Do languages bring us together… or just make us feel plain silly?

English teacher David Ashby has learned Swedish, but often gets mistaken for a Norwegian. But, hey, at least they're both Scandinavian, right?

Do languages bring us together... or just make us feel plain silly?
Language is a sometimes strange phenomenon. Photo: PromesaStudio/Depositphotos

The other week I held a breakfast seminar at a large Swedish company talking about the common mistakes that Swedish speakers make when using English. During the event I mentioned that when I tried to speak Swedish it wasn’t uncommon for the person I was speaking with to ask if I was Norwegian. Which to me, is a win. At least I sound Scandinavian, which is something. 

To be fair though, people not knowing where I come from, even when I’m speaking English to another native English speaker, is not a new phenomenon. Many years ago I was in the United States of America and somebody in a shopping centre asked if I was from the same place that Crocodile Dundee came from. 

“Australia?” I asked.

“Yeah, Austrian,” he replied.

“No, actually I’m from the UK.”

“Well, you speak pretty good English anyway.”

READ ALSO: Learning Swedish? Read The Swedish Teacher's blog

It doesn't really matter which language, it's all confusing. Photo: Staffan Löwstedt/SvD/TT

So, Norwegian, Australian, whatever, I’m used to confusing people. And language gives plenty of opportunities for confusion to erupt. That same trip to America we hired a car, and we had a minor problem, in that I needed to top-up the screen wash, but for the life of me I could not find the release lever under the steering wheel. I noticed a little note on the windscreen that said “Any problems, call this number”, so I called the number and the conversation went like this:

“Hi, I have one of your cars, a Caprice Classic, and I’m afraid that I can’t find the release lever for the bonnet.”

Slight pause.

“Excuse me?”

“Uh, I have a Caprice Classic and I wonder if you could tell me where the release lever for the bonnet is.”

Slightly longer pause.

“The what for the what now?”

My turn to pause.

“I, uh, need to fill the screen wash, but I can’t open the bonnet. I’ve been looking everywhere under the steering wheel but…”

“Hood,” he interrupted, “You mean the hood.”

My many hours of watching American TV cop shoes came back to me and I remembered that in the US it wasn’t “bonnet” that Starsky (or was it Hutch?) slid over, but “hood”.

“Yes, sorry, I suppose I do, the hood. I need to find the lever to open the hood to add some screen wash.”

“You mean lever,” he replied, pronouncing it “lev-er” as opposed to my “leee-ver”.

“Sorry, yes, lver,” I said, dropping the “e” entirely (British people are used to apologising profusely and accepting their obvious errors), “for the screen wash.”

“Wiper fluid.”

“Um, yes, sorry. I mean wiper fluid.”

“You want to know how to flip the hood to fill the windshield wiper fluid.”

“Well, just open it really, I don’t need to flip it.”

“Excuse me?”

“No, sorry, yes, you’re right, that’s exactly what I want to do. Flip the hood and add fluid.”

“That’s pretty basic. This number is usually for accidents and breakdowns.”

“Sorry,” (my fifth one in about a minute) “but, as I’m on the phone could you tell me…”

Long sigh.

“Sure, there’s a foot catch down on your left hand side, right up at the back of the footwell. Hit that.”

“Great, I see it. Thank you.”

“Say, you from Europe?”

“Ah, yes, yes, I am.”

“Well, you have a great day anyway.”

And that was that. So, anyway, I had been talking to my audience the other week about how often I was confused for a Norwegian in Sweden, and it happened again yesterday, just to underline the fact. I needed a haircut – not that’s it’s actually getting too long, it’s just that as I get older, it seems to just want to do its own thing more and certain parts tuft up for no reason, and the white hairs in my sideburns explode in a shower of silver tentacles, much longer than the other hairs, and try and envelop my ears in a white web of weirdness – so after shopping I popped into a hairdressers I had never been to before and said:

“Hej, är det en möjlighet att få en klippning nu?” which I hoped meant ”Hi, is there a chance of getting my hair cut straight away?” The gentleman nodded and waved me to sit down. I tried to tell him what I wanted, basically to not look like a frizzy old codger, when he asked me:

“Du kommer från Norge, ja?” (you come from Norway, don’t you?)

