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Language and Culture in Sweden (the s.c.nordic FAQ)
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The home pages for the Usenet newsgroup soc.culture.nordic
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Language and Culture in Sweden

 

7.2.4 Population


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Beiron Andersson
Beiron Andersson
Swedish model
The nation has its roots in the different kingdoms of the Viking Age, and is said to have been created when the king of the Svenonians ("Svearna") assumed kingship over Goths ("Götarna") as well in early middle ages. The word "Sverige" ("Sweden" short for "Svea rike" in Swedish) comes from the Svenonians; "Sverige" means the realm of the Svenonians. The English form of the name is probably derived from an old Germanic form, Svetheod, meaning the Swedish people. In medieval times the Swedes also pushed north to colonize the province now known as Norrland, and over the Baltic Sea to conquer Finland.

Sweden has a relatively homogeneous population in ethnic stock, language, and religion.

Because of the country's isolation only few non-Swedes have intermixed with the Swedes before very recent times; the major groups that have done so were Finns 1580-1660 and Walloons from present-day Belgium, who settled in the Bergslagen area in the 1620s.

Groups that maintain their distinct ethnic identity today include a Finnish minority on the border to Finland (in Tornedalen and adjacent areas), about 15,000 Sámi, and recent immigrants.

Since 1987 the Tornedalen-Finnish, Sámi languages and Romani have special status as minority languages, and since 1993 the Sámi minority elects a representative assembly, the Sámi Parliament, which however has limited power. Constitutionally this assembly, despite its name, is little more than a lobby organization with the authority to distribute the funds the Swedish government lets it dispose.

The national minorities' rights to preserve and develop their own cultural and social life is granted by Sweden's Constitution (Instrument of Government, chapter 1 article 2). The constitution does not list minorities.

Sámi

In the furtest north geographical names make the Lappish heritage obvious. The following words in Sámi languages are usual in geographical names:
tjuolma =land between rivers,
luokta =bay,
jaure =lake,
jokk =small river,
kaise =steep peak,
tjåkkå =blunt peak,
vare =fjeld mountain,
tuottar =fjeld plain (without trees).
 

Finnish

The Finnish language has a relatively strong position as it is
  1. the biggest minority language
    (the Tornedalen variety is mother tongue for maybe as many as 30'000 natives of Sweden),
  2. until recently also the dominating immigrant language, and
  3. since the 1950s covered by certain Nordic treaties.
Although Sweden by the very most Swedes is still perceived as mono-cultural and mono-lingual, other languages have become increasingly important as domestic languages. Finnish has a leading position among them, despite Arabic, Spanish and Persian being spoken by larger groups of residents. In all these respects the position of Finnish is unique compared to other foreign and minority languages in Sweden. (On the first point the situation improved from 1970 for all minority and immigrant language as parental mother-tongue could be studied one to three hours a week in grade 1-12.)

Immigrants

11% of the population are 1:st generation immigrants:
from the Baltic countries (1944); Hungary (1956); Yugoslavia, Greece, and Turkey (in the 1960s and '70s), Czechoslovakia (1968), Chile (1973), Iran and Iraq (in the 1980s), Palestina/Lebanon, and recently arrived refugees from the civil wars in Yugoslavia. A third of the immigrants (4,4%) has arrived from the neighboring countries Finland, Norway, Denmark, Germany and Poland. Another third comes from Asia, most of all from the middle East, and a small but visible share comes from Africa (5% of the immigrants).

The main difference to more typical immigrant countries (as for instance USA with 10% of the population being 1:st generation immigrants) is that immigration to Sweden is a fairly recent phenomena. Swedes also tend to expect more of integration and assimilation from the immigrants than is the case in for instance Germany.

Today about half of the immigrants have Swedish citizenship. Many prominent Swedes are actually 1:st or 2:nd generation Swedes (i. e. immigrants), but that's not generally acknowledged.

