What’s your most embarrassing linguistic faux pas?

Every week, we ask a regular panel of readers to discuss a particular aspect of life in Sweden. This week: linguistic faux pas.

What's your most embarrassing linguistic faux pas?
The Local; Philip MacKenzie

Graeme Newcomb

Graeme Newcomb

On a balmy summer night last year I thought (in my wine-fueled state) that I would try and impress my in-laws with my fluent mastery of the lingua franca. I spotted a large fox running towards the forest and thought, here is my opportunity: brimming with confidence I exclaimed what I thought was “titta på den stora räven” (‘look at that big fox’). What actually came out was “titta på den den stora röven” (‘look at that big asshole’). By this time the fox had disappeared into the forest and the only thing visible was the neighbour, who is universally unpopular with the in-laws. The gods of multi-cultural relationships were looking down on me that night.

Emma Chataway

Emma Chataway

Whenever I speak Swedish I feel pretty embarrassed all of the time, sometimes I’ll be concentrating hard on making sure I say a particular thing right or pronounce something properly that I make another mistake that I’d usually get right. It’s just so frustrating to think so much about what you’re going to say next.

Once when I was at my boyfriend’s parents’ place, I was losing terribly in a card game with the whole family. I tried to get my boyfriend to help me and batted my eyelids and said, “Älskar du med mig?” Everyone looked up and started laughing. I didn’t realize I had asked if Micke was sleeping with me; I thought it was an innocent, “Do you love me?” I’ll never make that mistake again.

One thing that really annoys me is that I can’t say ‘familj’ right. I just can’t round it off at the end, I don’t hear the difference between how I say it and how my boyfriend says it, but somehow it’s always wrong. I can say ‘sju’, I can pronounce all the letters in the alphabet fine, I just can’t seem to get ‘familj’ right. So if I have to say it I always make a small cough towards the end of the word, I really don’t want to be feigning a cold every time I talk about my family but it seems to work or make Micke laugh whenever I give it ago. But I pledge, one day I’ll say it perfectly and before that happens I’ll keep practicing. And well, if it never happens, I guess I’ll just have to keep coughing.

Igor Trisic

Igor Trisic

Generally I have problems with everything at the moment. It even seems that my English has gotten a bit worse since I started speaking Swedish. When it comes to the grammar the hardest is to make sure that conditional adverbs (e.g ‘inte’) come after finite verbs in conditional sentences. Furthermore ‘hade’ and ‘har’ are almost omitted in conditional sentences in written Swedish which often makes me wonder was it ‘hade’ or ‘har’ which got omitted. As for pronunciation, the biggest problem right now is how one should pronounce ‘ö’ and ‘sj-’. ‘Sjuksköterska’ for example. And I guess I will not be going to ‘Örebro’ anytime soon.

Thomas Smith

Thomas Smith

So far I have not had any embarrassing moments, but I have had some problems with the tone and pronunciation of some Swedish words. My most usable phrase is, “Kan du prata engelska?”

I must not be saying it quite right, because I get some puzzling looks from Swedes when I say it, but once I say, “English”, everything is fine.

Daniel Nyström

Daniel Nyström

When I was younger I played hockey for Djurgårdens IF and we once had a Canadian team visit and stay with us. I was quite good at English for my age (about 13), but I really hadn’t figured it out 100 percent yet.

We all had one player from the other team staying with us. When I didn’t know how to say a word, I wanted to say “I don’t know how to pronounce that.”

But I kept saying, “I don’t know how to expel that” — relating to the word “spell”.

Every time I said that, he looked at me funny, but didn’t correct me, and in retrospect it’s one of those things that made me take more interest in my English classes.

Mary Uhlin

Mary Uhlin

Linguistic faux pas for me have been many, but as for now when I do speak Swedish, I still inject the words in English when I am uncertain if I have said it correctly. I mostly have faux pas when I engage in conversations.

For example, in my office last week they were talking of going to a Microsoft meeting after lunch, I spoke up and said that I had also brought “micro mat” (microwave food) with me to eat and continued on with how everyone seemed to be doing that a lot more these days. [Microsoft in Swedish is pronounced meecro – soft].

I am still at the stage where I must listen intently to what is being said because every time I go a little on auto-pilot I never get it right! However, I am usually always good for giving the people around me a good laugh!


