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FAMILY

How to talk about family in Swedish

Talking about family in Swedish can be complicated. Discussing your relatives requires an in-depth knowledge of exactly how they are related to you, so it's time to start brushing up on your family history.

How to talk about family in Swedish
A mormor ("mother-mother") cuddling her barnbarn ("child-child"). Photo Hasse Holmberg/TT

Let’s start with grandparents.

Swedish has four different words for “grandmother” and “grandfather”, depending on which side of the family you’re talking about. This may be confusing if your native language doesn’t have this distinction, as you will need to start reminding yourself of your family tree every time you discuss your grandparents in Swedish.

Although most Swedes refer to their mum and dad as mamma and pappa, more formal, less common terms for parents are mor and far, which are the terms still used in the names for grandparents – as well as other relatives.

Danish and Norwegian still use the terms mor and far to refer to “mother” and “father” respectively, which makes talking about your relatives in these languages a bit more intuitive.

Listen to top tips from a Swedish teacher on Sweden in Focus, The Local’s podcast. 

Click HERE to listen to Sweden in Focus on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts.

First off, let’s look at your maternal grandparents, or morföräldrar (“mother parents”). These are your mother’s mum and dad. 

To refer to your mother’s parents, you would use mormor (“mother-mother”) for your grandmother, and morfar (“mother-father”) for your grandfather. 

So what about your paternal grandparents? They’re referred to as your farföräldrar or “father parents”. Your father’s mother would be your farmor (“father-mother”), and your father’s father would be your farfar (“father-father”).

So to recap: your mum’s parents are mormor and morfar, and your dad’s parents are farmor and farfar.

This also means, bizarrely, that the same grandparent can be called two different names depending on their exact relationship with their grandchild. If a woman has a son and a daughter, for example, her son’s children would refer to her as farmor, but her daughter’s children would call her mormor.

Great grandparents can be referred to in two ways: by adding the word mor or far after the grandparent’s title, such as mormor’s mor (“mother’s mother’s mother”), or farfar’s far (“father’s father’s father”), or by adding the word gammal (“old”) before the grandparent’s title, such as gammalfarmor or gammalmorfar.

Confused? It doesn’t stop there. Your aunts and uncles all have special terms as well. These are similar to the terms for grandparents, in that they trace each family member linking you and your aunt or uncle.

We’ve already covered the word for “mother” in this context: mor. The Swedish words for sister and brother are syster and bror, meaning that your mother’s sister is your moster (shortened from morsyster) and your mother’s brother is your morbror. Your father’s siblings follow the same pattern: faster for your aunt and farbror for your uncle.

This only applies to aunts and uncles you’re related to by birth. Although Swedish does have the word tant for aunts and onkel for uncles by marriage (someone who is married to one of your parent’s siblings), nobody really uses these. You’re more likely to hear Swedes referring to these family members as their farbrors man (“father’s brother’s husband”) or morbror’s fru (“mother’s brother’s wife”) instead.

Nieces and nephews follow the same pattern: your brother’s kids are your brorson and brorsdotter (“brother-son” and “brother-daughter”), and your sister’s kids are your systersson and systerdotter (“sister-son” and “sister-daughter”).

Finally, grandchildren. The general word for “grandchild” in Swedish is barnbarn (“child-child”), which is the word you’re most likely to hear. Although this is becoming more rare, grandchildren can also be referred to using the same system as for other family members: sonson for your son’s son, sondotter for your son’s daughter and dotterson or dotterdotter for your daughter’s son or daughter, respectively. 

But what about your cousins? Are they your farbrorsson (father’s brother’s son) and mostersdotter (mother’s sister’s daughter)? Thankfully, no. They’re just your kusiner.

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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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