By Nicholas Lawrence

29 June 2017 - 16:50

The legs of a woman wearing black tights and shoes with one leg raised in the air.
'The Swedish penchant for joining words gives rise to one of my favourite words, strumpbyxor ('stockings').' Image ©

Brook Cagle, used under licence and adapted from the original.

Student and translator Nicholas Lawrence explains his experience of learning Swedish.

Despite living in Sweden, I didn't learn Swedish immediately

I moved to Sweden in the spring of 2009 to work for a company that promptly entered into receivership. The amiable weather, a month’s worth of state-guaranteed wages, and the effects of new love ultimately resulted in the decision to build my life here. But these carefree conditions did not quite prove to be catalysts for diligent study. My partner had attended an English-speaking secondary school, and my new job was in an office where the official language was English. So the need to learn Swedish evaporated even further.

Learning Swedish helps you connect more deeply with Swedish people

If you don't mind social situations where conversations abruptly end upon approach, then daily life in Sweden will transpire painlessly, whether you master the language or not. But if you want to avoid feeling like a social burden, especially when talking to children or anyone middle-aged and above, some study will be necessary.

And if you're anything like me, the promise of a wider choice of free university-level courses will act as an extra incentive to achieve secondary-school proficiency in Swedish.

Unlike English, Swedish has two genders

Once I did finally open some Swedish textbooks, I immediately found the language's grammatical gender presented me with difficulties. English was also tormented by gender at one stage in history, but it got rid of the system during the Middle English period, by the end of the late 15th century.

Swedish has streamlined from originally having three genders to just two: common and neuter. But learners still need to master this way of using nouns, which, unlike French or German perhaps, seems for all intents and purposes quite arbitrary.

Why it's important to get gender right

If you use the indefinite article en (common) or ett (neuter) when saying 'a cat' (en katt), which is in fact a common noun, no-one is likely to be particularly perturbed. More importantly, the sense of what you are trying to say will not change.

But as you move into the domain of plurals and definiteness, mastering grammatical gender becomes more important. Unlike English, where we simply precede a noun with ‘the’ to express it in its definite form, in Swedish, one must include the relevant suffix, and this depends on various factors.

Adding -en as a suffix to many common nouns converts them to their definite form – e.g. en hund ('a dog') becomes hunden (the dog). But using the common -en suffix with a neuter noun (instead of the neuter suffix, -ett) will transform the neuter noun into its plural definite form.

Here's an example of how that works in practice. My two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, who is deep in the throes of learning to speak – and whose arrival has seen me once again speaking English at home – has decided that all Swedish nouns are of the common gender. When trying to express them in their definite form, she indiscriminately attaches an -en as a suffix.

As a result, she is constantly remarking that she wants to play in 'the kitchens' (köken), despite the fact that our apartment has only one. She also often remarks on what the other children (barnen) are doing, even though there may only be one other child nearby. The resulting shift in meaning is perhaps not quite of cataclysmic proportions, but it can lead to brief confusion.

Lots of practice is the best way to learn

To help avoid such mistakes, teachers of Swedish often hand out a list of ill-explained rules, and tell students that rote learning is their only hope. But I will go out on a limb and say that it is just as well to ignore this advice.

As my daughter's example shows, Swedish grammar is something you need to learn by doing and – above all – by making lots of mistakes as you go. Eventually, the gender of a noun is something you will feel rather than know. You will hear yourself using the incorrect form and realise it is wrong, without even necessarily knowing why. In fact, in the short time it took for this article to go from first draft to final version, my daughter has, without being prompted, started to correctly say ‘the kitchen’ (köket).

My advice to anyone learning Swedish would be: don't let the fear of making mistakes hold you back from daring to speak. Blunders will most definitely abound, so the sooner you accept this fate, the sooner you will invest the time, practise your Swedish, and improve.

Embarrassing mistakes make useful learning experiences

In a calamitous attempt to make small talk, I once explained to someone that the reason why I couldn't do chin-up exercises was due to a state of sexual arousal, not my height. I had inadvertently said I was kåt ('turned on') instead of kort ('short'). What got me into trouble was my weak effort at mastering the Swedish vowel sounds. I pronounced kort as would seem natural in English, where I should have said something best approximated in English as ‘kott’.

Paying attention to the patterns of stress and intonation in a language may help save you from similar embarrassment. In this case, however, my poor pronunciation turned out to be an effective icebreaker.

Splitting a compound word in Swedish changes its meaning

But it isn’t just mispronunciation that threatens the meaning of Swedish words. There are also deceivingly subtle misspellings.

A hot topic in the world of Swedish grammar is särskrivning. This is the habit of mistakenly separating compound words into their simpler components. It can mean the difference between a gymnast who is feeling ill (sjuk gymnast) and the physiotherapist responsible for their recovery (sjukgymnast). Or, it could mean that you find yourself wishing someone the best in their attempts to go to the bathroom (skit bra) instead of remarking that you find something particularly agreeable (skitbra).

This problem arises because of the Swedish language’s tendency for compounding words, and the shift in meaning that can take place when they are accidentally severed.

Swedish words can be charmingly functional

The Swedish penchant for joining words together actually gives rise to one of my favourite Swedish words, strumpbyxor ('stockings'). This is derived from the words for 'sock' (strumpa) and 'pants' (byxor). 'Sock-pants' do what they say on the tin, and I find there to be something delightfully poetic about this utilitarian approach to language. Similarly, I am currently listening to ‘high-sounding’ (högljudd) music and adjusting my ‘glass-eyes’ (glasögon) as I rest my ‘arm-bow’ (armbåge) on the ‘writing-table’ (skrivbord).

Swedish words can be combined in endless variations

The practice of combining words in this way means that the Swedish lexicon is virtually limitless. There is a kind of verbosity to Swedish, grounding itself on a bedrock of terseness: the language can do more with less.

In fact, even two of the possible Swedish translations for the English word 'verbose' (ordrik and mångordig) are themselves explicative compounds. Both are built of simpler words, which, broken down, would mean 'rich in words' and 'many-worded' respectively. So there is an etymological transparency to Swedish, which I find quite endearing, and which you do not find in English in the same way (one would, for example, need recourse to the Latin root of the English word in this case).

Find out more about Sweden and other Nordic countries by visiting the Nordic Matters festival at the Southbank Centre until the end of 2017.

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