Swedish language analysis – part II: verbs and word lenghts

This post is part 2 of a series of posts about an analysis of the Swedish language. Other parts are:
Part I: nouns


Passive and deponent

Swedish has an interesting way of using verbs in a passive way. Where in English the form “<object> is being <verbed>” and in Dutch “<zelfstandig naamwoord> wordt ge<werkwoord>” are used, Swedish uses an inflection of the verb. So the English sentence “the doors are being closed” becomes “dörrarna stängs“. Stängs is a passive inflection of the verb att stänga (to close). Passive forms often end in an “s”.

Now the interesting thing is that there are a handful of verbs of which only the passive form is used, even though the meaning is active. Some examples are the verbs att hoppas (to hope) and att träffas (to meet). These verbs have no active form and are called deponent verbs. Before I started my analysis I could name a few, but I was wondering how many more there are. It turns out that there are 248 of them, out of a total of 8345 (≈3%) according to SAOL.


Swedish has multiple groups in which verbs are divided. Depending on how a verb is inflected, it belongs to a particular group. Wikipedia has a pretty elaborate article on this, but the basic idea is that there are 4 different groups: groups 1 and 2 are regular, group 3 are short verbs and group 4 are strong and irregular verbs.

I wanted to know how many verbs are there in each group, but unfortunately SAOL doesn’t contain this information. What I did was trying to find a list of verbs belonging to group 3 and 4 and infer groups 1 and 2 by looking at the present tense inflection of the verb. The present tense of a group 1 verb always ends in -ar and the present tense of a group 2 verb always ends in -er. For some verbs (mostly the deponent ones), I couldn’t figure out to which group they belong, so I marked them as unknown. Also, if you read the Wikipedia article, groups 1, 2 and 4 have subgroups, where group 4a for example contains the strong verbs and group 4b contains the irregular verbs, but since I didn’t have enough information, I only created 4 groups in my data set; 1, 2, 3 and irregular.

Now if we create a pie chart out of the data we get this:

Verb groups

As you can see, most verbs belong to group 1 and that about 88% of the Swedish verbs are regular. Slightly unfortunate is the fact that the irregular verbs (the ones you have to know by heart) are also verbs that are used quite often, but I guess frequently used verbs are irregular in many languages. Verbs like att vara (to be), att säga (to say) and att stinka (to stink) are all irregular for example.

Word length

Another thing that I wanted to know is how word length distributions are in Swedish. This is basically counting how long each word is and then graphing that. And it looks like this:

Length dist

Here we see that about 12,5% of the words are 9 letter words. By changing this graph a little bit, we can understand how much words are larger than x letters:

Lenght dist greater than

Here we can see for example that about 53% of all swedish words is larger than 9 letters.

All of the words words in the Swedish language were used in the previous two graphs, but it’s also interesting to see how different types of words are distributed:

Lenght dist per type

Here we can see some interesting things. Not unexpected, nouns follow the same curve as all the words, because it’s the biggest group of words and contribute much to the shape of the curl. But verbs and prepositions are generally smaller than nouns. Also, there are more 3 letter pronouns than pronouns of other sizes.

Normalizing the data by graphing what share of each group contributes to each word lengths, the graph looks like this:

Length of total

Here we see that the amount of 8 letter words seems to be quite equal for all the groups, but that 24% of the pronouns is 3 letters long, but only 1% of the adjectives is.



Swedish language analysis – Part I: nouns

This post is part 1 of a series of posts about an analysis of the Swedish language. Other parts are:
Part I: verbs and word lengths

Swedes like to think that Swedish is a very irregular language. Especially when it comes to nouns. There are two genders in Swedish: common and neuter, that respectively go with the indefinite articles “en” and “ett“. Swedish doesn’t have definite articles, but instead uses a system of suffixes that are also defined by gender. I’ll not try to explain exactly how this works, because Wikipedia does a much better job than me.

But how do you know if a noun a common or neuter? Most Swedes will tell you that you just have to know this (Dutch will tell you the same thing about Dutch, by the way). There are no rules, unlike many other language where you can infer the gender (and thus the article) from the ending of a noun. As a foreigner, this makes it pretty hard to speak the language fluently, since you have to basically know all the nouns and their gender. In Swedish, this is especially important, because adjectives are inflected by the gender (and number) of the noun (something that isn’t done in Dutch).

