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SWEDISH

What can’t be said can be written: Herta Müller

Nobel literature laureate Herta Müller contemplated the power and meaning of words as she began her literature lecture on Monday at the Swedish Academy in Stockholm.

What can't be said can be written: Herta Müller

Müller opened her speech with the question “Do you have a handkerchief?”, which her mother asked her every morning before she left the house. She would return to the house each day to fetch her handkerchief, a subtle and unspoken reminder of maternal love that remained with the young girl throughout the day.

“The question ‘Do you have a handkerchief?’ was an indirect display of affection. Anything more direct would have been embarrassing and not something the farmers practiced. Love disguised itself as a question,” she said.

Müller, who was born in a German-speaking enclave in Romania in 1953, then recounted her experience working in a factory as a translator, a job she was later fired from because she refused to work as an informant for the secret police.

Of the security official, she said: “With his briefcase under his arm he said quietly: ‘You’ll be sorry, we’ll drown you in the river.’ I said as if to myself: ‘If I sign that, I won’t be able to live with myself anymore, and I’ll have to do it on my own. So it’s better if you do it.’”

Returning to the symbolic handkerchief, Müller described its multi-layered meaning and its power of healing. “No other object in the house, including ourselves, was ever as important to us as the handkerchief. Its uses were universal: sniffles; nosebleeds; hurt hand, elbow or knee; crying, or biting into it to suppress the crying,” she said.

She then explained the symbolism of the handkerchief in the context of her experience under the dictatorship of Ceauşescu; the smallest objects and gestures of resistance represent the resilience of the human spirit in the face of adversity. “Is the question ‘Do you have a handkerchief?’ impossible to get rid of, even with a hammer and sickle, even with all the camps of Stalinist re-education?” Müller mused.

The literature laureate also reflected on her family’s struggle to reconcile the death of her uncle, who was a soldier in the German SS during WWII. It was the death of a Nazi, and the death of a son.

Müller then spoke of the power of the written word, and her own decision not to collaborate with the Communist authorities. “What can’t be said can be written, because writing is a silent act, a labour from the head to the hand,” she said.

“I talked a great deal during the dictatorship, mostly because I decided not to blow the trumpet. Usually my talking led to excruciating consequences. But the writing began in silence, there on the stairs, where I had to come to terms with more than could be said. What was happening could no longer be expressed in speech,” she continued.

Müller concluded her Nobel literature lecture by returning to the original question, pondering its true meaning:

“I wish I could utter a sentence for all those whom dictatorships deprive of dignity every day, up to and including the present—a sentence, perhaps, containing the word handkerchief. Or else the question: ‘Do you have a handkerchief?’ Can it be that the question about the handkerchief was never about the handkerchief at all, but rather about the acute solitude of a human being?”

Müller will receive the Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday at the Stockholm Concert Hall.

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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

13 sure signs you’ve mastered the Swedish language

Anyone who's attempted it will admit that the Swedish language has its tricky aspects. The unique sounds, the rules regarding word order, and the frankly obscene number of plural forms all make it difficult to master, leaving many learners uncertain how to reply when asked the inevitable questions of 'do you speak Swedish?' and the ensuing 'so are you fluent?' The good news is, if you identify with most of the items on this list, you're well on your way.

13 sure signs you've mastered the Swedish language
Learning Swedish is about more than just picking up the grammar. Here's how you know you've cracked it. Photo: Simon Paulin/imagebank.sweden.se

Locals no longer switch to English for your sake…

Learning Swedish is a bit of a catch 22: to improve your language, you need to talk to native speakers, but most of them have a tendency to switch to English the moment they detect a sniff of uncertainty.

It's always a milestone the first time you make it through a conversation with native friends without them needing to translate a term for you or dissolving into laughter at your mispronunication or misunderstanding. When people stop challenging you to say the phrase 'sju sjuka sjuksköterskor', or when you don't even flinch if they do, you know you've officially levelled up.

… but you sometimes do

This one's another paradox. Many Swedes, particularly of the younger generation, tend to slip English words and phrases into conversation, even with other native Swedish speakers. Most of the time, there's a perfectly usable Swedish equivalent, but phrases like 'you only live once', 'crazy', and 'oh my God' often creep into informal speech as well as TV programmes and adverts.

It's probably due to picking up these phrases from American TV or films, or switching language to add emphasis or nuance to a phrase, and it's not surprising because of Swedes' high level of English: switching between languages, also called code-switching, is common among bilinguals across the world.

Swedish learners, however, tend to be diligent about using the Swedish they know whenever possible. Once you start saying 'najs' (pronounced like 'nice') instead of 'trevlig' on occasion, or otherwise peppering your speech with English phrases again, it's actually a sign you're confident in your Swedish.

You know when things are good or bad

Good and bad are among the most frequently used terms in any language, but the Swedish variations are loaded with nuances the beginner might miss. 'God/tt' is used to describe food and in some set phrases, while 'bra' means 'good' in a more general sense, and 'fin' usually emphasizes appearance. 

A fin smörgås? Photo: Fredrik Sandberg / TT

It's the same when it comes to the negative words, and the two translations for 'worse' (sämre and värre) often confuse non-natives. Here, the rule is that you use 'värre' to describe something inherently bad, and 'sämre' if the object you're describing is neutral. It sounds impossibly fussy, but after time it becomes second nature.

