It is about time that we take a look on how to make some of the very Swedish consonant sounds. I know it is not easy, bit it isn’t impossible either.First we are going to learn how sounds are produced, what we do physically to make sounds and after that we will look into some of the sounds that are typical for Swedish - sj, tj and rs. Finally you can read about some geographical differences in pronunciation of these sounds.
How do we produce sound?
Let me start with how we produce sound. When we exhale, air is forced up from our lungs and out through our mouth. On its way out that air can be stopped in different places of our mouth and in different ways. If you lift your tongue and push the air through your nose you get a nasal sound, like [ng] in “pengar” or [nk] in “bank”. If you roll the tip of your tongue you will produce a rolling [r] like in “ringer”. If you press your lips together and then suddenly let the air out create a [p] like in “pappa”. These sounds are not so complicated to produce and we seldom have to think so much on how to produce them. Some consonant sounds that we can find in Swedish could need a little more attention and practice to get right. I am talking about the sj-sound that we can find in “sjuksköterska”, the tj-sound that we find in “kinesisk” and the rs-sound that can find in “kurs”. All three are pronounced slightly different depending on where you are from so don’t be surprised if someone from Malmö sounds different than someone from Skellefteå.
The sj-sound is with phonetic terms described as a postalveolar fricative. A fricative means that we force through a narrow channel. In this case the narrow channel is made of our tongue pressing against just between the gum around our molars and the palate. You don’t have to force a lot of air out. In fact, I have noticed that many students overdo the sj-sound and I advice them to exhale just like when they say “h” but make sure that there tongue is touching the molars.
Except for with “sj” this sound can be spelled in many different ways. The most common way is probably “sj” . We find it in words like:
Also the combination “sk” is pronounced this way when it is followed by e,i,y,ä or ö. Here are some examples:
(take care of)
Other ways to spell the sj-sound is with “stj” like in “stjärna” (star), with “skj” like in “skjorta” (shirt), with “sch” like in “schack” (chess) amd sometimes even with “ch” like in “chef” (manager) and “charmig” (charming). We also find the sj-sound in the middle of a word spelled with “tio”, “sio” or “ssio” like in “station” (station), “pension” (retirement) and “diskussion” (discussion).
This sound is a “postalveolar frikativa”.
The tj-sound is for most people easier to pronounce than the sj-sound. It is very similar to the sh-sound in English, but still a little bit different. “Tj” is a hissing our sizzling sound. Anyone who has seen The Dog Whisperer (“Mannen som talar med hundar” in Sweden) knows what a tj-sound should sound like – shhhh!
The phonetic terms for the sizzling sound is alveolar palatal fricative. In English this means that this sound is produced when the middle part of the tongue is slightly touching the palate and the tip of the tongue is pressing a little bit against the teeth ridge.
Just like with the sj-sound there are many ways to spell the tj-sound. First of all with the letter “k” followed by “e,i,y,ä and ö”. Like this:
The tj-sound is of course also spelled with “tj” as in tjej (girl) and tjock (thick), and also with “kj” as in kjol (skirt).
The rs- sound
If you are from the central or northern parts of Sweden you have a rolling “r”. That rolling r is with phonetic terms called a retroflex consonant, which means that we bend the tip of the tongue back a little bit when we say r. When this rolling r is combined with t,d,n and s the two consonants melt together and we get one assimilated retroflex sound. Take a look at these examples:
(short or card)
The t and the r are assimilated and instead of two separate sounds we get sort of a thick t, a t pronounced with the tip of the tongue bent back instead of just touching the front teeth.
Just like with the rt combination the r and d comes out as one sound, like a thick d with the tip of tongue bent back.
Also with r and n together we get a retroflex sound, a thick n.
The rs-sound and the tj-sound are very similar. The difference between the two is that the rs is a retroflex and therefore a little “thicker” than the tj-sound that is produced with a more flat tip of the tongue.
Different pronunciation in different parts of Sweden
As in any other language there are differences in pronunciation throughout Sweden. In the southern parts, let’s say from Norrköping and down one uses the sj-sound both in the beginning and in the end of words. So, the “sch” in “dusch (shower) sounds the same as the “sk” in “skära” (cut). In the very southern parts like Skåne you don’t have a rolling “r” which makes the “r” and the “s” in “kurs” pronounced as two separate sounds.
In many northern accents you don’t hear the sj-sound as it is pronounced in the central and southern parts of the country. “sk”, “skj” and “stj” in sked, skjorta, stjärna are pronounced like the “rs” in kurs. You will also here this in Finnish Swedish.
In the central parts of Sweden, like Uppsala and Stockholm, you often use the sj-sound in the beginning of words (sju, skorta) and the rs-sound in the end of words (dusch, garage).