During the 1990s the public radio (and to some degree also the television) seems to have initiated a campaign to increase the number of journalists with immigrant family names. But the 18.7% first and second generation immigrants (Jan 1st 1997) are still clearly underrepresented among journalists and many other influential professions.

 

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7.2.5 The Swedish language

Swedish is a Germanic language, very closely related to Danish and Norwegian (most Swedes can understand Danish and Norwegian), and somewhat less close to Icelandic, German, Dutch and English. There are many words borrowed from German, French (18th Century) and English (later). Except for in Sweden, Swedish is spoken by a native minority in Finland, and a nowadays very small minority at the Estonian coast and islands.

Peculiar is that there exists not only one, but at least four hight status dialects (and sociolects): One southern, connected with Scania and the University in Lund, one western spoken by affluent people in and around Gothenburg /Göteborg, one eastern valid in Finland (for instance on stage in Helsinki /Helsingfors), and finally the sociolect spoken by higher officials, actors and others in the capital, which serves as high status standard for the rest of Sweden, connected with the University in Uppsala. Besides there exist at least a dozen of still distinguishable dialects, or dialect groups, but after the breakthrough for radio and TV these dialects have been heavily influenced by the equalizing effect of the broadcasting media. (A recent unsolved dispute in the newsgroup was whether the Scanian dialects rightfully are to classify as East-Danish together with the dialect on Bornholm, or with the dialects of Götaland i.e. in Östergötland, Småland, Västergötland and around Gothenburg.)

For non-Nordics who attempt to learn the Swedish language, the pronunciation might seem rather difficult, since Swedish (at least the "standard" variety of it spoken in Sweden) has several unusual vowels and consonants, e.g. retroflexed dentals and the whistle-like "sj"-sound in sjuk "sick" which are not found in other European languages. Distinct word tones also characterize certain elements of its vocabulary, for which reason acquisition of a good Swedish pronunciation requires a considerable amount of commitment and work. The serious student of Swedish also has to learn to deal with regional varieties such as Scanian and Finland-Swedish, both of which differ sharply in pronunciation from the Stockholm-area oriented "standard broadcast" Swedish.

Swedish has (approximately) 18 different vowel sounds except diphthongs, compared to (approximately) 14 in English.

The dialects around and between Stockholm, Gothenburg and the coast of Norrland are characterized by fewer diphthongs. The rural Swedish spoken on Gotland, in Finland and in Southern Sweden use diphthongs in the most vowel positions.

The vowel sounds appear to be ordered in nine pairs [i, e, ä, a, y, ö, u, o, å]. In each pair one of the sounds is always long and the other short. In written Swedish the short sounds can usually be identified as vowels followed by at least two consonants belonging to the same syllable. In some dialects the short sounds of 'o' and 'u' tend to be indistinguishable. The same goes for the short sounds for 'e' and 'ä' in many dialects. Stressed syllables can have both short and long vowel-sounds, however it's usual to find the unstressed vowels as short.

   
             Vowel sounds in Swedish
      ---------------------------------------------

      rid           gryt            hus         bo

        vill           trygg          ull ~  port

           sed            död             nåd

         vägg ~ sedd         höst      pojk

              väg               -     -

                hall             hal
      ============================================

The 'r'-sound is the most prominent marker between southern and central Swedish dialects. In the south 'r' is pronounced "in the French way" deep in the throat. In Finland, and on most of the Scandinavian peninsula, 'r' is pronounced as Italians do - with the tongue vibrating against the back side of the front teeth. In an intermediate zone both kinds of 'r'-sounds are in use, but in different positions in the words. In unstressed syllables the 'r'-sound is also often modified to kinds of the "British" 'r'-sound.

Finally the 'r'-sound uses to modify preceding vowels. The difference sad-said, man-men, bad-bed exists in Swedish, but in most dialects the former only when followed by 'r' while the latter is the pronunciation of the 'ä'-vowel in other cases. (The same goes for the 'ö'-vowel.) Hence some Swedes have problems with these basic English sounds.

