” Now I know why Swedes don’t talk so much!” That’s what one of my previous students said after about one hour of pronunciation practice. We had just gone through all the 9 long vowels sounds and he had cramp in his face.
When it comes to pronunciation I want to encourage you by telling you that it takes a lot of work to reach a good level. I usually compare it to other physical exercise – I mean if you start with figure skating today, you would probably not be ready for the Olympics tomorrow. And even if you theoretically understood how to make the the quadruples and the triple toe loops, you still would be a little shaky on your skates. Right? So, don’t be too hard on yourselves in the beginning, practice makes perfect
There will never be any exact rules when it comes to the spoken part of a language. There are so many factors that have an effect on how we talk. Is the person speaking a man or a woman? Is the person young or old? Does he/she live in Skåne, Göteborg, Umeå, Uppsala, Linköping…? An /ö/ pronounced by a young woman in Norrköping most likely sound very different from an /ö/ pronounced by an old man in Kiruna. So, don’t get frustrated because your teacher sounds different from the language course tape or from your wife because we can count to 20+ different vowels sounds in the Swedish language.
I am going to try my best to give you some guidelines about the vowels, and I will focus on the so called long ones. In my opinion it is not much gained talking about short vowels, because if you stretch the consonant in a stressed syllable the vowel will more or less automatically become short. Other teachers might say something else, but this is the approach that has worked out best for me and most of the students I have taught so far.
There are three things you need to do to produce the different vowels :
1. Put your tongue in the right position. Say /a/ and try to feel where the tip of your tongue. Now say /i/ (Swedish i) and try to feel where your tongue is.
2. Open or close your mouth. When we say /a/, /ä/ or /ö/ your mouth is supposed to be wide open. When we say /i/ it is more or less closed and the air is pushed out through your nose.
3. Shape your lips correctly. When we say /o/, /u/ or /y/ your lips are round. Otherwise an /y/ is not an /y/ but an /i/.
A long (stressed) /a/ is produced very far back in your mouth. You press your tongue down towards the bottom of your mouth. Your lips are round and should have long shape. One should not see your teeth when you say /a/.
A short or unstressed /a/ sounds more or less the same. An /a/ in an unstressed syllable is not as loud as a short /a/ in a stressed syllable.
If we lift our tongue just a little bit from /a/ and at the same time close our mouth a little, so that it stays about half-open we will produce a long /å/. /a/ and /å/ are very close to each other in your mouth and therefore get confused. I’ve had students who spelled my name “Såra”. Letter I long is clear. The long /å/ can be compared to the English /aw/, but not to the English /oe/ since the /oe/ consists of two vowel sounds which /å/ doesn’t.
We lift our tongue even more (still far back in our mouth) and form a very round and very small mouth – shaped just like the letter “o”. The long Swedish /o/ can be compared to the English /oo/ as in cool. It can not be compared to the /o/ in “book”, “book” sounds more like the short Swedish /o/ as in “bott”. Note that the letter “o” sometimes is pronounced /o/ as and sometimes /å/. I have searched through a lot of material for a rule, but have so far not found any.
If we relax as much as we can, let our tongue just rest in the middle of our mouth and push the underlip slightly forward we get a /u/. Many are the students who try to hard and get to tensed in their face muscles when they try to produce /u/. You will get the best result if you try to relax. Have you ever seen a grumpy child? That’s the underlip you should have when you make /u/! Or you can pretend that you’re blowing out a candle. Don’t whistle, it’s only the underlip that is supposed to be pushed out, keep the upper lip still. /u/ is quite unique for Swedish and does not really have an equivalent sound in English.
If we move forward with the tip of our tongue, and let the sides of our tongue touch the teeth in the upper jaw, we can produce a Swedish /i/. The Swedish /i/ can be compared to English /ee/ , but it is produced even further up in your mouth and is more nasal that English /ee/. You also need to spread your lips more for Swedish /i/. Show all your teeth
It is very important to differentiate /i/ from /y/. For instance, the word “bi” means “bee”, but the word “by” means “village”.
The position of your tongue is the same as when saying /i/, but when you say /y/ you got to have rounded lips. You have to lift your upper lip a little. It takes a little bit of practice, so before you get the hang of it you can try to squeeze a pen between your nose and your upper lip. Does the pen stay? Good, then you have made an /y/. If you don’t have a pen close you can always use your finger. Does your lip touch your finger? Good! You have made an /y/
The tongue is still in the front of our mouth but the mouth is semi open. There are many variations of /e/ in different dialects, so don’t be surprised if a Stockholmer’s /e/ is different from a Malmöit’s.
We get an /ä/ if we keep our tongue kind of in the front of our mouth and open even more in comparison to /e/. Your mouth should be about as open as if you were about to eat something. It is actually even more open in certain dialects – Värmländska for example, ans also in the Uppland area when followed by an /r/.
The ninth and last vowel is /ö/. Again it is time to relax, let your tongue rest in the bottom of your mouth and make a big round open lip. You can compare the sound to the American /er/ as in “her”, only without the /r/ sound. Just like /ä/, /ö/ is pronounced more or less open depending on your dialect.
OK, now I have face cramps. How about you?