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Cutting through the bull 'sheet' of swearing in Sweden

The Local · 18 Nov 2011, 14:32

Published: 18 Nov 2011 14:32 GMT+01:00

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Where I come from, it’s not appropriate for a six-year-old kid to swear.

Not only does it sound jarringly offensive, but it reeks of too little adult influence in a kid’s life. At least this is the assumption that I started with when I came to Sweden.

It’s possible that some approximation of the following sentence may have come out of my mouth in another life (a.k.a. before kids): “I can’t believe people let their kids swear. I can’t imagine just letting something like that go.”

But, to paraphrase my own favorite parenting mantra, everything I said I’d never do—I’ve done it. It’s a slight exaggeration, but not by much.

While there are definite weaknesses in my parenting style, I think I’ve been pretty successful holding the line on things that I feel are important.

And, until recently, I would have thought that swearing was one of them.

It was.

So why downgrade swearing off the things-important-enough-to-struggle-with-the-kids-about list?

I’m going to have to blame this one on the Swedes. Why? Let me give an example:

My son – whom we'll call Erik – and his non-English speaking friend “Magnus” are glued to the television set, playing their favourite driving game, Paradise Burnout.

Magnus is driving, and Erik is supposed to read the map and tell him where to go. This partnership is not going so well.

For starters, both their grasps of “right” and “left” are tenuous at best, and second, Erik isn’t strategic enough to give Magnus enough warning for turns.

“Sheet!” says Magnus. He missed the turn and crashed into a wall.

“Sheet!” echoes Erik.

My first instinct is to discipline Erik for swearing.

He knows he’s not supposed to swear. He knows that “sheet” is, in fact, a Swedish approximation of the word “shit,” which he knows he’s not allowed to say.

On the other hand, if it’s perfectly acceptable for Magnus to say this around adults (and it is—no one even reacts), why shouldn’t it be okay for Erik?

It appears to me part of this nonchalance about English curse words stems from Sweden's ongoing romance with the English language.

Everywhere you look in Sweden, there’s English.

“Sorry,” says a woman who bumps into me on the subway. In English. And I haven’t uttered a word to let her know that I am, in fact, and English speaker.

“Yes?” asks the cashier at the restaurant when I order.

In fact, I’ve heard American ex-pat friends complain about how hard it is for them to learn Swedish—everyone just switches over to English right away.

But, like anyone swept up into a budding romance, many Swedes have jumped right in with an astonishing lack of perspective, toying with the language in a way that, in retrospect, may feel a little rash and ridiculous.

Consider, for example, one of Sweden’s largest shoe store chain’s slogans: Styled by Shoes.

This odd mesh of words was plastered over signs, floor-to-ceiling posters and ads… but what does it mean? Some marketing team, tapping into a Swede’s love of English, created what sounded to them like a catchy slogan.

Or how about these signs hanging in the clothing store MQ: “Sale of MQ, 30-70%.” The store is for sale? 30-70 percent off the share price? That’s quite a deal!

Didn’t it occur to them to check with a native speaker? I mean, if I were considering printing millions of bags with my catchy Spanish slogan that I (a non-native) made up, I think I’d check to make sure it makes sense.

I can’t let it go. Every misuse, every swear word still makes me pause. Actually, I can’t help it—as an English teacher, it’s reflexive.

But back to Erik's swearing—can I really expect him to take up the same David vs. Goliath battle about hearing and using English from an American perspective?

Because it’s more than just teaching him to use English correctly. Am I, in fact, asking him to choose his cultural identity?

Story continues below…

I’ll state another obvious point: swear words are just words—it’s the people that connect meaning to them.

I know what mierda means in Spanish, for example, but hearing it out of my kid’s mouth wouldn’t cause the same internal reaction on my side.

In fact, it sounds funny and almost cute.

That must be what sheet sounds like it a Swedish parent.

And, because my son is growing up in Swedish society, that must be what it sounds like it him.

So our household has come to a compromise. When speaking English, the word shit is still off limits.

However, when speaking Swedish, Erik, like his friends, may freely use sheet.

Because, now that we’re in Sweden, I’ve decided it’s my cultural perception that has to adjust, not his.

Rebecca Ahlfeldt is an American ex-pat writer, translator and editor currently based in Stockholm.

