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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Six myths about the Swedish language (and why they’re untrue)

So, you want to learn Swedish? To help you make sure you know what you're getting into, we've looked into some of the most pernicious myths about the language (with help from The Local's readers), from exactly how difficult it is to master to the confusion over a certain Muppet.

Six myths about the Swedish language (and why they're untrue)
So is Swedish a hard or easy language to learn? Depends who you ask. Photo: Simon Paulin/imagebank.sweden.se

1. 'It's interchangeable with all the Nordic languages'

The Swedish language is often sold as a kind of 'buy one, get two free' offer, and many a learner is lured into Swedish class with the promise of travelling across Scandinavia, speaking Swedish and being understood by Norwegians and Danes alike.

Sadly, it's not true, despite what Swedish-Danish crime drama The Bridge would have you believe, and even native Swedes might end up resorting to English with their neighbours to avoid misunderstandings.

Sure, knowledge of one of the Scandinavian languages will help a lot with comprehension of the other two. Reading should be fairly doable, although there are differences in the letters, including ø which is the Danish and Norwegian equivalent to Swedish ö, and around ten percent of the vocabulary is completely different (watch out for awkward false friends). 

And bilingual conversations can work if both people remember to speak slowly and clearly; it's especially common among older speakers and in areas near the border (for example, Skåne in southern Sweden).

But for most English-speaking people still in the process of learning Swedish, or who have had little to no exposure of the neighbour languages, it's going to be far easier to stick to English in Norway or Denmark.

As for Icelandic, there are a few related words thanks to the shared history, but there's no chance of an Icelandic-speaker and a Swedish-speaker being mutually intelligible. And Finnish is a completely different story; Swedish is widely spoken there, but the Finnish language itself belongs to a totally different family.

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2. 'It's the language the Swedish Chef speaks'

Ah, the Muppets. Beloved by children the world over, stars of such cinematic masterpieces as The Muppet Christmas Carol, and the bane of many Swedes' lives, thanks to the character of the Swedish Chef.

To clear things up, Bork bork bork doesn't mean anything in Swedish, and the Swedish Chef is not speaking Swedish – frankly, I'm also skeptical about his qualifications as a chef.

Most Swedes will argue that the nonsensical language sounds more like Danish or Norwegian (can't argue with science), and on German TV the character has the moniker 'The Danish Chef'.

3. 'Lagom, mysig and fika are untranslatable'

Well, it depends how you want to think about the concept of 'untranslatable' words.

These words don't have a precise one-word English translation, but there are plenty of equivalents the world over: Danish hygge and German gemütlich are extremely similar to mysig; in English you could translate lagom as 'just right', 'in moderation', or 'optimal' depending on the context and Japanese 程程 hodohodo means the same as lagom (thanks to Rekishikan blog for this example!), while fika could be an English 'coffee break', German Kaffee und Kuchen, or Italian pausa caffe

The term fika can also be used in different ways within the Swedish language, referring to anything from a business meeting to a date, while one Swede's lagom (just enough) might be another Swede's för mycket (too much) – it's all about context, and sometimes concepts don't translate between people even when they're from the same culture and using the exact same word.

Some people will argue that the translations above don't encapsulate the essence of the Swedish terms. This argument comes from a romanticization of Swedish culture, and it could apply to so, so many words.

If you say 'coffee', Swedes might instantly think black coffee, Italians will think espresso, and Brits think coffee with milk; if you say 'city', the size of population you'd think of will differ markedly depending on the speaker's culture. These examples are nouns, which are usually the simplest word type to translate. The meaning of adjectives like 'polite' or 'punctual' also differ between speakers and cultures, and the same even goes for prepositions, which so often seem insignificant:  usually means 'on' when translated to English, but can also mean 'in' and 'to' depending on context. Does that mean it's 'untranslatable'? No.

As for the emphasis on the lack of 'one-word' translations, well, languages divide their units differently, some tend to use more compound nouns than others, and it's not all that helpful to think of words as the key unit.

You probably wouldn't say that mammaledighet (maternity leave) or kanelbulle (cinnamon bun) are 'untranslatable just because their English equivalents are made up of two words. But even still, a Swede talking about maternity leave or a cinnamon bun will usually be talking about something quite different than an American using these 'direct' translations. Ultimately, the key point here is that even the simplest-seeming words mean different things to different people, and different cultural contexts add an extra layer to that. 

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4. 'Swedish isn't an expressive language'

Just because lagom, mysig and fika aren't as unique as many people like to think, that doesn't mean Swedish isn't a beautiful and creative language.

We love to draw a link between the way we perceive foreign languages and the way we perceive foreign cultures. We see the French as romantic, so we see their language as romantic; we see Germans as brusque so we see their language as brusque; and we see Swedes as quiet and reserved so often assume their language to be blunt, with few words.

There's not much evidence to suggest the Swedish language has an especially limited vocabulary compared to other European languages (English might be the exception, likely due to its history of pilfering words from other languages and dialects). But it does use words in a slightly different way than some other languages.

Like German, there's a tendency towards compound nouns, which sometimes lead to a new way of looking at old things: consider färgglad meaning 'colourful' but literally 'colour happy'. And in contrast to languages like French and Italian, which are heavy on adjectives and descriptive phrases, Swedish is rich in verbs: many of its most interesting words are in this category, such as orka ('to have the energy to do') and blunda (to close one's eyes). This leads to a directness which is beautifully expressive in its own way; combined with the song-like melody of the spoken language, which makes for beautiful songs and writing. 

5. 'It's hard to learn Swedish'

Learning any language is a challenge, but for native English-speakers, Swedish is one of the best ones to choose. There are no cases, no verb conjugations, and a lot of recognizable vocabulary (and not just because of the strange Swedish tendency to slip into English for the occasional word or phrase).

For speakers of Dutch, German, and of course Danish or Norwegian, it's even more straightforward, with a lot of shared grammar and lexicon, and once you learn the sounds, it's phonetic so you're ready to pronounce any Swedish word.

The hardest part for many language-learners is actually getting the practice in, since many Swedes, especially in the cities, have a tendency to revert to using English with foreigners, even if the conversation is started in Swedish.

SWEDISH WORD OF THE DAY: Learn a new Swedish word each day with The Local

6. 'It's easy to learn Swedish'

Hear me out on this; it's not actually incompatible with the previous point. If your native language isn't in the Germanic family, a lot of things which seem easy to English-, Dutch-, or German-speakers could be a real headache.

There are plenty of things to look out for, from irregular verbs to word order to the different dialects. And while Swedish might be fairly phonetic once you get your head round the difficult pronunciations, in informal conversation people tend to smush words together (to use a technical term). Then there's the challenge of getting the intonation right, which is very important in being understood.
 

Beginner learners might want to start by looking for videos and podcasts specifically in 'easy Swedish' (på lätt svenska), which are offered by SVT and Sveriges Radio. These programmes not only swap out technical vocabulary for simpler words and explanations, but also slow the tempo right down.

But of course, as with any language, it's only after years of practice and many mistakes along the way that you'll start gaining a feel for natural Swedish, since a language is more than its vocabulary and grammar and also requires an understanding of the cultural context behind it.
 

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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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