often be changed to stress certain words or phrases. Swedish morphology is similar to English; that is, words have comparatively few inflections. There are two genders, no grammatical cases, and a distinction between plural and singular. Older analyses posit the cases nominative and genitive and there are some remains of distinct accusative and dative forms as well. Adjectives are compared as in English, and are also inflected according to gender, number and definiteness. The definiteness of nouns is marked primarily through suffixes (endings), complemented with separate definite and indefinite articles. The prosody features both stress and in most dialects tonal qualities. The language has a comparatively large vowel inventory. Swedish is also notable for the voiceless dorso-palatal velar fricative, a highly variable consonant phoneme.


Swedish is an Indo-European language belonging to the North Germanic branch of the Germanic languages. In the established classification, it belongs to the East Scandinavian languages together with Danish, separating it from the West Scandinavian languages, consisting of Faroese, Icelandic and Norwegian. However, more recent analyses divide the North Germanic languages into two groups: Insular Scandinavian, Faroese and Icelandic, and Continental Scandinavian, Danish, Norwegian and Swedish, based on mutual intelligibility due to heavy influence of East Scandinavian (particular Danish) on Norwegian during the last millennium and divergence from both Faroese and Icelandic. (The earlier grouping into East and West would be more useful for the period before the period of Danish rule in Norway.)

By many general criteria of mutual intelligibility, the Continental Scandinavian languages could very well be considered dialects of a common Scandinavian language. However, because of several hundred years of sometimes quite intense rivalry between Denmark and Sweden, including a long series of wars in the 16th and 17th centuries, and the nationalist ideas that emerged during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the languages have separate orthographies, dictionaries, grammars, and regulatory bodies. Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish are thus from a linguistic perspective more accurately described as a dialect continuum of Scandinavian (North Germanic), and some of the dialects, such as those on the border between Norway and Sweden, especially parts of Bohuslän, Dalsland, western Värmland, western Dalarna, Härjedalen and Jämtland, could be described as intermediate dialects of the national standard languages.


In the 9th century, Old Norse began to diverge into Old West Norse (Norway and Iceland) and Old East Norse (Sweden and Denmark). In the 12th century, the dialects of Denmark and Sweden began to diverge, becoming Old Danish and Old Swedish in the 13th century. All were heavily influenced by Middle Low German during the Middle Ages. Though stages of language development are never as sharply delimited as implied here, and should not be taken too literally, the system of subdivisions used in this article is the most commonly used by Swedish linguists and is used for the sake of practicality.

Old Norse

In the 8th century, the common Germanic language of Scandinavia, Proto-Norse, had undergone some changes and evolved into Old Norse. This language began to undergo new changes that did not spread to all of Scandinavia, which resulted in the appearance of two similar dialects, Old West Norse (Norway and Iceland) and Old East Norse (Denmark and Sweden).

The subdialect of Old East Norse spoken in Sweden is called Runic Swedish and the one in Denmark Runic Danish (there was also a subdialect spoken in Gotland, Old Gutnish) but until the 12th century, the dialect was the same in the two countries with the main exception of a Runic Danish monophthongization (see below). The dialects are called runic because the main body of text appears in the runic alphabet. Unlike Proto-Norse, which was written with the Elder Futhark alphabet, Old Norse was written with the Younger Futhark alphabet, which only had 16 letters. Because the number of runes was limited, some runes were used for a range of phonemes, such as the rune for the vowel u which was also used for the vowels o, ø and y, and the rune for i which was also used for e.

From 1100 onwards, the dialect of Denmark began to diverge from that of Sweden. The innovations spread unevenly from Denmark which created a series of minor dialectal boundaries, isoglosses, ranging from Zealand in the south to Norrland, Österbotten and northwestern Finland in the north.

An early change that separated Runic Danish from the other dialects of Old East Norse was the change of the diphthong æi to the monophthong é, as in stæinn to sténn "stone". This is reflected in runic inscriptions where the older read stain and the later stin. There was also a change of au as in dauðr into a long open ø as in døðr "dead". This change is shown in runic inscriptions as a change from tauþr into tuþr. Moreover, the øy diphthong changed into a long close ø, as in the Old Norse word for "island". These innovations had affected most of the Runic Swedish speaking area as well in the end of the period, with the exception of the dialects spoken north and east of Mälardalen where the diphthongs still exist in remote areas.

