A compilation of three documents about Sweden and the Swedish language.

Written in English by Inger Nilsson in Uppsala, Sweden

Callin it "Sweden"

When the latest ice age ended about ten thousand years ago, there as no water between Scandinavia and the continent. The first little bands of humans who followed the retreating ice were small, dark hunters and collectors. They are long since gone. Then came a taller and fairer race and brought with them agriculture and they have been here ever since. In the North, it is believed, north of the ice, came the ancestors of the Sami people or Laplanders, and reindeer. They are still up there.

Long before the modern states were formed, clans or tribes controlled smaller areas which later developed into what we call landskap, which means a province and not a scenery. They had their own laws. These were first oral tradition and then written down in the early Middle Ages. They were compiled into a law for the whole country in the fourteenth century. Those 25 landskap are what we identify ourselves with to this day.

In the seventeenth century, for political reasons, the country was divided into län, or administrative divisions, and län it is today. Västergötland was divided into Älvsborgs län and Skaraborgs län. We don’t feel the same for län, though. Lots of poetry is and has been written about our love for the landskap. A song about Skaraborg’s län would only sound ridiculous. I present myself as of Uppland, not from Uppsala län.

The two large tribes of peoples who lived in the southern one-fourth of Sweden were geats (goths or götar) and that part of Sweden south of the big lakes is still called Götaland.

Sweden was first christened down there. The two big counties – Västergötland (West goth land) and Östergötland (East goth land) were ruled by families fighting for dominance. Further north, round Stockholm and the counties north of the lakes, the area was dominated by Swedes (svear). This part is called Svealand after them. Svealand got strong and united the country about a thousand years ago. The whole country was also named after the svear (Sverige = Sveas’ rike (country)) and the king settled in Stockholm. (Norway is called after the trading route along the Atlantic coast of the country: the NORthern WAY.)

Parish Registers

Land registers were ordered by King Gustaf I in the sixteenth century for taxation purposes and to find the people who could finance the wars. Our parish registers were started in the 1620s mainly because the king wanted to know how many soldiers he could lay his hands on. There are registers over births, deaths, when people moved into or out of the parish, and when they married. There were catechetical meetings when the parson visited every family to question them and their servants about their knowledge of the Bible and the catechism. On those occasions, registers were kept and every member of the family, when they were born, and where and if they had died or moved and where, since the last visitation, were listed. These registers ware the best source when you want to trace people. But some of the parsons had insufferably bad handwritings and many registers have been lost in fires, etc.

The Mormons have an idea that they can redeem past generations retroactively and they were here and copied all our archives some decades ago. One copy they keep in Salt Lake City and the other was given to us. I use these microfiches when I spend a week or two where they are kept, in a village not far from my cabin in the north. They are kept by län in ledgers along the walls and you can pick and choose at leisure. It is fascinating.

Land Owning

When the kingdom of Sweden was established around AD1100, the king needed support of men and arms. Wealthy chiefs and leaders were on his side (they knew on which side the bread was buttered) and in return they were free from paying taxes (frälse = befriade = exempt from land dues). This was the origin of the privileged class: the nobility, the first estate. They provided men, arms and horses. Very often they were also given land as extra compensation. In the end, they owned as much land as the crown and by the end of the seventeenth century, the king had enough and took back most of what they had (“The Big Reduction”). But, they came back and today they are still considerable landowners.

The Church was also free from paying taxes and owned large areas of land, still do. They were the second estate.

The third estate were the townsmen or burghers. During the Middle Ages, many of them were Germans come here through the trade of the Hansa Union. They were not many, in the Middle Ages less than 10%. Up to the industrialization, about 20% of the population lived in towns.

The peasant population was the fourth estate. These four estates formed the Parliament which first met in 1435. Only freeholders and business-owners of the lower estates were represented.

The crown and the king owned large areas of land and the nobility owned as much. The Church sat on a comfortable chunk, too. The rest was owned by freeholders and the villages as “commons”. The land was free to settle in the beginning of our history and when the state was established, it took the rest that was not already settled. The northern part of Sweden was wilderness and very sparsely populated and the borders up there were not yet drawn.

Who cultivated the soil? A word you will find often in our background is torpare, crofter (related to the English thorpe = homestead). They rented their holdings from whoever owned the land. In the case of the crown, the conditions were put down in the ancient laws of the landskap or provinces. Otherwise, they were at the mercy of the owner. In many cases, crofters settled in the free forests until the state took over those, or on land belonging to freeholders and on commons of the villages, and paid rent to them. The freeholders farmed their own land.

