In Swedish, att tiga (“to be quiet”) is a verb (literally “to quiet”). English, however, does not have a specific verb with this meaning, rather quietness is a state – English speakers must use the verb “to be” alongside the adjective “quiet”, to describe this act.
This implies that the act of quietness, for Swedes, is an active choice, rather than just the absence of speech.
Tiga is not necessarily a positive term, and is often used as an order to keep quiet, or an accusation that someone teg (“was silent”) on an important issue which they should have spoken up about.
If you wanted to use the closest translation of the English term “to be quiet” in Swedish, you could say att vara tyst. Other ways of being quiet in Swedish are att inte säga något (“to not say anything”), att hålla mun (“to shut up”, literally “to hold mouth”), att inte yppa (“to not give anything away”) or att hemlighålla (“to keep secret”).
Tiger, the present form of tiga, pronounced like “tea-guh”, is also the Swedish word for a tiger. Jag tiger therefore means (“I am quiet”).
Svensk also has two meanings in Swedish – it can be both a noun: en svensk (“a Swede”), or an adjective (“Swedish”). The phrase en svensk tiger can therefore mean two things – “a Swedish tiger” or “a Swede is quiet”.
This double meaning was used as part of a tystnadskampanj (quietness campaign) in Sweden during the Second World War, where Swedes were encouraged not to discuss any information about Sweden’s military to avoid it being picked up by potential spies.
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.