Quietly pleased, I shook my head and said:

“Nej, jag kommer från Storbritannien.” (no, I come from Great Britain)


Now, this last bit was a bit confusing to me, as “och” in Swedish means “and”, so I wasn’t sure if he was being a little bit fresh with me, as in, “Oh, so what? You come from Great Britain and you think you’re so high and mighty with your afternoon tea and your country pubs and your premiership football” or if he wanted more information. Wanting to always think the best of people, especially people who are about to have sharp and pointy objects near my face, I assumed he wanted to know more.

“Från Brighton,” I said. (you can work that out).


Now I thought he was being fresh. What more information did he want? Street or just general neighbourhood? While I was pausing thinking of a suitable reply he quite happily started to cut my hair, and by his general demeanour I could tell that he wasn’t really hanging on an answer from me. Then I worked it out. When he had said “och”, there had been a very slight nod of the head, which at first I took to be part of the question, tipping the head towards me saying,”your turn to speak, limey”, but actually he had just been nodding affirmation. He actually meant: “OK”, but had been pronouncing it exactly as it looked – “Och”, rather than “Okay”. Perhaps as I had told him I was from Britain he had switched to English and was now speaking English, although not very well.

READ ALSO: Read more columns about the Swedish language here

File photo of a barber. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

I looked at this man with sharp scissors snipping near my rather large and fragile ears. Was he quite well, I asked myself. Isn’t “okay” one of the world’s most recognised phrases that everyone, even people living on leaves half-way up the Amazon understand? Did he really not know how to pronounce “okay” or was he just being ultra-trendy and cool? Was “och” the way you said it these days when you fidgeted your spinner and dibbed your dab? Was I really so far out of the loop that I had missed a striking change in the language? I have a nine-year-old, so I thought I was with it. Or was this man just amazingly dim.

I sat in silence as he cut my hair and considered. Luckily, he wasn’t much more of a talker. I was reminded of a quote that has been attributed to Winston Churchill: during the war a barber came to cut Mr Churchill’s hair. “How would you like your hair cut sir?” asked the barber, “In silence” replied the Prime Minister. Well, quite. Still, I thought, if he wants to say “OK” as “och” then why shouldn’t he? Why shouldn’t language be fluid and adaptable? I looked at my hairdresser more deeply. Top knot, finely shaved beard, waxed moustache, silver streaks in his hair, one arm a swirling gallery of tattoos, no socks. This was one very cool 45-year-old. If he wanted to say “och” rather than “okay” then it was fine with me. Besides, he was nice enough to think I was Norwegian. Unfortunately, when he finished my hair I still looked like a frizzy old codger, but I guess the science of haircuttery (I just made that word up) can only do so much with what it is given. Actually, it was even more confusing when he put the scissors down with a flourish as he said “Finished Monsieur.” French too? What a fizzy sparkle of languages for one visit to the hairdresser.

It is so interesting how language acts as a tool to bring us together, but also has so many pitfalls that can confuse and embarrass us and make us feel silly and Norwegian. Or Australian. The biggest danger I think is assuming that the other person knows what we're talking about, or that we assume we understand them.  Often we don't, not really.

Anyway, let me know if you would like me to come and give my “common mistakes that Swedish people make” seminar at your company. It’s not bad. (English for “actually very good”).

David Ashby, from Brighton, moved to Gothenburg in 2002. He is a certified English as a Foreign Language teacher who today teaches business English in Stockholm. Read more about him here.


Ten essential Sámi words that you might not have heard before

There are about ten Sámi languages alive today, spoken across the northern parts of Scandinavia and eastern Russia. But they are among the many Indigenous languages around the world that are at risk of disappearing. 

Ten essential Sámi words that you might not have heard before

You might have heard that there are over 200 words for snow in Sámi languages, which is unsurprising, given the climate of the Sámi homeland in Northern Europe. But there’s a lot more to the languages than snow. 