The Local (news@thelocal.se)

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Your comments about this article

15:32 November 18, 2011 by calebian22
Cursing is lazy and shows a lack of imagination, no matter the culture. Just because your son's friends are trash mouths doesn't mean you should let your son swear like them. Sorry, but you dropped the parenting ball on this one.
16:12 November 18, 2011 by BrittInSweden
The game is Burnout Paradise from Criterion and published by EA, not Paradise Burnout.
16:57 November 18, 2011 by Rossminster
"Dropped the parenting ball?!" Oh, lighten up. (See what I did there?) I think her solution was pretty elegant, seeing as "sheet" is not considered swearing in Swedish. Crikey, even my late mother-in-law, who wouldn't even say "helvete" would say "sheet" without a blush!

And as for cursing showing a lack of imagination? Not always. Many, many educated speakers of British English swear like troopers: grossly, inventively, highly effectively and funnily. (As opposed to the uneducated ones who use f*** like it's punctuation!)
17:02 November 18, 2011 by Shibumi
I think that this is a good lesson in adapting one's language to one's audience. The most important element of communication is reception. This teaches your son to be an effective communicator... you can't use the same words with anyone and everyone and expect the same understanding/reaction each time.
17:21 November 18, 2011 by Coaxen
I have to agree with Rossmeister. Swearing is also a form of expression - a strong one, nevertheless. If a strong message needs to be conveyed then why the eff would be want to weaken it?

Besides, what is considered a swearword has always been changing. People pick non-swear words and assign a new meaning to them.

George Carlin has a great speech about the 7 words you can't say on television. Everybody should check it out.
18:08 November 18, 2011 by skogsbo
I was lost to the point of the article, an English teacher, should i be worried. She should know that the same language varies across nations that use it, i wear pants under my trousers, but they are an American's trousers, or how about the word fa n ny. Pi$$ is a minor swear word in the uk.. etc. Language and its use varies, that's how they grow and developed. When i spelled the two modified words, it got rejected as a profanity!
18:35 November 18, 2011 by Opinionfool
Euphemism is so much better than swearing unless you combine the two and then it get to be fun.

As to swearing as a linguistic concept there's an entire chapter on in Stephen Pinker's book "The Stuff of Thought" should be read by everyone who thinks that swearing is unacceptable.

The acceptability of certain phrases that were once considered swearing changes over time. What one generation were outraged over is used as common parlance by a younger one.
19:29 November 18, 2011 by California Kid
We had the same situation at our home. It is amazing what a time out from the video game can do for anger management. If swearing is not acceptable in your house then enforce it.
21:39 November 18, 2011 by skogsbo
I would be more concerned if my son/daughter didn't let the odd swear word slip, it's no good rearing angels, protecting them from the world, because they'll just get eaten alive later in life, if they remain little goody two shoes! Or they might have their teenage rebellion in their 20s or 30s, which can have much worse consequences.

It's about teaching them balance, moderation and appropriate useage, like when you hit your thumb with a hammer, or you crash dad's car!!
10:36 November 19, 2011 by calebian22
Of course she dropped the ball. She is against swearing in English, but it is okay in Swedish because swearing is no big deal here? Why have a house rule, if geographic location changes it? Cursing is cursing. As for non imaginitive, how is sheet a clever way for a child to express oneself? As I am not a prude, I have to agree with Opinionfool that if combined with euphamisms, swearing can be imaginitive, but really, how often does that happen? Generally, swearing is just lazy and doesn't add anything of value to any conversation.

My Swedish coworkers use jävla this and jävla that for everything. Even the owners talk like that. I just find it tiresome to listen too. Why would anyone want their 6 year old to express himself that way? It just sounds ignorant.
19:08 November 19, 2011 by Johno
This is pure journalism, note her profession. Write 850 words on living in Sweden. What can I come up with ? Ah, yes they grade their swear words differently. Sheet (sic) is downgraded to an everyday word. So its NOT cursing in Sweden. Gosh, isnt that awful ! Yawn. Words like skitig, skitprat, skitsnack are classed as vardagligt. ie everyday, common, some variants perhaps as coarse, but definitely not swearing. Get real. When in Rome.
21:44 November 19, 2011 by skogsbo
there is normally a clue for the rather poorly devised articles like these on the local, a rather big cheesy photo of the writer next to it.