Concerning villages. For many centuries the villages were built in the center with the fields and commons round them. Owing to the laws of inheriting, as time wenty by the fields were split up and a farmer could have many narrow strips of land in several places. In the eighteeneth to ninetteenth centruesi, we had a great land reform, and all the land was put together and divided proportionally to what everybody had had before. Then they all moved out to their own area and the villages were split up. A gloomy view of this reform is that there was not so much cooperation and social life any more and the families sat more or less isolated out there on their farms in the winter darkness. Thisis supposed to be the reason of the Swedes being so reserved and melancholy.


If the nobility and the Church didn’t pay taxes, who did? You are right, the poor peasants did. The freeholders paid to sheriff who collected what was coming to the crown, and to the Church. The crofters paid to all the others.

The freeholder paid once a year to the sheriff. He and three others had to support one soldier with arms, horse and homestead. He had to help maintain roads, bridges (very primitive) and fortifications, build and maintain churches and parsonage, pay annually to support the parson, pay tithes. Add annual fee to the administrative court and the district judge. There were taxes for using your own mill, and felling timber (oaks were forbidden, to chop down one could cost you your life. They belonged to the king and were needed for the navy).

The crofter paid to the landowner and on top of that he had to work certain dagsverken or days’ work on the landowner’s farm or estate and work for his own living when that was done. If he sat on crown land, he paid an extra tax every sixth year. His house was inspected and he had to repair his hovel or pay. A nobleman could order a crofter and his family away if he wanted the land for hunting or pastorage.

One incident: Around 1550, King Gustaf I Vasa travelled from Stockholm to celebrate Christmas in Kalmar in the south. Today, it is a seven or eight hour drive. He brought his court and followers, 600 persons. They travelled from one nobleman’s country seat to the next. The peasants in the area concerned were called upon to deliver meat, fowl, fish, butter, bread, eggs, everything to feed 600 persons. They had to keep horses for change and to show up at the mansion to work. The only thanks they got was that the king had noticed many mills and complained that there was no tax on them. He saw to it there was. Most of this I have come across while looking for my mother’s background, but you can rest assured that the conditions of yours and my ancestors were just as depressing.

In times of emergency and war, there was a whole range of more or less bizarre taxes to be extracted. In the Middle Ages, Denmark was a great power and owned the coastal provinces in the south. In the fourteenth century, the Swedish king bought them for a huge sum (squeezed out of the people), whereupon the Danes took them back. After two defeats in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Sweden paid again, only to have them taken back. Everybody had to pay toward these expenses: every maid, every old person. After this and the great wars, many farms and homesteads were listed as deserted and the people as destitute, too poor to pay anything, “owns not enough for their own support”.

During the centuries of war between Sweden and Denmark, armies marched all over the place and burned houes and killed people and cattle. During the great wars in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, endless lives were lost and in parts of the country, they said there were no able-bodied men left.

When industrialization set in, the majority of the crofters moved into the towns for work. These were the poor people who emigrated from crofts and towns a hundred years ago.


For years I had to study the grammar of my own language at school, but pronounciation and the history of it is something that just came along over the years. How those not familiar with it learn Swedish, I have no idea, so this info is very unprofessional.

The language has been spoken here from times immemorial, ever since the Indo-Europeans arrived. It belongs to that language family, but its closest relatives are the other Nordic languages. A thousand years ago, the same language was spoken all over Scandinavia, Denmark and Iceland, which was settled by Norwegian Vikings around AD870. After the countries were established, national languages developed and these drifted apart. The old language with its ancient grammar is still spoken in Iceland and is difficult to understand, I have tried. A modern Icelander can read the old sagas in the original. But we and the Norwegians can easily understand each other. Danish is more difficult because they sort of swallow or slur the sounds. Some words over the centuries have got different meanings in the three languages, which, of course, is something we often laugh about. (slang is a hose in Swedish and a snake in Danish).

Other close relatives are English, German, and Dutch. To give you an idea of this, here are a few words in Swedish and English:

hus = house
gata = gate
man = man
kvinna (= woman) = queen
tun = town
hund = hound
blomma = bloom
snok = snake
In the Middle Ages, we imported hundreds of words from German, in the eighteeneth century from the French, and, of course, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries from English. We have always tried to adapt these words to our spelling and pronounciation, but lately we have just absorbed English or rather American words and even phrases without changing them. With Christianity came lots of Greek and Latin words, and the scientific language still forms new concepts in these two languages.

By the way: from the Vikings many words of Nordic origin were taken up in the English language. We used to learn that the long and polite English words were French or Latin, while the short and rude ones were Scandinavian!

