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The Swedish Language: A constant source of amusement

One of the things I love about Sweden is the language. It sounds so wonderful and happy whenever you hear people speak it. There are also a surprisingly large number of dialects and accents for a language with only 9 million speakers. This last part made Stockholm hell for me as I found out I was not as good at understanding the Stockholm accent. After failing to achieve any serious conversation with the Stockholmers due to their strange way of talking, I found myself in a shoe store where I for some reason was able to understand the sales girl there. After a few minutes of speaking to her about buying shoes and the various deals that were on offer at the time, I asked her (in swedish of course) why I could understand her and nobody else in the city to which she replied “I’m from Finland, I speak Finnish Swedish”. So there we are, I came to Sweden and could only speak Swedish with Finnish people, off to a wonderful start. Thankfully, the people in Uppsala speak a little differently to the point that I could understand them, which is shocking considering Uppsala is only a 40 minutes train ride north of Stockholm.

The Swedish language is a germanic lanuage and for the most part has the same alphabet as English. In addition to our regular letters, the Swedes have three additional letters which consist of Ä Å and Ö. These might look like variants of A and O but don’t be fooled, the Swedes count these as three separate letters and tack them on to the end of the alphabet making it A-Ö instead of A-Z. So if you see this Swedish system, don’t think they forgot about P-Z, They’re just hiding.

W has a strange position is Swedish as being a letter they don’t care for. W is often considered a variant of V although it is technically still a letter. Funnily enough, the Swedish name for W is actually “dubbel v” which as you guessed means double V not double U and now that they mention it, it does look more like two Vs than two Us although that might just be me.

The Swedish language contains some hilarious words which is a source of great amusement for us exchange students. Everyone’s favourite is of course the word “Slut” which no doesn’t refer to some kind of promiscuous woman (that honour is reserved for “Slampa”) it actually means “end” or “the end”. During sale season you can find this word plastered all over the town in the form of “Slutrea”. Rea is the swedish word for sale, no it doesn’t mean they’re having a slut sale, but it is a final sale so you may want to check it out anyway.

There are various other phrases such as the phrase “Släpp mig”. Sounds and looks an awful lot like slap me but this little phrase actually means let me go. Of course this could prove a nightmare for those trying to get out of a violent situation. “Hitta mig” does sound like hit me but actually means find me in case you were curious.

Swedish does loan a lot of words from English which does mean that on occasion you will find words that look like English words and you might be tempted to believe that they mean the same thing. Words like “avancerade” and “komplicerade” do actually mean advanced and complicated respectively. Arm, hand and fingret are the Swedish words for arm, hand and finger. However this similarity doesn’t always hold true. For example the Swedish word “semester” might look like English semester but it actually means holiday so if you hear the swedes say they are on semester, doesn’t actually mean the same thing. The word “fan” which sounds an awful lot like fun when pronounced is actually a very common Swedish profanity similar in severity to say damn,

The Swedish language is incredibly logical in some ways (although incredibly idiotic in others, although I shall get to that). Many Swedish words are compound words which means that you can often get a hint about what the word means if you know the meaning of the smaller words it contains. For example the word for future is “framtid” which translates to time in front. The word for vegetables is grönsaker which funnily enough means green things. Dictionary is “ordbok” which literally means book of words, you see how wonderfully logical Swedish can be?

If you try to ever learn Swedish, it is probably not worth it unless you want to come to Sweden, most Swedes get shocked by how much Swedish I know. I have lost count of how many conversations I have had that went something like this:

Me: *something in Swedish*

Other person: Aren’t you from Australia?

Me: Yes

Other person: But you speak Swedish?

Me: Yeah I tried to learn some before I got here cos I thought it would enhance my exchange in Sweden

Other person: Your Swedish is very good, I am really impressed

Me: Thank you

It has gotten to the point where this conversation feels very rehearsed so this particular conversation I can do very well which I suppose is how I impress them. I don’t know why they rarely move into more complicated topic areas before they make a judgement of how much Swedish I know, basing it off a rather simple conversation although flattering, seems shortsighted.

