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Title: Reformen  
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Subject: Swedish language, Sociolinguistics, History of Swedish
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Du-reformen (meaning 'You-reform' or 'Thou-reform') was the process of popularization of the second-person singular pronoun du as a universal form of address in Sweden, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The use of du (cognate with English thou, French tu, and German du) replaced an intricate former system of honorifics, which used the third-person pronouns han and hon ('he' and 'she'), the second-person plural pronoun ni ('you') or by the titles Herr, Fru and Fröken ('Mr.', 'Mrs.' and 'Ms.').[1]

Formerly, it was considered impolite to address an older person, especially someone unknown, in a way other than by their title. A subordinate was addressed as ni or han/hon, or alternatively by name. Du, in contrast, was only used among groups of close friends, family, and for addressing children. However, usage of the singular and plural second-person pronoun or titles varied between different parts of the country and thereby also by social context, both before and after the reform.


In Finland Swedish, the second person plural form Ni (noted as formal above) was the traditional respectful address to a single person up to the 1970s or so.

In the Swedish of Sweden, the polite Ni was known from earlier epochs, but had come to be considered somewhat careless, bullying or rude; instead, an intricate system had evolved in order to prudently step around pronouns almost altogether.

Addressing in third person singular adding title and surname was considered proper and respectful in most cases. But with persons of higher standing, say a doctor, count or managing director, there arose the question when to use that title only and when to precede it with a herr ('mister' or, in this connection, 'sir'); not doubling such titles could be very rude unless you were on somewhat informal terms. A woman, married to a husband with a specific title, was addressed using the feminine form of her husband's title as a matter of course. This created its own set of problems as more and more women acquired professional titles of their own.

If two persons were somewhat acquainted and not too far apart in rank and age, they could then drop the name and use the title only—with the same problem of single or double title as above. Surname without title was considered proper between friends not too close and for a superior to his subordinate or someone of similar rank. That was also customary in male brotherhoods like between students.

Below that on the social scale, both among peers and from above, was the third person singular pronoun only (han 'he', less often hon 'she'). That was more usual in the countryside; considered rustic by "educated" people, but fitting towards e.g. an old fisher- or woodman.

Simple folks of venerable age could be properly addressed far ('father'; less usual) and mor ('mother') plus Christian name, both by their own and by superiors. The sex difference in the two addresses above was caused mainly by the hon ('she') being felt as too direct, maybe a covert insult or sign of doubt as to the addressee's decency. If she was a farmwife or the like, she could be called mor etc. even if young; otherwise, one had to make do with the nearest-fitting other way of addressing.

A master could address his servant, or a farmer his farmhand, by Christian name in the third person; that was more common between females, as the female world was generally more confined, but restricted between the sexes unless the social gap was very wide. A subordinate, in each case, answered by using the superior's title or titles or, in private, the informal term for his rank (e.g. herrn, patron).

Kinship term plus Christian name, still never alternating with pronoun, was proper in private to nearer older relatives.

The second person singular du was used only to and between children, within a married couple, between lovers or to a more or less voluntary mistress of lower standing, and between friends who had druckit duskål ('toasted for thou', as it were; infinitive dricka duskål) with each other—of course initiated by the elder or higher-ranked party. Again, the custom could be somewhat more relaxed among women—at least the toast itself was usually dispensed with. Then, du could be used to insult a tramp or the like.

Parts of this system began to erode around the Second World War or so, but the essentials held up into the 1960s.

In the province of Dalarna (Dalecarlia), however, and in a few other remote places with few upper-class people, the du/ni distinction had remained one of number only; possibly, children addressed their parents with far (Father) and mor (Mother) also when du would otherwise have been more logical. In some other remote places, the ni survived as both second person plural pronoun and polite address—to elders, including one's parents, not classified with "better people"—but in its older form I. In standard Swedish, that form had become archaic and solemn well before the 20th century. (I is always capitalized, not out of respect but to avoid confusion with the preposition i ('in').)

As the twentieth century progressed, this circumlocutive system of addressing, with its innumerable ambiguities and opportunities for unintentional offence, was increasingly felt as a nuisance. An early way out was to carry the circumlocutions one degree further—finding impersonal ways of saying what was needful, avoiding both personal pronoun and title. (Får det lov att vara en kopp kaffe?, approximately 'Might it be a cup of coffee?'; Så det är till att resa?, approximately 'So, it is about travelling?'). However, that soon proved of little avail. For one thing, you still had to address the person you talked with directly from time to time in the conversation, otherwise you would really have sounded impolite—and over time, it became de rigueur to do so more and more often, until it was a system with both longish titles used instead of personal pronouns and impersonal circumlocutions; and for another, the impersonal constructions soon acquired their own gradations, to be observant upon—e.g., that in the second example above being perceived as more and more rustic, ending up rude.

The reform

The beginning of the du-reformen is associated with Bror Rexed, the then head of the National Board of Health and Welfare (Socialstyrelsen), who in his welcome speech to the staff in 1967 announced that he would address everyone as du, increasing the effects of the reform and bringing it to a more frequent use. The actual reform had started earlier, including the amended language in the major newspaper Dagens Nyheter. It was seen as a reform in a democratic and egalitarian direction.

First, authorities and influential circles tried rehabilitating the Ni in a so-called "ni-reform", but most people could not bring themselves to feel civil using that. Then, in a process dubbed the "du reform", the system rapidly broke down and the informal du became the accepted way of addressing any one person except royalty.

Addressing royalty went somewhat more slowly from a universal Ers majestät ('Your Majesty'), etc., to that address only on formal occasions, otherwise replaced by third person (singular if the addressee is single) with title (K(on)ungen 'the King', etc.).

In parallel with the du-reformen, the use of titles was further reduced. In many other countries, professional titles rather than names are used to attract someone’s attention, while this is not usually the case in Sweden. Only slightly less accepted is the use of Christian name also when addressing a stranger (Daniel, Pia, etc.). Some people try to avoid the name altogether when speaking to an unknown (older) person, a representative of authority or the like, but the pronoun is still du. However, in exceptional cases, du is still not used. An example of this is the royal family, who, at least in the mass media, tend to be addressed by their respective titles (“Your Majesty”, or “Your Royal Highness”, or in the third person as “the King” / “the Queen”, “the Crown Princess” / Princess, and Prince). Since about 1990 it has also become more common for retail and restaurant staff to address customers as ni (second-person plural), although this was not formerly considered formal language.[2] In the Riksdag, where debate is conducted via the Speaker, titles are frequently used, even though politicians are most often addressed as du in other contexts.

In order to "alleviate the intrusion" in writing, e.g. in letters or in advertisement, the Du can be capitalized. That usage was most widespread in the early days of universal du address; it has become slightly more common again simultaneously with the partial Ni revival.

Finland-Swedish has undergone a similar development, but slower and slightly less with the influence of the slightly more conservative Finnish language.

The third-person pronoun may occasionally re-appear in old wit, although the main purpose of this is likely to have less to do with mocking pre-reform language, or to make a point that the events described in this wit are pre-reform, but as to make it easier for its audience to recognize the different people that the story (although in wit) is about.


  1. ^ How the Swedish language lost its formality, Elin Hellström
  2. ^ Nationalencyklopedin (not translated into English).

See also

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