Even if you are not planning on a trip outside your home country in the very near or in the distant future, it is always nice to know a bit about the language of a foreign nation. Why? Maybe out of curiosity? How about adding to your knowledge? Or maybe because in this age of faster communication, social networking and globalization, you are likely to meet some people that speak a language other than your own. You might even encounter some words that you think are genuinely English in origin only to find out that these are loan words. How about Swedish?
Swedish or Svenska is an old language. It is of Germanic origin and related to English. It was first developed between 900 and 1500 BC. The only early records of the language are found in runic inscriptions. Around the 13th century the Latin alphabet was introduced but it was only during the 14th century that the uniform written form was used all over Sweden. Interestingly it was only in the year 2009 that the Swedish language was declared formally as the official language in Sweden. It is also one of the official languages in Finland.
About 10 million people worldwide speak Swedish and it is commonly used in Finland and Sweden, although there are large communities of speakers of the language in Canada and the United Kingdom. Swedish somehow resembles the languages in Norway and Denmark.
The Swedish language has done away with stiff formality, with only members of royalty being still addressed in the third person. Unlike in Britain, usual titles such as Miss (Fröken), Mrs (Fru), Ms, Mr (Herr) and Sir are reserved for people that you’ve just met.
Addressing people by their title and last name were also observed before in Sweden. Even in the office setting, the conversation was usually conducted formally and people of higher rank were addressed likewise by their title and last name.
In 1967 Professor Bror Rexed, who was also a neuroscientist told his staff that he will be addressing them informally, using the word “du,” an informal way to address close colleagues, family members, children and friends. This was during his opening speech when he became the General Director of Socialstyrelsen or The National Swedish Board of Health and Welfare. During his speech he also encouraged his staff to address him in the same way.
Once upon a time during the 20th century, there was an attempt to exchange the formal titles with “Ni,” which is the equivalent of the German “Sie” and the French “Vous.” However it did not take hold and instead became something of an arrogant and degrading form of the less formal “du.” It was used when addressing people of lower status and older people found it offensive and in time faded into obscurity. Today the use of “Ni” is reserved as a courtesy address, for example, when a salesperson addresses a customer.
Professor Rexed’s speech brought about the gradual shift of the use of formalities and class distinctions in Swedish. Newspapers began to adopt the use of “du” and even Prime Minister Olof Palme encouraged reporters to do away with formality and use “du” when addressing him as well. Pretty soon, its use became the standard form of addressing someone, even in official and formal contexts.
Is Swedish easy to learn?
Just like any other language, it is hard to say that Swedish is easy or difficult to learn. Everything depends on your interest, the amount of time you are willing to invest in learning to learn the language and your motivation for wanting to learn it: for business, work, for school or because you are migrating to Sweden.
Still, here are some things that are worth considering if you are interested in the language. Swedish is mainly influenced by Danish, German and Latin. It uses the 26 standard letters of the Latin alphabet, with the vowels consisting of a, e, i, o, u as well as ö, ä and å. The letter y is considered a vowel and the letter z is mainly used for borrowed words.
Swedish is not too distant from English. The two languages nearly have the same grammatical structure. Sentences are written in the subject-verb-object or SVO format. The use of prepositions and pronouns are very much the same as in English although its use of perfect participles is different. Making things simpler is the fact that there are only two noun genders in Swedish: common and neuter. In some of the Swedish words, the -t and -d are usually silent. One distinct characteristic of Swedish is grammar is its definite articles which are enclitic. This means that a definite article is placed after the noun. Nouns do not have case endings except the addition of the letter “s” in possessive form.
Swedish has a sing-song rhythm because it has a pitch accent or tone and a rich vocabulary that includes many loanwords from Low and High German, English and French. The loanwords are written using Swedish spelling.
Swedish loan words
There are common English words today that were borrowed from the Swedish language, including tungsten, smorgasbord, fartlek and ombudsman. As it is close to other Scandinavian languages, the words cog, wicker, spry, rig, snug, nudge, mink, midden, maelstrom, lug, flounder and flense, which have become common words in English were borrowed from Swedish, Norwegian or Danish languages.
Of course there are others that you might have come across once or twice in written or spoken form, such as yrast, trapp basalts, surströmming (fermented Baltic herring), orienteering, moped, lingonberry, lutefisk, lekotek, lek, gravlax, gauntlet, angstrom and aquavit.
Basic Swedish words and phrases
For those wishing to learn the language and have the time, enrolling in a Swedish language course is a must. It you are planning to take a short trip to Sweden, you’d be able to get by with a phrasebook. To start you off, here are some basic words and phrases that are worth remembering:
If you have taken a quick look at the basic words and phrases, don’t you think that some of the Swedish words are quite easy to understand? For a casual learner, this is something that could be done while enjoying your “fika.” Ja?
While it could be quite fun to learn some words in Swedish, it is a good thing to know also that most Swedes are bi-lingual and can speak English. You can even stay in the country for quite some time without finding the need to learn the language, but still, you are depriving yourself of the chance to grow closer to the people and their rich culture.