By Sofia Rubio, adapted from Patric Joshua Klagsbrun Lebenswerd’s articles (Lebenswerd 2013, 2016).
Sweden is home to an estimated 15,000 to 19,000 Jews, 70% of whom were born in Sweden. Jewish immigrants arrived in Sweden as far back as 1775, when Aaron Isaac established the first minyan in Stockholm. More recently, Jews moved to Sweden from the 1940s to the 1980s, including Holocaust survivors from Poland and Hungary and Jews fleeing the Soviet Union.
The speech of Swedish Jews features a repertoire of distinct Jewish linguistic features not found in standard Swedish. The origins of this differentiated form of modern Swedish can be traced back to the influx of Jewish immigrants that arrived in Sweden in the mid-20th century. Yiddish was spoken as a native tongue across the Jewish Swedish community over the next several decades before it gradually diminished in use. Today, Yiddish remains the primary heritage language of most Jewish Swedes and enjoys minority language status in Sweden. In addition, Jewish Swedish exhibits influences from Judeo-German, Textual Hebrew, and Israeli Hebrew.
The influence of Yiddish on the Jewish Swedish lexicon can be divided into four categories: semantic calques, semantic drifts, local innovations, and Yiddishification.
Name of language:
Territories where spoken:
Estimated number of speakers:
East Scandinavian group of North Germanic languages
Semantic calques refer to direct translations: in this case, Swedish words and phrases that mimic similar Yiddish words and phrases in their meaning and syntax. For example, the Swedish verb hålla, ‘hold,’ has taken on the meaning of the Yiddish verb האַלטן haltn ‘to hold.’ Here, ‘to hold’ can also be interpreted as ‘to observe’ or ‘to keep’ (e.g., ‘to keep Sabbath’). Thus, in Jewish Swedish, one could say hålla shabbes, ‘to keep Sabbath,’ or hålla kosher, ‘to keep Kosher.’
Some Yiddish-origin words in the Jewish Swedish lexicon have lost their original Yiddish meanings and have acquired new ones, particularly among speakers with little to no proficiency in Yiddish. This phenomenon is referred to as semantic drift. For example, speakers of Jewish Swedish may use terms such as brojgez, which derives from the Yiddish word ברוגז broygez, ‘angry,’ and has instead taken on the meanings of ‘to quarrel’ (verb) and ‘fight’ (noun) in Jewish Swedish. The language features a variety of lexical innovations that stem from Yiddish roots but use Swedish grammatical rules to create Jewish Swedish words. An example of lexical innovation is the use of the Yiddish adjective טרייף treyf, ‘non-kosher,’ to construct the Jewish Swedish verb treifa, ‘to eat non-kosher food.’
Another feature of the language is a process referred to as Yiddishification, which allows speakers of Jewish Swedish to give Standard Swedish words - and even some Yiddish words - an added Jewish value. An example is the insertion of the diphthongs /ɔj/ and /ej/, which occur frequently in Yiddish, in place of some monophthongs in Standard Swedish words. Through this process, Swedish words like högre ‘louder’ and Yiddish-origin words such as שלאָפֿן shlofn ‘to sleep’ become heigre and shleif.
Like most Jewish language varieties, Jewish Swedish incorporates many loanwords from textual Hebrew. Religious terms such as Sabbat, ‘Shabbat,’ sukka, ‘booth used during Succoth,’ and shacharit, ‘morning prayer,’ come directly from Hebrew and have been introduced into the Jewish Swedish lexicon. Until relatively recently, religious books published in Sweden generally used Swedish translations for many religious terms. However, recent texts have used more Hebrew words, such as replacing the Swedish helgdag with the Hebrew/Yiddish term Jom tov for ‘Jewish holiday.’
Israeli Hebrew has also had a significant influence on Jewish Swedish, particularly through the introduction of Hebrew words such as tiyul, ‘field trip’, and dati, ‘religious.’ Importantly, the choice between Yiddish-derived and Israeli Hebrew-derived linguistic variants has acquired social meanings. Yiddish-origin words are used primarily in informal contexts while their Hebrew counterparts are used more formally in less familiar environments.
