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World says ‘yes’ to bonkers Swedish sound

The Local's video about the strange way northern Swedes say 'yes' is our most successful yet, clocking up 1.3 million hits by Saturday morning. Our Editor Maddy Savage looks at why the language quirk has gone viral and speaks to people in the region about their new global fame.

World says 'yes' to bonkers Swedish sound
The Local's Oliver Gee takes language lessons in Umeå. Photo: The Local
Shooting the video in temperatures of -5C after a long night at the festival put on by Umeå to celebrate the end of its year as a European Capital of Culture, I'll be honest, former Deputy Editor Oliver Gee (who's now based at The Local France) and I had no idea our report would be such an international success.
 
We knew those of you who are regular readers of The Local would love it, just as you've snapped up our stories about other Swedish quirks, from having to hug your boss to not sharing alcohol at parties. And don't get Oliver started on the word Göteborg.
 
But we couldn't have predicted that in just seven days our film – made on a smartphone – would have got almost 900,000 hits, been all over newspapers and social media in Sweden after an initial report by SVT and featured in international media ranging from the UK's Daily Mirror to Australia's News.au and Fox News in the US.
 
"The way people in one town in Sweden say 'Yes' is absolutely bonkers," wrote Irish news site entertainment.ie on Thursday, while backpacker site Travelpulse said "those folks might as well be saying 'sure, that will be just fine' in Klingon."
 
If you still haven't seen the video (and why not?), rather than saying 'ja' like most Swedes do, people living in northern Sweden make a noise that is a kind of gasp that could suggest the person listening to you is either impressed, shocked or a bit chilly.
 
 
A quick trawl through the comments section below the video on YouTube suggests that above all, the video is popular because it made people laugh.
 
"This is hilarious to me! I brought my American boyfriend to the north of Sweden where I'm from and he thought my Dad had a breathing problem when he said yes this way," said one post.
 
While Swede Olag Johansson quipped that the title of video was misleading, dubbing it instead "the most awesome sound".
 
On Reddit, a site which collates viral stories, another commentator joked that in northern Sweden, having (good) sex with someone might sound like "an asthma attack." 
 

A snapshot of our coverage on Google News. Photo: The Local
 
Speaking to The Local on Friday, the mayor of Umeå Marie-Louise Rönnmark said:  "Umeå always surprises! Umeå is a fantastic place where humour creates a certain kind of confidence. People are welcome here!".
 
Another contact at the tourist office, who did not want to be named, joked that she could envisage thousands showing up in the city and asking locals to make the sound.
 
Frederick Lindengren, Artistic Director of Umeå 2014, said: "'Schwup' is the answer to many big questions," adding that it could even help "boost international diplomacy." No we're not sure what he means either. We told you those people in northern Sweden were rather unusual.
 
Some of The Local's news team in Umeå: Editor Maddy Savage (left), intern Mimmi Nilsson and reporter Oliver Gee. Photo: The Local
 
Here at The Local we're especially proud that we shot the video on a smartphone, proving that our small but rapidly growing news brand doesn't need expensive equipment or camera crews to make the kind of content that our unique international audience enjoys watching.
 
"It's great that Oliver's video has made people around the world so curious about the wonderful Swedish language," said our Managing Editor James Savage on Friday.
 
"The Local is all about bridging different cultures, and what better way to connect with people than learning to say 'Yes'? Our nine European sites will be doing many more videos like this in the months to come."
 

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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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