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LEARNING SWEDISH

Why do so many Swedish slang words end in ‘is’?

Did you know that this common Swedish slang construction has its roots in Latin? Catherine Edwards takes a look at the history of Swedish -is words, and how to use them to fit in with the locals.

Why do so many Swedish slang words end in 'is'?
It's an especially common form of slang in the Stockholm area. Photo: Christopher Hunt/imagebank.sweden.se

Hang around in Sweden long enough – especially if you’re in the capital or spending time with teenagers – and you’ll notice a peculiar language pattern.

The Swedish language might be known for its lengthy compound words, but in colloquial Swedish, many words have their ending chopped off and replaced with the suffix -is.

Most often, this happens to nouns. Kompis (friend) comes from the longer word kompanjon, while kondis (cake shop) comes from konditori. Oh, kondis can also be an abbreviation for kondition (fitness), which means you have to rely on context.

Many -is words are words that describe people of a certain type: as well as kändis and doldis, this group includes words like skådis (actor), vaktis (security guard), lantis (someone from a rural area), fegis (coward), tjockis (fatty) and snyggis (hottie).

But -is words also include all kinds of inanimate objects. Other common -is words are dagis (daycare) from daghem, godis (sweets/candy) from godsaker, mellis (snack) from mellanmål. 

That’s not too surprising, because these are very everyday words, at least in Sweden where daycare is heavily subsidised and Saturday sweets are a beloved tradition, and the more commonly used a word is, the more susceptible it is to linguistic change, just the same way that on a cobblestone path, the stones in the centre will be worn down the fastest because that’s the section that sees most footfall.

As well as nouns, a few -is abbreviations are interjections or exclamations, most notably grattis (congratulations) from the verb gratulera, which has existed in Swedish in its shortened form since the 1930s, and tjenis (hey) from the longer greeting tjenare, which dates back even further to the 18th century. 

Less commonly, adjectives can also get the -is treatment, such as poppis (short for populär).

Sometimes, it can even work backwards and -is can be added to words that were short to start with, such as kändis (celebrity) from the adjective känd (known), and its antonym doldis (nobody) from the adjective dold (hidden).

When this happens, it’s usually a short adjective being turned into a noun. Both these examples were first recorded in Swedish in the 1960s. And verbs can also be turned into -is nouns, for example snackis which comes from snacka (to chat) and means ‘a popular topic of conversation’.

Another example of this kind of construction is snabbis (literally ‘quickie’) which could technically mean anything else which doesn’t take too long (a quick look, a quick discussion, a quick walk) but like in English, is most often used to talk about brief sex. Again, context is crucial.

The creation of -is words has been going on since at least the 18th century so is an established word-building technique in Swedish.

It’s interesting not just because it can be used with so many kinds of words (nouns, adjectives, interjections and more), but also because it’s what we call a productive trend (an incredibly productive one, actually), since new -is words make their way into speech and, therefore, the Swedish language every year. In theory, you could apply the chop-off-the-end-and-add-is formula to many words, and people would understand what you mean.

You can even apply it to names in the same way you can often add ‘y/ie’ to abbreviations in English: Cathrin could become Cattis rather than the English nickname Cathy or Sven could become Svennis, as former England football manager Sven-Göran Eriksson was often called.


Photo: Simon Paulin/imagebank.sweden.se

In Stockholm and the surrounding area, -is words are especially popular, and are made up from names of locations and institutions as well as people. Medborgarplatsen in the Södermalm district becomes Medis and Rålambshovsparken on Kungsholmen island is called Rålis.

As for exactly where this linguistic trend comes from, it’s likely that Swedish -is has its roots in the Latin and Greek suffix -is. 

Several linguists have said that students in the 18th century would use Latin in wordplay, by adding different suffixes to common words and names for comic effect.

Because of its history in student circles, these words generally have a more informal feel. And -is can sometimes act as a diminutive, like -ino in Italian or -chen in German, especially when describing a person; lantis for example is often seen as slightly insulting. This context means that -is nouns are often related to free time, such as godis, mellis, loppis (from loppmarknad meaning flea market), bakis (hungover, from bakfull), pingis (from ping-pong).

This means it’s got no relation to the English suffix -ish. Used almost exclusively in adjectives, -ish can mean “of/related/connected to” or “like/having the characteristics of”, for example in words like Swedish (of Sweden) or babyish (like a baby). This -ish has Germanic roots, and can be compared with German adjectives ending in -isch such as Schwedisch (Swedish).

English -ish also has the meanings of “about/close to” or “quite/a bit” when used in colloquial speech, for example “twoish” meaning “about two” or “scaryish” (somewhat scary). And some Swedish teenagers have borrowed this -ish ending, meaning you may hear things like vid tvåish (at around two) or braish (somewhat good).

But this newer trend is something quite different from the typical Swedish -is, which has existed for centuries and will probably do so for centuries to come. 

Villa, Volvo, Vovve: The Local’s Word Guide to Swedish Life, written by The Local’s journalists, is available to order. Head to lysforlag.com/vvv to read more about it – or join The Local as a member and get your copy for free.

It is also possible to buy your copy from Amazon USAmazon UKBokus or Adlibris.

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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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