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

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So is Swedish a hard or easy language to learn? Depends who you ask. Photo: Simon Paulin/imagebank.sweden.se
14:08 CEST+02:00
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.

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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