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date: 27 February 2024



  • Erik M. PetzellErik M. PetzellSwedish Institute for Language and Folklore


Swedish is a V2 language, like all Germanic except English, with a basic VO word order and a suffixed definite article, like all North Germanic. Swedish is the largest of the North Germanic languages, and the official language of both Sweden and Finland, in the latter case alongside the majority language Finnish. Worldwide, there are about 10.5 million first-language (L1) speakers. The extent of L2 Swedish speakers is unclear: In Sweden and Finland alone, there are at least 3 million L2 speakers. Genealogically, Swedish is closest to Danish. Together, they formed the eastern branch of North Germanic during the Viking age. Today, this unity of old is often obscured by later developments. Typologically, in the early 21st century, Swedish is closer to Norwegian than to Danish.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there was great dialectal variation across the Swedish-speaking area. Very few of the traditional dialects have survived into the present, however. In the early 21st century, there are only some isolated areas, where spoken standard Swedish has not completely taken over, for example, northwestern Dalecarlia. Spoken standard Swedish is quite close to the written language. This written-like speech was promoted by primary school teachers from the late 19th century onward. In the 21st century, it comes in various regional guises, which differ from each other prosodically and display some allophonic variation, for example, in the realization of /r/.

During the late Middle Ages, Swedish was in close contact with Middle Low German. This had a massive impact on the lexicon, leading to loans in both the open and closed classes and even import of derivational morphology. Structurally, Swedish lost case and verbal agreement morphology, developed mandatory expletive subjects, and changed its word order in subordinate clauses. Swedish shares much of this development with Danish and Norwegian.

In the course of the early modern era, Swedish and Norwegian converged further, developing very similar phonological systems. The more conspicuous of the shared traits include two different rounded high front vowels, front /y/ and front-central /ʉ/, palatalization of initial /k/ and /g/ before front vowels, and a preserved phonemic tonal distinction.

As for morphosyntax, however, Swedish has sometimes gone its own way, distancing itself from both Norwegian and Danish. For instance, Swedish has a distinct non-agreeing active participle (supine), and it makes use of the morphological s-passive in a wider variety of contexts than Danish and Norwegian. Moreover, verbal particles always precede even light objects in Swedish, for example, ta upp den, literally ‘take up it’, while Danish and Norwegian patterns with, for example, English: tag den op/ta den opp, literally ‘take it up’. Furthermore, finite forms of auxiliary have may be deleted in subordinate clauses in Swedish but never in Danish/Norwegian.


  • Historical Linguistics
  • Language Families/Areas/Contact
  • Morphology
  • Phonetics/Phonology
  • Sociolinguistics
  • Syntax

1. Introduction

1.1 Typological and Genealogic Classification

Swedish is a V2 language, which means that the finite verb (V) typically appears in the second (2) position in main clauses. Consequently, in a declarative clause, subjects may precede the verb, rendering SV order as in hon sov, ‘she slept’. Alternatively, when some other element is topicalized, subjects instead follow the verb, giving rise to an inverted order between S and V, that is, XVS as in nu sov hon, literally ‘now slept she’. Complements follow their governing verb, as well as their governing adposition. Swedish thus has VO order, as in hon kunde se stjärnan, ‘she could see star.def’, and prepositions, as in på himlen ‘in sky.def’. Determiners and adjectival modifiers, on the other hand, precede their head noun: den mörka himlen, ‘the dark sky.def’.

Swedish morphology is primarily agglutinative, conspicuously so in the nominal domain, where the definite article is a suffix surfacing between the number ending and the possessive marker: häst-ar-na-s, ‘horse-pl-def-poss’. However, analytic strategies are employed as well, in many contexts alongside an agglutinative alternative. For instance, the comparative form of the adjective intressant, ‘interesting’, may be expressed either with the -are ending (intressantare) or by adding the word mer, ‘more’, before the adjective (mer intressant). Synthetic morphology exists but is hardly productive. As in Germanic in general, the past tense of certain verbs is expressed solely by altering the stem vowel (so-called ablaut), for example, stick-astack, ‘sting-inf – sting.pst’. The productive method for forming the past tense is to add the suffix -de/-te to the verb stem: köp-te, prata-de, ‘buy-pst, talk-pst’.

The North Germanic languages are usually divided into an eastern branch, containing Swedish and Danish, and a western branch with Norwegian, Icelandic, and Faroese. This division is primarily motivated by sound changes that started in the Viking age and does not correspond well with the present-day language situation (see, e.g., Braunmüller, 1998, p. 10). From a contemporary synchronic perspective, the distinction between the languages on the Scandinavian mainland, Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian, and the languages on the Atlantic Islands (i.e., the Faroe Islands and Iceland) is far more important (see Torp, 2005, pp. 30–31, 44–45, for discussion). The mainland languages have all distanced themselves radically from the medieval language on all linguistic levels, whereas the insular languages have kept many archaic traits, such as case morphology and subject–verb agreement. Among the mainland languages, Swedish and Norwegian are closest, if mutual intelligibility is the primary ground of division (Delsing & Åkesson, 2002).

1.2 Number of Speakers in Sweden, Finland, and Worldwide

1.2.1 L1 Swedish

There is no official record of the number of native speakers of Swedish in Sweden, where the vast majority of all L1 speakers of Swedish in the world live. Estimations of the L1 speaker proportion in the Swedish population vary from 89% (Nygård, 2002) to 93% (EBS 386, 2012). With an up-to-date (i.e., November 2021) figure of 10.4 million inhabitants (Statistics Sweden, Population statistics), the estimated number of L1 speakers thus ranges from 9.3 million (assuming an L1 proportion of 89%) to 9.7 million (assuming a proportion of 93%).

Several hundreds of thousands of Swedish citizens currently live abroad. In a survey conducted by the organization Swedes Worldwide in 2015, the number of Swedish citizens living outside of Sweden and Finland was estimated to 645,000 (Söderström, 2015, p. 6). Although the survey did not ask about native language, it is a reasonable assumption that a vast majority of these ex-pats are L1 speakers of Swedish. However, the two L1 proportion figures mentioned earlier applies to all inhabitants in Sweden, not only to Swedish citizens. Swedish official statistics show that 8.7% of the inhabitants in Sweden are not Swedish citizens (Statistics Sweden, Population statistics). Although the difference between citizens and noncitizens regarding the proportion of L1 speakers is formally unknown, it is still safe to assume that it is higher in the former group than in the latter. Presumably, the figure is somewhat higher among homeland than among expatriate citizens, given that intergenerational transmission of Swedish might be lacking abroad but hardly at home. Nevertheless, under the assumption that 90% of expatriate citizens are L1 speakers, giving an L1 speaker figure of about 580,000 outside of Sweden and Finland, the estimation is certainly on the low side.

Moving on now to the number of L1 speakers of Finnish origin, there are indeed official figures both for speakers living in Finland and, at least indirectly, for speakers abroad. According to FIS (2021), there were 287,871 inhabitants in Finland with Swedish as their mother tongue in 2020 (FIS, 2021, p. 8). At the same time, there were 278,917 Finnish citizens living abroad. Excluding the 8,040 Finnish citizens living in Sweden and thus being included in the estimation for Sweden, about 14,000 Finnish ex-pats should be L1 speakers of Swedish, assuming that the proportion is the same abroad as it is in Finland, that is, 5.2% (FIS, 2021, p. 8).