If you still feel the need to learn Swedish (If you are coming to Sweden then do try, despite almost everyone being fluent in English, the Swedes really do appreciate it and are happier to open up to you if you speak in their native tongue) then the first thing someone will say is that Swedish is simple because they don’t have different verb conjugations. In English the word for “being” changes which the subject e.g.

  • I am
  • You are
  • He is
  • She is

In Swedish, the equivalent is är and is used regardless of the subject i.e.

  • Jag är (I am)
  • Du är (You are)
  • Han är (He is)
  • Hon är (She is)

Simple isn’t it? But don’t be fooled, the Swedes have many other ways to screw with you trust me. Swedish contains two genders which are en and ett, there are technical names but I don’t remember what they are. This is similar to English’s a and an. Although while in English you can determine whether a noun takes a or an depending on whether it contains vowel sounds in the begining, Swedish possesses no such rule and the genders are assigned arbitrarily, what is worse is that there is often no consistency reference to time, the word for second, minute, hour, day, week and month are all en words, but year is an ett word i.e.

  • en sekund (a second)
  • en minut (a minute)
  • en timme (an hour)
  • en dag (a day)
  • en vecka (a week)
  • en månad (a month)
  • ett år (a year)

As to why they chose to assign year to the other gender, I have no idea but they did and you just need to know which word belongs in which gender. The other complicated part arises from adjectives and how they are used with each word. Some adjectives will change their spelling depending on whether they are describing an en, an ett or a plural word e.g.

The Swedish word for good is “Bra” (Did I forget to mention that earlier in funny Swedish words?) but this particular word doesn’t change when describing different words. God is also Swedish for good but this does change its spelling depending on the word (See how weird it gets?). e.g.

  • en bra vecka (a good week)
  • ett bra bord (a good table)
  • en god person (a good person)
  • ett gott foto (a good photo)

It gets even more complex when we refer to definite articles (Stuff with “the” attached to it i.e. the chair as opposed to a chair). Surprisingly Swedish doesn’t have a word for “the”, it just doesn’t exist. Instead of using a separate word, they use suffixes so ett bord (a table) becomes bordet (the table), en vecka (a week) becomes veckan (the week). when you add plurals and adjectives it gets even more obscure. To try and specify where the adjective goes the word den, det or de will be put before the adjective describing the definite articles. Which one you use depends on whether it is an en, ett or plural word. the adjectives change as well. e.g.

  • en fin bil (A pretty car)
  • den fin bilen (The pretty car)
  • ett svenskt tåg (A Swedish train)
  • det svenskt tåget (The Swedish train)
  • De fina Bilarna ( the pretty cars, an en word)
  • De svenska Tågen (The Swedish trains, an ett word which weirdly enough uses en as its suffix so you might think its a definite en word but really its a definite plural word)

Despite all the crazy arbitrary rules, it is a wonderful and beautiful language and if you want to come to Sweden, I do suggest to try and learn at least a little bit. To wrap things up here is a photo of a Swedish Keyboard in the library. The punctuation marks have changed places which makes things annoying, if you spot the @ sign do tell me, I still haven’t found it.

A Swedish keyboard
A Swedish keyboard

Sameed Khan – Autumn Semester 2013 – Uppsala University Sweden

3 thoughts on “The Swedish Language: A constant source of amusement Leave a comment

  1. I’m not trying to be a pundit but the grammar is even more complicated in the ways you bend the middle words in these particular sentences:

    en fin bil (A pretty car)
    den fin[[a]] bilen (The pretty car)
    ett svenskt tåg (A Swedish train)
    det svensk[[a]] tåget (The Swedish train)

    One more thing, you’ll find the @ sign on the number 2 key if you watch closely 🙂

  2. Even though this article is two years old, I still have to comment. You can get the @ sign by holding ‘Alt Gr’ and then pushing the key used for the number ‘2’.

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