‘Alter Schwede!’: the surprising role of old Swedes in the German language

Every language has common sayings which, when directly translated, seem to make absolutely no sense, and the German phrase "alter Schwede", meaning "old Swede" is a perfect example.

'Alter Schwede!': the surprising role of old Swedes in the German language
Photo: DPA

“Old Swede, you've gotten so tall,” seems like an odd thing to say to a twelve-year-old German boy, but to Germans, “alter Schwede, bist du groß geworden,” makes total sense.

“Alter Schwede” is used as a term of surprise in Germany.

According to Dr. Anatol Stefanowitsch, a linguistics professor at the Free University in Berlin, the phrase is not definitively used by one particular age group, but you are more likely to hear an adult than a teenager or child exclaiming “Alter Schwede!”

While it is a term of surprise though, it is by no means a swearword.

“The phrase has no negative connotations,” Dr. Stefanowitsch told The Local. “Words like 'wow' or 'gosh' would be the closest English equivalents.”

In fact before “alter Schwede” became an expression of shock, it was widely used in the 19th and early 20th century as a term of respect and endearment.

Dr Stefanowitsch gives an example of an account from the 1800s of a man arriving at a guest house only to be greeted by the words, “Hallo, alter Schwede”. The man replied, “I am neither old nor a Swede!”, but he was quickly reassured that it meant “my good friend” or “dear fellow”.

Nowadays, you wouldn't exactly go around calling your mates old Swedes, but traces of the friendly and respectful nature of the phrase still remain. This means that, while you could use it to express surprise at something going wrong, the phrase itself holds no negative connotations.

But why an old Swede? Why not an old Norwegian or an old Dane?

There is speculation that the phrase emerged around the time of the 30 Years' War from 1618 to 1648. While Dr Stefaniwitsch warns that there's little way of knowing if this theory is strictly true, it makes for an interesting story.

During the 30 Years' War, Electorate Friedrich Wilhelm of Brandenburg recruited experienced Swedish soldiers as instructors to the Prussian army.

These men were seasoned fighters and supposedly became well respected and liked by the German troops, earning the nickname 'alter Schwede'. After that it is speculated that the term trickled down into everyday civilian speech, evolving into a friendly and respectful way to address someone.

While this is a satisfyingly neat way for the phrase to have been born, it is also a possibility that the phrase emerged organically out of a fondness of the Swedish culture in Germany.

In other words, maybe Germans have just always really liked Sweden.

The two countries have a rich history of trade which has led to strong economic, political and cultural links between them. Even today Germany is Sweden's most significant trading partner, accounting for 17 percent of total Swedish imports and 10 percent of the Scandinavian county's total exports.

What's more, according to the German Foreign Office, until the Second World War, “Sweden looked to the German-speaking world culturally and linguistically,” meaning for a long time the most common second language in Sweden was actually German.

How “alter Schwede” developed from a way to address a friend to a term of surprise remains a mystery. But perhaps someday in response, the phrase “gamla tysk” (You old German) may catch on in Sweden.

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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.