The topic of nouns and language difficulties comes up quite a often during conversations I have with Swedes and non-Swedes. Because I work for an international company where about all nationalities are represented at our headquarters, lunch conversations often gravitate to languages and so it was that once a colleague of mine said that there is a small little rule in Swedish that one might use to better guess the gender of a word. He told me that most nouns that end in an “a” are common. Not all, he said, but betting on a common noun is probably the best you can do when you don’t know the word.

This “hypothesis” has been in my head for a few years now, and I asked many Swedes if they could give me counter-examples of neuter words that ended in an “a”. Over the last few years, I found 3: öga (eye), öra (ear) and hjärta (heart). But I had no way of knowing exactly how many others there were. Until today.

Last year I got hold of a digital copy of the official Swedish word list (Svenska Akedemiens ordlista or SAOL). I really wanted to analyze this data, but what I had was a Windows application that didn’t allow for exporting the data. Through some hacking I managed to export all the data from it and ran some analysis. How I managed to extract the data I’ll explain in a follow-up post.

Swedish language statistics

During my quest to prove or disprove my hypothesis, I gathered some general statistics about the Swedish language:

Total words in SAOL: 123274

Because in Swedish you can create compound words, this is not the total number of words in the language.

The next thing I looked at was the distribution of words in SAOL:

nouns 91808 adjectives 17403
verbs 8345 variants 2679
adverbs 1451 references 757
interjections 248 numerals 141
in_compounds 131 pronouns 83
prepositions 79 conjunctions 73
names 70 articles 3
adverbial suffixes 1 infinitive particles 1


Now on to the nouns. First I thought it would be interesting to look at the distribution of nouns:Gender distribution

Apart from common (68946 of them) and neuter (21529) nouns, there are 749 nouns that only have a plural form, 579 nouns that can’t be inflected or can’t have an article (these are words like cash, happy hour and heavy metal) and 6 of which I couldn’t figure out what the gender was.

And now for the big question: “How many words that end in an ‘a’ are neuter?

It turns out that 176 nouns that end in an ‘a’ are neuter. The rest of the words that end in an ‘a’ are common. The total number of nouns that end in an ‘a’ is 8620. Neuter nouns with an ‘a’ make up for about 2% of the total. So, I guess that one could say that the hypothesis is correct.

But since this ‘rule’ only applies to 8620 words it’s only helpful for about 9.3% of the nouns..

Singular and plural

Another thing I noticed about Swedish is that in certain cases the plural indefinite form of a noun is the same as the singular indefinite form (e.g. words like träd (tree): ett träd, flera träd). It seemed apparent that this was more often the case for neuter nouns than for common ones, but I wanted to make sure if my instinct was right. So, what did I find:

4789 out of  68946 common nouns are the same in plural as in singular, which is about 7% and 13839 out of 21529 neuter nouns are the same in plural as in singular; about 64%.

Next time

Obviously, there are many more crazy statistics that I can pull and I have a few I want to explore. One thing I’m interested in is how many verbs are deponent. Deponent verbs are verbs that are conjugated in a passive way, even though they are used in an active way. Some examples are hoppas (to hope) and träffas (to meet).

Since SAOL is copyrighted material, I’m not going to share the dataset I have, but  if you have ideas of statistics you’d like to see, or hypotheses you want to test, let me know.



Food culture

Even though Swedish culture is very similar to Dutch, the small little differences are often the most interesting ones. For me, moving abroad has given me a lot more insight into a different culture than I would have ever had by just being a tourist. Sometimes small differences make me think. Not only about Sweden or the Netherlands, but I get curious how things work in other countries. One small difference between the Netherlands and Sweden is food. Obviously every country has their own typical dishes, but I also find it interesting to see what kind of role food plays within a culture.

As some of you might know, the Netherlands doesn’t really have a food culture. There aren’t many world famous dishes, apart from the cheese we make. And you will probably have a hard time finding a Dutch restaurant outside of the Netherlands (apart from some places on the Spanish Costa Brava and Costa del Sol, where a lot of Dutch tourist spend their holidays). Dutch food is only appreciated by Dutch people and is in general not that healthy either. A large part of the Dutch “kitchen” consists of deep fried meat (like bitterballen, kroketten and frikandellen) and french fries with mayonnaise. You can get this type of food in restaurants (mostly targeted to kids there) or at so called snack bars, but it’s never regarded as good or high class food.