Setting aside L1 Swedish spoken by Swedish and Finnish expatriates, native speakers of Swedish outside of Sweden and Finland are very few. There are areas in Estonia and Ukraine where, historically, L1 speakers of the Estonian variety of Swedish lived. In the early 21st century, there are, at best, a handful of such speakers left in Ukraine (Mankov, 2020; Westerberg, 2010b) and probably none in Estonia (Rosenkvist, 2018). Similarly, Swedish was thriving in North America in the early 1900s (Hasselmo, 1974, 2005; Hedblom, 1982). A century later, however, most L1 speakers are elderly people who have not passed on the language to their children (Larsson et al., 2015). Most Swedes who immigrated to the Americas during the late 19th and early 20th centuries went to the north, but some settled in the south, especially in the Misiones province of Argentina. In 2018, Flodell reported that there were still some L1 speakers of Swedish left in Misiones, but the language will probably die with them (Flodell, 2019, p. 182).

1.2.2 L2 Swedish

The largest group of L2 speakers of Swedish is in Finland. Here, 44% of the population report that although Finnish is their native language, they are able to engage in a simple conversation with someone who speaks Swedish (EBS 386, 2012, p. 21). With an up-to-date population figure of 5.5 million (FIS, 2021, p. 19), this group of L2 speakers amounts to 2.42 million. As for L2 Swedish in Sweden, there are yearly reports specifying the number of students of Swedish for immigrants on various levels (Statistics Sweden, SFI). However, it is difficult to obtain an overall number of L2 speakers (on any level) currently living in Sweden. An educated guess is that almost everyone who lives in Sweden but is not an L1 speaker has studied and/or acquired some form of L2 Swedish. Given our estimate of 9.3 to 9.7 million L1 speakers in a population of 10.4 million (see Section 1.2.1), the number of L2 speakers in Sweden would be between 0.7 and 1.1 million.

In addition to L2 Swedish in Finland and Sweden, Swedish can be studied as a foreign language in many parts of the world; Germany stands out as a particularly important arena for L2 Swedish (see the map in Parkvall & Flodell, 2010, p. 153). However, there is, to date, no reliable estimate of the number of L2 speakers of Swedish worldwide.

2. Historical Development

2.1 Periodization, Early Development, and the Frames of the History of Swedish

Traditionally, Swedish historical linguists have chosen to time the emergence of the Swedish language with the beginning of the Viking age, that is, around 800 ce (Bergman, 1968, p. 20; Wessén, 1958, p. 24). This earliest stage of Swedish is called Runic Swedish (RS). It is followed by Old Swedish (Early and Late; EOS and LOS, respectively) and Modern Swedish (Early and Late; EMS and LMS, respectively), as can be seen in (1). The periodization in (1) is something of a textbook standard (Pamp, 1971; Pettersson, 1996; see Johansson, 2007, 2010; Ralph, 2000 for discussion); it first appeared in Noreen (1918).


The use of 800 ce relies primarily on historical events, in particular the raid on Lindisfarne in 793 ce, which traditionally marks the beginning of the Viking age (see Jesch, 2015, p. 8, for discussion). At the same time, the century leading up to 800 ce ends a period of North Germanic runic inscriptions, carved with the elder futhark in a stingingly similar fashion across Scandinavia (Friesen, 1924). This earlier period is usually labeled ancient Nordic, Old Scandinavian, or even common or pan-Nordic, indicating that a split into several North Germanic varieties is not yet visible in the surviving written material. In the Viking-Age carvings (with the younger futhark), on the other hand, geographically marked traits start manifesting themselves. However, the label RS is somewhat misleading in this context. The first important linguistic division in North Germanic Scandinavia is rather between the east and the west, which only partially coincides with present-day political borders (Edlund, 2010, p. 28; Pettersson, 1996, pp. 67–69).

There are two sound changes that have traditionally been singled out as the instigators of the separation of North Germanic into an eastern and a western branch: monophthongization of the old diphthongs and nasal assimilations/deletions. First, it should be noted that in some cases, both changes are common to all North Germanic. Thus, there is a monophthong in Swedish stig, Danish/Norwegian sti, and Icelandic stígur alike (cf. the preserved diphthong in Gothic staiga ‘path’). Moreover, there is a lost nasal across the board in Swedish dricka, Danish/Norwegian drikke, and Icelandic drekka (cf. the preserved nasal in English drink). However, monophthongization goes further in the east, for example, Swedish heta, Danish hedde, whereas the diphthongs are preserved in the west: Norwegian/Icelandic heita (cf. German heißen, ‘to be called’). Conversely, nasal assimilation goes further in the west: Norwegian sopp, Icelandic sveppur, Swedish/Danish svamp (cf. German Schwamm, ‘sponge’).

A third change that could also be mentioned in this context is the so-called breaking of short e (Benediktsson, 1982; Dyvik, 1978). Like the two previous changes, breaking of e has taken place in all the North Germanic languages, for example, Swedish hrta, ‘heart’, brn, bear’, Danish/Norwegian hjerte, brn, Icelandic hjarta, brn (cf. German Herz and Dutch beer). Often, however, the process of breaking has gone further in the Scandinavian east; compare the broken forms in Danish/Swedish jag, jeg, ‘I’, with the unbroken eg in many Norwegian dialects (and, e.g., Yiddish ikh).

Early on, the Scandinavian east could be more accurately described as the southeast, corresponding to present-day Denmark and southern Sweden, with Zealand as the center of the spread of early innovations such as monophthongization. Farther to the north, in present-day central Sweden, things remain stable for longer, thereby keeping the bond with western Scandinavian. For instance, the monophthongization of the diphthong ai starts in the 10th century in the south but does not reach central Sweden until the 12th century (Wessén, 1958, pp. 27–28).

In fact, many southern innovations fail to spread north of present-day southern Sweden. This is the case with, for example, the loss of old palatal r in endings (cf. Danish heste, Scanian hästa, but Upplandian hästar, all meaning ‘’) and the voicing of intervocalic and word final voiceless stops (cf. the Danish and Scanian word for ‘boat’, d, with Upplandian t). This pattern of spread clearly reflects the old border between Sweden and Denmark: up until the middle of the 17th century, the Danish kingdom included the southern Swedish provinces of Scania, Halland, and Blekinge. (The province of Uppland is just north of Stockholm.) Other innovations, however, were never established in the Scandinavian Peninsula, for example, the leveling of ending vowels, that is, i, a, ue (i.e., schwa); compare the Danish heste with the Scanian/Upplandian hästa(r) (see further Pettersson, 1996, pp. 204–205).

Somewhat later than the Zealand innovations, other innovations started spreading from the central parts of Scandinavia, with the area around where Stockholm is today acting as an important spreading center. These central innovations include a number of sound changes that today clearly separate Swedish and Danish pronunciation, for example, the realization of long u (cf. Danish [huːs] with Swedish [hʉːs], both meaning ‘house’) and the palatalization of initial g and k before fronted vowels (cf. Danish gøre ‘do’ [ɡœːɐ] and kær ‘dear’ [kε‎:ɐ] with Swedish cognates göra [jœːra] and kär [çæːr]).

