H.L. Mencken > The American Language > Appendix > 2. Non-English Dialects in America > 7. Swedish
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H.L. Mencken (1880–1956).  The American Language.  1921.
 
7. Swedish
 
A useful study of American-Swedish is to be found in “Vårt Språk,” by Vilhelm Berger, 29 editor of the Swedish semi-weekly, Nordstjernan, published in New York. In his preface to his little book Mr. Berger mentions two previous essays upon the same subject: “Det Svenske Språket in Amerika,” by Rector Gustav Andreen, of Rock Island, Ill., and “Engelskans Inflytande på Svenska Språket in Amerika,” by Dr. E. A. Zetterstrand, but I have been unable to gain access to either. Mr. Berger says that the Swedes who comes to America quickly purge their speech of the Swedish terms indicating the ordinary political, social and business relations and adopt the American terms bodily. Thus, borgmästere is displaced by mayor, länsman by sheriff, häradsskrifvare by countyclerk, centraluppvärmning med ånga by steam-heat, and ananas by pineapple, the Swedish measurements give way to mile, inch, pound, acre, etc., and there is an immediate adoption of such characteristic Americanisms as graft, trust, ring, janitor, surprise-party, bay-window, bluff, commencement (college), homestead, buggy and pull. Loan-words taken into American from other immigrant languages go with the purely English terms, e. g., luffa (=to loaf, from the German) and vigilans (=vigilantes, from the Spanish). Many of these borrowings are adapted to Swedish spelling, and so sidewalk becomes sajdoak, street becomes strit, fight becomes fajt, business becomes bissness, and housecleaning becomes husklining. But even more important is the influence that American English has upon the vocabulary that remains genuinely Swedish; when words are not borrowed bodily they often change the form of familiar Swedish words. Thus sängkammare (=bedroom) is abandoned for bäddrum, husållsgöromål (=housework) gives way to husarbete, kabeltelegram to kabelgram, brandsoldat (=fireman) to brandman, regnby (=rainstorm) to regnstorm, brekfort (=postcard) to postkort, and beställa (=order) to ordra. The Swedish-American no longer speaks of frihet; instead he uses fridom, an obvious offspring of freedom. His wife abandons the hattnål for the hattpinne. He acquires a hemadress (=home address) in place of his former bostadsadress. Instead of kyrkogård (=churchyard) he uses grafgård (=graveyard). For godståg (=goods-train) he substitutes frakttåg (=freight-train). In place of words with roots that are Teutonic he devises words with roots that have been taken into English from the Latin, the Greek or the French, e.g., investigera, krusad, minoritetsrapport, officerare, audiens, affår, exkursion, evangelist, hospital, liga (=league), residens, sympati.   1
  This influence of American extends to grammar and syntax. The inflections of Swedish tend to fall off in the United States, as the inflections of German have fallen off among the Pennsylvania Germans. And the Americanized Swede gradually acquires a habit of putting his sentences together English-fashion. At home he would say Bröderna Anderson, just as the German would say Gebrūder Anderson, but in America he says Anderson Bröderna. In Sweden all over is öfverallt; in America, following the American construction, it becomes allt öfver. Mina vänner (=my friend) is Americanized into en vän af mina (=a friend of mine). Tid efter annan (literally, time after another) becomes från tid till tid (=from time to time). The American verb to take drags its Swedish relative, taga, into strange places, as in taga kallt (=to take cold), taga nöje i (=to take pleasure in), taga fördel af (=to take advantage of), and taga tåget (=to take a train). The thoroughly American use of right is imitated by a similar use of its equivalent, rätt, as in rätt af (=right off), rätt iväg (=right away) and rätt intill (=right next to). The Swede at home says här i landet (=here in this country); in America he says i det här landet (=in this here country). All right, well and other such American counter-words he adopts instantly, just as he adopts hell and damn. He exiles the preposition, imitating the American vulgate, to the end of the sentence. He begins to use the Swedish af precisely as if it were the English of, and i as if it were in. After a few years his Swedish is so heavy with American loan-words and American idioms that it is almost unintelligible to his brother recently arrived from home.   2
Note 29.  Rock Island, Ill., 1912. [back]

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