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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Swedish word of the day: snäll

Today's word is one that can be tough to use in the correct context.

Swedish word of the day: snäll
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Snäll means ‘nice’ or ‘kind’, and you can use it to describe someone’s behaviour in general or at a specific moment. For example: din man är riktigt snäll (your husband is a really kind person), or det var jättesnällt av dig att hjälpa till (it was really nice of you to help out).

Snäll can also have a slightly different context. Speaking to small children, you might say something like ‘var en snäll flicka/pojke och hjälp din pappa‘ (be a good girl/boy and help your dad). 

And language learners should try to identify how to use snäll and snälla to mean ‘please’, and when not to use them.

At the start of the sentence, snälla has a pleading or emphatic tone. You’ll often hear it used by children to their parents, for example snälla mamma, kan jag få en hund? (please mum, can I have a dog?). And you would use it in contexts where there is an emphasis on ‘please’, rather than it just being added as a marker of politeness, for example if the stakes are high (snälla, låt mig vara – please, leave me alone!).

To understand the difference, it can help to compare some sentences. Snälla, jag kan inte prata just nu (please, I can’t talk right now) is emphatic, perhaps expressing frustration, compared to saying jag kan inte prata just nu, tack, which comes across as neutral. And if you said snälla, jag vill ha en kaffe (please, I want a coffee) it comes across as an extremely dramatic request begging for the drink, compared to the neutral jag vill ha en kaffe, tack (I’d like a coffee, please), which is what you’d say in a cafe.

Then there are phrases such as kan du vara snäll och sluta? (literally ‘can you be kind and stop?’) or ‘sluta är du snäll‘ (literally ‘stop [if] you are nice’). These aren’t really questions, but are polite ways of asking someone to do something: the equivalent of adding ‘would you?’ to a question in English (as in ‘do this, would you?’). In other words, the speaker is assuming that you are kind enough to do what they’re asking. Note: say var snäll och if you’re addressing one person only, and var snälla och if addressing more than one.

Most of the time, these are ways to soften a request and be politer than just issuing a demand. But watch out for the tone: adding är du snäll in an icy tone is a great way to be passive aggressive in Swedish.

You’ll also hear tack, snälla, which simply adds emphasis to tack (thank you), equivalent to ‘thanks very much’.

The word snäll comes from the Old Norse term snjallr (meaning ‘nice’, ‘skillful’ or ‘eloquent’) and you’ll find variants in the other Nordic languages, with slightly different nuances: Norwegian snill means ‘kind’ or ‘helpful’, Danish snild means something like ‘clever’, while Icelandic snjall is stronger and means ‘brilliant’.

One other context you may come across snäll in Swedish is in reference to trains.

The word snälltåg was used to refer to express trains until 1980, when the word resandetåg was created as the official term, but there’s still one long distance train operator called Snälltåget. These trains are probably perfectly nice, but that’s not what snäll means in this context. It’s actually a semi-translation of the German term Schnellzug (literally ‘fast train’), where schnell means ‘fast’ or ‘quick’.

But the two do actually share a lexical root, dating back even further than Old Norse. In very early Germanic languages, the term snellaz existed meaning ‘active/quick/bold’. Over the years, its meaning changed to refer solely to speed in some languages (like German and Dutch, and it used to have this meaning in Swedish too) and to focus on skill or character in others (like the Nordic languages, including slightly older Swedish). In today’s Swedish, the meaning has evolved so that there’s no connotation of skill, but simply of kindness, generosity or goodness.

Examples

Det var snällt av dig att dela med dig av ditt godis

It was nice of you to share your sweets

Snälla, säg någonting

Please, say something

Villa, Volvo, Vovve: The Local’s Word Guide to Swedish Life, written by The Local’s journalists, is now available to order. Head to lysforlag.com/vvv to read more about it. It is also possible to buy your copy from Amazon USAmazon UKBokus or Adlibris.
 
Originally published in February 2019, updated in June 2022.

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For members

LEARNING SWEDISH

The Swedish words you need to understand Sweden’s cost of living crisis

Households in Sweden, as elsewhere around the world, are feeling the economic squeeze right now as prices rise, but wages don’t. Here's a vocabulary list from Anneli Beronius Haake to help you understand the cost of living crisis.

