To Govern Languages. On the Possibilities and Limitations of Language Policy.
Sweden has a general language law since the 1th of July 2009. It states inter alia that Swedish is the principle language in Sweden, that public authorities have a particular responsibility for Swedish being used and developed, that the public authorities have a particular responsibility for protecting and promoting the five national minority languages and the Swedish sign language. The law also states that the public authorities are responsible for the individual’s access to language: Swedish, national minority languages and other mother tongues.
The law is the result of a long political process, starting in the late 1990s. It marks a breakthrough for a manifest, national language policy in Swedish political life.
The article discusses the possibilities and limitations of a national language policy and different opinions on the theme. It distinguishes between three attitudes towards language planning and language policy: “leave your language alone”, language planning as a forceful tool for social engineering – an attitude particularly strong in the international debate the decades after World War II – and a sceptical notion, common today, that language policy has a limited influence on linguistic practice. However, the optimistic language planning ideology never went very strong in Sweden, which may surprise considering that social engineering was a widely accepted concept in many social contexts.
A paradox of language policy in today’s society is formulated: The goal of the policies is to get every citizen capable to assert oneself linguistically in as many speech and writing situations as possible. The more this I done, the more diversified patterns of communication will arise, thus the more difficult it will be to public authorities to govern the speech community.
The latter part of the article concerns the present language situation in Sweden. The linguistic practice is characterized by the same tendencies as in other European countries: the risk of the national language(s) loosing key domains to English, the rise of a multilingual society, in Sweden with something in between 150 and 200 different languages as mother tongues, the growth of computer mediated communication, intimisation of the language of public life. In spite of the new laws, ideological thinking on language policy is weak in Sweden, mixing in a somewhat unreflected way the ideas of a national language from the French revolution and German romanticism, with the notions of linguistic rights and social engineering. Surveys of linguistic attitudes report a fairly inconsistent and unconcerned thinking among Swedish people in general. Language policy does not seem to be a very hot topic. In this context, it is hard to say what will be the outcome of the intensified national language policy. The daily linguistic practice of the Swedish citizens will decide.
Uppsala: Kungl. Humanistiska vetenskaps-samfundet , 2009, 1. 149-173 p.