Prepositions? No problem

Prepositions are the little words like 'on', 'in', and 'from' or '', 'i', and 'från' in Swedish, and while they're usually small words, they can cause big problems since their usage varies from language to language.

For example, if you're asked where your colleague is, a native English speaker might say 'hon är i toaletten' (she is in the toilet) directly translating the usual English phrase. But that will get you some strange looks, since in Swedish it implies she's literally inside the toilet bowl, and the correct phrase is 'på toaletten'. Another preposition problem is the difference between 'i en timme', 'om en timme', and 'på en timme', so if you know when to use each of those, give yourself a pat on the back (that one's got a direct translation: 'en klapp på axeln').

You don't know how you survived without Sweden's ultra-specific vocabulary

Linguists generally think that the language you speak doesn't have an impact on your values, but if you're learning Swedish through living in the country and chatting with locals, your cultural perceptions are bound to change. How did you go so long without a specific word for an unsightly pile of groceries on a supermarket conveyor belt (that's 'varuberg'), not to mention the classics 'fika' and 'lagom'?

And when it snows, you've got no shortage of words to describe the scene outside, whether you're dealing with 'slask', 'pudersnö', 'kramsnö', 'snömos', or the explosive-sounding 'snökanon'. A promising sign that your Swedish skills are soaring is when you start using these words in your native language too, because they just sum up what you want to say so precisely.

That feeling when you know the exact word to describe the type of snow on the ground. Photo: Helena Wahlman/imagebank.sweden.se

It’s infiltrated your English

The flipside to the above is that you might find your Swedish instincts taking over a little too much. This might be due to false friends (saying 'under the year' instead of 'during') or translating things too directly (saying food has 'gone out', based on the Swedish verb 'gå ut', instead of 'expired' or 'gone off'). It's the downside of language-learning no-one ever warns you about; the more expertise you gain in one, the more your others deteriorate.

Swearing and oj-ing in Swedish

When you've just stubbed your toe or fallen off your bike, practising Swedish is the last thing on your mind. The words you use in times when emotions are running high are instinctive, so if 'fan' or 'oj!' come out before the equivalent terms in your first language, the chances are good that you're close to mastering Swedish.

Filler words

Along similar lines, the words you use when you're thinking of what to say next are also a giveaway of your language skills. Once you've swapped your 'erm' and 'like' for 'ah' and 'liksom', you'll be sounding Swedish even when you're getting tongue-tied.

Photo: Emelie Asplund/imagebank.sweden.se

You’ve picked up the local lingo

There's the Swedish you learn in your textbook and then there's the Swedish you actually use. When you start picking up the local grammatical quirks and dialect words, you know you've made it.

In Skåne, that might mean saying 'påg' and 'tös' instead of 'pojke' and 'flicka', and if it's the birthday of the child in question, you might call them the 'födelsesdagsgris' (literally 'birthday pig', but we promise this is an affectionate term). In Stockholm, you might refer to the main train station (T-Centralen) as TC, the subway as 'tricken' or a taxi as 'en bulle'.

You no longer bat an eyelid when you reach the 'slutstation'

Some would argue this is a measure of maturity rather than language proficiency. The Swedish language has a lot of words that on first glance sound amusing or downright rude to English-speakers: 'fart', 'sex', 'kock', 'bra', and of course the aforementioned 'slutstation'. When you start to wonder why people are giggling at the words 'speed', 'six', 'chef', 'good', and 'final stop', you know that your Swedish is becoming instinctive.

You know when to use 'hans/hennes' and 'sin/sitt/sina'

When it comes to possessives, 'hans', 'hennes', and 'sin/sitt/sina' all mean 'his' or 'hers', but the first two refer to something belonging to the subject of the sentence, while 'sin/sitt/sina' introduce something belonging to the sentence's object.

If that sounds boring, just remember it can be an important difference in a sentence like 'Jonas och Henrik är vänner och Jonas älskar sin fru' ('Jonas and Henrik are friends, and Jonas loves his [own] wife' — good for Jonas) and 'Jonas och Henrik är vänner och Jonas älskar hans fru'. In the second example, Jonas is secretly in love with his good friend Henrik's wife. Oj oj oj oj.

Oh, Jonas. File photo: Wavebreakmedia/Depositphotos

You inhale your yeses

When you first started speaking Swedish, you may have wondered why people seemed so surprised at your most mundane statements. Swedes have a habit of breathing in to signal that they are listening to you (usually written as 'ah'), and the word 'ja' (yes) is also often said on an inhale. If you've noticed yourself or others doing this and want to learn more about why this phenomenon exists, The Local has investigated here.

Idioms

“There's no cow on the ice”. “If there's room in the heart, there's room for the bottom.” “He always shits in the blue cupboard.” “There's a dog buried here.” Those are the direct English translations of just a few of Sweden's curious idioms, and if you know the meaning behind them, you're doing well. And if not, well, you can find out here.

Was there a moment when you realized you'd cracked the Swedish language? Or are there any areas that still trip you up? Members of The Local can comment below.

 

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