Next to no national dishes, we Dutch people don’t really have a food culture. Food isn’t a big part of festivities and parties. There isn’t a typical dish we serve for christmas or easter for example. If something is typical for a festivity, it’s mostly candy or pastry. During the Sinterklaas celebration kids get a lot of specific candy like pepernoten, chocolate letters and marzipan. And for New Years Eve, we bake oliebollen. But that’s about as far as it goes.

Sweden on the other hand has true national dishes, of which the meatballs (köttbullar) is probably the most well known (made famous by IKEA). In most cities there are restaurants that serve husmanskost or food that you’d make at home. These dishes often contain some meat (balls, bacon, schnitzel, etc), lingonberry jam and potatoes. Also, food is a big part of festivities. Every christmas a julbord is served. This is most of the times a buffet with all sorts of food like meat balls, herring, salmon, ham, etc. The contents of the buffet tend to define if it was a good julbord or not. Forgotten dishes like Janssons Frestelse or the creative addition of  previously unknown dishes will render a julbord mediocre.

Christmas isn’t the only celebration that includes food. Typical Easter food (or påskmat) is egg, Janssons Frestelse, herring and ham, mostly served as (surprise, surprise) a buffet. It’s actually pretty close to a julbord, but with a bit more focus on eggs. For midsummer it’s typical to eat fresh cooked potatoes with soused herring and strawberries with whipped cream for desert. For Saint Lucy’s Day Swedes eat saffron buns and for Fettisdagen they eat semla, a pastry mostly filled with whipped cream. In general Swedes tend to be very religious about their food in combination with festivities. No christmas without julbord, no Fettisdagen without semla, no Easter without påskmat. Something the Dutch don’t really care about. As long as there is food on the table.

Next up: drinking culture!


Swedes can’t drive!

Before I moved to Sweden, I had the perception that Swedes were good and safe drivers. Cars like Volvo and Saab are (or have been) world famous for their safety and most of the highways have a 110 km/h speed limit. Almost everybody wears a helmet on their bike, generally people drive defensively, slowly approach pedestrian crossings and they maintain a lot of distance between the car in front of them on highways.

But after being here for a while, I get more and more frustrated with the way that Swedes drive. The first thing I find really annoying is the fact that Swedes hardly ever use their indicators. They just turn and switch lanes without indicating. This is especially annoying on roundabouts. The general rule in most (European countries) is that you indicate which way you go before getting on the roundabout and again when you leave the roundabout. Swedes don’t do this and obviously don’t care. Many times I’ve been waiting to get onto a busy roundabout, but couldn’t, because people didn’t indicate.

Another thing is that, even though the rule is that you yield if there is traffic from the right (unless you have explicit priority), Swedes tend to use a different (unwritten) system. The bigger road wins. A problem here is that it’s often not clear what the bigger road is. In general, as soon as you make a turn, you have to wait (which becomes a problem if more than one car wants to turn). And the rest of the decisions is made based on a gut feel. I often feel the urge to educate my fellow countrymen by deliberately yielding when someone comes from the right. I tend to confuse people by doing so, but it results in very nice gestures, because people think I stop just because I’m a nice guy. I’m trying to build a reputation of “that nice guy that always lets people pass” in my neighborhood. And to take educating the driving vikings to the next level, I’m thinking of putting a big sign in my car that says “HÖGERREGEL!” (the rule that says that traffic from the right has the right of way) that I can hold up whenever I yield someone from the right or when I take the right of way and cause confusion.

My two biggest annoyances have become even more apparent since I started biking in the great city of Stockholm. Apart from being used to really nice and slick bicycle paths everywhere in the Netherlands, I really have to pay a lot of attention to others on the street. Since people bike everywhere in the Netherlands, you automatically take them into account. Whenever you cross a street as a pedestrian, you don’t only look for cars, but you do so for bikes as well. During the last 3 months, I managed to avoid many accidents here in Sweden. People simply don’t look for bikes. Neither pedestrians, nor people driving cars. Makes the hole helmet thing much more understandable.


One of the things that differ between Sweden and the Netherlands is the way that birthdays are celebrated. In the Netherlands, when it’s your birthday, you bring treats to the office (or school) to share with your colleagues. Mostly people bring cake or some pastry. And in some places your colleagues even buy you gifts. In Sweden, this is very different. First of all, people don’t tell others when their birthday is. Not even on the day of their birthday. Because of Facebook, this has changed a little, but birthdays at the office a more of a non-thing. So no cake by the birthday boy/girl. Sometimes, but only sometimes people at the office might spontaneously sing you a birthday song.

