Swedish Pitfalls

Swedish has a number of subtleties designed to keep furriners from learning the language of glory and heroes™. A famous one is the genders of our nouns, where almost every one is either of our two neutral genders -- apparently haphazardly selected. Another one is certain non-trivial uses of the definite article suffix: you can't say "I'm looking for that record by Roy Zimmerman, you know", you have to say "I'm looking for that record-the by Roy Zimmerman, you know".

A particularly good thing we've got going is that we don't have any verb corresponding to "to put". Instead, everything you would put in English or mettre in French is laid, stood, poured or stuffed onto or into something. This offers endless opportunity for furriners to get it wrong, even if they have an otherwise perfect command of the language.

Of course you can't lay beer in a glass or stand peanuts in a bowl. But what about a low plastic box of cookies you place on a counter -- is it stand or lay? It's stand, because the box has a base. To legitimately lay that plastic box somewhere, you would have to find a soft surface, such as a pillow, where it would be impossible to stand it. Suggesting that you might lay a bottle on a shelf is a big no-no. "It would roll off", explains the exasperated Swede. A bread dough in a bowl must be stood in the fridge, because if you say you want to lay it there, then you are suggesting that you take the dough out of the bowl and slap it nude on the fridge shelf.

Even if you do learn all these details, Dear Anglophone Reader, you're still never gonna master our weird vowel sounds. Mysig ölmössa, fula du! So you might as well give up already.

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My favourite is that you can't say "Jag gick till spanien" (I went to Spain) without the Swedes laughing at you, but it's fine to say "Tåget går till Slussen" (the train goes to Slussen). These different verbs for various ways of travelling is always very annoying for us furriners.

And as for vowels, I gave up a long time ago.

funnily enough it's quite similar to Polish in that respect... makes me want to learn Swedish even more ;)

Well, fula du to you too. I think I'll go have a little lie-down. rb

Being similar to Polish sounds to me like a reason not to try learning it. 5 genders and 7 cases. Makes my head hurt.

By dreamstretch (not verified) on 05 Sep 2008 #permalink

I'm currently learning German and French, and I was thinking the next step might be Polish and then Swedish or Norwegian.
In my experience, English is a very strange language, because it does not make heavy use of gender-specific nouns (Other than waiter/waitress, etc.), and sentence syntax seems to have less importance than in other languages. This is simply due to the fact that many other languages rely more heavily on context to discern the meaning of a sentence, rather than the individual words themselves (i.e. the German pronoun 'Sie' can mean 'she', 'you', or 'they', depending on how it's used). Plus, as you say, we can also 'put' things wherever/however we want, and the language police can't stop us. Lastly, our universal and infinitely awesome definite article 'the' goes for all things, a rare occurrence in languages borne of Europe.
Yay for us English-speaking types!

My favourite has to be the voiced aspirate "sj", as in the famous pronounciation test for 77: sjutte sju.

Well this will not be to any help for people wanting to learn Swedish but I would like to mention that in many Northern Swedish dialects you have the most useful verb "att hä". This can be used exactly as "to put" in English but has also many other practical uses like, for instance, "hä iväg dä'" = "get out of here".

To those who don't like our wowels, I can only say: Go and lay yourself! (Gå och lägg er!) ;-)

Andrew, the sj/tj sounds are funny since they are a redundant distinction in English. "Sjoot the sjit" and "tjoot the tjit" are just two dialectal versions of the same thing.

Damn Swedes, cluttering up the language with their confusing terms... :)

What about people? I assume that we can lay, stand, and all the rest? I'm trying to learn Japanese now, which has it's own peculiarities, and it's interesting to see what you can learn about a culture from their language. Swedish sounds interesting.

I knew a Finland-Swedish speaker who would use the verb "sätta" for many of these things. Is that a common thing?

My first wife, whose parents hailed from Karelia and the Torne border river valley between Sweden and Finland, also likes to use sätta ("to place sitting or set") in non-standard contexts. For instance, she happily places flour sitting in cake batter.

Every language has its peculiarities.

