Whether you're learning Swedish it's oftentimes easier to assimilate if you have a deeper understanding of it.
This deeper understanding could come from learning how a particular structure originated or why the verbs in a verb group are conjugated in the same way
But to understand the process of how the language developed into what it is today and be able to reach conclusions and make predictions about how the language and its rules might behave, some Swedish language history is in order.
Hopefully, this Swedish language history will broaden your understanding of Swedish, make it easier to learn new concepts and propel your language learning journey to success.
Table of Contents
Old Norse was the language spoken throughout the whole of Scandinavia and even in some other parts of Europe.
What we know today as Swedish originated from Old Norse. Interestingly enough Swedish isn’t the only language that comes from Old Norse. Norwegian and Danish along with Faraose and Icelandic also have roots in Old Norse.
There are plenty of other languages that have had some linguistic influence and exchange with Old Norse, due to the Vikings who helped spread the language to several countries in Europe, like Russia, France, and Ireland.
Even English has a few words that originally were old Norse, like taka (take), hvirfla (whirl) or mjukr (meek).
But Scandinavian countries are the only countries whose languages are direct descendants of Old Norse and they even share some similarities with each other.
Naturally, since both Icelandic and Faroese are spoken on secluded islands, these languages are the most similar to Old Norse, but the rest of the languages bear some similarities as well.
Features Of Old Norse In Contemporary Swedish
As for Swedish some key features of Old Norse are still in practice, but as set phrases or expressions, for example, the expressions: till skogs (to the forest) or till sjöss/havs (at sea).
Important to note is that new expressions and phrases are not made in this way, because in these examples the words after till/to are in the possessive case. This is not used in Swedish anymore.
Some words remain the same as well but in different forms. For example the words armr (arm), eldr (fire), vindr (wind), are still the same in Swedish. But these days the accusative form of the words are used: arm, eld and vind.
Old Norse as it is known was used until the mid to late 14th century. But Old Swedish was starting to be used before that, resulting in some overlapping of the languages. Old Norse was still in use in writing while Old Swedish was the main spoken language.
Old Swedish/Medieval Swedish
This is where the linguistic differences between Scandinavian countries are start to become more obvious.
Old Norse was separated into a multitude of languages, today known as the Scandinavian languages, during the 13th and 14th centuries. It wasn't a formal change, but rather a result of different forces acting on the languages that led to them separating.
The formal beginning of Old Swedish is estimated to be in 1225. This was the year that Västgöta Law was enacted, which is the oldest document written in Swedish to exist.
It's probable that Old Swedish was used in the spoken language before that. But that text is the first written text of Old Swedish which as a result marks the beginning of the new linguistic period.
The biggest change from Old Norse is the change from runes to Latin letters. This was a change that occurred over time. In the beginning mainly the upper class and scholars knew how to read and speak these letters.
People from the lower classes still used runes and it wasn't until 1686 that most people, even low-born, could read Latin letters.
This was due to a church law that was enacted during this time. It was a law that said that “every man and woman should be able to read and behold God's word”.
To make sure that this law was observed, priests in every parish travelled around to all the families and had a meeting.
Most people didn’t want to embarrass themselves in front of the rest of the villagers, family and friends, and they could also be excommunicated from the community, effectively making sure that most actually learned to read the bible.
Modern Swedish: Gustav Vasa's Bible
Next came modern Swedish called nysvenska in Swedish and it’s possible to divide it into two parts: older and younger modern Swedish.
What’s interesting about that time period is that Sweden's king Gustav Vasa ordered a translation of the Bible that was to be written completely in Swedish.
This was the first time the Bible was completely translated into Swedish and as you might understand, this made it way easier for the common man to understand the Bible and what was written in it.
Previously the Bible was only written in Latin and priests or people belonging to the upper class were the only ones able to read it.
The other clever thing about this book is that Vasa introduced many changes to the language that made sense, but that hadn't happened yet.
For example, ä and ö were introduced which are still used to this day. Before that were Æ and ø, respectively for ä and ö, used. Do you recognise them? If not, check out this post about Swedish pronunciation.
If you know your other Scandinavian languages then you might notice that that form is still used in both Norwegian, Danish and Faraose. Æ is also used in Icelandic but with a different pronunciation.
During these times, it became even more obvious that the Scandinavian countries had diverged from each other and were developing independently from each other.
German Loanwords & French Influence
It was also during this time that a lot of loanwords came from Germany. A lot of German merchants and craftsmen immigrated to Sweden during the 12th-14th century.
