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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Eight essential Swenglish words the world should adopt right now

Swenglish is the term for English spoken with a heavy Swedish influence, and while it usually refers to Swedes speaking their second language, native English speakers who live in the country might also find that their language becomes Swedified over time.

Eight essential Swenglish words the world should adopt right now
Using occasional words from the local language can be a way of demonstrating integration and appreciation - and sometimes it's just simpler. Photo: Aline Lessner/imagebank.sweden.se

Whether you’ve mastered the Swedish language or can’t yet form a coherent sentence, there’s a high chance that you’ll pick up some Swedish words and even start using them in English conversations.

There are several reasons you might do this after moving to a new country. When it comes to concepts or things that are specifically Swedish, it might seem odd to translate them: for example, internationals might say personnummer rather than ‘personal number’ or Migrationsverket rather than the Swedish Migration Agency, even though these official English translations exist. 

For bilingual internationals, who are more used to hearing technical or political terms in Swedish, it’s easier to sub in Swedish terms like kommun (municipality) or talman (parliamentary speaker) than to remember the correct English term. This can help avoid confusion, particularly in the case of false friends. For example, Swedish högskola would literally be translated as ‘high school’ in English, but refers to tertiary education rather than secondary, so using the Swedish word usually makes more sense.

Sometimes, the Swedes have a handy term for a concept that in English would take several words to describe, so it’s just snappier to swap in the Swedish. Or it might be the case that the English term could be ambiguous, but Sweden has a specific word for the thing you want to refer to.

And for some internationals living in Sweden, using the language is an important way of showing respect for their adopted country and to signify that they are making an effort to integrate, even when speaking English. That could mean saying hej and tack in shops and restaurants, even the rest of the interaction has to be in English, or slipping in the occasional Swedish noun or adjective to show appreciation and understanding of the language and, by extension, the Swedish way of life.

So for a whole range of reasons, Swedish words are likely to start infiltrating your vocabulary, which will be understood perfectly by most fellow English speakers, but might result in blank faces if you use them with friends or family outside Sweden. Here are eight of the top culprits.

Vabbing

We’ll start with a word that’s particularly appropriate for this time of year: vab. Vab is only a relatively recent term in the Swedish language, and takes its name from the acronym for a benefit called vård av barn (care of child) which is paid out to working parents who need to take time off work to care for sick offspring. You might also talk about vabruari, the name given to February due to its reputation as the sickliest month of the year.


Many parents end up vabbing a lot in vabruari. Photo: Gorm Kallestad / SCANPIX NORGE / SCANPIX

You’ll hear vab and its variants used regularly among English speakers, perhaps because so many internationals in Sweden are drawn to the country due to family-friendly policies like vab. Even those without young children of their own will hear and use the words if they work or spend time with any parents. As a sign of just how completely vab has been incorporated into expat English, it’s usually used with English grammar structures, with vabbing used in the present tense instead of Swedish vabbar, and vabbed in the past tense instead of vabbat.

And let’s face it, ‘he’s vabbing’ is much simpler to say than ‘he’s off work to care for his sick child’. Swedish efficiency at work. 

Examples: 

Is Anna back at work today or is she still vabbing?

My child’s got flu so I need to vab today.

Afterwork

This is a peculiar one, because it’s a word that’s been loaned from English to Swedish, had its meaning twisted, and then transferred back into Swenglish.

In English, after-work exists as an adjective, and it’s either written as two separate words or hyphenated, since English speakers don’t use compound words quite as often as Swedes. So you can invite someone to go out for ‘after-work drinks’ or perhaps an ‘after-work gym session’ or you might talk in general about your ‘after-work plans’.

In Swedish, afterwork is a noun referring to meeting up for drinks after work, and almost always implies the option of alcohol. But if you mention it to friends outside Sweden, they may well respond with “an after-work what?”

Examples

I’m going to an afterwork on Friday

When are you free for an afterwork?