Ten essential Sámi words that you might not have heard before

There are about ten Sámi languages alive today, spoken across the northern parts of Scandinavia and eastern Russia. But they are among the many Indigenous languages around the world that are at risk of disappearing. 

Ten essential Sámi words that you might not have heard before

You might have heard that there are over 200 words for snow in Sámi languages, which is unsurprising, given the climate of the Sámi homeland in Northern Europe. But there’s a lot more to the languages than snow. 

The Swedish Sámi parliament website says that “language is the bearer of cultural heritage and reflects our people’s common view of life and values. Language transfers knowledge about nature and the world.”

But Sámi language fluency has been declining rapidly for decades. Pite Sámi is critically endangered, with fewer than 50 living speakers, all in Sweden. Today, Northern Sámi is the most widely spoken. 

Due to assimilation policies in all the countries the Sámi found themselves in, older generations of Sámi people were not allowed to speak their own language in school, meaning some languages have already been lost. 

The Local spoke to speakers and researchers of the languages to find out some of the most unique and beautiful words still in use.

1. Sápmi  

Sápmi is the Northern Sámi word for the traditional dwelling place of the Sámi people, which encompasses the northern parts of Scandinavia and the Kola peninsula of Russia. Since the 20th century, national borders and state policies have divided Sápmi and the people who call it home. 

Location of Sápmi in Europe

A map of where Sápmi in northern Europe. Map: Wikipedia

Elle Rávdná Näkkäläjärvi is part of the Sámiskeveivisere, Sámi Pathfinders, a group of young Sámi people who visit high schools and teach students about Sámi culture. She says Sápmi itself is one of her favourite words. 

“The word means a Sápmi without borders, it means relatives, sisters and brothers, and community,” she says. 

2. Eadni 

Eadni means ‘mother’ in Northern Sámi.

“It’s one of the first words that children learn,” says Berit Anne Bals Baal, a lecturer of linguistics at the National Centre for Sámi Language in Education at the Sámi University College, who chose it as her favourite word.

It has a complex phonology (sound system), and is similar to the Northern Sámi word for Earth, which is eanan

3. Guohtun  

Guohtun is a Northern Sámi word that describes the ideal conditions for reindeer to find lichen to graze under a covering of snow. But it’s more complicated than that. It’s one of those words that resists simple translation.

Lars Miguel Utsi, the Vice President of the Sámi parliament of Sweden, says, “Guohtun is a very complex word. It encompasses geography, plants, lichens, snow, and reindeer. It exemplifies the language and its connection to land and water.”

“It’s a very soothing word because it means that there is food and the reindeer can reach it,” he said. 

4. Giitu  

Giitu means ‘thank you’ in Northern Sámi.

Anyone who knows some Finnish might notice that it sounds quite similar to the Finnish word for ‘thank you’, kiitos. That’s because Sámi languages have more in common with Finnish than with Swedish, Danish or Norwegian, coming from the same language family: Finno-Uralic. 

You can respond to giitu with leage buorre which means ‘you’re welcome.’

5. Čáiddas 

This means snowball. We couldn’t have a list of Sámi words without having something specific to snow, could we? 

6. Vuovdi 

This means forest in Northern Sámi. Vast swathes of Sápmi is covered in forest. Sámi reindeer herders rely on old-growth forests to let their reindeer graze; they eat the kind of lichen that only grows in older forests. 

7. Boazu

Reindeer husbandry is a vital part of Sámi life. Photo: Image Bank Sweden

In all Sámi languages, there are two different words for reindeer. In Northern Sámi there is goddi and boazu.

Boazu means a reindeer who has been tamed and can be milked. Goddi is the word for wilder reindeer.  

Reindeer herding is an important aspect of Sámi culture and a vital source of income for many Sámi people. The Sámi parliament estimates that about 2,500 people are dependent on income from reindeer husbandry. 

8. Bures

An easy one! This is how you say “hello” to another person in Northern Sámi. 

9. Goahte  

Goahte is a type of hut in Lule Sámi. It’s a traditional Sámi home that can be built in several different ways, depending on what material is available, like with wooden panels or a construction of wooden poles covered with peat or cloth.

10. Sámediggi 

This is the Northern Sámi word for the Sámi Parliament. There’s a Sámi parliament in each country that divides Sápmi.

In the Scandinavian countries, it’s essentially a government agency with the aim of representing the Sámi people and increasing opportunities to participate in public debate.