This resulted in lots of German words that were used to describe trade and similar subjects being incorporated into the language. Some examples are stad (Stat) (city) and köpman (Kaufmann) (merchant).
The language was still however pretty difficult to read and that unfolded in the change that came in 1732 which was the start of what today is known as younger modern Swedish.
Gustav the Third’s teacher, Olof Dalin was dissatisfied with the direction that the language had taken.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, French replaced German as the most influential language in Sweden, resulting in more and more French loan words appearing in the language.
French was especially popular at the royal court and in the higher classes which resulted in words about food, culture, theatre etc. becoming more common than words from other categories.
Olof Dalin was very unhappy with this change and he tried to influence the King to limit the impact of French in Swedish. The King wasn’t easily persuaded and Dalin ended up working for a change without any support.
The King’s love for French had however a positive impact on the language as the French had a penchant for writing dictionaries and working to preserve the language.
As for Olof Dalin? He worked quite hard for a change to the language and established and started publishing the newspaper Then Swänska Argus (The Swedish Argus, written in modern Swedish) in 1732.
The language in the newspaper was easier and lacked foreign (French) influences, with the intent that it would be able to be read by everyone, not just the upper class. A success that marked the start of younger modern Swedish.
Contemporary Swedish: The Swedish Language Of Today
The Swedish spoken today is called nusvenska Swedish (compare to nysvenska, ny (new), nu (now)). Contemporary Swedish is the Swedish used today and it arose around the turn of the century.
Contemporary Swedish went through more directed change than previous versions. While many of the changes that originated before this century were automatic or a result of different linguistic forces, the changes that happened now were (mostly) due to targeted reforms.
For example, a spelling reform that changed many of the older spellings, the verb-plural reform which removed all the verbs' plural forms and the du-reform which changed how to address someone the correct way.
Swedish Spelling Reform
The spelling reform changed many of the hard and difficult spellings that were used before 1906.
The point was to make the spelling of the v and t sound easier, but it was met with resistance from many groups with more conservative views on the language.
But it was passed and that is the reason why Swedish today spells vad (what) instead of hvad, virvel (vortex) instead of hvirfvel and målat (painted) instead of måladt.
Below is a table of the changes that happened.
|godt → gott måladt → målat
|f, fv, hv (v-ljud)
|afdelning → avdelning lif → liv stafvning → stavning hvad → vad
This marked another branching from Norwegian and Danish as both the former languages still use hv and dt in the spellings.
Phasing Out Of Verb Plural Forms
The other reform that happened in the middle of the 20th century wasn't as surprising as the spelling reform as the phasing out of the verb's plural form had been happening since the Old Swedish times.
Instead of the Swedish verbs just existing in the singular form, as it does now, there used to be multiple verb forms in Swedish. And the pronouns “we”, “you” (plural) and “they” were followed by the verb in its plural form.
Abandoning this led to easier verb forms and the same verb form used for all pronouns., which makes learning basic Swedish grammar even simpler for you!
The singular verb form was very widely used by the citizens before the official change happened and they were only linguistic conservatives trying to hold on to the plural form.
The last important reform during the 20th century was the change of the second person plural ni and titles to address other people. Instead, du (you) was used.
In the past, du was only used between husbands and wives or between very close friends. Not even family members addressed each other with du.
The desire with this reform was to increase equality in society and curb the use of titles which strengthened the class status between people.
As with many other things changes were slow and there were debates about changing to du already at the beginning of the 20th century, which got a new stronger wave during the 30s and 40s.
It was officially changed at the end of 1960/beginning of 1970, but young people, and even older people in some cases, had been using du to refer to each other since the 50s.
Swedish Language History: The Future Of Swedish
Today is the hottest debate in Swedish whether de/dem should be changed to dom, as it is pronounced in the spoken language. And it shares many similarities with the previous reforms.
Namely, the change is already widely spoken in the language, but a few conservatives are trying to hold on to it in the written language.
A new reform might come in a few years. But until then Swedes will probably continue to see an influx of debate articles in the major newspapers, either requesting a change or debating as to why de/dem definitely shouldn't be changed.
Regardless the language will continue to develop and evolve and we will probably see many new changes to Swedish during this century.
Swedish Language History
Well, these were a few points about Swedish language history.
I hope that it's been educating and that you have a better grasp of how Swedish originated and what changes it's been through through the years.
Good luck with your continued learning of Swedish and Häll Säll! as you would've said in Old Norse (goodbye/wishing someone to be well).