Erland Sommarskog <sommar@algonet.se> replies:

To be fair, dialects of Swedish are not worse than say of Italian.
- Or for that matter, English.

You don't need to bother about the "sj" in "sjuk". While as noted above, this is a strange creature, it is also subject to huge variation, and if you get in conversation with some Swedes you might find that everyone is pronouncing the sound differently - even that the same person is chosing different realisations on different occassions. Phonemically you would write them all /S/, you can use the sound for "sh" in "shoe" without being particularly wrong. You will then have to learn to distinguish this alevoar fricative from the palatal fricative in "tjuv" - then again, there are Swedes who don't.

From my experience the retroflexes do not cause much problems either. Odd as they are, foreigners seem to pick them up quite easily. And, again, it is possible to avoid them. They arise when 'r' is followed by 's', 'n', 'd', 't' and 'l', but several dialects pronounce them separately. And while in Sweden this is dialects which have an uvular or velar 'r', I know people who speak with a front 'r' and yet do not use retroflexes without having any Finland-Swedish ancestry at all. How this has come about I don't know, but I'm suspecting these individuals to have abandoned their original dialect for an over-correct standard Swedish.

There are nevertheless some difficult sounds in Swedish. 'u' as in "kul" is a rounded semi-high front vowel which has few equals. To a foreigner it might seem close to 'y' which is a rounded high front vowel, but I can assure you to a Swede they are most definitely not.

Then again, I once spoke with a British gentleman who said "Sturegatan". His 'u' was perfect, but the first 'a' in "gatan" revealed him directly. To wit, the 'a' is the same as in "father" but with slightly different colour.

Anyway, Swedish pronouciation is probably difficult because it is so irregular. Not so bad as English, but bad enough. One thing we are particularly fond of are homographs, that is words with the same spelling but different pronounciation: "vän", "kort", "hov", "hänger" (friend/friendly, short/picture, court/hoof, hang/devote).

   

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7.2.6 Culture

Swedes work hard, pay high taxes, try to be open minded towards other cultures (there is much immigration, which most people seem to accept), enjoy their traditions (around Christmas and Midsummer, for instance), but it is not true we should be among the heaviest drinkers in the world. Statistics in the newspaper Svenska Dagbladet January 7th 1995 shows Swedish alcohol consumption to be on only 21st place among a selection of the industrialized nations, with 6.1 (100% pure) liters of alcohol/year (after most Western European countries and USA). On the other hand we do (most of us do) still follow our old custom to drink only occasionally, but then with the goal to get drunk. [ For further information, see the article in part 2 about festivals and Nordic alcohol customs. ]

Swedes take pride in making the society friendly to children and their parents including long government-paid paternal leaves, subsidized pre-schools and municipal investments for sport and leisure-time activities. Swedish women have one of the highest fertility rates in the industrialized world, giving birth to 1.97 child each, and the highest rate of breast feeding. It is however wide spread misconceptions that Sweden should suffer from high number of suicides or that Swedes should work less than others. Sweden is on the 15th position on the list of suicide rates in Europe, and only England and Portugal have longer working weeks than Sweden.

In the same intention to make the society friendly and to lighten the lives of its members, Sweden has also put certain effort into making public buildings, and also ordinary tenement houses, available for wheel chairs.

The nature, the big woods and the mountains, have a particular place in the hearts of the Swedes. The General Right to Public Access ("Allemansrätten") is unique for the Scandinavian countries, and the most important base for outdoor recreation, providing the possibility for each and everyone to visit non-cultivated land, to take a bath in seas, and to pick the wild flowers, berries and mushrooms.

The religious rites such as baptizing, confirmation, wedding and funeral are deeply rooted in the culture, although only a small minority participate in ordinary mass. Despite the fact that the Swedes have honored the old Germanic tradition that the people follow the religion of the king, and subsequently all Swedes were obliged to communion long into the 19:th century and to membership in the state church long into the 20:th century, it can also be noted that Swedes are one of the most secularized peoples in the world.

