“There’s a joke about the ‘northern vacuum cleaner’,” Linköping University’s Professor of Phonetics Robert Eklund tells The Local.
“If you want to clean up the dust beneath your sofa, just ask a northerner to pick up something from underneath it. When he’s down there, ask if he’s found it, and when he says yes, the dust will be gone.”
An exaggeration, perhaps, but there is an element of truth to it.
Northern Swedes have the unique ability to give their assent with a simple inhalation – a sharp sound of apparent shock, often mistaken by foreigners as a gasp of surprise. Perhaps not strong enough to suck up dust, but strong enough to shock a foreigner.
In fact, many a visitor to Sweden can remember the first time they came across the “northern vacuum”, a short, sharp noise pronounced like “shhh” but while breathing inwards. Let’s spell it “Shoop”.
For those perhaps sitting on the train right now, unwilling to try your hand at pronouncing the sound out loud, this 2009 advert for Norrlands Guld beer provides a light-hearted example. Here, Swedes in a pub have an entire conversation just using the “shoop” sound.
According to Eklund, the phenomenon is called “ingressive speech” or “phonation”.
“Ingressive speech is when people produce language – sounds, single words, or even entire phrases – while breathing in,” he explains.
For Swedes, “shoop” is reserved exclusively for “yes”, and Eklund estimates that Swedes make the sound once for every ten yesses they say.
Eklund has collected data on the phenomena from around the world, concluding that the sound is not so unique, and is even found among donkeys and purring cheetahs.
In the human race, ingressive speech is often cited by proud Swedes as unique to Sweden, especially to northern Sweden, but Eklund’s research suggests otherwise.
“In Norway they say it only happens in Norway,” Eklund laughs.
In fact, ingressive speech takes place in every continent, in as many as fifty languages. In Canada and the US, some people even use it in the same way as the Swedes.
“But in the Philippines and Greece boys used it when flirting with girls to disguise it from their fathers,” says Eklund.
So, why do humans, donkeys, and cheetahs all use ingressive speech and phonation?
“There is no explanation,” Eklund confesses.
“It’s easier to answer why we don’t do it more. Your lips can get dried out faster, so it’s more effective to make sounds while breathing outwardly.”
So is the northern vacuum cleaner unique to Sweden? Probably not.
But will the Swedes keep on using it as their own any old how?
You know the answer.