We have three letters that you don’t: Å, Ä, Ö:
Å is pronounced like AW in AWE.
Ä is pronounced like A in BAD.
Ö is pronounced like U in FUR.
There are differences in pronounciation between English and Swedish:
a is pronounced as that in “are” and never as “ei”
e at the end of a word is always pronounced (spade = spade)
i is never like your “i”, but always like the i in “with”
o is like “oo” in “good”
u is a little difficult, mostly like the “ui” in the Scottish word guid (=good)
y is almost a vowel like the “y” in “lynx”
j at the beginning of a word doesn’t include the “d” sound

The spelling and pronounciation of my grandfather differed from my father’s. There was a spelling reform in 1907 and Father frowned upon the same of my generation. He would have had lots to say about the noise my grandchildren produce, but I will not go into details about that.

The big trouble here is the great difference between the written and the spoken lanauge. Just like in English. Jag gick och lade mig (I went to bed) is not the way we say it. We say something like Yayickoláme. Another headache for foreigners is our use of two accents or stresses that can change the meaning of a word completely. I believe the Chinese have something like it. The two are never typed out, you just have to learn them. I will use different accent marks for them.

ánden ( = the duck) or ándén (= the ghost or spirit)

There is also the difference between the long and the short pronounciation of a vowel:

hándlade (= went shopping) or hándláde ( = dealt with)

But do not despair; lots of people have learned to speak Swedish very well, one of them my daughter-in-law Robbie, and over the past century we have simplified the grammar a lot and reduced the number of endings. Icelandic has kept its archaic grammar and I assure you that learning that as a grown-up is very hard.

Most regular verbs have the same ending as koka (= cook), kokar (= cooking), kokade (= cooked), har kokat (= has cooked), and är kokad (= is cooked). I will not go into the irregular ones, even if may of them are similar to English, as se, såg, sett/sedd ( = see, saw, seen). We have no equivalent of the “ing” suffix (i.e. to be doing).

There are lots of different endings for nouns; I will just mention a few important ones. Take en hund (= hound/dog). In the definite form, we say hund + en (= the dog), in the plural hund + ar (= dogs) and hund + ar + na (= the dogs). In the genitive, we add a third ending to it: hund + ar + na + s (= of the dogs).

A/an can be either en or ett as in ett hus (= a house) or en bil (= a car), and accordingly the endings we add in the different cases change: huset, bilen (= the house, the car).

Adjectives are flexed as in blå (= blue), en blå blomma (= a blue flower), ett blått hus (= a blue house), två blåa bilar (= two blue cars).

A few phrases:
Jag ar svensk/amerikan (= I am Swedish/American)
Jag bor I Uppsala (= I live in Uppsala)
Jag har fyra barn och sex barnbarn (= I have have four children and six grandchildren.)
Vi är kusiner (= We are cousins.)
Hej (= hello)
Hejdå (= goodbye)


Until about 1875, the farming population was about 80% of the whole population. There in the villages from times immemorial, people were given a name of their own, and another to tell who they were: the son or daughter of somebody. Lars, the son of Anders was Anders’ son or Andersson; Maria the daughter of Nils was Nilsdotter. When industrialism set in, people moved into towns and Anders’ son did not mean anything anymore because Anders was unknown. So, they started to take up the same surname as the father had.

This was a time of change. Axel chose to be Anders’ son, while his younger brothers took over the Pettersson. In America, Anders’ son became Anderson. In the old days the girls kept their “daughter-name” when they married, but later on they took what had become a family name. I have my husband’s name, Nilsson, which shows that before this change, a long time ago, there was a Nils who had a son.

The old name system is still used in Iceland. When I go there and am introduced to elderly people, I am Inger Akadottir (Åke’s daughter). They would think a “son-name” perverse for a lady. Contrary to what you might think, the old system is quite convenient when you search in the parish archives for persons.

There is another linguistic point which should be explained: our way of defining relations within the family. I think we are rather alone in the world in clearly distinguishing between the maternal and paternal sides.

To take it from the beginning:

Mother = moder, mor
Father = fader, far
We say farmor and mormor for grandmothers, farfar and morfar for grandfathers. Great great grandfathers can be morfars morfar (mfmf), farmors morfar (fmmf), farfars morfar (ffmf), farfars farfar (ffff) or morfars farfar (mfff), etc. It tells you all the time up which tree you are barking.
Father’s parents are farföräldrar and Mother’s parents are morföräldrar.
Sister = syster
Mother’s sister = moster
Father’s sister = faster
Brother = broder, bror
Father’s brother = farbror
Mother’s brother = morbror
Daughter = dotter
Brother’s daughter (niece) = brorsdotter
Sister’s daughter = systerdotter
Granddaughter = dotterdotter or sondotter
Son = son
Sister’s son (nephew) = systerson
Brother’s son = brorson
Grandson = sonson or dotterson