In sum, it would be less misleading to call the period from 800 ce East Scandinavian and move the Swedish–Danish distinction several centuries later, say, around 1200 with respect to the Zealand-based divergence and 1400 with respect to central Scandinavian innovations that never reached outside the Scandinavian Peninsula. Such a specification also clarifies the roots of the North Germanic linguistic landscape in the early 21st century. The consolidation of the central traits toward the end of the Middle Ages coincides with the traditional split between Norwegian and Icelandic in the end of the 14th century (Indrebø, 1951; Seip, 1931). This is when Norwegian and Swedish started to converge, thereby distancing themselves from their genealogically closer relatives Danish and Icelandic, respectively.

Moving on now to the two Old Swedish periods in (1), both starting dates, that is, 1225 and 1375, are approximations: The former marks the introduction of the Latin alphabet during the first decades of the 13th century, and the latter marks the beginning of a period of massive Middle Low German influence at the end of the 14th century. During the EOS period, Sweden starts taking its shape as a political unit, comprising not only the landscapes around the lakes of Mälaren and Vättern (i.e., Svealand and Götaland) but also the western parts of Finland and the coastal areas north of Stockholm, which was founded in 1252 (see further Harrison, 2009, pp. 440–452). Toward the end of the 14th century, however, northern Europe became increasingly dominated by the Hanseatic league, practically forcing the three Nordic kingdoms of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway into a formal alliance, the so-called Kalmar Union, under a common regent (Larsson, 1997, pp. 57–66). The intense contact with the Middle Low German language that came with the Hansa fundamentally reshaped the Swedish language (e.g., see Section 2.2.2).

The EMS period in (1) has a precise starting date: 1526. This is when the New Testament was first published in Swedish (Nya testamentet, 1526). However, from a political perspective, 1523 is more important, since this was when Sweden left the Kalmar Union. In fact, the Nya testamentet, 1526 has little more than a symbolic value linguistically. Instead, it is its natural continuation, the entire Bible in Swedish (Gustav Vasas bible, 1541), that came to play a significant role in the shaping of written Swedish (see Section 3.2).

The LMS period has a precise starting date too, namely, 1732. This is the year in which the groundbreaking weekly journal Then Swänska Argus (The Swedish Argus, Dalin, 1732) was first issued. Bearing in mind that the periodization in (1) was launched in 1918 by Noreen, who was himself born in 1854 (Elmevik, 1990, p. 494), the language in the Argus represented the beginning of modern written Swedish as Noreen and his contemporaries knew it (see Nilsson & Petzell, 2015, for discussion). Consequently, the LMS period continues into the present, as the hanging dash in (1) indicates. Still, to refer specifically to the contemporary language (i.e., Swedish around 1900) Noreen had previously introduced the label nusvenska, literally ‘now-Swedish’ (Noreen, 1898).

As the present distanced itself more and more from the turn of the 19th century, Noreen’s label naturally became less and less useful. Consequently, in 1988, Thelander suggested that LMS be followed by a third period starting around 1880: modern nysvenska (lit. ‘Modern New Swedish’); compare the Swedish labels for EMS and LMS: äldre (‘Elder’) and yngre (‘Younger’) nysvenska (‘New Swedish’; Thelander, 1988; see also Malmgren, 2007). However, modern nysvenska has hardly become a standard period label. Instead, it is part of an ongoing theoretical discussion of periodization in Swedish historical linguistics (see Johansson, 2007, 2010; Ralph, 2000).

2.2 From Old to Modern Swedish

2.2.1 Contact and Change in the Late Middle Ages

The language in the earliest Old Swedish texts written with the Latin alphabet differs quite significantly from the language in texts from the beginning of the modern era. By comparing such texts, changes on all linguistic levels can be observed. The phonological system, especially the vowels, displays dramatic changes (see Wessén, 1958, pp. 61–72, 135–141; Widmark, 1998, pp. 82–92, for details). Old morphological categories such as case (Delsing, 1991, 2014; Falk, 1995, 1997; Norde, 1997; Skrzypek, 2005) and verbal inflection for person (Neuman, 1925) have been dissolved, while new ones have emerged, for example, articles (Brandtler & Delsing, 2010; Skrzypek, 2009; Stroh-Wollin, 2016). Syntactically, however, the journey toward present-day Swedish (PDS) has only begun. In fact, toward the end of the Middle Ages, the word order in Swedish texts is often reminiscent of the language of prestige at the time, namely, Middle Low German, which was an OV language (Petrova, 2012). Swedish had already become a VO language in the 13th century (Delsing, 1999), but the subsequent Low German influence appears to have steered it toward OV instead (Delsing, 1999; Falk, 1993, pp. 158–164; Petzell, 2011, 2014). Very little of this Low German–flavored syntax has survived, however; the poetic language is perhaps its last bastion (Petzell & Hellberg, 2014). By contrast, on the lexical level, the Low German impact is as clear still in the early 21st century as it was in the late Middle Ages. Not only content words but also formal words and even derivational morphology were imported (Edlund & Hene, 1992, pp. 46–49; Hellquist, 1930, pp. 696–699; Wessén, 1948, pp. 75–104, 1954).

Scholars do not always agree as to the exact nature of the contact situation that arose all over Scandinavia in the Middle Ages following the continuous immigration of Low German merchants and craftspeople or its precise consequences for linguistic structure. One lingering question is to what extent speakers of Low German dialects and speakers of North Germanic dialects were able to communicate with each other without switching languages (Braunmüller, 1997), that is, to what extent they could engage in semi-communication in the sense of Haugen (1966; see Elmevik & Jahr, 2012, for an overview and Petzell, 2016, pp. 147–149, for examples). However, there is hardly any doubt that the long-lasting Low German presence in Scandinavia has indeed played an important role in the shaping of all the modern Mainland Scandinavian languages.

2.2.2 Comparing Old and Modern Swedish

In the following, there is an explicit comparison of two Swedish texts from the early 1300s (corresponding to EOS in (1)) and the 1530s (the beginning of EMS), respectively. The purpose of this comparison is to give the reader a hands-on experience of some of the more prominent changes that Swedish underwent during the late Middle Ages. Throughout, the comparison is related to PDS.

The EOS text comes from a paraphrase of the first five books of the Old Testament; see (2). The paraphrase was composed at the beginning of the 14th century (see Thorell, 1959, for details). Italics mark tokens that correspond to an abbreviation sign in the original.


‘While people were in the desert, there was a man who carried firewood on a Sunday. Moses had him locked up, and the Lord showed Moses what to do with him. Our lord then spoke to Moses, and sentenced the man to death and commanded all the people to break him down with rocks. And immediately, this was done.’

The EMS text comes from Olaus Petri’s Swedish Chronicle; see (3). It was written in the 1530s (see Sahlgren, 1917, for details). Italics mark abbreviations, like before.


‘However, king C. did not consider them to be murderers when they acknowledged him as their king, nor were bishops V and M considered to be murderers when they crowned him with the Archbishop, but they would be burnt as murderers. Certainly, God has not forgotten such things. As the citizens were thus executed, all their keys were taken from their wives, and all their gold, silver, money, and excellent goods were impounded as unlawful.’

First, a brief note on orthography is in order. (2) features the characters <ø> and <æ>, which, in the 21st century, are used in written Danish and Norwegian but not in Swedish. By contrast, (3) is like PDS in employing the alternatives <ö> and <ä> instead, originally German orthographic inventions (Voeste, 2012, pp. 177–178) that were broadly promoted throughout the Swedish realm during the EMS era through the printed Bible of 1541. The Bible also spread the novel character <å> (first introduced in Nya testamentet, 1526), which rendered a higher pronunciation of the original long [a], which changed to [o] during the late Middle Ages.