The Swedish words you need to understand Sweden's cost of living crisis

The Local reached out to Anneli Beronius Haake (Swedish Made Easy), Swedish teacher and author of Teach Yourself Complete Swedish, to put together a list of words you might hear and read in the upcoming weeks as prices continue to soar.

(ett) elprisstöd – literally, electricity price support. The government may choose to provide support to both individuals and businesses, to help cope with high electric costs.

(ett) högkostnadsskydd – high cost protection. There have previously been discussions about high cost protections to cap electricity prices or agreements for the government to cover everything over a certain amount, but following the recent elections, the status of this proposal is unclear.

(en) amortering vs (en) ränta – if you own your own house or apartment, then you already know that these words refer to payments on your mortgage (noun: amortering, verb: att amortera) and payments against the interest on your mortgage. If you’re thinking about buying, keep an eye on these two – and on interest rates (ränta)!

(en) varmhyra vs (en) kallhyra – if you’re on the market for a new rental apartment, you might see these two words pop up. Varmhyra (literally: “warm rent”) means heating is included in the rental price. Kallhyra (literally, “cold rent”) means that the rental price does not include heating costs.

(en) uppvärmning – heating, or heating costs. If your heating costs are included in your rent, you don’t have to worry about this. Instead, you only need to keep an eye on:

(en) hushållsel – or household electricity. This covers the electricity you use for everything in your home, from charging your mobile phone to using your oven.

Energisnål – energy efficient. You might see this word stuck on a dishwasher or fridge if you’re shopping for new household appliances, signalling that it will help cut down on your electric costs. Similarly, you may see the word att snåla (to scrimp or save) used in the phrases att snåla med energi (to save on energy) or att snåla med pengar (to save money).

(en) energikris – an energy crisis. 

privatekonomi – personal finances. You may see this not only referring to individuals, but also to households, where it will be written as hushållens privatekonomi.

hushållskostnader – household costs, again, linked to hushållens privatekonomi, this usually refers to gemensamma kostnader (shared costs), such as water and electricity bills, insurance and internet, but can also cover other costs such as food, hygiene products such as toilet paper, and even mobile phone contracts.

(ett) energibolag, (en) elproducent – an energy company, an energy producer.

(en) elområde – an energy zone. Sweden is split into four energy zones, with the most expensive energy prices in the south of the country, covering the three largest cities: Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmö (zones 3 and 4), and the cheapest prices in the north (zones 1 and 2).

Att spara – to save. This can be in the sense of att spara pengar (to save money), or att spara på kostnader/el (to save on costs/electricity).

Att stiga/öka/höja – these three verbs all relate to increases, but with their own nuances.

Att stiga, or stiger in the present tense means ‘rises’, and can be used to describe rising petrol prices.

Att öka, or ökar in the present tense means ‘increases’, and can be used to describe how the price of groceries are increasing.

Finally, att höja, or höjer in the present tense means ‘raises’ – when you can point out that something or someone has raised the price of something, for example, when describing how banks are raising interest rates.

Att sjunka/minska – these two verbs both relate to decreases, again with their own nuances.

Att sjunka, or sjunker in the present tense (literally sinking) means fall/slump/drop, and can be used to refer to price falls.

Att minska, or minskar, on the other hand, is like ökar, because it is used when describing how something has decreased, like your electricity usage might decrease this winter in light of rising prices.

Similarly to sjunka, you may see the verb att sänka (to lower), in the sense of lowering the heating (att sänka värmen) or lowering household costs (att sänka hushållskostnader).

(en) utgift – an expense, plural utgifter – expenses.

(en) inkomst – income. A source of income would be (en) inkomstskälla.

(en) plånbok – literally, this means wallet. Figuratively, it also means your bank account and its contents. Headlines about money leaving your plånbok don’t mean money is vanishing from your wallet, but from your bank account. During the recent Swedish election, for example, politicians spoke about plånboksfrågor (literally “wallet issues”), issues affecting people’s income and spending power.

Att dra ner på utgifterna – to cut down on your expenses. This is related to the phrase att se över utgifterna: to take a look at your expenses, for example to see if there are any areas you can cut down.

Att dra åt svångremmen – to tighten one’s belt.

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