Old Swedish

Old Swedish is the term used for the medieval Swedish language, starting in 1225. Among the most important documents of the period written in Latin script is the oldest of the provincial law codes, the Västgöta code or Västgötalagen, of which fragments dated to 1250 have been found. The main influences during this time came with the firm establishment of the Roman Catholic Church and various monastic orders, introducing many Greek and Latin loanwords. With the rise of Hanseatic power in the late 13th and early 14th century, the influence of Middle Low German became ever more present. The Hanseatic league provided Swedish commerce and administration with a large number of German- and Dutch-speaking immigrants. Many became quite influential members of Swedish medieval society, and brought terms from their mother tongue into the vocabulary. Besides a great number of loanwords for such areas as warfare, trade and administration; general grammatical suffixes and even conjunctions were imported. Almost all of the naval terms were also borrowed from Dutch.

Early medieval Swedish was markedly different from the modern language in that it had a more complex case structure and had not yet experienced a reduction of the gender system. Nouns, adjectives, pronouns and certain numerals were inflected in four cases; besides the modern nominative, there were also the genitive, dative and accusative. The gender system resembled that of modern German, having the genders masculine, feminine and neuter. Most of the masculine and feminine nouns were later grouped together into a common gender. The verb system was also more complex: it included subjunctive and imperative moods and verbs were conjugated according to person as well as number. By the 16th century, the case and gender systems of the colloquial spoken language and the profane literature had been largely reduced to the two cases and two genders of modern Swedish. The old inflections remained common in high prose style until the 18th century, and in some dialects into the early 20th century.

A transitional change of the Latin script in the Nordic countries was to spell the letter combination "ae" as æ – and sometimes as a' – though it varied between persons and regions. The combination "ao" was similarly rendered ao, and "oe" became oe. These three were later to evolve into the separate letters ä, å and ö.

Modern Swedish

Modern Swedish (Swedish: nysvenska) begins with the advent of the printing press and the European Reformation. After assuming power, the new monarch Gustav Vasa ordered a Swedish translation of the Bible. The New Testament was published in 1526, followed by a full Bible translation in 1541, usually referred to as the Gustav Vasa Bible, a translation deemed so successful and influential that, with revisions incorporated in successive editions, it remained the most common Bible translation until 1917. The main translators were Laurentius Andreæ and the brothers Laurentius and Olaus Petri.

The Vasa Bible is often considered to be a reasonable compromise between old and new; while not adhering to the colloquial spoken language of its day it was not overly conservative in its use of archaic forms. It was a major step towards a more consistent Swedish orthography. It established the use of the vowels "å", "ä", and "ö", and the spelling "ck" in place of "kk", distinguishing it clearly from the Danish Bible, perhaps intentionally, given the ongoing rivalry between the countries. All three translators came from central Sweden which is generally seen as adding specific Central Swedish features to the new Bible.

Though it might seem as if the Bible translation set a very powerful precedent for orthographic standards, spelling actually became more inconsistent during the remainder of the century. It was not until the 17th century that spelling began to be discussed, around the time when the first grammars were written. The spelling debate raged on until the early 19th century, and it was not until the latter half of the 19th century that the orthography reached generally acknowledged standards.

Capitalization during this time was not standardized. It depended on the authors and their background. Those influenced by German capitalized all nouns, while others capitalized more sparsely. It is also not always apparent which letters are capitalized owing to the Gothic or blackletter typeface which was used to print the Bible. This typeface was in use until the mid-18th century, when it was gradually replaced with a Latin typeface (often antiqua).

Some important changes in sound during the Modern Swedish period were the gradual assimilation of several different consonant clusters into the fricative [ʃ] and later into [ɧ]. There was also the gradual softening of [ɡ] and [k] into [j] and the fricative [ɕ] before front vowels. The velar fricative [ɣ] was also transformed into the corresponding plosive [ɡ].

Geographic distribution

Swedish is the national language of Sweden and the first language for the overwhelming majority of roughly eight million Swedish-born inhabitants and acquired by one million immigrants. As of 2007 around 5.5% of the population of Finland was Swedish speaking, though the percentage has declined steadily over the last 400 years. The Finland Swedish minority is concentrated in the coastal areas and archipelagos of southern and western Finland. In some of these areas, Swedish is the predominant language. In 19 municipalities, 16 of which are located in Åland, Swedish is the only official language. In several more, it is the majority language and it is an official minority language in even more. There is considerable migration between the Nordic countries, but owing to the similarity between the cultures and languages (with the exception of Finnish), expatriates generally assimilate quickly and do not stand out as a group. According to the 2000 United States Census, some 67,000 people over the age of five were reported as Swedish speakers, though without any information on actual language proficiency. Similarly, there are 16,915 reported Swedish speakers in Canada from the 2001 census. Outside Sweden and Finland, there are about 40,000 active learners enrolled in Swedish language courses.