Parts of the older sound system are explicitly reflected in (2). Besides the preserved [a] in tha (l.1), war (l.3), swa (l.7) (cf. PDS då, vår and så), there is also an original high vowel in words like widh (l.2), sidhan (l.4), and nidh (l.6), which was later lowered (cf. PDS ved, sedan, ned). In contrast, (3) has the new å sign in, for example, thå (l.3) and ifrå (l.6), indicating the shift [a]>[o], as well as a case of vowel lowering [y]>[ø] (nöcklar, l.6) that suggests an even more radical lowering process than in PDS, which has nycklar. At the same time, and a bit paradoxically, the novel å sign in wåro (l.5) appears to render a still unaltered [o] of the plural stem; this stem is present in PDS subjunctive vore, which, following the development [o]>[u], is pronounced [vuːrɛ].

As for the consonants, the digraphs <dh>, <gh>, and <th> in (2; e.g., dhan, sønedaghin, thæm) would have still represented fricative sounds, that is, [ð‎], [ɣ‎], [θ‎]. In PDS, they are all stops: medan, söndagen, dem. In (3), the fricative consonants of old appear to be disappearing. This is indicated both by fricative spelling (i.e., with <h>), where there was never a fricative sound in the first place (konungh, l.1; cf. Söderwall, 1884, entry konunger), and by the lack of fricative spelling, where it would be expected had the change not already taken place (met l.3; cf. Söderwall, 1884, entry dh).

Moving on to morphology, the suffixed definite article appears in both (2; e.g., folk-it, ‘people-def’) and (3; e.g., Erchebisp-en, ‘arch.bishop-def’). It is only in (2), however, that there are article-less contexts in which PDS demands an article, for example, til dödh (l.5; cf. PDS till döden), indicating that the modern article system is not yet fully in place. On the other hand, the case system is fully operational in (2), for example, ødhmark-om, ‘desert-dat’, the-m mann-e, ‘that-dat man-dat’, whereas only remnants of this system appear in (3), much like in PDS. Consequently, a preposition phrase headed by ‘with’ contains a noun phrase in the dative in (2), medh sten-om, but in (3), there is no case marking, only the definite article: met Erchebisp-en. Like in PDS, old dative forms of pronouns occur in (3) as generalized object forms. Thus, in (2), thæm (l.3) is the dative singular of the masculine demonstrative thæn, whereas in (3), them occurs in its modern guise, as the object form of ‘they’ (in PDS dem). Similarly, the form of ‘he’ in (2) is either in the accusative (han, l.2, 6) or the dative (honom, l.3) largely depending on the thematic role it has, while honom in (3, l.2, 3) functions like PDS honom, namely, as a general object form.

However, reviewing the word order in the two text sequences, (3) emerges as the more deviant one in relation to PDS. Disregarding the let construction in (2, l.2), which follows its own path (Alving, 1918), all objects in (2) follow the main verb, which, in turn, is always preceded by the auxiliary in complex tenses. By contrast, in (3), there is an object preceding the nonfinite verb (sådana . . . förgetit, l.4–5), as well as a clause-final auxiliary (wåro, l.5). This OV revival of the late Middle Ages is clearly due to German influence, Low German to begin with (Delsing, 1999), later on also High German (Braunmüller, 2005; Petzell, 2011). OV patterns continue to occur in texts up until the 18th century, arguably as optional variants within the basic VO system (Petzell, 2011; Sangfelt, 2019).

Lexically, the difference between (2) and (3) is striking. Apart from the religiously motivated loan Moyses/Moysen, which preserves the Greek nominative/accusative of the Hebrew name of Moses, (2) reflects an all–North Germanic lexicon, including presently obsolete forms (such as iæmskøt, l.6). In (3), however, the effects of the intense contact with Low German during the late Middle Ages can be seen in the abundance of loans. There are direct loans (recknade l.1, Crönte l.3, Borgarenar l.5, hustror l.6) and translation loans (affhugne l.5, meaning ‘executed’) in the open classes, as well as numerous additions to the formal lexical inventory, for example, the connectives men (l.1, 4), and dogh (l.4), the pronoun sådana (l.4), and the auxiliary bliffo (l.6). Finally, there is even derivational morphology of Low German origin in (3), namely, the prefix för- (in förgetit, förbrutit, l.5, 8).

3. Modern Development and Current Status

3.1 Becoming Swedish (in Relation to Norwegian and Danish)

The changes that Swedish goes through from the late Middles Ages onward are shared in many parts with Danish and in most parts with Norwegian.

Regarding phonology (including prosody), Norwegian and Swedish largely follow the same path (Kristoffersen & Torp, 2016, pp. 148–155; Wessén, 1958, pp. 61–81). For instance, unlike Danish, both Swedish and Norwegian have developed a front rounded /ʉ/ and a retroflex pronunciation of r + dental (e.g., in surt [sʉʈ], ‘’), and they both differ from Danish in resisting voicing of p, t, k and in keeping the ending vowels (i, u, a; see Section 2.1 for examples). Also, they retain a phonemic tonal distinction, whereby some minimal pairs (e.g., anden ‘duck.def’ and anden ‘spirit.def’) are distinguished merely by different timing of high and low tones; see Riad (2013, pp. 181–188) for details. Danish instead has the so-called stød, the tonal connection of which remains disputed (cf., e.g., Riad, 1998, 2003, with Grønnum et al., 2013). Moreover, Swedish and Norwegian develop a strict interdependence between syllable length and stress (all stressed syllables contain either a long vowel or a long consonant), unlike Danish but like Insular Scandinavian (see Riad, 1995, pp. 165, 180, for typological discussion). Swedish in Finland is an exception, preserving short stressed syllables and lacking retroflexion (see Section 3.3.1). Furthermore, both Swedish and Norwegian develop a palatalized pronunciation of initial k and g before front vowels, as well as a fricative pronunciation of initial consonant clusters (e.g., skj- in skjuta, ’shoot.inf’); in the latter case, PDS normally has a velar pronunciation ([ɧ]; see Section 3.3.1), while Norwegian has a supradental [ʂ].

As for morphology, a process of deflection takes place all over Scandinavia from the Middle Ages onward, and Danish often leads the way. Thus, both verbal agreement and case start dissolving later in Swedish (Larsson, 1988; Neuman, 1925; Skrzypek, 2005) and Norwegian (Enger & Conzett, 2016, pp. 262–263; Mørck, 2013) compared to Danish (Skautrup, 1944, pp. 273–274). In isolated dialects in Sweden and Norway, both categories have, in fact, survived to some extent (albeit not as intact as in, e.g., Icelandic). See Reinhammar (1973, 1988) on case in Norwegian and Swedish dialects, Horn (2015, 2017) and Petzell (2017, 2021) on verbal inflection in the southwest, Levander (1928, pp. 109–139, 162–168) on case and verbal inflection in Dalecarlia, and Wetås (2013) on lingering number agreement in Hallingdalen. The three-gender system of old (masculine/feminine/neuter) develops into its modern two-gender system (common/neuter) somewhat differently: As before, Danish changes first (Skautrup, 1944, pp. 269–270), followed by Swedish, in which the binary system of PDS starts manifesting itself in texts from the 18th century (Davidson, 1990, pp. 48–50; Larsson & Petzell, 2021, pp. 31–32). In Norwegian, however, the three-gender system is still very much alive in most dialects (Enger & Conzett, 2016, p. 224).

