The New International Encyclopædia/Swedish Language and Literature

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The New International Encyclopædia
Swedish Language and Literature
Edition of 1905. Written by Calvin ThomasSee also Swedish language and Swedish literature on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

SWEDISH LANGUAGE AND LITERATURE. Swedish belongs to the northern branch of the Germanic family, within which it is an eastern development of the old donsk tunga, or Danish tongue, a name anciently applied to the language spoken not in Denmark only, but in the rest of Scandinavia as well. It was very much the same in the entire Northland down to about A.D. 900, or a little later, when it began to differentiate into an eastern type, ramifying into Danish and Swedish, and a western tvpe, giving rise to Norwegian and Icelandic. From 900 to 1500 the Swedish branch is called Old Swedish. Until after 1200 the only records are runic inscriptions, cut for the most part on gravestones. The use of the Latin alphabet began in the thirteenth century. In the fourteenth century, when a literary language began to develop out of the Södermanland dialect, the differentiation from Danish proceeded slowly; after this came a period of extensive approximation to Danish, to be followed in time by an archaizing period, which restored original forms. Aside from divergencies of vocabulary, Swedish now differs from Danish especially in its retention, after a vowel, of the old voiceless consonants, k, t, p, which in Danish changed to g, d, b, and in its retention of the vowels a and o in unstressed syllables, where Danish has e or no vowel at all; thus Swedish bok, ‘book,’ mat, ‘meat,’ apa, ‘ape,’ are in Danish bog, mad, abe. Swedish talar ni svenska ‘do you speak Swedish?’ is in Danish taler de svensk; and Swedish flickan liknar sin mor, ‘the girl resembles her mother,’ is in Danish pigen ligner moderen. Under this head it may be added that Swedish has not the ‘glottal catch’ of Danish, and that Danish has not the delicately modulated musical accent of Swedish.

The main body of the Swedish vocabulary is old Germanic stock, the principal foreign ingredients being (1) Latin and Greek words that came in with Christianity or with the growth of scholarship; (2) Low German words dating from the time of the Hanseatic League, as arbeta, ‘to work,’ stövel, ‘boot,’ smaka, ‘taste;’ (3) German words from the time of the Thirty Years' War, as tapper, ‘brave,’ prakt, ‘splendor;’ (4) French words borrowed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as affär, ‘business,’ talang, ‘talent,’ charmant, ‘charming.’ Like the other North-Germanic tongues, Swedish has the post-positive definite article (originally a pronominal affix); thus flicka, ‘girl,’ flickan, ‘the girl.’ As in English, nouns have but one case (the genitive), which is now distinguished by inflection. The genitive ending is -s, which is appended after the article; thus flickans mor, ‘the girl's mother.’ The plural of nouns is formed by means of the endings -or, -ar, -er, -en, to which the definite article is appended in the forms -na, -ne, according to a feeling for vowel-balance which shows itself as early as the fourteenth century; thus flickorna, ‘the girls,’ but dalarne, ‘the dales.’ A new pronoun of address, ni, taking the place of I, came into the language in the seventeenth century and is now commonly used in books; but in conversation Swedish politeness prefers to avoid it and substitute the title of the person addressed, putting the verb in the third person; thus, ar frun sjuk, ‘is the lady sick?’ = ‘are you sick, madam?’ The verb still retains the old Scandinavian passive in -s, which was originally an affixed reflexive pronoun; thus, kalla, ‘call,’ kallas, ‘to be called.’ A more peculiar feature of conjugation is the differentiation of the perfect passive participle into two forms, one of which, called the supine, is used to inflect the perfect tenses, while the other is declinable and serves as a true participle; thus jag har älskat, ‘I have loved,’ but jag är alskad, ‘I am loved,’ and vi äro älskade, ‘we are loved.’

In the printing of Swedish the Roman letters have long since prevailed. Speaking somewhat roughly, the written language of to-day represents the pronunciation of about two hundred years ago; and as phonetic change has been at work during the interval, it is the case, just as in English, that the written form is often a bad index to colloquial utterance. Swedish print teems with ‘silent’ letters; thus, jag skal vara i staden, ‘I shall be in the city,’ is pronounced ja ska vara i stān; and hvad är det, ‘what is it?’ becomes va ä de. For the learner of Swedish one of the greatest difficulties is presented by its peculiar accent, which involves both stress and variations of musical pitch. Every word has either the simple or the compound tone. The simple tone is a rising modulation, while the compound (to quote from Sweet) “consists of a falling tone on the stress-syllable, with an upward leap of the voice and a slight secondary stress on a succeeding syllable.” Not only the correct pronunciation, but the very meaning of a word often depends on the exact modulation of its musical accent.