I did a quick study of basic Chinese before taking a trip there a couple years ago. One of the peculiarities of Chinese is the measure words. To say "three objects" in Chinese, you literally say "three of object", and the word for "of" depends on what the object is.

As for cultural clues in the language, one key thing about Chinese is that they use the same character for "China" and "center". That's why some Westerners refer to China as the Middle Kingdom: the latter is a plausible literal translation of Zhongguo.

English also has several peculiarities, among which are the collective nouns. In most languages you would speak of a group of [whatever], but to do so in English would mark you as a non-native speaker: it's a flock of sheep, a school of fish, a pride of lions, a parliament of owls, etc. Spelling in English is even a worse mess: in most European languages the spelling uniquely specifies the pronunciation, but for example, bow could rhyme with either toe or cow, and means something different depending on which pronunciation you use.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 05 Sep 2008 #permalink

Slang usage, of course, makes things even more complicated. Consider, for example, the difference between sitta inne ("sitting in", to be in prison) and ligga inne ("lying in", to do your military service).

As for the (lack of) logic in English pronunciation, nothing expresses it better than the poem Deareast Creature in Creation!

Eric, we also have words that sound the same but mean different things, such as there/their/they're, two/to/too, or weather/whether/wether.

A popular word game when I was a kid was "How do you spell fish?" the answer is ghoti. Gh as in rough, o as in women, and ti as in action. Also the o changes sound from woman to women.

I'm really noticing the quirks of the language at the moment. My 5 year old is learning to read and each time she thinks she's got the hang of a particular letter combination, she finds that it's changed. Some of the problems are home/come, live is pronounced differently depending on whether it's a verb or an adjective, read changes sound from present to past tense, the pastense of play is played but the past tense of pay is paid, ough has at least five very different sounds...

Eric, Japanese also has lots of separate "counting words" that you suffix to the number. Some are completely obvious, like "sara" for counting plates ("sara" means plate), but many are not. You have separate words for counting long, thin objects; for flat objects; for paper-based objects specifically; for written texts; for books; for chinese poems; for small animals; big animals; birds and rabbits specifically and so on, and so on. An authoritative list I found has over five hundred entries, but many of them are archaic or only ever used in very specific circumstances - a normal native Japanese speaker will actually use perhaps 50-60 of them.

The counter for long, thin objects, for instance, is "hon" (æ¬). Which is a little confusing for the language learner as the kanji normally means "book", but books are counted with "satsu" (å).

Tolarne Svenska?
Shnuker du Norsk?
Do you speak American?
Parlez vous Francais?
Habla usted Espanyol?
Anata wa Nihongo o hanase masu ka?
Anda bercakap bahasa Malaysia?
Awak bisa berbicara bahasa Indonesia?
Ni hui Tsiong Hoa yi ma?
Sprechen sie Deutsch?
Spaak du Vlams?
Ina su Ibo?
Shug bo Yoruba?
Anh biet noi deung Viet Minh?
(pardon typos)

Martin, I'm curious about something, and your thoughts on this might be worth a whole blog post. English is an extremely plastic, even fluid, language, with new words popping up like mushrooms, especially among young people (cool!, totally hot!, awesome, dude!, don't even go there!, or the word "blog" itself, a contraction of "web log") Is anything like this happening with other European languages? And how do Swedes, or French, or Germans, who all speak English (as opposed to us Americans, who all speak, umm, English :)) deal with this explosion of Anglo pop culture? Do you just appropriate the English word? Is "blog" Swedish for Blog? Is "cool" German for cool? Do you literally translate the hip English word? (What's Swedish for "hip" anyway?) Or do you develop your own analogous expressions? And would those indigenous "hip" terms sound bizarre or funny if literally translated to English, like Steve Martin's bit as "wild and crazy guy from Czechoslovakia?"

Big Cat, at least in Swedish it's pretty easy to invent new words, and there are a lot of words stolen from English. Like "cool" or "blogg" (it's spelled like that -- more in line with Swedish spelling). Sometimes English words are used in a completely new way: "soft" is used for something that is nice, or neat, or awesome. It can also be a verb: "softa" means to take it easy, sitting on the couch with a beer, or something like that.

