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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
You'll come across this word in different contexts. Image: nito103/Depositphotos

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 'do this [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

Do you have a favourite Swedish word you would like to nominate for our word of the day series? Get in touch by email or if you are a Member of The Local, log in to comment below.

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SWEDISH WORD OF THE DAY

Swedish word of the day: skärgård

You don't have to spend long in Sweden to hear the word skärgård, especially if you live in cities like Stockholm or Gothenburg where the population relocate to the nearby skärgård every summer. Where does the word come from?

Swedish word of the day: skärgård

Skärgård is, like many Swedish words, a compound word made up of the word skär, describing a small rocky outcrop and gård, which has a number of meanings such as “courtyard”, “farm” or “garden”.

Although skärgård is often translated to English as “archipelago” – a group of islands – the word officially refers to an archipelago made up primarily of small islands, close to the coast of a larger island or landmass, such as the rocky archipelagos near Stockholm and Gothenburg.

Other kinds of archipelago – such as those which are not close to other landmasses, or those made up of larger islands – can be referred to as an arkipelag or ögrupp. However, many Swedes will just use skärgård for any kind of archipelago.

Although the word skärgård doesn’t exist in English, a variant of skär has made its way into the language. The English term for this type of small rocky outcrop is “skerry”.

Skerry has an interesting etymology in English – it comes from the Old Norse term sker, which refers to a rock in the sea. This is related to the Swedish word skära, meaning “cut” – a skerry is a rock cut off from land.

Sker came into English via Scots, where it is spelled skerry or skerrie. Other languages also have this word, such as Norwegian skjær/skjer, Estonian skäär, Finnish kari and Russian шхеры (shkhery). It can also be found in Scottish Gaelic sgeir, Irish sceir and Welsh sgeri.

This also reflects the geographic area where skerries are found – there are skerries or skärgårdar along the northernmost part of the Swedish west coast near Bohuslän and Gothenburg, as well as on the east coast near Stockholm. The Norwegian coast also has a large number of skerries, and Skärgårdshavet or “the Archipelago Sea” lies off the southwestern coast of Finland.

In Russia, the Minina Skerries (Shkhery Minina) are one example of a skärgård, and in Scotland, Skerryvore and Dubh Artach in the Hebrides are also made up of skerries. Northern Ireland is home to The Skerries, off the Antrim coast, and Skerries is also the name of a coastal area of Dublin in the Republic of Ireland.

You may be wondering if the surname of the famous Swedish Skarsgård family of actors – Stellan, Gustaf, Bill, Valter and Alexander Skarsgård, among others – comes from the word skärgård. Although the spelling is similar, this name actually comes from the town of Skärlöv on the island of Öland, and means “Skar’s farm” (Skares gård, in Swedish).

Example sentences

Jag ser redan fram emot sommarsemestern – vi har hyrt en stuga ute i Stockholms skärgård.

I’m already looking forwards to summer – we’ve rented a cottage out in the Stockholm archipelago.

Sverige har många skärgårdar, fast Skärgårdshavet vid Finlands västkust är störst i världen med över 50 000 öar och skär.

Sweden has a lot of archipelagos, but the Archipelago Sea off Finland’s west coast is the biggest in the world has over 50,000 islands and skerries.

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.

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