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Swedish language trivia!

We don’t have the word “think” as an ambiguous catchall for “opine”, “believe”, and “ponder”. We have separate words for those three. “Tycka”, “tro” and “tänka”.

We have dozens of derisive, humilating words for “cry” because emotions are bad here (obv I’m not great at following that rule). “Lipa”, “böla”, “grina”, “tjuta”, “hulka”, “snyfta” etc. A more neutral word is “gråta”.

We have a generic scalar negation prefix, o-. It’s basically the equivalent of English’ “un-“, but more generally applicable. So applicable that the English word “undead”, which in Swedish more precisely is “vandöd”, is more often literally calqued as “odöd”.

Swedish orthography, like English but unlike our neighboring dialects, use “ck” for a double k sound. “Tack”, “blick”, “drick” etc are all Swedish. The only exception is with Swedish’ most common word, “och”, which means “and”. It’s pronounced “ock” but has resisted all spelling reforms. (English’ most common word is “the”, a word we don’t even have.)

Swedish, like AAVE has to a greater extent than mainstream English, has phrasal grammatical aspects. “Jag sitter och äter” is different from “Jag äter”, “Jag ligger och sover” is different from “Jag sover”. I guess the closest English equivalents are idioms like “I’m in the middle of dinner right now!”

In the cartoon Metalocalypse, the Swedish characters are often mistakenly placing “s” at the end of words where they don’t belongs. There is some truth to that. Like English, we use s for possessive. But you also use it for plural and for something we don’t even have: verb agreement. You guys are all like “she swims”, “I swim” etc, adding and dropping s like there’s no tomorrow, we can’t keep up with that!

Swedish grammar has five genders! As discussed previously. Those are the third most difficult thing to learn, for someone coming from English.

The second most difficult thing to learn is that prepositions don’t match. Overall, Swedish and English are very similar, compared to say Spanish or Japanese. We have a similar preposition system like English has. Except it doesn’t map one-to-one. Like, you say at work and we’ll say on work, for example.

The number one biggest challenge is that Swedish is a tonal language. Not only to disambiguate between homographs like “anden” (the ghost) and “anden” (the duck), or “hälsa på” (greet) and “hälsa på” (visit), and like English, questions are pitch-rising. Even when it’s not disambiguating it’s just hard for Swedish peeps to understand when the tones are off. Unfairly enough, unlike Pinyin for Chinese students, there are no orthographical clues. Maybe a pinyin-like system would be a good idea for new students of Swedish? Although maybe that would get confusing with our existing diacritical system, which has a completely different purpose.

Speaking of pronouns, one of the most common mistakes in Swedish texts made by native Swedes and immigrants from non-English (and not so much by people coming from English) is “they” and “them”. This isn’t a gender issue (see “hen” for that), just a case issue. The Swedish word for “they” is spelled “de”, and “them” is spelled “dem”. So very straight-forward for an English-speaker to keep track of. The problem is that both are pronounced the same (people, when being formal, like reading a text out loud, sometimes try to pronounced them “as they are spelled”, which is messed up). This leads to them being mixed up in writing constantly. For a brief time in the seventies, a reform was proposed to spell both as “dom”. This didn’t take and was quickly abandoned, but it’s something I’ve tried to take up again. Maybe not in novels or job applications but certainly here in the blog, in email and on IRC. Not that I’ve, to the best of my awareness, messed up “de” and “dem” in writing, but just as solidarity to everyone struggling with this.

The second most common “mistake by Swedes” is that we have a conjunction and an article, both spelled “att”. The article, but never the conjuction, can be pronounced “å”. We have a completely different conjunction, spelled “och” (which means “and”), that’s also often pronounced “å”. So far, so good. The problem is that people often mistakenly spell “att” as “och”. “Jag älskar och fiska”*. That’s not a failure on them, that’s a failure of Swedish orthography. Just spell both “å” and you’ll be fine, “Jag älskar å fiska”. This looks sloppy, but sloppy is less bad than hypercorrected.

Swedish has seen some relatively recent changes (say, since the sixties). One of the changes is that we now have a possisive phrasal marker, just like English. “Johnny from Gothenburg’s horse”. In the past, we had a genitive case. “Johnny’s from Gothenburg horse”. This is a change that’s pretty much never relevant because both of those constructions are so awkward that they’re often just completely avoided outright, just as in English.

The other recent change is that Swedish now mainly use singular thou/thee (“du”/”dig”). This replaced a multi-tiered honorific system that was so complicated that you needed a phonebook to talk to each other. “Vill fabrikörskan ha kaffe?” It got so messed up that people just started using passive voice instead. “Is coffee wanted?” instead of “Do you want coffee?”. But that’s all in the past now when the word “du” is standard. French is apparently seeing a similar reform more recently.

Swedish doesn’t have w and z. We can say w easily enough, but often apply it pretty randomly and wrongly when trying to speak English. The vild wikings vere wery vorried. We can’t say z at all, it sounds like s. A sebra ate a pineapple pitsa.

It’s difficult for Swedes to fathom how English-only speakers often can’t say the letter e at end of words where it isn’t silent. That is like the most common thing in Swedish. Äpple, bulle, kulle. But maybe that will change now that English has “meh” and “feh” from Yiddish and “bokeh” from Japanese.

Swedish often has some pretty ridonk consonant clusters, like in “bristskrämsel”. But those are often from when two words have been mashed together, like “brist” + “skrämsel”. Maybe that doesn’t belong on a page called “Swedish language trivia” because German more famously does the exact same thing.


In Swedish, over the last thirty, forty years or so, the word “diagnos”, which Wiktionary still has as a translation of “diagnosis”, has shifted it’s meaning. (All of the -osis words like prognosis and psychosis have their -is chopped off in Swedish.)

In English (and the word has Greek roots), the word means finding out the nature and cause of something. The finding-outing-ness itself. That was the original meaning in Swedish too.

But, these days, it has, as a sort of euphemistic synecdoche, instead come to mean what an American would call a disorder, a condition, or a syndrome. Those are all charged terms in anti-ableism circles—some use & affirm those words, others fight against them—and that very charge was what led to people in Swedish to instead say “diagnos”. It shifted from a doctor saying “the diagnosis I’ve found for you is [such and such]” to people being hesitant to say, for example, “disorder” and instead referring to the [such and such] itself as “a diagnosis”.

“I have [such and such] diagnosis”, someone might say. This shift has primarily happened in neuropsychiatry and psychiatry. Somatic things like a broken leg, people will just get confused if you “diagnose them with a fractured femur”, a lot of people won’t know what that means, that’s how far the shift has gone.

Of course, euphemism doesn’t solve underlying stigma or prejudices, so a lot of the same charge now surrounds the word “diagnos” itself, the change did nothing (except made language more confusing). That’s not me saying words like “syndrome” or “disorder” or “condition” are now unproblematic in Sweden, they’re not. It’s a touchy subject. Don’t shoot the messenger on that 🤷🏻‍♀️