Why the #%!&# do Swedes swear in English so much?

Lee Roden
Lee Roden - [email protected]
Why the #%!&# do Swedes swear in English so much?

A bilingual storm is brewing in Sweden over the repeated use of the English "f word" during prime time Eurovision qualifiers, leading to complaints being filed with the country's broadcasting authority. But just why do Swedes swear so freely in English? An expert helped The Local pick the phenomenon apart.


The fuss first flared up in February, when repeated use of English swear words went out during Sweden's live broadcast of its family-friendly Eurovision qualifiers, leading to criticism from some viewers.

Presenter Clara Henry started the program by shouting "this is Melo-fucking-difestivalen", while the phrase was later repeated by her co-hosts. Complaints were subsequently left on SVT's customer service forum, and while the broadcaster apologized, it also defended the use of the term by saying it is a common expression among young people to show that something is "great".

The issue hasn't gone away though, as several angry viewers have now reported use of profanity on the show to Sweden's Press and Broadcasting Authority.

"In particular I want to complain about the use of the English word Fuck (…) That word is unacceptable in our family and my kids aren't allowed to say it," one of the complaints said according to Aftonbladet.

Swedes often swear quite freely in English in a way that may seem strange to native English speakers. That could simply be because they take pleasure in getting away with something that's forbidden elsewhere, according to Södertörn University's Kristy Beers Fägersten, who is currently researching the use of English swear words in Sweden.

"It's because they can, and I think they know it. They understand that in native English settings you can't do it, or if you do, it creates this storm. Swedes know they're allowed to use English swear words where English speakers can't in certain contexts. So I think there's a bit of pleasure in that, in getting away with it," she told The Local.

Swedes are known for their competence in English (they were recently ranked the world's third best non-native English speakers), and that has been helped by their consumption of English language cultural exports like films, music and TV. It's what happens when those exports are taken out of their original context that has likely sparked the English swearing phenomenon, according to Fägersten:

"There are TV shows that would only be shown at late night elsewhere, with a restrictive message, and those social cues go missing when they're indiscriminately imported. So you’ll have reruns of shows like Sex and the City on daytime TV, when anyone can turn it on and hear the language. And sometimes it doesn't even come out within the context of the programme that it's a special way of talking, or you may not be aware of the social cues. So the language hasn't been discussed in the way native speakers would."

As it happens, Sweden's TV3 aired a rerun of Sex and the City at lunchtime today (at the time of writing). We checked.

READ ALSO: 'Hey expats, let Swedes swear in English'

But if Swedes don't think of English swearwords with the same severity as native English speakers, then why have complaints been made about Melodifestivalen in the first place? And why did Aftonbladet TV, for example, choose to use the more cautious term "the f word" when reporting on it? Could a cultural shift be happening?

Perhaps, but an awareness of the need to preserve Sweden's international image could also be playing a part, Fägersten thinks:

"It's so interesting that there are even reports about this, that surprised me. I think the larger picture is that perhaps people understand that parts of this will end up in an international context."

With that point she is referring to Melodifestivalen competitor Lisa Ajax's entry "I Don’t Give A", which if chosen for the Eurovision finals will have to be altered to remove the ten mentions of "fuck" in its original lyrics, as profanity is not allowed at the competition proper.

"There is some kind of awareness and perhaps even censorship which could suggest Swedes are developing this sensitivity, but maybe it's an awareness of how they look to others. It's OK when it's done privately, but when you have to show this image to the outside world, there's a risk there might be a backlash," the language expert concluded.


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