Official status

Swedish is officially the main language of Sweden. It has long been used in local and state government and most of the educational system, but remained only a de facto primary language, with no official status in law. A bill was proposed in 2005 that would have made Swedish an official language, but failed to pass by the narrowest possible margin (145–147) due to a pairing-off failure. A proposal for a broader language law, designating Swedish as the main language of the country and bolstering the status of the minority languages, was submitted by an expert committee to the Swedish Ministry of Culture in March 2008. It was subsequently enacted by the Riksdag and entered into effect on 1 July 2009.

Swedish is the only official language of Åland (an autonomous province under the sovereignty of Finland) where the vast majority of the 26,000 inhabitants speak Swedish as a first language. In Finland, Swedish is the second national language alongside Finnish on the state level, and an official language in some coastal municipalities. Three municipalities (Korsnäs, Närpes, Larsmo) in mainland Finland have Swedish as their sole official language. Swedish is also one of the official languages of the European Union and one of the working languages of the Nordic Council. Under the Nordic Language Convention, citizens of the Nordic countries speaking Swedish have the opportunity to use their native language when interacting with official bodies in other Nordic countries without being liable to any interpretation or translation costs.


The traditional definition of a Swedish dialect has been a local variant that has not been heavily influenced by the standard language and that can trace a separate development all the way back to Old Norse. Many of the genuine rural dialects, such as those of Orsa in Dalarna or Närpes in Österbotten, have very distinct phonetic and grammatical features, such as plural forms of verbs or archaic case inflections. These dialects can be near-incomprehensible to a majority of Swedes, and most of their speakers are also fluent in Standard Swedish. The different dialects are often so localized that they are limited to individual parishes and are referred to by Swedish linguists as sockenmål (lit. "parish speech"). They are generally separated into six major groups, with common characteristics of prosody, grammar and vocabulary. One or several examples from each group are given here. Though each example is intended to be also representative of the nearby dialects, the actual number of dialects is several hundred if each individual community is considered separately.

This type of classification, however, is based on a somewhat romanticized nationalist view of ethnicity and language. The idea that only rural variants of Swedish should be considered "genuine" is not generally accepted by modern scholars. No dialects, no matter how remote or obscure, remained unchanged or undisturbed by a minimum of influences from surrounding dialects or the standard language, especially not from the late 1800s onwards with the advent of mass media and advanced forms of transport. The differences are today more accurately described by a scale that runs from "standard language" to "rural dialect" where the speech even of the same person may vary from one extreme to the other depending on the situation. All Swedish dialects with the exception of the highly diverging forms of speech in Dalarna, Norrbotten and, to some extent, Gotland can be considered to be part of a common, mutually intelligible dialect continuum. This continuum may also include Norwegian and some Danish dialects.

Standard Swedish

Standard Swedish, which is derived mainly from the dialects spoken in the capital region around Stockholm, is the language used by virtually all Swedes and most Swedish-speaking Finns. The Swedish term most often used for the standard language is rikssvenska ("National Swedish") and to a much lesser extent högsvenska ("High Swedish"); the latter term is limited to Swedish spoken in Finland and is seldom used in Sweden. There are many regional varieties of the standard language that are specific to geographical areas of varying size (regions, historical provinces, cities, towns, etc.). While these varieties are often influenced by the genuine dialects, their grammatical and phonological structure adheres closely to those of the Central Swedish dialects. In mass media it is no longer uncommon for journalists to speak with a distinct regional accent, but the most common pronunciation and the one perceived as the most formal is still Central Standard Swedish.

Though this terminology and its definitions are long since established among linguists, most Swedes are unaware of the distinction and its historical background, and often refer to the regional varieties as "dialects". In a poll that was conducted in 2005 by the Swedish Retail Institute (Handelns Utredningsinstitut), the attitudes of Swedes to the use of certain dialects by salesmen revealed that 54% believed that rikssvenska was the variety they would prefer to hear when speaking with salesmen over the phone, even though several dialects such as gotländska or skånska were provided as alternatives in the poll.


