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SWEDISH LANGUAGE

‘Thai prince said he loved me in Swedish’

YouTube sensation Martin Arvebro has turned the world on to the Swedish language with his funny videos. He tells The Local about his new-found fame, 'Jantelagen', and the north-south divide.

'Thai prince said he loved me in Swedish'
Martin Arvebro strikes a pose for one of his online videos. This one is about fruit by the way. Photo: YouTube

The 35-year-old made rocketed to online stardom in March 2012.

With a little inspiration from, ahem, The Local, his first video on the 10 Swedish words you won't find in English went viral, clocking almost 500,000 views. 

Two years later, he's a bona fide social media star with a plum job as a radio reporter for Sveriges Radio.

"The first video just exploded and I got so much interest from around the world. In a way I was surprised, as Swedish is a minority language, but it seems like a lot of people want to learn and know more about it," Arvebro told The Local.

Determined not to be a one-hit wonder, he has maintained a prolific output, racking up over 50 videos since his debut covering all sorts of themes such as Eurovision and even Swedish swear words.

Arvebro's style is irreverent, and he has no problem having a laugh at himself. As a student in Australia he struck up a rapport with a Thai prince who was also studying there – and enjoyed a bizarre conversation with the royal in his native tongue.

"The prince leaned over and whispered into my ear, 'Jag älskar dig,' (I love you) and we had a chat in Swedish. Turned out the prince had lived in Sweden for a bit. His handlers looked stunned about the whole thing,"

The Skåne native has generated plenty of fans from around the world, but just like any success story, there are pros and cons.

"A lot of the time I am recognised. One day I was walking down the street and a guy singing in the choir shouted out my name and said he knew my face.

"I get people saying they want to Skype with me to learn Swedish, but I don't have the time for that. A few days after my wedding I got a death threat, but I didn't take it that seriously," he said.

Prior to his YouTube glory he worked as a producer in his own company. He told The Local that he has been making videos since 1998 and was an early advocate of VHS blogging.

The Swede also worked as a teacher in a video production, and his very original take on learning the Swedish language has drawn praise from abroad.

"I've had language teaching experts in the Baltic countries getting in contact saying they really like my approach as I am making learning fun. You are picking things up without even noticing it. For me it is about keeping it entertaining," he said.

He quipped that he hasn't received a call yet from the powers that be at SFI (Swedish for Immigrants), which organizes free lessons for foreigners who wish to learn more than just Abba and fika.

"I got a criticism for my accent as I come from the south. People say I don't speak proper Swedish, but I always maintain that my dialect is closer to most of the languages in Europe so there!" he laughed.

Arvebro added; "In Sweden we have Jantelagen so a lot of people don't like it when you speak up. My videos are certainly an example of speaking out that's for sure."

With a steady stream of followers the 35-year-old said he intends to reach his target of making 100 videos and continue to keep it fresh.

"Right now I am approaching number 60, so I just want to keep being creative and doing things are topical which people want to watch," he said.

As for the best thing about his notoriety?

"If I want to go around the world and travel then I never need a hotel room. I've made lots of friends and contacts as a result of the videos."
 

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SWEDISH LANGUAGE

What irritates Swedes the most about the Swedish language?

A new study shows that more than one in five Swedes is irritated by the pronoun "hen", and the same number can't stand it when compound words are split up. Here's a rundown of the main offenders.

What irritates Swedes the most about the Swedish language?

One in five Swedes dislike the gender-neutral pronoun hen

In the study, carried out by Novus on behalf of language magazine Språktidningen, 22 percent of Swedes said that the pronoun hen was the most irritating aspect of the Swedish language. 

The first reported use of the gender-neutral pronoun, to be used instead of han (he) or hon (she), was in the 1950s, when it was used by language professor Karl-Hampus Dahlstedt, but it didn’t appear in writing until linguist Rolf Dunås wrote a newspaper article in 1966 proposing the introduction of the new pronoun.

After that, use of the pronoun was mostly limited to those within the LGBT community until 2012, when a children’s book sparked debate and media attention thanks to the exclusive use of hen to refer to its characters.

In 2015, hen entered the Swedish dictionary, a move which made it more difficult for critics to argue that it wasn’t an established or accepted alternative to han or hon.

