Cutting through the bull ‘sheet’ of swearing in Sweden

While learning Swedish is a common hurdle for immigrants of all stripes, US-native and parent Rebecca Ahlfeldt reflects on how differing definitions of foul language can pose a special challenge for the ex-pat parents of small children.

Cutting through the bull 'sheet' of swearing in Sweden

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?

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.

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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.