Moving on to changes in syntax, all the Mainland Scandinavian languages develop obligatory expletive subjects as well as subordinate AF word order, that is, Adverbials before Finite verbs, during the Early Modern era (see Falk, 1993; Håkansson, 2013; Pettersson, 1988; Platzack, 1985, 1988a, 1988b, on Swedish; Sundquist, 2003, on Danish; Christoffersen, 1997; Vittersø, 2004, on Norwegian; cf. Holmberg & Platzack, 1995, for a general perspective); subordinate FA word order may still occur but only as an instance of embedded V2 (see Gärtner, 2019; Julien, 2015, for details). Also, they take the final steps toward the strict VO languages they are in the 21st century (on Swedish, see Delsing, 1999; Petzell, 2011, 2012; Sangfelt, 2019; cf. Sundquist, 2002, pp. 135–146, on Norwegian, and Petersen, 2019; Sundquist, 2002, pp. 200–203, on Danish). However, Swedish and Norwegian alone develop a demand for a simultaneous use of determiner and suffixed article in definite noun phrases (“double definiteness”; Stroh-Wollin, 2016), resulting in a difference between Swedish/Norwegian den stora hästen/hesten and Danish den store hest, all meaning ‘the big horse’ (Delsing, 1993, pp. 114–123; Julien, 2005, pp. 26–76).

Finally, there are some uniquely Swedish developments that take place in the Late Modern era, thus distancing Swedish from Danish/Norwegian. For instance, the original placement of light objects before particles, as in bryta han nidh in (2, l.6) in Section 2.2.2, is lost in favor of a system in which all objects follow particles (see Section 3.3.3 for an example); both Danish and Norwegian have retained the original system (Faarlund, 2019, pp. 137–139; Larsson & Lundquist, 2021; Ljunggren, 1932). What is more, it is during the 18th century that the present-day distinction between the non-agreeing form of the participle, the supine, and the passive participle is established (Platzack, 1981, 1989); compare the active participle förgetit in (3, l.5) in Section 2.2.2 and the passive participle förbrutit (3, l.8), where this distinction is not yet present (-it ending in both cases), with the distinct supine and participle forms in Section 3.3.2. There is no morphologically distinct supine in Danish or Norwegian (except, possibly, in some dialects—see Larsson, 2009, p. 424).

Along with the supine comes the loss of variation between the temporal auxiliaries be and have, and the introduction of the PDS system in which the perfect tense is always formed with have (Larsson, 2009, pp. 254–264). This also coincides with the rise of finite have deletion in subordinate contexts, originally a construction adopted from German (Bäckström, 2019; Johannisson, 1945). The development of a have only perfect is shared with Norwegian, while Danish has kept the original be/have variation in a slightly modified form (Larsson, 2015, 2021). Deletion of subordinate finite have is specific to Swedish (see Julien, 2002, and Section 3.3.3 for an example).

3.2 The Emergence of a Written Standard and the Decline of the Traditional Dialects

As mentioned in Section 2.1, the earliest Swedish texts written with the Latin alphabet are from the early 1200s. However, it is not until the end of the 18th century that a written standard is fully established (Teleman, 2002). The first steps toward a unified way of writing Swedish were taken in the 16th century, when the printed Bible in Swedish (from 1541), and with it the reformed religion, reached every parish in the Swedish realm. The emerging central state thus demonstrated its far-reaching power, but the spread of a written standard was hardly a primary item on the agenda (see Kouri, 1994, for discussion). Nevertheless, the Bible of 1541 came to serve as the most important model for written Swedish for almost 200 years (Ståhle, 1970b).

However, over the course of the 18th century, a new written standard gradually arose. It was manifested in secular and widely spread genres such as journals, travel books, scientific literature, and even fiction, and toward the end of the century, it was codified in dictionaries (Sahlstedt, 1773) and normative handbooks (Leopold, 1801). One prominent feature of the written standard of the 18th century was an explicit marking of consonant length by gemination but not of vowel length as in the old Bible. Although some efforts were made during the late 19th century to further adapt the spelling to sound changes that had taken place during LMS (Ståhle, 1970a; Teleman, 2003), much has, in fact, remained the same since the 18th century. For instance, still today (in the early 21st century), the palatalized pronunciation of k and g before front vowels, as well as the fricative pronunciation of initial stj-, skj-, and sj- clusters lack an orthographic correlate altogether. Similarly, the silence of initial consonants in words like ljus ([jʉːs]) has not (yet) warranted their demise in writing. Only the silent initial h has been removed, along with, for instance, the spelling of /v/ with <f> and <fv>, namely, in the last major spelling reform of 1906 (see further Ståhle, 1970a), resulting in an orthographic contrast between, for example, the 19th-century hvad, gaf and the 20th-century vad, gav (‘what, gave’).

The spoken language of the 19th century, at least during the first half of the century, was, in most part, in stark contrast to the uniform nature of the written word. Still about 1850, the diversity of Swedish dialects was perhaps greater than ever, and many of them deviated dramatically from the written standard (Hallberg, 2005; Larsson & Petzell, 2021; Nilsson & Petzell, 2015; Teleman, 2007). However, already during the late 1800s, when primary schools became mandatory, the vernacular variation of old was gradually being replaced by a new spoken norm. The schoolteachers were not familiar with the spoken language of high society. Instead, they promoted a spoken standard that was very close to the written letter. In the past, this manner of speaking had been confined to public announcements (Widmark, 1970, 2000), and professional linguists of the time strongly advised against a more general usage of this written-like Swedish (Cederschiöld, 1897, Tarschys, 1955, p. 241; Teleman, 2002, p. 99; see Josephson, 1996 for discussion). In the end, however, it was indeed the ideal of the schoolteachers that prevailed (Widmark, 2000).

The aim for spoken conformity in schools naturally had devastating effects on the traditional dialects, and toward the end of the 20th century, spoken Swedish was probably more homogenous than ever. In this regard, the Swedish development resembles the Danish one, where, however, the spoken vernacular of the capital (i.e., Copenhagen) became the spoken norm, but contrasts with the situation in Norway, where dialectal variation was instead encouraged (see Nilsson & Petzell, 2015, for detailed comparison).

As shown by Nilsson (2009), the dialect leveling of the 20th century was very much a macro phenomenon. Still in the early 21st century, there are certain isolated communities, or isolated individuals within a community, where one may encounter a spoken dialect that has remained almost intact since the 19th century. Archaic areas of this sort include northwestern Dalecarlia and Överkalix in Sweden, and Närpes in Finland (Ivars, 2010; Parkvall, 2015, pp. 47–52; Westerberg, 2010a). However, in most places and in most native speakers, the traditional dialect of the area is preserved only in a very diluted form, giving the spoken standard a regional flavor (see Bruce, 2010, pp. 169–204, for phonetic details and Section 3.3 for examples). Also, during the late 20th century, so-called contemporary urban vernaculars (Rampton, 2011) have emerged in the ethnically and linguistically diverse suburbs of the larger cities; see Kotsinas (1988) for an early description and Bijvoet (2020) for an overview.

3.3 Structural Characteristics

A short text in present-day Swedish (PDS) is given in (4).