As Språktidningen’s editor-in-chief Anders Svensson points out in this article, the pronoun hen has had an ideological and political dimension since debate took off in 2012, and this is still clearly visible today.

Although 22 percent of the survey’s respondents listed hen as the most irritating aspect of the Swedish language, this number rose to a whopping 50 percent amongst respondents who identified with the Sweden Democrats.

On the other side of the political spectrum, those sympathising with the Left Party, the Greens, the Liberals or the Centre Party were least likely to find hen irritating, with a mere 5 to 7 percent of these groups putting it in first place.

Torbjörn Sjöström, CEO of polling company Novus, told Språktidningen that these results didn’t surprise him.

“The fact that hen is irritating for Sweden Democrat sympathisers more than others is not surprising. People join that party because they want things to be like they were in the past. A new word which is gender-neutral symbolises a lot of the developments these people are against,” he explained.

One in five against särskrivning

The same amount, 22 percent, stated that särskrivningar – writing compound words incorrectly as two separate words – annoyed them the most.

This may sound like a minor error, but särskrivningar (literally: “separate writing”) can lead to major misunderstandings. Just look at these amusing examples of särskrivning gone wrong:

En rödhårig kvinna: “a red-haired woman”

En röd hårig kvinna: a red, hairy woman

Kassapersonalen: “checkout workers”

Kassa personalen: “useless employees”

Barnunderkläder: “children’s underwear”

Barn under kläder: “child under clothes”

In contrast to debates over the use of the word hen, debates over särskrivning have raged since the 1800s, where they were often considered to be major mistakes if featured in a text. One reason for this, Svensson notes, is that order in itself was seen as beautiful at this time.

Maria Bylin, language advisor at the Swedish Language Council (Språkrådet), told Språktidningen that she recognises this argument in modern debate on särskrivningar.

“You associate developments in the language with the country and with society,” she explained. “So whatever changes you can see in the language, you think it will happen in society, too.”

One popular scapegoat for this increase in särskrivning is the influence of English on the Swedish language. In English, we have fewer compound words than in Swedish, although they do still exist: a few examples are postbox, doorknob and blackberry. It is, however, harder to form compounds than in Swedish.

To return to the examples above, it would look strange to write “redhairedgirl”, “checkoutworker” or “childrensunderwear” as compounds in English.

So, is the rise of English to blame for mistakes in Swedish? Not according to linguist Katharina Hallencreutz, who noted when studying high school students’ English essays that they had no issues writing English compound loan words such as makeup or popcorn. 

This also wouldn’t explain the large amount of särskrivningar seen in historical texts in Sweden: they feature heavily in laws dating back to the 1200s, as well as Gustav Vasa’s Swedish bible translation, which was published in 1541.

One surprising result of the survey was the fact that young people were more likely than older people to find särskrivningar irritating:

“That surprised me a bit,” Svensson told public broadcaster SVT. “Often you hear the argument that older people think young people write carelessly and särskriver too much.”

Svensson wasn’t sure why this was, but did have a theory: “I suppose those who have recently finished school – most of them have learnt when words should be written as one word, and when they should be separate,” he told SVT.

English loanwords

The influence of English on the Swedish language was a major bugbear for a number of respondents, though. As many as 15 percent of those in Novus’ survey answered that “unnecessary English loanwords” were the most irritating thing about modern Swedish.

English loanwords were most irritating amongst Swedes over 65, where 29 percent stated they were the number one source of irritation, a number which was much lower in other age groups.

Lena Lind Palicki, a Swedish lecturer at Stockholm University, said that this could be to do with comprehensibility. She noted that irritation over English loanwords was especially high amongst older respondents who had left school at 16.

“We can assume that these people have a lower level of English, and then it’s a democratic problem, if English loanwords are used which can be difficult for many people to understand,” she told Språktidningen.

Palicki can’t imagine that English will remain as large a source of annoyance in the future as it is now, though.

“The irritation over English loanwords may have gone out of date in twenty years. Today’s youth will not start to be irritated by the same things as today’s elderly, but they’ll probably start making a symbolic issue of things they struggle with in school today,” she told the magazine.

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