But there is more. In the Netherlands we congratulate people with the birthday of other family members. When I had just moved to Sweden, I asked one of my colleagues if he had any plans for the weekend. “I’m going up north to visit my parents, because my mother is celebrating her birthday this weekend.”. “Congratulations!”, I said, but he gave me a look as if he saw water burning. “Emh.. what?”, he responded. “It’s not my birthday, so you shouldn’t congratulate me..”. I had never thought about this, but in the Netherlands we congratulate people with the birthday of others. It’s rather normal and maybe even expected. “Thank you”, is the obvious reply. But this got me thinking a bit. In the Netherlands, we don’t only congratulate much, we over-congratulate. Often at parties, people congratulate other guests with the birthday of the person organizing the party; even to strangers: “Hi, I’m Wouter, congratulations!”. I’ve always felt quite uncomfortable with this. Not so much the congratulation part, but the fact that it’s customary to introduce yourself to everybody in the room. Some Dutch parties are celebrated by people sitting in a big circle in a living room and those often call for mandatory circular introductions. My introduction is often “Hi I’m Wouter”, accompanied by a weak hand wave to everybody after coming into the room, instead of shaking everybody’s hand.

On that note, circular parties are the worst. I truly hate them. As I wrote, people sit in a large circle in the living room. The host keeps asking people what they want to drink and keeps running back and forth to the kitchen to get beer, coffee or something else, together with cake. Since everybody sits in a circle, there is often only one person talking at a time and most often, it’s the same person. The most awkward and uncomfortable moment comes when the conversation drops dead and no one says anything anymore. The first person that can’t stand the awkward silence any longer will then try to restart the conversation by uttering “dus..” (so.. in English) and failing to do so, until someone else comes up with a forced question to any of the others in the circle, like “Hey Jan, I heard you went to Greece on holiday. How was your holiday?”.

Once I got invited to a birthday that I knew was going to be circular. Me and a friend drove there and in the car we discussed our shared hatred for parties like this. We agreed that when the awkward silence had come and someone would utter the highly anticipated “dus..” we would leave. And so we did. Attendance: 45 minutes.

Update: I forgot to mention how birthdays are celebrated in Sweden

On the other hand, birthdays in Sweden are mostly celebrated by having all guests in the living room and people sit or stand wherever they want. The host provides some food, cake, snacks and soft drinks, but everybody brings their own alcoholic drinks. The drinks are shared though. This is another difference and my guess is that this is mainly done because alcohol is pretty expensive. In the Netherlands, the host visits the supermarket and buys a few crates of beer (typically containing 24 bottles), but in Sweden, almost nobody buys whole crates at System Bolaget (the state-run liquor store), simply because it’s way too expensive. I quite clearly remember my first birthday party, where I showed up with a small gift, but forgot to bring (my own) beer. Luckily people understood that I was just a stupid foreigner and helped out by sharing.

The way Swedes deal with alcohol is a story by itself, so to be continued..

Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest

I’m not a big fan of the Eurovision Song Contest, but here in Sweden, it’s massively popular. Preparing for the European contest, Swedes have their own contest called “Melodifestivalen” and the winner of that contest is sent to the big European stage. Many Swedes stay home to watch both the Swedish and European finale and since I’m not really into either one, I was surprised that it’s such a big thing.

Sweden is about consensus and that’s how the big question “who do we send to Eurovision?” is answered: the (by popular vote) chosen winner of Melodifestivalen goes to Eurovision. I might be wrong here, but I think we tried this a couple of times in the Netherlands, but that got us nowhere, so now, I think somebody just decides somewhere that someone else should go to Eurovision (this year, someone decided that Anouk should go). People asked me how we selected the artist to represent the Netherlands and when telling them that it’s often not a democratic process, they were shocked. Anyway, the whole consensus thing is probably a good topic for another post.

What I really wanted to share is a part from this years Eurovision that was held in Malmö, Sweden, where Sweden portrays itself spot-on. It pretty much sums up the things I have noticed about Swedes over the last couple of years.

Next to the fact that I think most of what is mentioned is pretty true, I love the fact that Sweden’s prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt plays himself.

Pronunciation problems

Swedes are good at English, as I wrote before, but they often have problems with pronouncing certain letters or letter combinations in English. Some examples are the pronunciation of the English “j” and “ch” in words like “joke” and “cheap”. Swedes often pronounce them as “y” and “sh”. Joke becomes yoke and cheap becomes sheep (“Hey shek it out! That’s really sheep! Nah, I was just yoking..”). When correcting people, they often tell me that they had no idea that their pronunciation was wrong, since teachers in school do it wrong as well.