Shouldn't be long for the next article, on swedish office xmas parties, swedish xmas day, lucia, new years eve swedish style.. I wouldn't mind if there was any substance to them, but most are ill-informed and poorly thought out desperate attempts, like a teen doing last minute homework!
06:24 November 20, 2011 by skumdum
The swedish word skit "sheet" comes from old norse and it's been used in Scandinavia for at least a thousand years.
14:08 November 20, 2011 by cogito
This is supposed to be an article?
19:39 November 20, 2011 by Opinionfool

Well use used an article so I guess the answer is yes.
00:11 November 21, 2011 by Galadima

Correct me if I'm wrong, but that is the line from the movie 'Splash' when Alan's brother tried to 'sweet-talk' the Swedish army guard from entering the lab holding Madison, lol. What better way than swearing, haha.
20:37 November 21, 2011 by flyingron
Galadima: You got it... It's all the Swedish I know.
00:45 November 22, 2011 by Galadima

Haha, awesome!
09:20 November 22, 2011 by karex

I believe that there's a reason why your mother-in-law would never say one word, and not bat an eyelid when saying another, and I don't think that it has anything to do with the language per se. It's the perception of offensive words that differs from one culture to the other. In English for instance, the worst offensive words are those connected to biological functions or private body parts. I was apalled when I first arrived in Sweden and discovered that the "F" word was used so freely around here - both in English and Swedish. However "Hell" is another matter. Doesn't seem so offensive to the English speaker but is considered much worse to the Swede. It seems that offense is worse when using words of a religious nature around here, not so much biological functions. Despite the fact that Sweden is now a secular country. Old cultural traditions die hard.
09:29 November 22, 2011 by hogar2010
This is the most boring piece of writing I've read today. Congratulations.
12:16 November 22, 2011 by Iraniboy
Integrate to the new society or leave! :D
10:22 November 23, 2011 by DAVID T
@hogar2010 - I totally agree what a piece of sheet - I fell asleep half way through
14:27 November 23, 2011 by London_Jim
It's pretty revolting hearing adults swear at children, to the British ear.
14:39 November 23, 2011 by Streja
Skit is not a swearword in Swedish.
18:11 November 23, 2011 by Greekfan
Swearing in a foreign language never feels quite real so you don't look on it as being so bad. As an English English speaker the seriousness of the "devil" type of swear words in Swedish seems very strange as to us they are very 19th century and rather comical.
20:36 November 26, 2011 by bloor west
My goodness, this forum is full of some seriously bitter people. How can an article like this cause such rude comments? As a "foreign" mother living in Sweden, I thought it was a fun read. I recognized myself and the many double standards I have that have come as a result of sharing two cultures.
03:03 November 29, 2011 by sine123

I agree here very much with you! As a non-English speaker, swearing in English is not as rude and offensive as my mother tongue. Sometimes, it's so reckless that people around me are puzzled.

What the author did here is a right thing. Then, at least, the child would be able to learn when to use swear words in what context in Swedish society. It is absolutely necessary.
07:08 December 1, 2011 by cleojake777
I beleive that it is legit for a society to implement certain restrictions on the public; If they wish to keep hands on the reins.

..Otherwise, some people ; especially those coming from societies that are going on a declining/ trashing path....to do the same to their societies.....I do not think that people should eat " SHEET"; because they see people doing so....foul language is aggressive and disrespectful behavior too...many european countries are on a declining destructive paths....Basically ! self-destructing themselves....over here a lot of people use foul leanguage and is a kind of common....kids doing that to their parents and nobody does anything about it....the society is falling apart....drugs, liquor,...too much depravation,,,inmorality....aggressive behavior....is just falling apart piece by piece......If you loose control....you may end up eating your SHEET.....
17:24 December 4, 2011 by Local Will
Oh, so if the entire population, including young children, of an English speaking country swear in say.... Spanish, then all is acceptable? Instead of swearing being vulgar and lazy, it miraculously transforms into something amusing and acceptable if it is expressed is something other than our native language? How do you explain this extraordinary behavior to Spanish visitors?

Rebecca Ahlfeldt may allow her little darling Erik to "sheet" his foul little mouth off, but even children understand that you cannot make a silk purse from a sow's ear. Just ask Erik...or wait a few years.

Others commenting would like to legitimize swearing because their aristocracy and royalty use profanity "imaginatively".

Thankfully, to me and many others around the world, a pig is a pig, is a pig and we do not care for profanity in any language, not matter how it is dressed up.
20:46 December 5, 2011 by bloor west
Ha ha ha ha ha ha. As I said: angry, bitter people here!!!
12:42 January 27, 2012 by mikewhite
When working in an 'international' company, and hear English (or rather, American influenced) swearwords in use by non-native English speakers, I ask them to kindly use the corresponding word in their own language.

Usually they reply, "but I could not possibly say that !" and I therefore rest my case.
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