Swedish has 9 vowels that make up 17 phonemes in most varieties and dialects (short /e/ and /ɛ/ coincide). There are 18 consonant phonemes out of which the voiceless palatal-velar fricative, /ɧ/, and /r/ show considerable variation depending on social and dialectal context. A distinct feature of Swedish is its varied prosody (intonation, stress, tone, etc.) which is often one of the most noticeable differences between the various dialects. Native speakers who adapt their speech when moving to areas with other regional varieties or dialects will often adhere to the sounds of the new variety, but nevertheless maintain the prosody of their native dialect.


The vocabulary of Swedish is mainly Germanic, either through common Germanic heritage or through loans from German, Middle Low German, and to some extent, English. Examples of Germanic words in Swedish are mus ("mouse"), kung ("king"), and gås ("goose"). A significant part of the religious and scientific vocabulary is of Latin or Greek origin, often borrowed from French and, as of lately, English.

A large 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. Most of them are distinguished by a "French accent", characterized by emphasis on the last syllable. For example, nivå (fr. niveau, "level"), fåtölj (fr. fauteuil, "arm chair") and affär ("shop; affair"), etc. Cross-borrowing from other Germanic languages has also been common, at first from Middle Low German, the lingua franca of the Hanseatic league and later from standard German. Some compounds are translations of the elements (calques) of German original compounds into Swedish, like bomull from German Baumwolle ("cotton", literally tree-wool).

As with many Germanic languages, new words can be formed by compounding, e.g. nouns like nagellackborttagningsmedel ("nail polish remover") or verbs like smygfilma ("to film in secret"). Similar to German or Dutch, very long, and quite impractical, examples like produktionsstyrningssystemsprogramvaruuppdatering ("production controller system software update") are possible but seldom this ungainly, at least in spoken Swedish and outside of technical writing. Compound nouns take their gender from the head, which in Swedish is always the last morpheme. New words can also be coined by derivation from other established words, such as the verbification of nouns by the adding of the suffix -a, as in bil ("car") and bila ("travel by car").

Writing system

The Swedish alphabet is a 29-letter alphabet, using the basic 26-letter Latin alphabet plus the three additional letters Å / å, Ä / ä, and Ö / ö constructed in the 16th century by writing "o" and "e" on top of an "a". Though these combinations are historically modified versions of A and O according to the English range of usage for the term diacritic, these three characters are not considered to be diacritics within the Swedish application, but rather separate letters, and are as independent letters following z. Before the release of the 13th edition of Svenska Akademiens Ordlista in April 2006, w was treated as merely a variant of v used only in names (such as "Wallenberg") and foreign words ("bowling"), and so was both sorted and pronounced as a v. Other diacritics (to use the broader English term usage referenced here) are unusual in Swedish; é is sometimes used to indicate that the stress falls on a terminal syllable containing e, especially when the stress changes the meaning (ide vs. idé, "winter lair" vs. "idea"); occasionally other acute accents and, less often, grave accents can be seen in names and some foreign words. The letter à is used to refer to unit cost (a loan from the French), equivalent to the at sign (@) in English.

The German ü is treated as a variant of y and sometimes retained in foreign names and words, e.g. müsli ("muesli/granola"). A proper diaeresis may very exceptionally be seen in elaborated style (for instance: "Aïda"). The letters ä and ö can be the result of a phonetic transformation called omljud, equivalent to the German Umlaut, where a or å is softened to ä during conjugation (natt – nätter, "night" - "nights"; tång – tänger, "tong/pincer" - "tongs/pincers"), and o is softened to ö (bok – böcker, "book" - "books"). This is far from the only use of these characters, however. Additionally, for adjectives subject to omljud, u gets softened to y (ung – yngre, "young" - "younger"); this is never written ü. The German convention of writing ä and ö as ae and oe if the characters are unavailable is an unusual convention for speakers of modern Swedish. Despite the availability of all these characters in the Swedish national top-level Internet domain and other such domains, Swedish sites are frequently labelled using a and o, based on visual similarity (mainly to avoid lingering technical problems with the use of characters outside of the limited 7-bit ASCII set).

In Swedish orthography, the colon is used in a similar manner as in English with some exceptions. The colon is used with numbers, such as 10:50 kronor ("10.50 SEK"); for abbreviations such as 3:e for tredje ("third") and S:t for Sankt ("Saint"); and all types of suffixes that can be added to numbers, letters and abbreviations, such as första a:t ("the first a") and CD:n ("the CD").


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