‘When the annual meeting of the sewing associations had just been postponed for no good reason, G. reached for his sweaty forehead. He realized that the minutes had already been printed. The kind intern had also labelled them with today’s date. He knew of no one who could fix that. What shall I do?, he thought tiredly.’

In Sections 3.3.1 through 3.3.4, there is a brief outline of the phonology, morphology, syntax, and lexicon of PDS, including important geographically conditioned variation. As far as possible, the description is based on the text in (4) and, when relevant, related to the historical sections in Section 2.2.

3.3.1 Phonology

PDS has nine vowel phonemes, with these distinctive features (following Riad, 2013, p. 37): high front (/i/), high front rounded (/y/), high central rounded (/ʉ/), high back rounded (/u/), mid-high front (/e/), mid-high back rounded (/o/), mid front (/ɛ/), mid front rounded (/ø/), and low central (/ɑ/). All vowels, except /ɛ/, always have qualitatively different long and short allophones (Engstrand, 1999, p. 140).

Starting with the high vowels, blivit in (4, l.1) thus contains a long [iː] in the stem and a short [ɪ] in the ending. Moreover, the first vowel in syföreningarnas (l.1) is long ([yː]), while y in tryckts (l.3) is short ([ʏ]). Furthermore, the initial vowel in uppskjutet (l.1) is short ([ɵ]), the stem vowel long ([ʉː]). Finally, the long vowel in tog (l.2) is [uː], whereas the two first short syllables in protokoll (l.3) have [ʊ].

Continuing with the mid high /e/, it has the long allophone [eː] (e.g., in redan, l.3) and the short allophone [ɛ] (e.g., in the ending of praktikanten, l.4). The short allophone of /e/ coincides with the short allophone of /ɛ/: kände (l.5) thus has the same short [ɛ] in both the stem and the ending. As stated, the long allophone of /ɛ/ is qualitatively like the short one, for example, the long [ɛː] in the first syllable of välvilliga (l.4). A difference arises, however, when /ɛ/ precedes /r/, in which case both the long vowel (as in När, l.1) and the short vowel (as in märkt, l.4) have a lower pronunciation, that is, [æ]. The short allophone of /e/ is affected by /r/ in the same way: consequently, Gert (l.2) has a short [æ], while the vowel of the first syllable of svettiga (l.2) is short [ɛ].

Moving on to /ø/, the allophonic variation is conditioned by a following /r/ too, but in the case of /ø/, the qualitative difference between long and short realizations is there even when there is no following /r/, for example, the second syllable of årsmöte (l.1) with [øː] and trött (l.6) with [œ]. The lowered pronunciation caused by /r/ is, in other words, explicit only when /ø/ is long: compare [øː] in årsmöte (l.1) to [œː] in göra (l.6). In some speakers, the realization of short /ø/ and short /ʉ/ coincides, being [ɵ] in both cases (see Wenner, 2010, for details). Furthermore, mid-high back /o/ has the long allophone [oː] (e.g., in insåg, l.3) and the short allophone [ɔ] (as the final vowel of protokoll, l.3).

Finally, the low vowel /ɑ/ is pronounced further back (and slightly higher) when it is long, that is, long [ɑː] in dagens (l.5), but as [a] when it is short (as in both syllables in panna, l.3). The long [ɑː] distinguishes Swedish pronunciation from the other Mainland Scandinavian languages, even Norwegian, which is, as mentioned, phonologically very similar. In fact, the unique long [ɑː] was highlighted as a positively distinguishing trait already in the 17th century in the patriotically inclined linguistic descriptions of the time (e.g., Tiällmann, 1696, p. 61).

As for the consonants, and as before following Riad’s (2013, p. 45) phonological analysis, PDS has 18 consonant phonemes. There are three pairs of voiced/unvoiced oral stops, namely, labial /b/–/p/, dental /d/–/t/, and velar /g/–/k/, and two pairs of voiced/unvoiced fricatives, namely, labial /f/–/v/, and palatal /ç/–/j/. Furthermore, there are three nasals, namely, labial /m/, dental /n/, and velar /ŋ/; one unvoiced dental fricative, /s/; one unvoiced alveolar fricative, /ʂ/; one glottal fricative, /h/; one lateral, /l/; and one apical trill, /r/.

Important regional variation in the pronunciation of consonants includes the realization of /ʂ/, /r/, the sequence /r/ + dental, and /ç/. Starting with /ʂ/, which, for example, initiates the second syllable in uppskjutet (in 4, l.1), it is pronounced as [ɧ] in central and southern Sweden but as [ʂ] in the north and in Finland, although there is also socially conditioned variation, with [ʂ] being associated with poshness in, for example, Gothenburg (see Andersson, 2019, pp. 99–100).

Moreover, /r/ is pronounced as an apical trill in central Sweden and Finland, that is, [r]; in Stockholm, however, an onset /r/ often transforms into a fricative or an approximant, that is, [ʐ] or [ɹ] (Riad, 2013, p. 68). By contrast, in southern Sweden, /r/ is pronounced farther back, much like in Danish and other West Germanic varieties on the European continent. Muminovic and Engstrand (2002) report that the most common southern pronunciation of /r/ is as a uvular fricative, that is, [ʁ].

Furthermore, in Sweden, north of the area with a uvular realization of /r/, /r/ merges with a following dental, resulting in a retroflex pronunciation. This happens both within words, for example, in Gert (l.2), which is pronounced with a final [ʈ], and across word boundaries as in sequences like r sin (l.2), which is pronounced [fœːʂɪn].

Swedish in Finland, however, has no retroflexion. This variety also lacks the phonemic tonal distinction that is present in all regions in Sweden (including the south) and in Norwegian (see Section 3.1). On the other hand, Finland Swedish has a more versatile syllable structure, and unlike Sweden Swedish, it permits stressed syllables that consist of a short vowel and a short consonant. Finland Swedish also differs from Sweden Swedish in the realization of /ç/, appearing as the initial segment in kände (in 4, l.5). In Sweden, /ç/ is pronounced as [ç], but in Finland, it is an affricate, that is, [tç].

3.3.2 Morphology

In PDS, finite verbs are inflected for tense (e.g., ha-de, ‘have-pst’ in 4, l.3) but lack verbal agreement altogether, just like in the other Mainland Scandinavian languages. However, there is attributive adjectival agreement in a weak and a strong form, like Germanic in general except in English and Afrikaans. The strong form, which occurs in indefinite noun phrases, agrees with its head noun in gender (common or neuter) and number, for example, giltig förklaring (l.2), where the adjective giltig is marked for common gender singular matching the features of the noun it modifies; compare the similar phrase giltigt skäl, ‘legitimate reason’, where the neuter noun (skäl) demands a t-ending. On the other hand, the weak form in -a appears in all definite noun phrases, for example, den välvilliga praktikanten (l.4). Unlike West Germanic but like the other North Germanic languages, Swedish also exhibits strong agreement in predicatives. Thus, in (4, l.1), the neuter noun årsmöte triggers singular neuter agreement -t on the following predicative, the passive participle uppskjutet.

Furthermore, as stated in Section 2.2.3, Swedish has a morphologically distinct non-agreeing participle with an active meaning, the so-called supine (Teleman et al., 1999, pp. 551–552). The supine is formally unique only with strong verbs. Compare the strong blivit (l.1), where the -it ending is clearly separate from the neuter singular -et on passive participles like uppskjutet, with the weak märkt (l.4), which is used as a supine (i.e., it forms the perfect tense with the temporal auxiliary hade) but is formally identical to a passive participle with neuter singular agreement.

