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LEARNING SWEDISH

How to think in Swedish: tänka, tro or tycka?

Swedish has at least three different ways of expressing the English word "think": tänka, tro and tycka. Learning when to use each of these words correctly is a sure-fire way to sound like a true Swede.

How to think in Swedish: tänka, tro or tycka?
A quote above the entrance to the Grand Auditorium of the University Main Building in Uppsala. It says "To think freely is great, but to think rightly is greater". Photo: Fredrik Persson/TT

Despite the fact that these words are all translated to “think” in English, choosing the wrong verb in Swedish can change the meaning of what you’re trying to say. 

As a general rule, you should use tänka when talking about the act of thinking, tro when talking about a belief you hold, and tycka when you’re talking about a personal opinion. That might seem confusing, so let’s go into a bit more detail below.

Tänka

The act of thinking

Tänka is the most literal of these three verbs. It describes the act of thinking, such as in sentences like jag tänker på dig (“I’m thinking of you”) or kan du hålla tyst, jag försöker tänka! (“Can you be quiet, I’m trying to think!”)

A future plan

Tänka can also describe something you want to do – “I’m thinking of doing [something]” – such as vi tänker gifta oss (“We’re thinking of getting married”), or jag tänker lära mig svenska (“I’m thinking of learning Swedish”).

I’d quite like…

Another way of using the word tänka is to say that an idea appeals to you or that you’d quite like to do something – like in the phrase jag hade kunnat tänka mig [något] (literally “I had could think me [something]”). 

If, for example, you were discussing with your partner what you should order for dinner on a Friday night, you might say jag hade kunnat tänka mig pizza (best translated as “pizza could be nice” or “I’d quite like pizza”), which is more like a suggestion compared to jag vill äta pizza (“I want to eat pizza”).

I can imagine…

Finally, tänka can also mean “imagine”. This can be seen in the following example:

“Jag var jättetrött efter jobbet i går, jag hade jobbat 14 timmar utan paus!” Oj! Ja, det kan jag tänka mig!”

(“I was really tired after work yesterday, I’d worked for 14 hours without a break!” “Oh wow! Yeah, I can imagine!”)

Tycka and tro

These two verbs are closer in meaning and slightly harder to explain than with the word tänka. The best way to distinguish tycka and tro, in my opinion, is to be more specific when translating them in to English. Although “think” can be used as an umbrella term for both of these concepts, the differences start to become clearer if you use more specialised verbs when translating them instead.

An opinion, usually based on experience

Tycka has the same meaning as the English words “deem”, “regard” and “consider”, which are all used when expressing an opinion about something.

To use tycker, you would say jag tycker att (“I think that”) followed by your opinion. In spoken Swedish, the att here is often left out. Jag tycker (att) du är snäll (“I think you’re nice”) and jag tycker (att) det är kallt (I think it’s cold) are two examples.

A belief or speculation

Tro, on the other hand, can be translated as “believe”, which can be used when speculating about something or expressing a belief, such as jag tror på Gud (“I believe in God”) or jag tror det kommer regna imorgon (“I think it will rain tomorrow”).

Here’s an example to illustrate the difference between saying tycka or tro:

Jag tycker (att) det är en bra restaurang would mean “I think that’s a good restaurant”, in the sense of “I consider that to be a good restaurant”. You may have eaten at the restaurant before and you can recommend it based on the food that you ate.

Jag tror det är en bra restaurang would also mean “I think that’s a good restaurant”, but in the sense of “I believe that’s a good restaurant”. Maybe a friend has told you that they had a nice meal there, but you’ve not been there yourself so you can’t say for certain. 

Tycker om

You may also have come across the phrase tycker om, which has a slightly different meaning than tyckerTycker always requires some sort of elaboration – it should be followed by a statement about what your opinion is – whereas tycker om simply means that you like something.

Jag tycker (att) han är snäll, jag tycker (att) choklad smakar bra

(“I think (that) he is nice”, “I think (that) chocolate tastes good”)

Jag tycker om honom, jag tycker om choklad

(“I like him”, “I like chocolate”)

You can also use the word gilla to express liking something. Jag gillar dig, jag gillar choklad (“I like you”, “I like chocolate”)

So, how do I think in Swedish?

Essentially, you should use tänka when describing actual thoughts in your head, tycka when expressing an opinion or a recommendation based on something you’ve experienced, and tro when expressing a belief, or a recommendation based on something you’ve heard or read from another source.

If you’re not sure whether to use tycka or tro in a specific situation, try swapping out the word “think” with “consider” or “believe”, and see if that helps.

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.

It is also possible to buy your copy from Amazon USAmazon UKBokus or Adlibris.

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For members

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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