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Standard Swedish (standardsvenska, rikssvenska) denotes Swedish as a spoken and written standard language. While Swedish as a written language is uniform and standardized, the spoken standard may vary considerably from region to region. Several prestige dialects have developed around the major urban centers of Stockholm, Helsinki, Gothenburg and Malmö-Lund.
Rikssvenska and högsvenska
In Swedish, the terms rikssvenska "Realm Swedish" and högsvenska "High Swedish" are used in Sweden and Finland respectively, particularly by non-linguists, and both terms are ambiguous. The direct translation of standardsvenska "Standard Swedish" is less common and primarily used in scholarly contexts.
In certain (mostly Finland-related) contexts, rikssvenska has come to mean all Swedish as spoken in Sweden as opposed to the Finland Swedish spoken in Finland. For speakers in Sweden, this term however often, perhaps primarily, indicates "non-dialectal" (spoken) Swedish. The term Sweden Swedish (sverigesvenska) is sometimes used instead, as a parallel to the term Finland Swedish. There is however no common agreement on how rikssvenska should sound. What appears as rikssvenska to one Swede may appear dialectal to another. (Etymologically, "rik-" is a cognate of the German Reich.) National Swedish TV and radio news broadcasts that are often produced in Stockholm have historically preferred commentators speaking what is seen as rikssvenska, though this has gradually been relaxed. Undoubtedly, mass media broadcasts have had an important influence on the concept of rikssvenska.
The meaning of högsvenska (literally "High Swedish") was formerly the same as for rikssvenska, i.e. the most prestigious dialect spoken in (the capital of) Sweden. During the 20th century, its meaning changed and it now denotes the prestige dialect of the Swedish speakers in Helsinki.
Until the late 19th/early 20th century, Swedish was the primary language of status, government, and education in Finland, although spoken as a first language by a relatively small minority. Since the 1970s, both domestic languages have been mandatory subjects for all Finnish pupils in primary and secondary schools, although the requirement to include Swedish in the upper-secondary final examination was dropped in 2004.
Regional standards and rural dialects
Swedish linguists reserve the term "dialect" for rural dialects with roots that can be traced back to Old Swedish. However, among Swedish speakers in general, other regional standards are considered to be "dialects".
Although Swedish phonology is in principle uniform, its phonetic realizations are not. Contrary to the situation in German, Danish, and Finnish, there is no uniform spoken Standard Swedish. Instead, there are (at least) three regional standard varieties (acrolects or prestige dialects), i.e. the most intelligible or prestigious forms of spoken Swedish, each within their area. No commonly accepted terms exist, not even in Swedish, but they will be designated in the following manner in this article (listed in order of the number of speakers):
- Central Swedish (5–7 million speakers)
- South Swedish (2–4 million)
- Finland Swedish (300,000)
These standard varieties are primarily used for communication with people from distant towns and regions as well as in more formal contexts such as public speeches, artists' performances, and in broadcast media. They are signified by differences in prosody as well as phonetics.
A west-coast variety, centered in Gothenburg, has a prosody that is close to that of southern Norwegian dialects and may be considered a separate standard variety, Western Swedish, with 2 million speakers. Although the regional dialects of the area are more closely related to those of Southern Sweden, the prestige dialect is closer to the Central Swedish Standard variety (although with a typically western intonation). The boundary of the area goes in the South through Northern Halland, Northwestern Småland and follows Lake Vättern in the East. Its northern boundary goes through Värmland. An exception is the island of Gotland (50 000 people), which has its own dialect with roots in Old Gutnish.
The boundary for the South Swedish Standard goes, unless the Westcoast variety is included, through Northern Halland and Northern Småland approximately at the latitude of Jönköping at the southern tip of Lake Vättern across the Scandinavian Peninsula.
Swedish became Sweden's main official language on 1 July 2009, when a new language law was implemented. The issue of whether Swedish should be declared the official language has been raised in the past, and the parliament voted on the matter in 2005—but the proposal narrowly failed. The Swedish language also has official status in Finland (including the autonomous region of Åland), but no officially sanctioned standard actually exists. However, the Research Institute for the Languages of Finland has the purpose of language planning and dictionary compilation.
In Sweden, the Swedish Language Council is similarly funded by the Swedish government and may be said to have a semi-official status as a regulatory body being a joint effort that includes the Swedish Academy, Swedish Radio, Swedish Broadcasting Corporation and several other organizations representing journalists, teachers, actors, writers and translators. The recommendations of these bodies are not legally binding, though they are generally respected.
It may be argued that singing and acting instructors at the theater academies in Stockholm, Malmö, Gothenburg, and Luleå all teach the Central Swedish Standard; although on scenes outside of Stockholm–Uppsala, adherence to this standard may appear less strict. The theater academy of Finland teaches in Finnish and Finland Swedish.
In Sweden the concept of a unified standard language based on a high prestige dialect spoken in the capital region was primarily understood in terms of the written language as exemplified with the Swedification of the Danish and Norwegian provinces that were acquired in the 17th century. The people were taught Swedish hymns and prayers, but with a phonology that remained largely Danish or Norwegian.
During the latter half of the 19th century, the use of a standardized written language increased with each new innovation of communication and transportation. It was however not until the 1960s, when the major demographic situation of Sweden had changed from a quite rural and agrarian society to the highly urbanized society it is today, that the spoken varieties closed up towards unified dialects whose vocabulary and grammatical rules adhered to that of the (written) Standard Swedish. The different phonologies, particularly the different realizations of the tonal word accents, have however proved to be more variable.
With respect to other aspects of the spoken language, there are developments towards a unification that however is not always the effect of standardization or centripetal influence. For instance, realization of fricatives in the Central Swedish Standard has undergone a change in recent decades moving in the direction of the Southern Standard rather than that of northern Sweden and Finland.
The creation of the autonomous Russian Grand Duchy of Finland in 1809/1812 drastically decreased communication between Sweden and Finland, although Swedish remained the language of administration and higher education until Finnish was given equal status with it at the end of the 19th century. The position of Swedish gradually eroded in the 20th century as population shifts due to industrialization and war caused increasing numbers of ethnic Finns to move to the traditional coastal and urban Swedish enclaves. In reaction, Swedish-speaking Finns renewed their cultural and linguistic connections with Sweden and a Högsvenska based on the current variety spoken by educated mainland Swedes emerged. However, alienation between the two countries due to lack of tangible support from Sweden during the two World Wars, the Finnish Civil War, and the Åland crisis gradually led to Högsvenska being seen as the prestige dialect of Finland Swedish. In the second half of the 20th century, tensions between center and periphery in Finland made the concept of a spoken standard variety less popular, and the spoken Swedish in Ostrobothnia again oriented towards Sweden, particularly when switching to more elevated registers, resulting in a relation between Standard Swedish as spoken in Western versus Southern Finland that by and large echoed the relation between Standard Swedish as spoken in Central versus Southern Sweden.
- Bolander, Maria (2002) Funktionell svensk grammatik ISBN 91-47-05054-3
- Engstrand, Olle (2004) Fonetikens grunder ISBN 91-44-04238-8
- Definition of the goals of the Swedish Language Council (English)
- The official website of the Swedish Language Council (mostly in Swedish with some sections in English, Finnish, French and German)