September 12, 2013

5 Things You Probably Didn't Know About Sweden: Language

1. When affirming or agreeing with something that has been said, Swedes will often draw in a quick, sharp breath or say an unvoiced ja (the Swedish word for "yes") while taking in air. Apparently this is called ingressive sound and it is commonly associated with Scandinavian languages because of their penchant to do this in daily conversation. (For more, go here and scroll down to "Inhaled affirmative 'yeah.'" There is an audio clip there of a Norwegian doing this same thing.) Swedes in particular think of this as a Swedish phenomenon. It seems strange at first, but I have found myself doing it involuntarily a few times, although my breath intake is usually slower and less noticeable. So if I come back to the States doing this, know that I have not suddenly developed asthma and I'm likely not choking on anything; I'm probably just agreeing with you.

2. Speaking of which, Swedes seem to affirm each other more often than we Americans do. Think about a conversation you might be having with a friend. You'll occasionally insert, "uh-huh," or "right," or "of course" or "cowabunga!" here and there to suggest that you're listening. Now, multiply that instinct you have by approximately nine million (the population of Sweden and/or the number of Marabou chocolate bars I'm hoping to bring back) and you might come close to how often Swedes affirm each other in daily conversation. All day I hear: ja, ah, visst, javisst, jaha..., precis, and one of my favorites, just det. I'm willing to believe that I notice this more because I'm a foreigner and half the time it's all I understand from a given exchange I overhear. But even that aside, I think Swedes just use affirmative speech more often in casual conversation. Such agreeable folk!

3. Have you ever wished for a special word to describe people who are dating and cohabitating? No? Well, Sweden's got you covered either way. There are the general nouns for boyfriend (pojkvän) and girlfriend (flickvän), but they also have another word, sambo, that specifically refers to pojkar and flickor who are living together. The word comes from tillsammans (together) + att bo (to live/dwell/reside) and it functions as both a noun and an adjective. Examples: "My sambo and I are going moose hunting this afternoon" ('tis the season, folks) or "I'm meeting up with Sven and his sambo for fika" (to which you could respond, "Ah, just det"). When I was first learning Swedish, I heard a joke that grown men who are still living at home can be called mambo with the same linguistic principle in mind: att bo (to live/dwell/reside) + mamma (mother). Genius.

4. If you ever happen to be in Sweden and you can't understand a single thing being said around you, just give it five or ten minutes and I guarantee you will hear an English word or phrase just thrown into the mix. I know we English-speakers do this with other languages (things like Gesundheit! or C'est la vie or, a personal favorite of mine, je ne sais quoi), but not nearly with the same frequency as Swedes. Nor does it seem that they have the same purpose. It's not like there are a few choice English words or phrases that have crept into the general Swedish lexicon; that would make sense. No, they just sometimes break into English for seemingly no reason. Out of nowhere, I will hear people say things to each other that could just as easily be expressed in Swedish: "Good job!" or "What's up with the Russians?" or "Let's see if this works" or "That sh** is fun!" As to the latter example, which I heard just the other day, the Swedes love swearing in English. (And in general, for that matter, as I learned the hard way.) 

But really, the English can happen anytime, anywhere, and completely unprompted. It doesn't last long, either; it's usually just a word, phrase, or sentence thrown into their otherwise rapid and fluid Swedish. I always notice when it happens, of course (it's like a slice of home!), but I'm surprised at how often it happens and when it does. I know there are some words in English that just do the trick better than Swedish words, but that's not the only thing going on here. They are seemingly just picking things at random to say på engelska. I'm not even sure if they fully realize they are doing it. I will keep investigating this phenomenon and see if any patterns emerge.

5. Ju. This is a little adverb Swedes tack on to everything and for which there is no real translation. From everything I've read and noticed in my own Scandinavian wanderings, it seems to be used as a general intensifier and often more specifically to emphasize common knowledge or when the speaker thinks that the listener should know better. For this reason, I've seen people translate ju as meaning "as you know," or "as I've told you." But I've seen such various translation attempts as "of course," "I'm telling you," and "after all," to name a few. Most people agree that it's an intensifier, but I've seen a few examples where ju almost softens statements a bit or at least makes things more casual. Sometimes it can express surprise? Now I'm just rambling because the truth is, I'm not sure. As a Swede might say, "Jag är ju inte säker."

I'm planning on making more lists like this, so let me know if there is a topic you'd like to see covered and stay tuned for more Swedish adventures!

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