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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

The true story behind the unusual way northern Swedes say ‘yes’

The unusual way some northern Swedes say 'yes' often surprises those unfamiliar with the dialect: a cross between a gasp and a slurp, it's a curious linguistic phenomenon. The Local explores where it comes from and what exactly it means.

The true story behind the unusual way northern Swedes say 'yes'
The sound is often described as being unique to northern Sweden. Photo: Anna Öhlund/imagebank.sweden.se

If you've never heard it before, imagine the sound made when sucking up a drink quickly through a straw. A sharp intake of breath, with the lips kept close together (different from what in English sounds like a gasp of surprise, when your mouth is typically wider open).

Non-natives often have stories of thinking a northern Swede is shocked or has a breathing problem the first time they encounter the noise. Swedes joke that to clean under a bed or sofa, just ask your friend from Norrland to take a look under it and while they're looking, ask 'is it dusty?' A darker joke notes that the best way to kill someone from the region is to wait until they're eating, and ask if their food is good.

After The Local travelled to Umeå in 2015 to document the unusual sound, which you can hear in the video below, the northern Swedish 'yes' went viral, with media across Sweden and from the UK to Australia covering the linguistic quirk.

So we know what it sounds like, but what's the story behind the strange 'yes' noise?

First, let's look at what actually happens when you make this sound. The reason it sounds so bizarre is that most words and sounds in human speech are made by breathing out, but this is what's called an ingressive sound, meaning the speaker is drawing air in. The northern Swedish 'yes' is usually unvoiced, which means that the vocal chords don't vibrate at all when you say it.

As for what it means, as the video shows, it's a way of showing agreement or saying yes. We can narrow it down even further: a 2003 study found Swedes used the ingressive 'yes' with people, but not when they thought they were speaking to an automated machine. This suggests that it's a part of informal speech, closer to 'yep' than 'yes', but could also show that it's a way to signal acknowledgement of the speaker.

The sound isn't included in official Swedish grammar manuals, so it's hard to outline any strict rules for its usage. Linguists can't even agree on one way of documenting it: some use '.jo' with the full stop signalling inhalation, but others write the sound 'jʉ', 'schvuu', or 'schwup'.

You probably wouldn't hear the inhaled 'yes' in every situation. It tends to show agreement with what the speaker is saying, but is weaker than a spoken 'ja' or 'jo' (the two words for 'yes' in Swedish, the first generally used affirmatively and the second more often used to respond to a negated statement).

This is called backchanneling: when you respond in order to give feedback and show that you're listening and understanding without the 'turn' of the conversation being passed to you. If you've read Lord of the Flies, just think of it as the sort of response you'd give without needing to take the conch, and it can also be used to end a conversation you don't want to continue. So it makes a lot of sense that ingressive sounds would be used for this kind of marker – it's clear to the other speaker that you're not trying to interject. 

Many Swedes think the sound is unique to the north of their country, and it has become a symbol of the stereotypical strong, silent Northerners, often used in TV shows and notably in advertising for Norrlands Guld beer.
 
 
 
In fact, you'll hear an ingressive 'yes' across across almost all of Sweden, but it's more common the further north you go. The sound also becomes more distinct in the more northern regions, which is partly because of the different words for yes in the north and south. In the south, 'ja' is the main word for 'yes', with 'jo' only used to respond to negative statements, but in Norrland 'jo' is used more frequently and in a wider range of contexts. 
 
So ingressive yeses exist in southern Sweden too, but observers tend not to notice the relationship between this sound and the northern Swedish 'yes'. When saying 'ja' rather than 'jo', the speaker's mouth is in a more relaxed position so that even when breathing in, you can hear the soft 'j' that the word begins with. 
 
An inhaled 'jo' on the other hand is much less clear, because the position your mouth is in, with lips almost pursed, when you say the word 'jo' leads to a sharper intake of breath. It's simply easier to say 'jo' on an inhale compared to 'ja', which might be why the sound is so common in Sweden's north.
 
 
In the Umeå variant heard in The Local's video above, there's no trace of the word 'jo' at all, although we don't know if the northern Swedish yes developed from inhaled forms of 'jo' or developed independently.  
 
However, we do know that ingressive sounds exist in dozens of languages around the world, most often in similar contexts to the northern Swedish one, as an affirmation used informally. These inhaled yeses have been around for a very long time, although not studied in much depth.
 
One of the few researchers to have done so, linguist Robert Eklund who tracks ingressive speech extensively on his website, describes them as a “neglected universal phenomenon” and argues that these sounds aren't uniquely Scandinavian at all, but have cropped up independently in societies across the globe. His research notes that the earliest mention of an inhaled, affirmative sound relates to an Eskimo language and dates back to the 18th century.
 

Hop over the Baltic Sea from Sweden to Finland and you'll notice that in Finnish, it's possible for entire sentences to be spoken while breathing in, and both words for 'yes' are regularly said while inhaling. Ingressive sounds are also very common in Atlantic Canada (residents of Prince Edward Island also claim the sound as unique to them), parts of Maine, the north of Scotland, Ireland (sometimes grouped together as Gaelic) and Scandinavia. 

Because the phenomenon is so common across the northern hemisphere, theories have developed that the sound may have travelled with the Vikings as they crossed the seas for trade and battle, or that it is a way of coping with the cold, allowing people to communicate without opening their mouths too much.

But it's also used in parts of Africa, Asia, and South America; it crops up in all inhabited continents and has been observed in pockets which are too remote and have had too little language contact with Scandinavia or Northern Canada for the sounds to be related.

Speakers of French might recognize the sound from the inhaled 'ouais' (yeah), and in parts of Argentina, you'll hear whole phrases spoken with inhalation, similar to the Finnish use of ingressive speech. Fun fact: ventriloquists are also believed to have used this kind of speech as a way of making their act more convincing as far back as the 17th century.

And if it's disappointing to learn the noise isn't unique to Swedes, it gets worse. Ingressive sounds aren't even unique to humans, with the phenomenon observed among several animals, including purring felines and calls from species ranging from monkeys to frogs.

But back to Sweden. Eklund's research has found that Swedes use the sound extremely frequently, with roughly one in every ten 'ja's said using inhalation. So sorry Swedes, your northern 'yes' isn't that unique, but it is still rather special.

OPINION: Why do Swedes pepper their English with unnecessary English words?

Member comments

  1. Actually my British Grandmother and her friends used the drawing in of breath for ‘yes’ but usually accompanied by a short vocal sound. So, maybe this is an example of a linguistic ‘meme’!

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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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