Tele2, a Swedish telecom operator uses this as a joke (or yoke) in their commercials, where they say they are “sheep”, while they obviously mean that they are cheap:

On the other hand, I also have difficulties pronouncing Swedish words, since there are several letters or letter combinations that are either pronounced as “sh”,  “sk”, “ch”, or “k” . For example (and bear with me, since I really should learn how to write phonetic symbols):

  • Skägg (beard) is pronounced chegg (where the ch is a soft g)
  • While skal (shell) is pronounced as you write it
  • Kort (short or card) is pronounced as you write it
  • While kör (drive) is pronounced shur (with the u as the u in burdon)

And obviously, there are exceptions. When kör means drive, it’s pronounced with a sh, while when it’s meant as a choir, it’s pronounced as you write it, with a k. And the word kort can actually mean card or short, but is either pronounced koort (with the oo as in poo) or kort (with the o as in short).

Lost in translation

Swedes are good at speaking English. Actually, most Swedes (or at least most from my generation or younger) like speaking English and being able to speak Swedish isn’t very necessary if you live here. I have several colleagues who make no effort at learning Swedish, simply because they don’t feel the need or necessity to do so. And honestly, sometimes Swedes don’t make it easy either; they often like to show off how good their English is. Quite a few times Swedes switched to English when they figured out I wasn’t a native viking. Apparently my pronunciation is pretty good, but I do make quite a lot of mistakes when it comes to the correct use of articles and adjectives, so as soon as I start stumbling through a sentence, a lot of Swedes switch to English. Very polite, but it’s not helping me in my quest to master the language.

Swedes are good at speaking English because children learn English in school from a young age and most English movies and TV-shows are subtitled*. But one thing surprises me; titles (and only the titles) of TV-shows and movies are often translated to Swedish. Sometimes it’s a very direct translation (the TV-show “Friends” becomes “Vänner”), or sometimes it’s something completely different (Shawshank Redemption becomes Nyckeln till frihet (literally: The Key to Freedom)). Some more strange examples can be found at thelocal.se.

Why this is done is a complete mystery to me and even to most Swedes that I’ve spoken to about this..

* In European countries where media subtitled, people tend to speak better English (the Nordics, the Netherlands, Belgium and Portugal for example) then where they don’t (Germany, France, Spain, Italy and most of central and eastern Europe).

Avoiding confrontation

Looking at Swedish social interaction from a Dutch standpoint, Swedes sometimes seem somewhat more closed then I’m used to. After a while here, I noticed that Swedes often try to avoid confrontation. It’s not only avoiding confrontation with strangers, but it happens at work or even at home or with family and friends. I have many examples, but one situation I think, is a true gem that captures much of Swedish confrontation avoidance.

Imagine you’re in a supermarket, down in aisle 5 and you’re looking for lingonsylt, but you happen to be at the wrong side and half-way is another person standing, bent over inspecting different sorts of knäckebröd, blocking your safe passage to the other side. What do you do? If you’re Dutch, you will probably continue straight and kindly ask the person if you could pass. If you’re Swedish, it’s very likely that you turn back and use the next aisle that is not blocked, circling around the obstacle and approaching the lingonsylt from the other side.

I’ve seen this quite a few times and when asking people why they didn’t just go straight though, they didn’t even realize that they took a detour just to avoid having to ask someone to step aside. Very polite I would say. On the other hand, I don’t think that people actually mind being confronted and asked to step aside (or at least, I’ve never gotten any annoyed or frustrated reactions when I was being very Dutch and came dashing through the aisle).

Another interesting example is jumping queues. If I would jump the queue in a Dutch supermarket, most people behind me would complain to me and would kindly point out that the queue starts behind them. I don’t think you’ll get in a fight if you then ignore the comments, but some hard words might follow. In Sweden, this works differently. If you jump the queue, you’ll probably hear some people coughing a little louder then normally, but it usually ends there. No words, nothing. I’ve asked people why they wouldn’t confront the perpetrator with the fact that they jumped the queue and some answered something like “well, maybe that person is really in a hurry, has a sick child at home to take care of, or at least must have a good reason to do so, so I guess it’s ok“. Which in itself says something about how social and empathic a lot of Swedes are.

I must honestly confess that I sometimes take advantage of this and jump the queue, without feeling too guilty.