LINGUIST List 10.1465

Wed Oct 6 1999

Review: Klintborg: Transience of American Swedish

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  1. Carl Isaacson, American Swedish

Message 1: American Swedish

Date: Mon, 4 Oct 1999 21:19:51 -0500
From: Carl Isaacson <>
Subject: American Swedish

Klintborg, Staffan. The transience of American Swedish. Lund: Lund 
UP. Lund Studies in English 98. 1999.

Reviewed by Carl Isaacson, St. Olaf College

Swedish mass migration to the United States ended with the Great 
Depression. By that time nearly 1.2 million Swedes had left their 
homeland and arrived in America, settling primarily in the upper 
Midwest and the Northwest. The intellectuals among these migrants 
argued that their identity as a people would be preserved as the 
language and custom of the fatherland was preserved. The success of 
this attempt was, at best, dubious. As early as 1900 Swedish 
American journalist Johan Enander doubted that the Swedish language 
could survive more than 10 or 15 years in the United States. The 
Swedes, he opined, we far too ready to become Americanized.

Despite the attempts of children's clubs, churches and lodges to 
inculcate the use of "proper" Swedish, the second and subsequent 
generations of American Swedes failed to master the mother tongue. 
They could not, wrote novelist Gustaf Malm, because English was "the 
language of their heart," and Swedish, at best, a second language. 
Most Swedes in America quickly learned English for their dealings 
with non-Scandinavians. Amongst themselves they spoke, and wrote, a 
blended speech which came to be called "Swinglish."

In The Transience of American Swedish Staffan Klintborg studies the 
bilingualism of the last generation to participate in the mass 
migration from Sweden to the United States. This particular group is 
not only the last mass group to be born in Sweden and emigrate to 
America, they are also the last to come primarily from the working 
class, elementary school educated Swedish population.

The Swedish speakers in Klintborg's study are all native born 
Swedes. Second generation Swedish speakers are excluded. His source 
material is tape recordings of these Swedes, made for the Emigrant 
Institute in Vaxja, Sweden, between 1975 and 1985. They are all 
Midwesterners. Needless to say, the Swedish of the interviewees 
diverges from standard Swedish. The divergence allows Klintborg to 
study fairly recent examples of common bilingual traits: code 
switching, transfer, and the like. 

He begins his study with a review of the pertinent literature on 
Swedish-English bilingualism, helpful for any linguist or for that 
matter, any culture historian. Following Quirk et al, he divides his 
study between "open class" words (nouns, adjectives, verbs and 
deadjectival adverbs) and "closed-class" words, (propositions, 
conjunctions, adverbs, numerals, pronouns). Klintborg's findings are 
unremarkable in this regard. His analysis of code-switching and 
transfer among the American Swedes, however, leads him to question 
sharp demarcations between code-switching and transfer. ". . . it is 
often impossible to make a clear distinction between switches and 
transfers . . . In English the article is a separate word and the 
only bound inflectional noun morphemes are the plural and genitive 
endings. In Swedish, on the other hand, indefiniteness is expressed 
by a separate article and definiteness by an ending. Thus, to call 
and English noun appearing with a Swedish indefinite article a 
switch, but an English noun with a Swedish definite article a 
transfer seems completely arbitrary."

In general, Klintborg's modest work does not call into question or 
attempt to re-order the field of bilingual studies. Instead, it 
"casts doubt" upon some, but not all, of the received wisdom of the 
field. The modesty is well placed. For this cannot be the final word 
from Klintborg. It is a grand initial work, but the study works from 
data with too many gaps. 

It would be helpful to know, for example, if switching and transfer 
have any relationship to an individual's native language. Swedish, 
at least in the pre-TV days, was not a single language, but a series 
of overlapping regionalisms, often blended with other Scandinavian 
tongues. Klintborg acknowledges as much in the introduction, where 
he notes that code-switching from his native Gotland dialect to 
standard Swedish was his first exposure to bilingualism. The 
relationship between a speaker's former lexical competence and his 
current habits cannot be ignored. Unfortunately, Klintborg is forced 
to leave the matter to one side. Since he uses taped interviews, 
some over twenty years old, he cannot ascertain the actual L1, but 
assumes it to be proper Swedish. Syntacically and grammatically that 
is a safe assumption. But lexically, the assumption is unsound.

Further, he does not, nor can he, examine what happens when contact 
with the mother tongue is renewed. What happens to both switching 
and transfer in a speaker who has returned to the homeland for a 
longer or shorter stay? The question is worth putting, since the 
Swedish speakers were interviewed long after Scandinavian Air 
Service made it possible to return at a relatively low fair, and 
telephone conversations with Sweden became affordable even for the 
working class.

Finally, there is a whole new generation of Swedes in America. 
Though they do not represent a mass migration similar to that which 
American experienced at the beginning of the century, they are not 
an insignificant group. The new migrant comes to America with a job, 
an education, a family. Like previous generations they also attempt 
to teach their children (many of whom are born in America) the 
language of the homeland. Motivated by a potential return to Sweden 
in the near term, their children must be able to speak with native 

To study and compare this group with those in the Vaxja archive 
should enlighten the study of the transience of American Swedish. 
With the increase in global contact, accompanied by a healthy 
interest in Scandinavianism by the third generation of Swedish 
Americans, it may prove that Klinrborg is as overly pessimistic 
about the "transience" of the Swedish language in America as was 
Johan Enander a hundred years prior. More crucial for bilingual 
studies, the new Swedes in America could offer a test of the 
assumptions made about the occurance of code-switching and transfer. 
It just might turn out to have wholly other triggers than is 

Dr. Isaacson is Assistant Professor of Communication at St. Olaf 
College, Northfield, MN. Prior to this appointment he was 
Educator/Curator at the Swedish American Museum Center in Chicago. 
Among his research projects are an analysis of the demise of Swedish 
Theatre in Chicago as a cultural marker, and the use of American 
Swedish as a class distinctive.
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