The church, and its services, are perceived more as a cultural heritage, than as a religious. As for instance at 1:st Sunday in Advent and at Christmas Eve - the two days of the year when the churches are filled.

The Church of Sweden ("Svenska Kyrkan") is Lutheran. Most of the Swedish people belong to this church. The bonds between State and Church will be somewhat loosened around year 2.000.

Besides the Church of Sweden there are several other Christian and non-Christian denominations. In most major towns you can find the Catholic Church, Islamic centers, the Baptist churches, Pentecoastal congregations and the Covenant Church of Sweden ("Svenska missionsförbundet") which is related to the Reformed Churches, and in some towns there is also a Jewish community.

Science and technology also play an important role in the contemporary Swedish society. Private companies fund substantial research and development, and also the government funds research at the universities. Examples are the JAS Gripen fighter project, and the information technology strategies put forth by the Bildt (1991-1994) government. (The following cabinets, led by Ingvar Carlsson and Göran Persson have been less enthusiastic about these projects.)

Leading cultural institutions (in Stockholm) are the Swedish Royal Opera; the Royal Dramatic Theater; the National Touring Theater; and the Swedish Academy, which awards the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Literature is important in Swedish culture. Authors like August Strindberg (1849-1912), Selma Lagerlöf (1858-1940) who wrote Gösta Berlings Saga (awarded with the Nobel Prize) and Astrid Lindgren (1907-) are among the best known. At the previous turn of the century public libraries were organized by different organizations in nearly every village with a church or a school. Most of them still remain, but now run by the municipalities. A curious detail is that most Swedes probably would not count authors as Edith Södergran (1892-1923) and Tove Jansson as Swedish authors, despite the fact that they have written in Swedish - their mother tongue.

Dr. Alban

There aren't many internationally known Swedish composers, but Swedes have an ancient fondness for ballads and troubadours (Carl Michael Bellman (1740-1795) is dearly loved by Swedes), and in the later days Swedish pop and rock groups have reached international fame (e.g ABBA, Army of Lovers, Roxette, Ace of Base, etc).

Many popular cultural personalities are of immigrant background, but few have let this become a part of their image. Maybe with exception of the poet Theodor Kallifatides and Finland-Swedish actors, as Stina Ekblad, Jörn Donner, Birgitta Ulfsson and Lasse Pöysti. The Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Finnish singer Arja Saijonmaa should belongs to the most famous Sweden-Finns. Promising is however how a lot of new Swedish rock bands come from suburbs with immigrant majorities, and how some of the most popular rock and pop artists are clearly visible proud immigrants, as for instance Dr. Alban.

Sweden also has a strong movie tradition, already from the days of the silent movies, people such as Victor Sjöström (1879-1960), known in the United States as Victor Seastrom, and Mauritz Stiller (1883-1928). The director Ingmar Bergman (1918-) is world-famous and actors like Ingrid Bergman (1915-1982) and Greta Garbo (1905-1990) have played in several of the classics of the movie history.

Max von Sydow and Viveca Lindfors can be mentioned as other internationally well known film actors.

Various sports are popular in Sweden, especially team sports like soccer and ice hockey, but also for example tennis and table-tennis, outdoor activities like skiing and orienteering.

Food should of course be mentioned in a cultural chapter, but since the Swedes in the s.c.n. news group seem to be more interested in consuming than in producing this particular kind of culture we have no other alternative than to direct recipe interested readers to the splendid Family Santesson's collection of recipes for Swedish Cooking at <http://www.santesson.com/recept/swelist.htm>.




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- Is the text above really reliable?
- See the discussion in section 1.2.2!
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© Copyright 1994-2001 by Antti Lahelma and Johan Olofsson.
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The line of flags is modified after a picture at det Åländska skoldatanätet.
This page was last updated October the 27th in the year of 1998.

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