Swedish word of the day: ensamhet

Today's word of the day is the Swedish word for "loneliness" – but why are Swedes considered some of the loneliest people in the world?

Swedish word of the day: ensamhet
Today's word of the day is "loneliness". But why are Swedes considered a lonely culture? Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

The Swedish word for loneliness is ensamhet. It can literally be translated as “onesomeness”, and describes the feeling of loneliness or feeling alone. The adjective is ensam, so if you want to say that you live alone, you would say jag bor ensam.

Both ensamhet and ensam can refer to involuntary and voluntary loneliness – saying jag bor ensam (“I live alone”) does not necessarily mean that you are unhappy about living alone, but jag känner mig ensam (“I feel lonely”) implies that you don’t really want to be alone.

If you want to talk about living alone with no connotations of feeling lonely, you could say jag bor själv.

The word ensamhet is made up of ensam – alone, which in turn comes from en or “one” – as well as het, a suffix similar to German -heit which can be loosely translated as “-ness” in English.

Other examples of words made up of a Swedish adjective with the suffix -het are nyhet (“news”, literally “new-ness”), frihet (“freedom”, literally “free-ness”) and hemlighet (“a secret”, literally “secret-ness”).

Swedish also has a word for being alone with another person: tvåsamhet or “twosomeness”, which can describe the feeling of being a couple or “twosome”.

This can be either positive or negative – it can be the feeling of feeling part of a team, sharing a life together, or it can describe a couple who spend so much time with each other that it is detrimental to their other social relationships.

Those on the lookout for a partner may say they miss the feeling of tvåsamhet from sharing their life with someone else, or those recently out of a relationship may describe choosing to go it alone after experiencing that the tvåsamhet stifled their own independence.

Polyamorous relationships also a word for describing this feeling: flersamhet, described by the Swedish Academy Dictionary as a “close relationship among multiple people”.

But why have we chosen ensamhet as a word of the day?

According to European statistics, Swedes have the highest rate of single-person households in the EU, followed by Denmark and Finland. 

Over 40 percent of Swedes live in single-person households, according to statistics from 2020, with the young and the elderly more likely to live alone, partly due to the fact that young people move away from home earlier than in other countries, and also the fact that multi-generational households where the young and the elderly live together are unusual in Sweden.

This has led many to describe Swedes as the most lonely people in the world, topping international “loneliness lists”, and sparking many immigrants to Sweden to complain of experiencing loneliness, saying that it can be hard to make friends with Swedes.

But ensamhet is not only seen as a negative. Sweden has an individualistic culture rather than a collectivist culture, with independence considered a highly-valued trait. An old Swedish proverb reflecting this emphasis on independence is ensam är stark, or “alone is strong”.

Geert Hofstede, a Dutch psychologist active in the latter half of the 20th century, wrote about Sweden that “there is a high preference for a loosely-knit social framework in which individuals are expected to take care of themselves and their immediate families only”, as opposed to collectivist societies where “people belong to ‘in-groups’ that take care of them in exchange for loyalty”.

A feature-length documentary into this individualistic culture and the effects it may have had on Swedish loneliness, titled The Swedish Theory of Love, was released in 2015. In the documentary film, the director, Erik Gandini, examines how individualistic culture has affected Swedish society since the 1960s, and whether this culture has led to increased social isolation.

The film is available to watch on SVT (in Swedish).

Example sentences:

Det är skönt att bo själv, jag har familj och vänner nära så jag känner mig aldrig ensam.

It’s nice living alone, I have family and friends nearby so I never feel lonely.

Jag pallade inte tvåsamheten så jag lämnade honom och gick med i ett kollektiv istället.

I couldn’t handle the “twosomeness” so I left him and joined a commune instead.

Villa, Volvo, Vovve: The Local’s Word Guide to Swedish Life, written by The Local’s journalists, is available to order. Head to 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 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 to read more about it. It is also possible to buy your copy from Amazon USAmazon UKBokus or Adlibris.