The Swedish Sámi parliament website says that “language is the bearer of cultural heritage and reflects our people’s common view of life and values. Language transfers knowledge about nature and the world.”

But Sámi language fluency has been declining rapidly for decades. Pite Sámi is critically endangered, with fewer than 50 living speakers, all in Sweden. Today, Northern Sámi is the most widely spoken. 

Due to assimilation policies in all the countries the Sámi found themselves in, older generations of Sámi people were not allowed to speak their own language in school, meaning some languages have already been lost. 

The Local spoke to speakers and researchers of the languages to find out some of the most unique and beautiful words still in use.

1. Sápmi  

Sápmi is the Northern Sámi word for the traditional dwelling place of the Sámi people, which encompasses the northern parts of Scandinavia and the Kola peninsula of Russia. Since the 20th century, national borders and state policies have divided Sápmi and the people who call it home. 

Location of Sápmi in Europe

A map of where Sápmi in northern Europe. Map: Wikipedia

Elle Rávdná Näkkäläjärvi is part of the Sámiskeveivisere, Sámi Pathfinders, a group of young Sámi people who visit high schools and teach students about Sámi culture. She says Sápmi itself is one of her favourite words. 

“The word means a Sápmi without borders, it means relatives, sisters and brothers, and community,” she says. 

2. Eadni 

Eadni means ‘mother’ in Northern Sámi.

“It’s one of the first words that children learn,” says Berit Anne Bals Baal, a lecturer of linguistics at the National Centre for Sámi Language in Education at the Sámi University College, who chose it as her favourite word.

It has a complex phonology (sound system), and is similar to the Northern Sámi word for Earth, which is eanan

3. Guohtun  

Guohtun is a Northern Sámi word that describes the ideal conditions for reindeer to find lichen to graze under a covering of snow. But it’s more complicated than that. It’s one of those words that resists simple translation.

Lars Miguel Utsi, the Vice President of the Sámi parliament of Sweden, says, “Guohtun is a very complex word. It encompasses geography, plants, lichens, snow, and reindeer. It exemplifies the language and its connection to land and water.”

“It’s a very soothing word because it means that there is food and the reindeer can reach it,” he said. 

4. Giitu  

Giitu means ‘thank you’ in Northern Sámi.

Anyone who knows some Finnish might notice that it sounds quite similar to the Finnish word for ‘thank you’, kiitos. That’s because Sámi languages have more in common with Finnish than with Swedish, Danish or Norwegian, coming from the same language family: Finno-Uralic. 

You can respond to giitu with leage buorre which means ‘you’re welcome.’

5. Čáiddas 

This means snowball. We couldn’t have a list of Sámi words without having something specific to snow, could we? 

6. Vuovdi 

This means forest in Northern Sámi. Vast swathes of Sápmi is covered in forest. Sámi reindeer herders rely on old-growth forests to let their reindeer graze; they eat the kind of lichen that only grows in older forests. 

7. Boazu

Reindeer husbandry is a vital part of Sámi life. Photo: Image Bank Sweden

In all Sámi languages, there are two different words for reindeer. In Northern Sámi there is goddi and boazu.

Boazu means a reindeer who has been tamed and can be milked. Goddi is the word for wilder reindeer.  

Reindeer herding is an important aspect of Sámi culture and a vital source of income for many Sámi people. The Sámi parliament estimates that about 2,500 people are dependent on income from reindeer husbandry. 

8. Bures

An easy one! This is how you say “hello” to another person in Northern Sámi. 

9. Goahte  

Goahte is a type of hut in Lule Sámi. It’s a traditional Sámi home that can be built in several different ways, depending on what material is available, like with wooden panels or a construction of wooden poles covered with peat or cloth.

10. Sámediggi 

This is the Northern Sámi word for the Sámi Parliament. There’s a Sámi parliament in each country that divides Sápmi.

In the Scandinavian countries, it’s essentially a government agency with the aim of representing the Sámi people and increasing opportunities to participate in public debate.