Bibliography. For Old Swedish the leading authority is Noreen, Altschwedische Grammatik (Halle, 1897). He has also treated the subject in his Geschichte der nordischen Sprachen (Strassburg, 1898), a reprint of his article in the second edition of Paul's Grundriss. The great work on Swedish grammar is Rydqvist, Svenska språkets lagar (6 vols., Stockholm, 1850-83). A good small grammar is Schwarz and Noreen's Svensk språklara (ib., 1881). There is no good grammar in English. The best Swedish-English dictionary is that of Björkman (Stockholm, 1886). The great dictionary of the Swedish Academy, Ordbook öfver svenska språket (Lund, 1894 et seq.), is only in the initial stages. On the subject of the dialects consult Lundell, Nyare bidrag till kännedom om de svenska landsmalen, etc. (Stockholm, 1879 et seq.). An excellent account of Swedish pronunciation by Sweet is given in Transactions of the Philological Society (London, 1877-79).

The Literature. About 160 of the runic inscriptions of Sweden, the oldest dating from the tenth century, contain alliterating verses evidently quoted from preëxisting sagas. This and other lines of evidence show that the poetic art was widely cultivated in the Viking Age. But this ‘literature,’ which may have been comparable to that preserved in Old Icelandic, is lost. By the middle of the twelfth century Christianity was firmly established, and the old pagan songs and sagas fell under the ban of the Church, From that time on for five hundred years the national literature was dominated, rather more than elsewhere in Western Europe, by the religious spirit. The earliest writings that have come down in the Latin alphabet are certain codes of provincial laws (landskapslagar) . The most important is the “Elder West Göta Law,” dating from the thirteenth century. Magnus Eriksson's Landslag (about 1350) is that King's attempt to provide a common law for all the provinces he had brought under his rule. It was probably a scholar from the entourage of this same King Magnus who wrote the celebrated Um styrilsi konunga ok höfþinga (“On the Conduct of Kings and Magnates”). To the fourteenth century belong the writings ascribed to Saint Birgitta, a pious nun and mystic revealer of heavenly things. There are nine books of her “Revelations.” Saint Birgitta is the most eminent personage in the annals of Catholic Sweden. She made the Convent of Vadstena a literary centre, where many Latin writings, chiefly mystical and hagiographic, but including a part of the Bible, were translated into Swedish for the benefit of the nuns. In poetry the mediæval period is not very rich, though its aggregate of metrical production is considerable. The romances of chivalry are represented in the so-called Eufemiavisor, certain tales of knighthood done into Swedish verse by a gleeman living at the court of Queen Euphemia of Norway (1303-12). They are Herra Ivan, Hertig Fredrik af Normandie, and Flores och Blanzaflor, all in rhyming couplets with four accents to the line. Besides these metrical romances, there are several rhymed chronicles, the oldest being the Erikskrönika (about 1320), and the ballads. It is agreed that the ballad-making period in Sweden was in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, but the extant collections are of the sixteenth and seventeenth. None of the known specimens are of indisputable antiquity, but the best compare very well in form and matter with the better Kæmpeviser of Denmark. From the fifteenth century we have a few good poems by Bishop Thomas of Strengnäs (died in 1443).

The Reformation transferred the literary centre from Vadstena to Upsala. The literature of the sixteenth century is almost exclusively religious, the two chief writers being the brothers Petri, Carmelite monks who had been converted to Lutheranism at Wittenberg. They stand out as the leading Swedish apostles of the new faith. The elder, Olavus (‘Master Olof’), wrote psalms, devotional poems, a prose chronicle of Swedish history, and (probably) the mystery-play Tobie Comedia. With his brother Laurentius he directed the publication of the first Swedish Bible (Upsala, 1541). The first secular author of any note in the new era is the historian Messenius, who also wrote six ‘school comedies’ on subjects from Swedish history. The best known is Disa, which was played by Upsala students in 1611.