At least that was the case five years ago when I still lived in Sweden. Who knows what happened since then...

Big Cat, to answer one question, the Germans do say "cool" but they spell it their own way. So, youngsters might say "Das ist ganz kühl!" (That's totally cool!) And the German word for cellphone is 'Handy' - that's pretty handy, eh? I am told that in certain areas of Germany as well, they might say 'das saugt!' (that sucks!) but if you're in the wrong region when you use that expression, people might look at you a bit funny.

Big Cat, Swedish does borrow words from English, but also comes up with indigenous stuff. When I was a kid, we used to say "shit" with a Swedish pronunciation, which was funny because that very word also means "glazing putty". That usage isn't very common any more, but we have started to say det suger, literally "that sucks". Some words are changing their meanings under English influence, such as spirituell which used to mean "witty" and is more and more used to denote "spiritual".

Swedish isn't being transformed on any large scale by English. But there's a tendency for it to become replaced wholesale by English in certain small societal arenas. Some Swedes worry about it. I don't. I live in an immigrant housing area, and when I hear neighbours from South America talk to neighbours from Northern Africa, they speak broken Swedish. Their kids speak good Swedish and not very good English.

If anyone is still interested in language, it might interest you to know that in Texas, American English and Spanish continue to influence each other, sending words and phrases back and forth. Americans pick up phrases such as "Hasta la vista, baby" from movies and "Vamos muchachos" from Spanish speakers, which they often misuse, annoying Spanish speakers. Spanish speakers often incorporate English terms, creating words like "libreria" for library (they used to say "biblioteca") and "troca" for truck (it used to be "camion"). All of this horrifies the English only movement in the States and the pure Castilian movement in Spain. But it rarely changes the way ordinary people speak.
What fascinates me the most are numbers. Evidently the Japanese, Koreans, and Vietnamese picked up number words from the Chinese, long ago, and use them to this day. But they don't like to use the Chinese words for 4 & 7, as they sound like the Chinese word for "death," so they tend to revert to their own native words for these. Here in the U.S., 3 & 7 are considered lucky numbers. Any thoughts on lucky & unlucky numbers elsewhere? (13 is most unlucky here, by the way).

DD, typo fixes for the first two respectively: "Talar ni svenska?" and "Snakker du norsk?".

also, somewhere near them you could add "Puhutko suomea?", if you want to further confuse people...

By Nomen Nescio (not verified) on 08 Sep 2008 #permalink

"Tolarne" and "shnuker" are probably attempts to demonstrate pronunciation to English speakers.

Hell and gore, shun GOP Father Alan, lay!

How neat! Dropped into the inimitable Aardvarkology site - usual fascinating stuff - but then - thank you The Thinker! "The Chaos"! Just emailed it to young family member who was whining (justifiably) about how difficult English is to spell as opposed to Maori...hey! it'll justify his whinge!

Charivarus missed -except by oblique mentions - one of my favourite letter groups: the wonderously various totally frustrating to a lot of nan-native English speakers - tah-daa!
The 'ough' family! Cough & Rough & Slough & Bough & Though & Borough et al!

By Keri Hulme (not verified) on 12 Sep 2008 #permalink

Ough indeed! In Scotland, they've got two different spellings of the loan-word version of Scandy borg "steep hill, hillfort": brough and broch.

Athabascan languages go much farther than Swedish in having multiple verbs where English has "put". Athabascan languages have no verbs equivalent to "put down", "hold up", "give", "lend", "throw down", "put into the water", "lose", etc. For each of these many verbs, there are on the order of a dozen different verbs, the choice of which depends on the nature of the object manipulated. The verb roots mean things like "handle in a controlled manner a two-dimensional flexible object". By adding appropriate prefixes, one derives "give someone a two-dimensional flexible object", "put a two-dimensional flexible object into the water", etc. In some languages there are four such subsystems, one for controlled handling, one for uncontrolled handling, one for spontaneous motion (like falling), and one for location. In addition to these four classificatory subsystems, some Athabascan languages have as many as eight other classificatory subsystems.