Still, in the passive voice, all supines are equally unambiguous, as they combine with the passive ending -s. Thereby, the verb stem is excluded as a passive participle. Consequently, although tryckts (l.3) contains the stem tryckt, which is, in itself, just as ambiguous as märkt, the passivized form tryckts can only be interpreted as a passive supine. The morphological s-passive occurs in the other North Germanic languages too, but it is most widely used in Swedish. For example, det . . . hade tryckts (l.3) shows a usage that does not exist outside of Swedish. Other impersonal constructions may certainly involve the s-passive in Danish/Norwegian (Laanemets, 2012, pp. 181–182), but to add the -s to an active participle, as in the example at hand, is possible only in Swedish; see Engdahl and Laanemets (2016); Engdahl (2006); Faarlund (2019, pp. 174–176); Hulthén (1944, pp. 186–203) for more comparative examples.

Alongside the morphological s-passive, there is also a periphrastic passive, which is formed with be or become and a passive participle; compare affhugne wåro and wordo . . . tagne in (3, l.5–6), lit. ‘executed were’ and ‘became taken’, respectively. The periphrastic passive is more generally employed in Danish and Norwegian than in Swedish (Laanemets, 2012; see Kirri, 1975 for the development of the passive in LMS). As shown by Holm (1952), the penchant for the s-passive is strong also in the traditional Swedish dialects. The exception is Bohuslän, which, being old Norwegian territory, is more on par with Norwegian; see Larsson and Petzell (2021, pp. 32–33) for examples.

Historically, the s of the morphological passive is a grammaticalized reflexive (Wessén, 1958, p. 36), although the precise details of the development are unknown, due to the scarcity of early sources (see Öhlin, 1918, pp. 11–14). The reflexive also thrives along its own path, like in North Germanic in general. Thus, in (4, l.2) there is both a reflexive object (sig) and a reflexive possessive (sin), since the subject is third-person singular (i.e., Gert).

As exemplified in Section 2.2.2, the old case system was lost many centuries ago. Like in the other Mainland Scandinavian languages, as well as in, for example, English and Dutch, there is a formal distinction between objects and subjects only in pronouns. In third person, h-pronouns (related to, e.g., English he and Dutch het, ‘it’) distinguish between nominative and oblique: han/honom, ‘he/him’, hon/henne, ‘she/her’. By contrast, d-pronouns (historically related to both, e.g., German sie, ‘she, they’, and English they) have no case distinction in the singular (det/den, ‘3sg.n/c), and in the plural, the distinction is made only in writing. Consequently, the object form dem in (4, l.4) is pronounced [dɔm], just as the subject form de would be (see further Section 3.4.1). Since the beginning of the 21st century, a new and gender-neutral h-pronoun has started gaining ground, namely, hen (see Ledin & Lyngfelt, 2013; Milles, 2013 for details). Hen typically lacks the case distinction of the other h-pronouns, the form hen thus acting both as a subject and an object form; a distinct object form henom is attested but appears to be highly marginal (Ledin & Lyngfelt, 2013, p. 165, fn. 13).

First- and second-person pronouns all have subject and object forms, as well as a possessive form: 1sg: jag/mig/min; 2sg du/dig/din; 1pl: vi/oss/vår(an); 2pl: ni/er/er(an). In third person, all possessives (except reflexive sin—cf. the paragraph before last) end in -s: hans, hennes, hens, dess, deras. Unlike the -s ending in passives (which evolved from a reflexive), possessive -s originates in the old genitive ending -s of masculine singular (Delsing, 1991; Norde, 1997). Today, possessive -s can be added to any noun phrase, for example, syföreningarna-s (in 4, l.1); see Börjars (2003) for more complex examples and discussion. Being restricted to third person, Swedish and Norwegian possessive -s are alike and less versatile than in Danish, where possessive -s has spread to plural first and second person too, for example, Danish jeres, ‘’ (see Howe, 1996, pp. 82–83, for diachronic details).

In årsmöte (in 4, l.1), there is yet another type of s, which functions as a linking element in compounds. The linking s is more than a mere indicator of morpheme boundaries. It marks the hierarchal structure of more complex compounds, making subtle distinctions between, for example, barn-bok-s-klubb, which has the structure [[barn-bok]-[klubb]], that is, ‘club for children’s books’, and barn-bok-klubb, with the structure [[barn]-[bok-klubb]], that is, ‘book club for children’. The versatile nature of compounding is a highly conspicuous feature of Swedish word formation (see Josefsson, 1997, 1998, for details and discussion).

3.3.3 Syntax

As stated, Swedish is a V2 language, like all Germanic languages except English, with basic VO order, like North Germanic in general. Like Danish and Norwegian, but unlike Icelandic, finite verbs are typically preceded by sentence adverbials in subordinate clauses, for example, att . . . redan hade, ‘that . . . already had.pst’ (in 4, l.3). Subordinate clauses introduced by att ‘that’ may exhibit main clause word order (i.e., embedded V2; cf. Section 3.1) but only if the content of the clause can be interpreted as asserted by the speaker (Andersson, 1975, p. 21; Julien, 2015).

Swedish alone permits the deletion of finite temporal auxiliaries, as in the initial clause in (4), where the pluperfect (have.pst + supine) is expressed by the isolated supine blivit. Moreover, Swedish is the only Germanic language that always has a strict particle–object order, even when the object is a light pronoun as in märkt upp dem (l.4). By contrast, in clauses with so-called object shift (Holmberg, 1986, p. 165), Swedish is more liberal than Danish and Norwegian, crucially permitting object pronouns to precede non-pronominal subjects (long object shift), as with sig Gert (l.2; see further Erteschik-Shir et al., 2021; Faarlund, 2019, pp. 199–203).

Moving on now to argument extraction from embedded clauses, Swedish is often less strict than Scandinavian in general. Even extraction from complex noun phrases, once believed to be universally impossible (Ross, 1967, pp. 118–119), may occur, for example, the topicalized Det (in 4, l.5), which has moved from its base position within the attributive relative clause som kunde justera (see Andersson, 1982; Lindahl, 2017). Furthermore, in Finland Swedish, subjects may be extracted across an explicit complementizer, like in many Norwegian dialects (Bentzen, 2014), for example, deni sa jag att ei var fin, ‘I said that one was nice’.

Finland Swedish also differs from Sweden Swedish in its use of adjunctive (Teleman et al., 1999, p. 442), which in Sweden Swedish is possible after topicalized adverbials like the initial temporal clause in (4) but in Finland Swedish also after topicalized arguments, for example, honom såg jag, ‘him saw I’; see Østbø (2014) for more comparative data. Another doubling phenomenon, common in all varieties of Swedish, is left dislocation, whereby an initial phrase (typically the subject) appears to the left of the actual clause where it corresponds to a pronominal double: Kungen, han bor i Stockholm, ‘king.def, he live.prs in Stockhom’ (see Johannessen, 2014, for more examples and Scandinavian comparison). Setting aside doubling, the V2 order of main clauses may also be obscured by certain focusing adverbials, for example, bara ‘just, only’, which can be inserted to the left of the finite verb: Vi bara skrek av glädje, ‘we just screamed of joy’ (see further Brandtler & Håkansson, 2017).