Dagens

Sticking to the theme of food and drink, dagens is a term that easily slips into English vocabulary. Dagens is a shortening of dagens lunch, a term that refers to the daily lunch deals available in many restaurants: usually a limited version of the à la carte or evening menu, with significantly cheaper prices and coffee or tea usually included.

Examples

Shall we go out to get a dagens?

The restaurant around the corner does a great dagens


Taking the children out for a dagens. Photo: Magnus Liam Karlsson/imagebank.sweden.se

Sambo

Sambo is a specific concept in Swedish society. Loosely equivalent English terms would be ‘partner’ (although this doesn’t necessarily imply living together and has no attached legal rights) or ‘common-law partner’ (a legal framework in some English-speaking areas which is similar to sambo, but not a term you’d ever use when introducing your partner to someone at a party).

Many English-speakers also like the sound of the word and the fact it lacks the ambiguity of ‘partner’, which can also refer to business partners, for example. And you’ll also hear people use the similar terms särbo (for a long-term partner whom you don’t live with) and even mambo (an adult living with their parents).

Jobbig

Jobbig is a great word, so it’s no surprise that English-speaking expats often use it. You can translate it as ‘tiresome’, or ‘too much effort’ and use it to describe a task or even a person, in which case han/hon är jobbig means something like ‘he/she is a lot of work’. It comes from the word jobb (job/work), and implies that this is a task or job you don’t want to do, because it’s too hard or too boring.

Examples

You have to work overtime again? How jobbigt!

My brother is visiting this weekend, and he can be a bit jobbig

Pant

Sweden has had a deposit scheme for cans and bottles for years, which means you can get a small portion of the original price back if you return it to be recycled. Pant is an old Swedish word which originally meant ‘to pawn’, for example when leaving a valuable item at a pawnshop as security in exchange for money. Now it is most often used to refer to the deposit fee added to recyclable bottles and cans.

Similar schemes exist in many other countries, but not all of them have national schemes, and it’s often easier to use the Swedish term, which also exists as a verb (panta) rather than saying “I’m going to return my bottles and cans to collect my deposit”.

Examples

Don’t forget to panta when you go to the supermarket

I got 100 kronor in pant today!

Mysig

Roughly equivalent to Danish hygge and more evocative than the English word ‘cosy’, mysig can describe an evening with friends, a favourite cafe, or a nice apartment. The good thing about mysig is that it’s always positive, whereas ‘cosy’ in some English contexts can be a veiled criticism: if used to describe an apartment or dinner party in a certain tone, the speaker might be implying that there’s not enough space. But mysig is all about enjoying the atmosphere, company, and activity or lack of one.  

Examples

I had some friends round for dinner last night, it was really mysigt

I like working at that cafe, it’s mysigt


Mysig can mean something a bit different to everyone. Photo: Tomas Utsi/imagebank.sweden.se

Fika

Finally, this list wouldn’t be complete without a mention of fika. Despite what Swedes will tell you, it is entirely translatable (ta en fika – going for a coffee (and cake)), but there’s no denying it’s a catchy term. In recent years it has even gained popularity among those who don’t live in Scandinavia thanks to a range of books and merchandise celebrating the phenomenon, as has the adjective/adverb lagom, meaning ‘just right’.

Examples

Can I call you back after fika?

I’m going out for fika on Saturday

Which Swedish words have you incorporated into your own English? Log in or sign up to comment below!

Member comments

  1. In Scottish dialect, our equivalent of an “afterwork” is a “straightfae” (straight fae work, or “straight from work” in English English). The difference is that a straightfae normally lasts for several hours.

  2. Krångligt just sounds so very, well, krångligt! We like to use that word to describe a multitude of things in our mainly English speaking household.

  3. Actually I found the word “sambo” quite jarring when I first got here. Growing up in 70s and 80s UK there was a lot of racism about and that derogatory term was used (among others). I’ve got used to its Swedish meaning now.

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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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