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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Villa Volvo Vovve: The Local publishes new book on life in Sweden

In an extract from The Local’s new book about the Swedish language and lifestyle, editor Catherine Edwards asks how much we can learn about a country from its language alone.

A woman sitting by a lake, holding a cup of warm beverage. It's autumn in Sweden.
There is more to Swedish life than fika and lagom. Photo: Alexander Hall/imagebank.sweden.se

Until recently, the Swedish language had had only a modest impact worldwide, with just a few of its words adopted elsewhere, most of them fairly unexciting: orienteering, ombudsman, smorgasbord. For many people overseas, their only interaction with Swedish was laughing at the labels in an Ikea store. When I moved to Stockholm in 2015, I didn’t know much more than hej.

But then a trend for Scandinavian culture swept the globe, boosted by surveys showing their populations to be the world’s happiest, most equal, or boasting the best quality of life. Two words in particular were catapulted to linguistic stardom: fika and lagom, roughly ‘coffee break’ and ‘just the right amount’. Magazine articles and books debate whether the words themselves give us an insight into some ‘Swedish secret’ of how to live. 

But there is much more to Swedish life than fika and lagom.

In 2018, we started our Word of the Day series to introduce our readers to the Swedish words that help you crack these cultural codes. We delved into a mixture of topical words that were making headlines or could help our readers understand the country they found themselves in.

One thing I’ve learned at The Local is that you can almost never translate the news word for word. It doesn’t work. A word that means something concrete to Swedes – whether it’s the name of a political party, national holiday, or a common custom – needs context. 

So what about untranslatable words? If you think about it long enough – and I absolutely have – you could argue that most words are untranslatable. Fika might have a slightly different definition from ‘coffee break’, but the exact meaning depends at least as much on who is talking as what language they are speaking.

Many concepts don’t translate perfectly between people even if they’re speaking the same language. I’ve not seen anyone argue that ‘coffee’ is untranslatable, yet go to a cafe in three different countries and ask for a coffee, and you’re almost guaranteed to be presented with three different drinks: black filter coffee in Sweden, an espresso in Italy, and so on. 

If you describe someone as ‘punctual’, you might be using a different definition than a Swede, even if punktlig is in the dictionary as a direct translation. Someone from India or China might laugh at the size of a settlement that is called a ‘city’ here in Sweden. The list goes on. We all make assumptions based on our personal context every day.

Words like kanelbullens dag (Cinnamon Bun Day), badkruka (bathing coward), and tvättstugelapp (passive-aggressive note left in the communal laundry room) may not have caught on worldwide, but they each help you get a little bit closer to understanding not only Sweden, Swedish and the Swedes but also what it is like being human, anywhere and everywhere.

In Villa, Volvo, Vovve: The Local’s Word Guide to Swedish Life, we explore over 100 Swedish words, including how to use them, when to avoid them, and the history of how they came to be. You’ll learn about Sweden beyond the headlines, beyond the tourist guides, the good, the bad, and the bizarre. This book will help you if you’re travelling to Sweden, or even living there, to understand what’s going on around you. But it’s also a handbook for anyone who wants to embrace the Nordic way of life. Who knows, maybe you’ll even discover the elusive Scandinavian secrets to happiness along the way.

This article is adapted from the introduction to Villa, Volvo, Vovve: The Local’s Word Guide to Swedish Life, written by The Local’s journalists. It is available to order: head to lysforlag.com/vvv to read more about it. It is also possible to buy your copy from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Bokus or Adlibris – alternatively become a member of The Local and get a copy for free.

If you’re already a member of The Local and want to give the book + membership to a friend, buy our gift bundle here.

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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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