3.3.4 Lexicon

The massive Middle Low German influence on the Swedish lexicon was exemplified in the historical Sections 2.2.1 and 2.2.2. In the contemporary language, the proportion of words with a Low German origin is still great, but people in general hardly think of them as foreign elements, for example, the modal adverb ju (in 4, l.3; see Martola et al., 2014, for an overview). Moreover, Low German influence might be hard to distinguish from later High German influence, which, in many cases, came to build on Low German forms that were already in the language. For instance, both words in the phrase giltig förklaring (l.2) contain derivational morphology that was originally imported from Low German: the suffixes -ig and -ing, and the prefix för-. In the case of giltig, however, it seems that the entire form was borrowed directly from High German in the 17th century (SAOB, entry giltig). Förklaring, on the other hand, could be a domestic nominalization of the originally Low German verb förklara (cf. MLG verklaren), although it is difficult to rule out that such a development was inspired by the Low German noun verklaringe or a High German (hypothetical) version of that word (i.e., verklarung), or possibly by both.

High German remained the most important source of lexical import for Swedish up until the middle of the 20th century (Edlund & Hene, 1992, pp. 57–60; Hellquist, 1930, pp. 708–789). Often, German has also functioned as an intermediary of loans from Latin and Greek, for example, protokoll and praktikant (in 4, l.3–4; SAOB, entries protokoll and praktikant).

Since the mid-1900s, Swedish generally finds its lexical inspiration in English, particularly the North American variety (Stålhammar, 2003). This is true of Swedish in both Sweden and Finland. In the latter case, English loans may come via the majority language Finnish, which sometimes leads to a difference between Swedish in Sweden and Finland. For instance, Finland Swedish has the word tablet, presumably from Finnish tabletti, which is borrowed from the English tablet; in Sweden, a tablet is instead called a surfplatta, literally ‘a plate for surfing (the internet)’ (Reijonen, 2021). More recent loans of English nouns tend to come with the English plural marker -s, for example, en influencer - flera influencers ‘one influencer - several influencers’ (first attested in 2003 according to SO, 2021). In earlier loans, plural -s is instead often part of the stem (e.g., en muffins - flera muffins-ar, ‘one muffin - several muffin-s’, first attested in 1913 according to SO, 2021).

3.4 Sociolinguistic Characteristics

3.4.1 Written and Spoken Swedish

During the 20th century, the written and the spoken standard have become even closer but in a different manner than before (Malmgren, 2007; Thelander, 1988). As described in Section 3.2, the schoolteacher method, converting the written letter to sound, created a new spoken standard from the late 19th century onward. In the early 21st century, this standard comes in various regional guises, which are only mildly divergent from each other, differing prosodically and sometimes segmentally (cf. uvular /r/ in southern Sweden and lack of retroflexion in Finland in Section 3.3.1). However, over the course of the 20th century, the spoken language has also affected the form of the written language, making it less archaic. Such developments include the loss of number agreement on finite verbs from the late 1940s (see Molde & Ståhle, 1970, pp. 12, 35) and the abandonment of the traditional three-gender system (formally from 1900; see Malmgren, 2007, p. 174).

An adjustment that has been discussed for some decades but still in the early 2020s remains unaltered is the case distinction between the third person plural pronouns de and dem. In the spoken language, most people use dom across the board, also as the definite article and in demonstratives (dom stora bilarna, ‘the big cars’, dom här skorna, ‘these shoes’). However, the dedem distinction has remained intact in spoken Finland Swedish (Nyholm, 1984), and this fact has, traditionally, been invoked in favor of upholding the distinction in the written language. This argument is becoming weaker, however. In the early 21st century, more and more speakers of Finland Swedish have also adopted the universal use of dom (Leinonen, 2015, pp. 162–164).

3.4.2 The Official Status of Swedish in Sweden and Finland

Swedish is a pluricentric language: it is the official language in both Sweden and Finland. In the Swedish language act, it is stated that Swedish is the main language in Sweden and, as such, the common language of all society (Språklag, 2009, p. 4–5). In Finland, Swedish is one of two national languages, the other one being Finnish. The equal official status of Swedish and Finnish as national languages in Finland is stated in the constitution (Finlands Grundlag, 1999, p. 17), as well as in the Finnish language act (Språklag, 2003, p. 1).

Unlike in Sweden, where Swedish is used officially in the entire country, the official use of Swedish in Finland is dependent primarily on the proportion of speakers within each municipality. The Finnish language act thus states that a municipality is officially bilingual if the minority language is spoken by at least 8% (or 3,000 individuals) of the population (Språklag, 2003, p. 5). The province of Åland has a separate status, specified in the independence act of Åland. In this province, Swedish alone is the official language, independent of demographic changes over time (Självstyrelselag för Åland, 1991, p. 36).

Both Sweden and Finland have official linguistic institutes, where the linguistic cultivation of Swedish is among the more prominent tasks: the Institute for Language and Folklore (Isof) in Sweden and the Institute for the languages of Finland (IF) in Finland. Isof and IF are separate bodies, but in practice, they share a common agenda and promote the same written standard, as specified in the manual Svenska skrivregler (Karlsson, 2017). Also, there are joint fora, where representatives from the two national institutions meet and discuss what common stand to take, not only regarding Swedish language cultivation in general (Språkvårdsgruppen) but also in, for example, official policies for place-naming (Namnvårdsgruppen).

4. Swedish and the North Germanic Languages: A Summary

Swedish is the main language in Sweden and one of the two official languages in Finland (Finnish is the other). It is the largest of the North Germanic languages and has about 10.5 million L1 speakers worldwide. How many have acquired Swedish as a second language is hard to estimate. In Finland and Sweden alone, there are at least 3 million L2 speakers, and globally, Swedish is taught as a foreign language in over 200 universities (The Swedish Institute).

All the Mainland Scandinavian languages were in close contact with Middle Low German during the late Middle Ages. Apart from accumulating an abundance of lexical loans, this contact was, at least indirectly, responsible for the dramatic morphological and syntactic changes that Swedish, like Danish and Norwegian, completed during the early modern era. These changes include the loss of case and verbal agreement and a new subordinate clause word order. By contrast, Icelandic and Faroese have largely retained a medieval morphosyntax.

Genealogically, Swedish is closest to Danish. However, from the late Middle Ages onward, Swedish and Norwegian instead converged, going through similar phonological developments. Also, Norwegian was heavily influenced by Danish, especially lexically, up until the 18th century, steering Norwegian toward eastern Scandinavian (see Section 2.1). In the early 21st century, most L1 speakers of Swedish can understand spoken Norwegian fairly well, while spoken Danish is much less comprehensible.

Contemporary spoken Swedish is quite coherent. Regional varieties generally differ only prosodically, and sometimes segmentally. For instance, the Finnish variety lacks the phonemic tonal distinction that all other varieties have. However, the tonal distinction is realized quite differently in different areas; in practice, it is the manner in which the distinction is made (not the fact that it is indeed made) that reveals what part of Sweden a speaker comes from. The most conspicuous regional segmental variation regards the pronunciation of /r/. In southern Sweden, the /r/ is uvular, much like in Danish. In all other varieties, /r/ is instead an apical sound, which (except in Finland but like Norwegian) merges with a following dental, forming a retroflex consonant.

Links to Digital Materials

Further Reading


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