Mr, Sir, Ms, Mrs or Miss? In Sweden you are mostly neither, since titles are not used as they are in Britain. There was, however, a widespread use of titles, and the more formal Ni, until the end of the 1960s when du-reformen – the you-reform – created a significant change in the Swedish language.
Professor Bror Rexed. Photo: Sven-Erik Sjöberg/Scanpix
The defining moment of the reform was the opening speech that neuroscientist and professor Bror Rexed held to his staff in 1967, when he assumed the post as General Director of The National Swedish Board of Health and Welfare (Socialstyrelsen). He proclaimed that he would use the informal du (you) to address everyone, and he encouraged his co-workers to do the same. Back then, du was commonly only used when talking to close friends, family members and to address children.
Previously, the proper way to address people of the same or higher social status had been by title and surname. Colleagues spoke to each other in a more formal way at the office, asking if “Accountant Olsson could send the invoice” or if “Managing Director Johnsson would mind postponing the meeting.” The use of herr (mr), fru (mrs) or fröken (miss) was considered acceptable in initial conversation with strangers of unknown occupation, academic title or military rank. This way of addressing often became complicated, since it required that the speaker kept track of people's position in society. The fact that the listener should preferably be referred to in third person, tended to further complicate spoken communication between members of society.
An unsuccessful attempt was made in the early 20th century to replace the insistence on titles with Ni, which corresponds to vous in French and Sie in German. Many European languages use, what is an originally plural pronoun, to indicate politeness when talking to only one person – a use that originates from the way Roman emperors were addressed.
The Swedish Ni stemmed from the older plural pronoun I, but the social use was inspired by the German equivalent, which often was used to mark distance and military rank.
However, the use of Ni was never fully adopted by the Swedes. Instead, Ni ended up being used as a slightly less arrogant form of du, used to address people of lower social status, implying that the interlocutor had no title or office worth bothering about. Hence, since the use of Ni got back into use in the 1980’s, some older people can find it offensive.
The use of Ni today is mostly used as an address of courtesy when, for instance, a salesperson speaks to a customer.
Bror Rexed’s speech in 1967 put words to a gradual change that had happened in Sweden over the last decade. With the liberalisation and radicalisation of Swedish society in the 1950's and 60's, the previously significant distinctions of class had become less important. Sweden’s largest newspaper Dagens Nyheter had years earlier changed their linguistic usage in favour of du, and the development was considerably speeded up when Olof Palme, as new Prime Minister in 1969, let reporters call him du on live broadcasts.
It did not take long until du became the standard way of addressing, even in formal and official contexts with the only exception of the the Royal Family, whose members are still addressed in third person or by their titles.
Elin Hellström is a freelance journalist and translator. This article was previously published in the Swedish Chamber of Commerce for the UK member magazine.
The author alone is responsible for the opinions expressed in this article.
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