The period of Swedish expansion (1630-1730) is marked by the widening of the literary horizon through the introduction of new ideas and forms from Germany, France, Italy, and Holland. The prominent figure is Stjernhjelm (1598-1672), the ‘father of Swedish poetry.’ He did a work like that of Opitz in Germany, by whom he was influenced; that is, he sought to give his country a worthy poetic literature by imitating good models, old and new. He laid great stress on metrical regularity and ornateness of diction. His poem Hercules, a didactic allegory on the conflict of Pleasure and Duty, may fairly be said to have nationalized the dactylic hexameter. It is metrically elegant, but rather florid. Stjernhjelm also experimented with alexandrines, the ottava rima, the sonnet, and the ballad. His most noteworthy disciple was the poet-scholar Columbus (1642-79). An opponent of Stjernhjelm, Rosenhane (1619-84), won fame especially as a sonneteer. A jovial and facile rhymester who stood apart from the schools was Johansson, called Lucidor (died in 1684). The eccentric polyhistor Rudbeck (1630-1702), with his amazing Atlantika, belongs to the history of literary curiosities rather than of literature.

In the ensuing epoch (1730-1772) the great Swedisli names are Swedenborg and Linnæus; but they belong, respectively, to the history of religion and of science. In belles lettres the ideals of Sweden were substantially those of contemporary France and England. The presiding genius is Dalin (1708-63), whose Swedish Argus, started in 1732 in imitation of the Spectator, became the rallying-point of the dominant ideas. Dalin had something of Voltaire's versatility and cleverness. He wrote much poetry, but is best remembered as an elegant stylist in prose, the first in Swedish annals. Opposed to Dalin in some of his tendencies was the coterie of Fru Nordenflycht (1718-63), the ‘Northern Aspasia.’ Her salon in Stockholm was not unworthy of its Parisian models. To her circle belonged Creutz (1729-85), best known for his pleasant pastoral Atis och Camilla, and Gyllenborg (1731-1808), author of many ratiocinative poems. All these mid-century writers were strongly influenced by their contemporaries in England.

The Gustavian epoch (1772-1809) is marked by royal patronage of letters on a large scale. Gustavus III., himself a playwright and a prize orator, assembled an academic court of talent, which continued the French tradition of the Old Régime. The leading Gustavians were Kellgren (1751-95), Leopold (1756-1829), and Oxenstjerna (1750-1818), all poets of considerable talent and devoted to the ideals and sentiments of the expiring Age of Enlightenment. Here belongs also the name of the gifted poetess Fru Lenngren (1754-1817), famed for her idyls and satires and her literary salon. Quite untouched by academic influence was the much admired Bellman (1740-95), a genial humorist of Anacreontic tendencies, who turned his observations of Stockholm low life into wonderfully tuneful verse. To the Gustavian period belongs, finally, though not of its spirit and distinctly prophetic of a new era, the best work of the eminent lyric poet Franzén (1772-1847).

The great Romantic movement of the nineteenth century, with the concomitant renaissance of national feeling, affected Swedish literature profoundly. The now ideas, coming from Germany by way of Denmark, precipitated at first a wordy war of various schools and tendencies, after which came a season of really brilliant production. In the soulful verse of Wallin (1779-1839); in the best work of the arch-Romanticist Atterbom (1790-1855); in the fine spirituality and exquisite workmanship of Stagnelius (1793-1823); in the stirring Northern poems of Geijer (1783-1847), who was destined to become, next to Fryxell, perhaps, his country's greatest historian; in the productions of the brilliantly endowed but erratic and uneven Aimqvist (1793-1866); and of several minor poets like Sjöberg (1794-1828) and Nicander (1799-1839); but above all in the splendid talent of Tegnér (1782-1846), who won world-wide fame with his romanticized Frithiof's Saga — the national genius found a richer expression than at any time before or since.

In the mid-century period the prominent names are Fredrika Bremer (1801-65), once widely read at home and abroad, and Runeberg (1804-77), a strong rival of Tegnér for the first place of honor in the whole Swedish Parnassus. Somewhat later come Topelius (1818-98), best known for his novels of Finnish history, and Rydberg (1829-95), eminent as poet, novelist, and translator of Goethe's Faust. The newer realism is most conspicuously represented by Strindberg (1849—), and recent poetry by Count Snoilsky (1841-1903).

Bibliography. A good anthology of Old Swedish will be found in Noreen's Altschwedisches Lesebuch (Halle, 1892-94), and of the entire literature (to 1830) in the Läsebok i svensk litteratur of Hildebrand, Bergstadt, and Bendixson (Stockholm, 1897-98). The old laws have been edited by Sehlyter, much of the religious mediæval literature by Klemming. See also the publications of the Svenska Fornskriftssällskapet. Of older works on the history of literature the best are Wieselgren, Sveriges sköna litteratur (Lund, 1833-49); and Malmström, Grunddragen af svenska vitterhetens historia (Örebo, 1866-69). The best work up to date is the Illustrated svensk litteratur-historia of Schück and Warburg (Stockholm, 1896 et seq.).