Unique to the development of Jewish Swedish was the early linguistic influence of Judeo-German. Most of the early Jewish Swedish community was of Western Ashkenazi descent and came from Northern Germany, bringing with them Western Yiddish, also known as Judeo-German. 19th-century texts include many Judeo-German loanwords, such as jinglinges ‘youngsters,’ waibele ‘wife (diminutive),’ ohrn ‘to pray,’ schalet ‘warm Sabbath dish,’ zeider ‘Passover dinner,’ and berches ‘Sabbath loaves.’ Judeo-German features were used continuously by the Jewish Swedish community until the beginning of the 20th century. Today, Eastern Yiddish, Modern Hebrew, and textual Hebrew constitute the bulk of non-Swedish influence on Jewish Swedish, but traces of Judeo-German influence still exist. For example, the common Jewish pronunciation of kosher [ˈko:ʃər] comes from Judeo-German, as used by Sweden’s first Jewish community, in contrast to the standard Swedish pronunciation [ˈkɔʃ:ər].
Jewish English influence
Some Hebrew and Yiddish words are used in ways that exhibit influence from Jewish American English. Examples include göra alija 'to make aliyah,' kvetsha 'to complain,' and shlepp 'to carry, lug,' as well as writing conventions like G-d (God) and BS"D 'with the help of heaven.'
Jewish Swedish also includes a variety of phonological (relating to the system of speech sounds) features that differentiate it from Standard Swedish. Most notably, speakers of Jewish Swedish make a clear distinction between the phonemes [χ] and [ʃ], whereas speakers of Standard Swedish may on occasion interchange /ʃ/ with /ɧ/ or even /χ/. This distinction manifests itself in the pronunciation of certain words such as kosher, ‘kosher’, using strictly /ʃ/. Similarly, words like chag, ‘Jewish holiday,’ use strictly /χ/ in Jewish Swedish. Another interesting phonological trait in Jewish Swedish revolves around the interchanging of [z] and [s]. [z] is rarely found in Swedish. Yet, because the [z] phoneme exists in both Hebrew and Yiddish, many speakers of Jewish Swedish use [z] and [s] with equal frequency in Yiddish and Hebrew words like mazel tov, ‘congratulations,’ during casual conversation.
Recent literature by Jewish Swedish authors includes many Hebrew and Yiddish words. Examples include Leif Zern’s (2012) Kaddish på motorcykel, Stephan Mendel-Enk’s (2010) Tre apor, and a Swedish translation of Lachn fun tsores (Hazdan 2003) – a novel originally published in 1944 in Yiddish, depicting Jewish life in Stockholm in the 1940s.
The linguistic diversity of Swedish Jews is captured in their use of non-standard lexicality, morphosyntax, and phonology. As in most contemporary Jewish languages, many linguistic features have been carried over from Hebrew and Yiddish and continue to evolve within the language today.
Gadelli, B., Gadelli, S., & Gadelli, E. (1999). Vem tillhör talgemenskapen? Om jiddisch I Sverige [Who belongs to the speech community? About Yiddish in Sweden]. Sveriges Sju Inhemska Språk – Ett Minoritetsspråksperspektiv, 299–328.
Carlsson, C. H. (2011). Judisk invandring från Aaron Isaac till idag [Jewish immigration from Aaron Isaac until today]. Judarna i Sverige: En Minoritets Historia: Fyra Föreläsningar, 17–54. 20032003
Dencik, L. (2003). ‘Jewishness’ in postmodernity: The case of Sweden. New Jewish Identities: Contemporary Europe and Beyond, 75–104.
Hary, B., & Benor, S. B. (2020). Languages in Jewish Communities, Past and Present (1st ed., Vol. 112, Ser. Contributions to the Sociology of Language). de Gruyter Mouton.
Kahn, L., & Rubin, A. D. (2017). Handbook of Jewish languages. Brill.
* Lebenswerd, P. J. K. (2013). Distinctive features in Jewish Swedish: A description and a survey [Unpublished master’s thesis]. Stockholm University.
* Lebenswerd, P. J. K. (2016) Jewish Swedish. Handbook of Jewish languages, (618-629). Brill.
Rohlén-Wohlgemuth, H. (1995). Svensk-judisk litteratur 1775–1994 : En litteraturhistorisk översikt [Swedish Jewish literature 1775–1994]. Megilla-Förl.
Valentin, H. (1924). Judarnas historia i Sverige. Bonnier.
Wexler, P. (2002). MARVIN HERZOG (ed.-in-chief), The language and culture atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry. Vol. 3, The Eastern Yiddish – Western Yiddish continuum. Tübingen and New York: Max Niemeyer, 2000. Pp. x, 378; *8 (Yiddish pagination). Hb DM 486. Language in Society, 31(02). https://doi.org/10.1017/s0047404502252185