Why are Swedes so obsessed with numbers?

After an "unusually precise" statement from a Swede at a Stockholm lake, The Local's Oliver Gee wonders why Swedish people seem to be so fascinated by using numbers instead of words. And he even puts Stockholmers to the test on camera.

Why are Swedes so obsessed with numbers?

I was about to go for a swim in a Stockholm lake when I passed a middle-age couple getting out of the water.

“Is the water cold?” I asked them.

“Twenty-two,” the man responded.

Twenty-two? Twenty-two?! That's a number, not an answer. And how was he so precise, anyway? How did he know it wasn't 23 or 21? There was no thermometer in the water, I made sure to check later.

So why did he decide to refer to the water temperature in degrees Celsius? In my experience, “Is the water cold?” has always been a yes/no question with the option of a little elaboration if the mood permits.

Could it be an homage to Anders Celsius, the founder of the measurement, and one of Sweden's favourite sons?

But referring to water temperatures is just the tip of the iceberg. Allow me to provide a few more examples of Swedes and their fixation with numbers before we try and figure out why they do it.

Swedes describe houses in numbers, in square metres to be precise. It would be nothing strange to hear a Swede say “I got a new apartment, a 56 on Södermalm” (except for the fact that finding any accommodation in Stockholm is a small miracle in itself).

Swedish people often are extremely precise when giving directions, too. I've lost count (!) of the times I've heard an insanely detailed figure from a helpful Swede. “Turn left in 1,300 metres” or “I saw you yesterday, you were 1.5 metres in front of me”. Both of these I've heard recently.

And let’s not forget the Holy Grail of numbers in Sweden – the personal number (personnummer) – which gives Swedes and foreigners alike a unique identity. This ten digit number is the password to a smooth life in Sweden. I don't think I'll ever forget when I'd first arrived here and my girlfriend checked into the dentist by typing her magic number into a machine, and her name was mysteriously called ten minutes later.

But these aren't the most amazing of the mathematical mannerisms. My favourite Swedish habit is how they use week numbers. Yes, in Sweden, they actually refer to the weeks using digits. And regularly. I recently walked into a restaurant and asked if it was too late in the day for brunch and was confused by the answer.

“Brunch is off the menu until week 33,” the waitress responded.

Week 33? I didn't even know at the time what week we were in, let alone when I could expect my brunch. Swedes specifically use week numbers for planning (“I'm heading to Spain in week 34”) but are always aware of the week number they’re in.

In an attempt to prove this, on Friday (or – if you're a Swede – in week 32), I tested Stockholmers to see if they could tell me what week number we were in. See for yourself (below).

So now that we know how they love their numbers, let's think about why. This is the real question, and I've got three theories, ordered numerically for any Swedes still reading.

1. Imagination

If you were to ask French author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, he might have said that the Swedes, like the grown-ups in The Little Prince, are using numbers due to a lack of imagination.

“Grown-ups love numbers,” he wrote. “If you tell grown-ups, 'I saw a beautiful red brick house, with geraniums at the windows and doves on the roof…,' they won’t be able to imagine such a house. You have to tell them, 'I saw a house worth a hundred francs.' Then they exclaim, 'What a pretty house!'”

A 56 on Södermalm probably sounds very attractive indeed.

2. The need to be correct

If you use a number rather than a description, you can be exactly right. If the water is 22C, the bather will know exactly what they're in for. You can't leap out of the water and say “But you said it was 22!”

3. Efficiency

Using numbers rules out confusion. There are more than 9 million unique personal numbers in Sweden. There are also over 250,000 people with the surname Andersson. Introducing yourself as Johan Andersson at the Tax Office would cause hysteria. Referring to people by number makes sense, right? You do the maths.

Personally, I think it's an efficiency thing. The Swedes may sound like robots sometimes, but they are an efficient bunch. And while it may cut short the odd conversation, when you get used to it, you'll always know what you're in for before diving in the water.

Oh, and for the record, a lake at 22 is not cold at all – it's quite refreshing. And I'm never going to refer to it by number.

Oliver Gee

Follow Oliver on Twitter here

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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/

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/

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/

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.


“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.