Multidialectal Sweden

In Stockholm you can really hear you’re in Stockholm. Not just because everyone’s speaking Swedish, and also English better than you or your British friends are, but because everything sounds so very Stockholmish. The Stockholm dialect stands out, so much so that Sara Myrberg managed to get a PhD thesis out of describing the particular intonation and rhythm of Stockholm Swedish.  Swedish is divided up into 6 broad regional varieties in the Kingdom of Sweden and Stockholmers speak the so-called Central Swedish variety. Stockholm Swedish has that sing-songy cadence that we think is so typically Swedish. It also has a distinction between two very exotic sounds that aren’t as distinct in other varieties of the language (and certainly don’t appear in English). These are the sounds that appear at the start of the words kör and skjuta respectively. The first word (meaning ‘drives’, i.e. ‘he drives’) starts with the sound [ɕ], a voiceless alveolo-palatal fricative. This is like a sh sound in English, but the tongue is behind the front teeth and the mouth narrowly open (a sort of biting, smiling sh)-sound. The sound at the beginning of skjuta is so particular that the International Phonetic Association had to add it especially to their chart of symbols for describing the languages of the world. It’s represented by the symbol [ɧ] and called a voiceless postalveolar-velar fricative. It’s a source of debate amongst phoneticians, but this sound is like the end of the Scottish word loch with a simultaneous sh-sound added. However Phoneticians describe Stockholm Swedish, I’d like to offer the completely unscientific assessment that it sounds brilliant  (have a listen to this voice-over man advertising his own Stockholmska voice).

Swedes love talking about all the different Swedishses they’ve managed to cram into their country. Youtuber Daniel Norberg became a household name following his parodies of the cult-like popular programme Melodifestivalen, a contest to find Sweden’s Eurovision entry. His multidialectal new bulletins are of course exaggerations, but they’re also quite accurate. To someone who didn’t know anything about Swedish Norberg’s different impersonations might as well be different languages altogether.

Swedes take an active pride in their particular Swedish. I spent 6 weeks this summer in Värmland, a county full os beavers, moose and eagles that shares a border with Norway. I can tell you first hand how the Värmlanders have no doubt that they speak Värmlandska first and Swedish second. To an outsider their variety of Swedish sounds like Norwegian. It has it’s own forms of pronouns, a vowel sound that doesn’t appear in other Swedish varieties and a host of other particular and interesting distinguishing characteristics. Throughout the 6 weeks, I caused offence numerous times by saying to a Norwegian that I didn’t speak Swedish or to a Värmlander that I didn’t speak Norwegian.

As you’re settling into your horrendously decorated but cozy cabin on one of the ferries to Finland, the announcements on the tannoy are in reassuring Finlandic Swedish. This might just be a clever bit of branding to help you get in the mood for the otherworldly serenity of the Åland Islands. It could be a political statement, to reaffirm the message that you are leaving the Kingdom of Sweden and travelling to the autonomous monolingually Swedish and demilitarized region of Finland. Or it could just be because Swedish speakers know that there are many different varieties of their language- varieties that they’re used to hearing and aren’t afraid of hearing. The ferries don’t need the sort of soulless, nowhere language that stations managed by National Rail use for their English announcements all over the United Kingdom.

Unlike in most of the UK, regional accents are to be heard everywhere in Sweden. The national Broadcaster, Sveriges Radio, has a regional radio channel called P4, with different versions in the different regions of Sweden. The presenters sound like they are actually from the region they’re reporting about and speaking to. This is something that simply doesn’t happen in the UK. The voices we hear are sanitized and standardized, perhaps not in the style of a British Pathé newsreel, but we definitely wouldn’t hear a Geordie reading the News at 10 or hear a Liverpudlian presenting Radio 4’s Today programme. “Accents” are for comedians, whether this is the Pub Landlord or Stuart Lee’s dipping into a Birmingham accent everytime he impersonates a racist or an idiot. We seem to be okay with hearing foreign varieties of English, Mark Carney’s Canadian English never seems to get off relatively unparodied. But a Welsh accent in the House of Commons needs laughing at and we simply cannot understand what a Glaswegian is saying.

There are glimmers of hope for the promotion of different accents being given a platform to be heard. In London Underground stations pre-recorded announcements are made by that particular station’s staff. This means you can hear a Southern London Accent or a Multicultural London English accent telling you how to be careful on the escalators or giving you a service update.

In Wales we’re not exactly guilt-free, but we do make an effort to make sure different varieties of Welsh and different words are heard. Guto ab Iago’s recent article in Welsh language magazine Barn on regional varieties of Catalan and the political turmoil that their uses and names cause made interesting comparative reference to the situation in Wales. ab Iago points out that a generation raised on Cyw, S4C’s young children’s programmes, have become versed in the many varieties of Welsh.  S4C have made an effort to ensure that ‘[…] the presenters and cartoon voice artists speak a manner of different pretty dialects’.  Often it’s the case that on S4C a Gog is interviewing a Hwntw. Both will be using different pronouns, different ways of negating sentences- but all is well. Everyone understands each other and no-one ridicules each other. There’s a “bidialectism” in Wales that is actively promoted. It’s not just the national television channel that’s promoting this; the Welsh Joint Education Committee’s exam papers will include an asterisk next to any word in its exam scripts that might have different regionals forms.

We’re lucky in the UK. The varieties of English that exist are numerous and varied. The differences are something people newly arrived in the UK often comment on. We can afford to be a bit more Swedish, a bit more Finnish and a bit more Welsh in our treatment of these different varieties. This variety could be the cause for national celebration (perhaps even a bit of pride) and not ridicule or linguistic censorship.

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