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Sweden, word by word: How much can you learn about a country from its language?

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
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.

Villa, Volvo, Vovve: The Local’s Word Guide to Swedish Life, the first book written by The Local’s journalists, is now available to pre-order. Head to lysforlag.com/vvv to read more about it, and use the discount code VOVVELOVE (valid until October 27th) to get a 10% discount on all pre-orders.

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. 

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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, available NOW to pre-order at lysforlag.com/vvv. Until October 27th, you can use the discount code VOVVELOVE to get a 10% discount on your copy.


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