Wednesday, November 4, 2015

No, Michael Booth, language is not keeping people out of the Nordics

"The difference is, few actually actively seek to move to Scandinavia, for obvious reasons: the weather is appalling, the taxes are the highest in the world, the cost of living is similarly ridiculous, the languages are impenetrable, the food is (still) awful for the most part and, increasingly, these countries are making it very clear they would prefer foreigners to stay away." - Michael Booth
As far as I can tell, almost all of this is factually incorrect. The Nordics have some of the highest net migration rates in the world: Norway's is higher than any other European country except for Luxembourg, Sweden ranks in the top 25, and Denmark ranks just three spots after the United States at 43. All of this is not only easily verified - it is common knowledge among anyone who has paid any attention to global migration issues over the past decade. The Nordics have become havens for immigrants all over the world, and the reasons why are fairly obvious.

I'll reserve judgment about the rest of his criticism, but as a linguist and a Swedish speaker I am fairly confident in dismissing his complaint that Nordic "languages are impenetrable" as objectively incorrect.

For one thing, it's hardly even necessary to speak the local languages to live in the Nordics: 90% of Norwegians and 86% of both Swedes and Danes speak English. These numbers are of course even higher in the major metropolitan cities where most immigrants live, such as Stockholm, Copenhagen and Oslo. Nordic cities also tend to be unusually conscientious in their efforts to accomodate other language communities. For example, a typical sign in Malmö:


You may notice, in addition to the temporary welcoming sign for refugees, the permanent sign in the background identifying Malmö's Central Station. A foreigner like Booth might be impressed that Sweden went out of its way to erect permanent English-language signage for people like him, but it's actually even better than that: the sign is written in Swedish. See, it turns out that English and the Nordic languages are often nearly identical! A quick look at the language tree explains why (click to enlarge):


Like English, the Nordic languages are Germanic. About 1,500 years ago, they were all the same language. Since then they have moved in different directions, but they all retain certain ancestral features that survive to this day in often quite similar grammars and vocabularies. These can be quite technical to spell out, but in practice their shared heritage means that they are, contrary to Booth's bizarre speculation, quite accessible compared to other languages. Since English is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, this makes the Nordics an unusually friendly place for anyone moving in from another country. A simple example: the English sentence "I sit and drink ale" translates into Swedish as "Jag sitter och dricker öl." Just by looking at the two it's painfully obvious which words are doing what, and it would just take a brief history lesson to explain why the words sound different at all.

The irony here is that even if we took all of Booth's criticism seriously, this only strengthens the case for a Nordic economics: look at everything that people are willing to endure for the sake of a robust welfare state! But given his radical ignorance on just this one narrow point of linguistic trivia, there's probably no reason to assume he's right about anything else, either.