The Flemish should be "Spraak du Nederlands". The Belgian government decided some time ago that the language would simply be called "Dutch", no longer "Vlaams".

Anata wa Nihongo o hanase masu ka?

is not really correct Japanese. Usually what one would say is:

Nihongo ga dekimasu ka?

In most circumstances "anata wa" ("you" followed by the topic marker) would be omitted. It would only be appropriate if, for example, you were asking questions of a series of people. A virtue of omitting any form of "you" is that it is not necessary to figure out which one to use. "anata", for example, is not appropriate toward people of higher status.

"hanasemasu" is the correct polite potential form of "hanasu" "to speak", but in this situation one usually uses the verb "dekiru" = "to be able to do something". Finally, both derived potential forms like "hanasemasu" and the verb "dekiru" are special in that they take objects in the nominative case, so we have "ga" rather than the accusative "o".

Bill, are there any ideas about the cause for Athabascan speakers to develop that kind of grammar? It's very far from a basic creole, calling to mind some kabbalistic caste of temple scribes.

Martin, I'm a little puzzled that you mention creoles in the context of Athabascan as there isn't any reason to believe that Athabascan languages are creoles. The Athabascan languages are the group that cover most of Southern and Eastern Alaska, the Yukon, Northern British Columbia, the Northwest Territories, as well as bits of northern Alberta and Saskatchewan, with two offshoots in the United States: Navajo and the other five Apachean languages, and a bunch of small, mostly extinct languages along the Pacific coast from the far north of California to the far south of Washington state.

I don't think that anyone has offered an explanation for the extensive use of noun classification in Athabascan languages, probably because, although unfamiliar to speakers of Western European languages, on a world scale noun classification is not rare at all. As other commenters have mentioned, numeral classification is widespread in the Sinosphere, and in other forms it is common elsewhere.

I should have said "It's very far from the bare-bones yet functionally adequate grammar of e.g. a basic creole, calling to mind some kabbalistic caste of temple scribes." And the Athabascan tribes had neither temples nor Kabbalah.

I see. What may eventually give some insight into how the system of classificatory verbs developed is the fact that it has recently been shown that Athabascan-Eyak-Tlingit is related to the Yeniseian languages, of which Ket is the best known. This is rather exciting, both because it can be expected to lead to a better understanding of the pre-history of Athabascan and because it is the first proven linguistic relationship of an American Indian language and an Old World language.

In Swahili, an African language, they put a prefix on nouns and adjectives for classification instead of on verbs. The classifications include humans (m- or mw-; plural wa- or w-), inanimate objects and plants (m-, mw-, or mu-; plural mi-), skinnier inanimate objects like pipes (ki- or ch-; plural vi-or vy-), abstract concepts like countries and ideas (u-, no plural), verbs used as nouns (ku-, no plural), the word "mahali" meaning "nice" (pa- goes on the matching noun), and a miscellaneous category (no prefix for singular, plural ma-) and oddly enough "flower" falls into this category instead of in the inanimate + plant group. So "small thing" becomes ki-tu ki-dogo (prefix + thing prefix + small). And "five books" becomes "vitabu vitano" (prefix + book prefix + number).
What's really interesting is, they borrowed the words for "six" and "seven" from Arabic, so there's no prefix on those. But there's no prefix on 9 or on decimal numbers either, but I don't know why for those! Languages are such interesting and peculiar beasties!

Bill, that's frickin' amazing! Hard to believe though that the relationship dates back to the original peopling of the Americas. More likely to have something to do with later migration across Bering's Sound.

The atabascan languages are in many ways like the languages of the far east and probably also related to them far back in time.

By the way, the things said about Swedish also hold for Norwegian and Danish.

Norwegian have, however 3 genders.

And did anyone mension tune distinktions in Swedisn and Norwegian. They are used both to distinguish word meanings and flectional forms?