These interviews form part of the project known as Svenskan i Amerika (“Swedish in America”), which examines current-day Swedish in the USA and how contemporary American Swedish differs from that which was spoken 50 years ago. Between the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries around 1.3 million Swedes left Sweden for the USA. Despite this, very little is known both about the Swedish American of that time and of that which is spoken today. Recordings of older American Swedish from the 1960s do exist, but these have not been examined in detail.
“One of the aims of our interviews are to create a comprehensive database for researchers worldwide; not just linguists but also, for example, historians and ethnologists”, says Benjamin Lyngfelt, professor in the Swedish language at the University of Gothenburg.
Minnesota is the state which has the highest number of inhabitants with Swedish origins, almost ten per cent of the total number lives here. During their visit the researchers interviewed more than 40 people between the ages of 22 and 93, most of whom were second-or third-generation Swedish Americans. One of the conclusions the researchers came to was that there were dialectal traits in the interviewees’ spoken Swedish.
“One person used the form of “dem” (they) in its original form (rather than using “de”), which is a trait typical for example of some the dialects spoken in the Dalarna region in Sweden”, says Maia Andréasson, research assistant in Swedish and Nordic languages at the University of Gothenburg.
“It was also possible to hear that some people were from the Norrland region in origin and that some had traces of the dialect typical of the Skåne region.”
The researchers are yet to analyse the interviews, but one assumption they make is that the American Swedish is more influenced by English today compared to 50 years ago. Another hypothesis is that so called code switching, in this case switching between Swedish and English, has become more common.
So what does the future hold for Swedish in the USA? The societal grounding of the Swedish language is significantly weaker today, and the few people who do speak Swedish rarely get the opportunity to use it. “If you don’t use it, you lose it” was a common comment during the interviews. Moreover, the number of people with Swedish as their mother tongue is significantly lower today. Fifty years ago the first generation of Swedish Americans was still present and more people grew up in a Swedish-speaking environment.
“At the same time, those who do want to preserve Swedish and take the language up again have different prospects today. We interviewed people, some approaching 90 years of age, who would watch satellite TV and read Swedish newspapers on the internet”, says Maia Andréasson.
A large proportion of the interviewees could be classed as “Swedophiles”. They are people with Swedish roots who have not learnt the language at home, but who, thanks to the strong cultural popularity of Swedish in Minnesota, have taken an interest in the language and learnt it, for example through the popular language camps that are arranged in the summers.
“It is clear that Swedish as a mother tongue is disappearing. How strong a position Swedish as a foreign language will have in society is more difficult to predict. This is entirely dependent on people being interested in their roots and their cultural background. Swedish culture is thriving in Minnesota, and the Swedish language will survive as a part of this”, says professor Benjamin Lyngfelt.