A typical day in Sweden might go a bit like this. You watch public service television, and eat fast food; if you have know-how, you make en deal; you wear en t-shirt, chatta on the net and watch en stand-up comedian perform live. As the forces of globalization and new media relentlessly march forward, all the while creating new possibilities for cultural contact, the old boundaries of language begin to seep—and Swedish is no exception.
And some people are furious. There’s something about language that we both take for granted and yet stirs something incredibly urgent in us. There seems to be something both insidious and intellectual that draws language use into geographical, political and cultural conflicts. The Australian novelist David Malouf puts it well, if a bit melodramatically. “When I think of my tongue being no longer alive in the mouths of men,” he writes, “a chill goes over me that is deeper than my own death, since it is the gathered deaths of all my kind.” To this end, wherever it appears, the prospect of a language dying out—or at least decaying—mobilizes frantic disagreement and much soul searching
In July 2009, the Swedish government passed a piece of legislation declaring Swedish to be the official national language: as a consequence, public bodies have a “special responsibility to see that Swedish is used and developed” and to prevent the language’s total displacement from international, business and technical contexts. Later that year saw the a legal dispute, still unresolved, as the former head of the Swedish Language Council lodged a complaint against the government for using English in ministry email addresses. “[The government policy] is a statement that Sweden cannot be governed in Swedish, but in English instead,” said Olle Josephson, a professor of Nordic languages at Stockholm University. “[That] one should contact the Government Offices in English—a very strong symbolic statement, which is against the law.” Pedantic? Absolutely. An overreaction? Probably. But it could well be a fight worth fighting.
The conservative response to the transformation of language use in Sweden insists on a form of cultural protectionism, on a defensive assumption that certain kinds of cultural interface can turn out for the worst. For Swedish, the defense is twofold: against new foreign words causing the decay of the local language, and against the use of other languages in Sweden threatening the actual death of Swedish. Over decades, Swedish commentators have argued over the patois spoken by immigrant youths, thick with accents and full of slang terms, yet research seems to suggest that this is no real threat to Swedish—a recent Lund University study concluded that speakers of these quasi-dialects can swap into standard Swedish at will and as required. The real threat, instead, it seems, comes from the flanks.
According to Eurobarometer’s 2005 report, 39% of Swedes use English every day and only 11% never use it. Swedish multinationals operate in English, even in Sweden, and academic journals are dominated by English-language output. Each year, the Swedish Language Council—the regulatory body for the advancement and cultivation of Swedish—announces a list of new Swedish words; each year, this is dominated by English terms like spotifiera (to become a user of Spotify, a music streaming program). In 2006, moreover, the Swedish Dictionary was altered to include the letter w, so as to categorize words like whiskey, wok and web. From inside and out, Swedish is embattled—and the usually moderate forces of Swedish administration and culture suddenly feel that they have to act.
Hence the new language laws of 2005 and 2009, which simultaneously gave official minority status to a number of languages and insisted that anyone living in Sweden should be able to “learn, develop and use” the Swedish tongue.
The actual nature of the change in language use is multifaceted and complex. One of the most significant factors at play is the global prevalence of new media: books and printed newspapers wane in importance compared to texting, chatting and blogging. Linguistic power is decentralized, in this way institutions likepublishers lose the ability to influence large numbers of people in the way they can influence each other. Foreign films and television shows, too, can be accessed in a heartbeat (as can music if one chooses to spotifiera) and many of these do not have Swedish subtitles—even on Swedish television. Does this mean that the language used is at danger of being lower in quality? Or could this decentralizing force be for the good? (After all, events in the Arab World this past year have shown that new media can be decentralizing and dangerous in a good way.)
A number of voices defend the adoption of English terms on the grounds that Swedish falls short in several ways: that there aren’t enough descriptive words and particularly curse words, and that there really is no other word for Spotify unless you arbitrarily design one. (The Académie Française long resisted the word airbag, preferring the redundant and indubitably clunky sac en gas.) The same goes for English’s Scahdenfreude, kitsch or je ne sais quoi; these are sources of richness rather than threat. So long as Swedish grammar systems remain properly Swedish, perhaps it will be robust enough to accommodate any number of loan words.
Regardless, bilingualism is not mono-lingualism, and the hegemony of English does not necessarily entail the death of Swedish. Many a lingua franca has managed to exist in parallel to the local language, and English may be just so—though this does raise questions of access, for if not every Swede has the opportunity to learn English, then the encroachment of English into daily life will be divisive and ultimately unfair. And it would be naive to think that the language marketplace, as it were, is a symmetrical one: the spread of English is no doubt aided by innumerable commercial and national interests.
The whole issue, it seems, comes down to this: If you believe that cultural diversity is enriching, and that access between cultures is uniting, then what should you think when cultural interface actually threatens to be destructive—when one culture has the power to seep into another with an irreversible force?
Any position is hard to defend, clearly, but such is the murky world of cultural diplomacy. The whole snafu in Sweden is centered on a delicate irony: Where is the cranky linguist taking his plea against linguistic hegemony? To the ombudsman, of course, a word that English itself plucked from Swedish back in the day.