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Swedish language


Swedish is a North Germanic language (also called Scandinavian languages) spoken predominantly in Sweden and in parts of Finland, especially along the coast and on the Åland islands, by more than nine million people. It is mutually intelligible with two of the other Scandinavian languages, Danish and Norwegian. Standard Swedish is the national language that evolved from the Central Swedish dialects in the 19th century and was well-established by the beginning of the 20th century. While distinct regional varieties descended from the older rural dialects still exist, the spoken and written language is uniform and standardized, with a 99% literacy rate among adults. Some of the genuine dialects differ considerably from the standard language in grammar and vocabulary and are not always mutually intelligible with Standard Swedish. These dialects are confined to rural areas and are usually spoken by small numbers of people with low social mobility. Though not facing imminent extinction, such dialects have been in decline during the past century, despite the fact that they are well researched and their use is often encouraged by local authorities.

Swedish is distinguished by its prosody, which differs considerably between varieties. It includes both lexical stress and tonal qualities. The language has a comparatively large vowel inventory, with nine separate vowels that are distinguished by quantity and to some degree quality, making up a total of 17 vowel phonemes. Swedish is also notable for the voiceless dorso-palatal velar fricative, a sound found in many dialects, including the more prestigious forms of the standard language. Though similar to other sounds with distinct labial qualities, it has so far not been found in any other language.

Classification and related languages

Swedish is an Indo-European language belonging to the North Germanic branch of the Germanic languages. Together with Danish it belongs to the East Scandinavian group, separating it from the West Scandinavian group consisting of Faroese, Icelandic and Norwegian. More recent analyses divide the North Germanic languages into an Insular Scandinavian and Mainland Scandinavian languages, grouping Norwegian with Danish and Swedish based on mutual intelligibility and the fact that Norwegian has been heavily influenced in particular by Danish during the last millennium and has diverged from Faroese and Icelandic.

By generally accepted criteria of mutual intelligibility, the Mainland Scandinavian languages could very well be considered to be dialects of a common Scandinavian language. Due to several hundred years of sometimes quite intense rivalry between Denmark and Sweden, including a long string of wars in the 16th and 17th centuries, and the nationalist ideas that emerged during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the languages have separate orthographies, dictionaries, grammars, and regulatory bodies. Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish are thus from a linguistic perspective more accurately described as a dialect continuum of Scandinavian, and some of these on the border between Norway and Sweden, such as those of western Värmland, take up a middle ground between the national standard languages.

Geographic distribution

Swedish is the national language of Sweden and the first language for the overwhelming majority of roughly eight million Swedish born inhabitants and acquired by one million immigrants. In mainland Finland Swedish is spoken as a first language by about 5.5% or about 300,000 people. The Finland-Swedish minority is concentrated to the coastal areas and archipelagos of southern and western Finland. In these areas, Swedish is often the dominating language. In three cases, in the municipalities of Korsnäs (97% Swedish speakers), Närpes and Larsmo, Swedish is the only official language. In several more, it is the majority language and it is an official minority language in even more. There is considerable migration between the Nordic countries, but due to the similarity between the languages and cultures (with the exception of Finnish), expatriates generally assimilate quickly and do not stand out as a group. According to the 2004 US census some 67,000 people age five and over were reported as Swedish speakers, though without any information on actual language proficiency. There are small numbers of Swedish speakers in other countries, such as Swedish descendants in Argentina and Brazil have maintained a distinction by language and names.

Dialects

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