Sweden’s So-so Tolerance of Sociolects
by Ann Törnkvist
Format: Personal Essay | Genre: Nonfiction
The editor sent me a message back, underlining a quote: “This is illogical.” My eyes narrowed, even though I was used to this subconscious intolerance of sociolect.
Had the editor listened to the radio piece, rather than just skimming the script, she would have understood. The interview subject, a man with an immigrant background, was telling me how three murders in quick succession had affected his neighbourhood, that he was worried about the children’s future – would they also end up joining one of the gangs that have been laying siege to Stockholm’s socio-economically vulnerable areas?
But the man confused his prepositions so instead of saying “I’m scared for the children’s sake,” what he actually said was “I’m scared of the children”. Okay, so there was room for misunderstanding because when the police made arrests, the suspects turned out to be young, some underage and thus children themselves. Had my editor listened to the audio, however, she would have figured out what he meant from the tone of his voice – he was worried, not afraid. He was concerned that kids in the neighbourhood would end up being targeted by the gangs.
Then it happened again on another story. I had called one of my sources just to check in, see how he was doing, and this big and burly former convict sounded so small, so vulnerable. “Has something happened?” I asked. Of course it had. One of his friends had just overdosed; they’d found him dead in bed, a strip of codeine tablets beside him. As illegal imports of the opiate drug have gone through the roof in Sweden, my source agreed to come into Broadcasting House to be interviewed. “I want to warn people,” he said.
This man is wise, he is honest and honourable, he is erudite … in Rinkebysvenska.
Svenska means the Swedish language; Rinkeby is a Stockholm suburb that is home to many first-, second-, and now also third-generation immigrants, often referred to with the derogatory slur “blatte”. While less mind-bending for the uninitiated than many other sociolects – for example Rinkebysvenska’s French cousin verlan, with its unique syllable inversions – my source’s manner of speaking still confused some people.
“This doesn’t make sense,” my editor said as she read the script, even though I’d made sure my intro gave enough context to ensure that his words made sense. F***ing listen to him! I thought, or more like screamed, to myself. I tried to keep it cool, not wanting, after all, to jeopardise my job by losing my cool.
Furthermore, my editor seemed ready to sacrifice the entire quote: we’d have to cut it out because on the radio, unlike in print, there is no option to ‘clean up’ people’s language; not that I ever would. At Columbia Journalism School in New York, with its linguistic melting pot of accents, dialects, sociolects and slang being as old as the city itself, I was taught two things: That it is disrespectful to rewrite spoken word and that language provides context and thus has editorial value.
As a crime and social affairs reporter in Stockholm, I meet people speaking Rinkebysvenska all the time. Nota bene that most second- and third-generation kids will switch to formal Swedish in the blink of an eye, if they want to. Sticking to Rinkebysvenska is a choice that signals self-identification, rather than communicating some kind of inability to learn.
As immigrant neighbourhoods are disproportionately affected by the recent surge in gang violence, I work with sociolect all the time, careful never to slip into it myself as it would be a) ridiculous and b) a lie – I’m as white and middle class as they come, just like the majority of the press corps.
And while I will happily go anywhere on the tube to interview people, I will not get close to linguistic ‘clean up’ – a value-laden term with a damning innuendo: We only clean what is dirty. The people I interview are not dirty!
But no matter how high a standard I hold myself to, there was a recent challenge I don’t think I dealt with particularly well when I ran smack into a question I didn’t have the answer to: translation.
For my book Follow Fucking Orders – Life and Death in the Shadow of the Swedish Mafia, I interviewed a poker wunderkind who agreed to be my cicerone and explain how cash flows from organised crime onto the green-felt gambling tables in criminal-underworld joints. He was a reporter’s dream, dishing up money quote after money quote. ‘Dirty’ quotes, however, as he disregarded standard grammar.
There was no dilemma about how to deal with that when writing in Swedish: I didn’t have to. I could leave it as it was. But when I recently translated some chapters into English, I didn’t know how to preserve and pay respect to his style of speaking.
Could I do some kind of pastiche of Ebonics in the US? But that felt wrong; language is, after all, about history – in Ebonics’ case about systemic violence and discrimination born from slavery – and Philip is not African American. I couldn’t go for using -ing verbs all the time, as many English-speakers in India do – Philip’s parents are from the Middle East, not the Subcontinent. Should I cut out some words? Replace plural with singular? No, because that would make him sound stupid, and Philip was among the smartest people I’d ever met.
This was my lacklustre compromise: “If someone tread on me, I had to show’ em that I was ready to cut them,” Philip says. “I had to show them how hard I is.”
Does that work? Not really …
There will be time for edits, inshallah.