Numbers

A difference between Dutch and Swedish is the way you use numbers. Swedish is similar to English, where the groups of ten come before single digits, like 23 is “twenty-three” (Swedish: tjugotre). However, in Dutch we switch things around: “twenty-three” becomes “drieëntwintig“, which means “three and twenty“. This is similar to the German dreiundzwanzig. 

Strange? It can be stranger.. Like the Danish number system.

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The time, the clock..

An interesting detail in Swedish I bumped into last week is the fact that the word for clock is used for describing time. In English you would ask “what time is it?“, while in Swedish you would ask “vad är klockan?” (what is the clock?). “The clock” is also used when telling time: “klockan är 7” (the clock is 7 / it’s 7 o’clock). Interestingly enough, English uses the clock as a substitute for “hour” here as well, but that’s only used for whole hours; in Swedish you would say “klockan är kvart i 7” (the clock is quarter to 7), while in English you would say “it’s a quarter to 7“.

This is different in Dutch, where we use the word for hour when talking about whole hours; “het is 7 uur” (it’s 7 hour) and “het is kwart voor 7” (it’s a quarter to 7). Half hours in Swedish are similar to Dutch: “half 7” or “halv 7” means “half past 6” (although I’ve heard native English speakers using “half 7” as well). Where it gets complicated for me as a Dutch native is when using the minutes between a quarter past the hour and a quarter to the hour, where in Dutch, we use a somewhat strange construction. Twenty minutes past the hour (say twenty past 4) would be “tien voor half 5” (ten before half past 4) and “twenty to 5” would be “tien over half 5” (ten past half past 4), while Swedish follows the more English variant of “tjugo över 4” and “tjugo i 5“.

Using the clock for time looks like Swedish efficiency to me; when the clock is something abstract, we talk about time, otherwise, it’s an actual clock (“var är klockan?” / “where is the clock?“, “hur stor är klockan” / “how big is the clock“), but we just use one word.

Pro-tip: Swedish articles

Swedish has two indefinite articles: “en” for common nouns and “ett” for neuter nouns. Like en lampa” (a lamp) and “ett bord” (a table). Definite articles are mostly expressed by a suffix like “lampan” (the lamp) and bordet” (the table). In Dutch, we have a similar system, but there is only one indefinite article (“een”) and two definite articles (“de” for common nouns and “het” for neuter nouns). Unlike many latin or slavic languages, you can’t deduct the nouns gender just by looking at it; you just have to know. This is true for Dutch (as far as I know) and many Swedes will tell you the same thing, but in Swedish there is a rule that can help somewhat. Apparently about 90% of the nouns (don’t pin me on the exact number) that end in an “a” are common (and thus use “en” as the indefinite article). Exceptions I’ve found so fare are öra (ear) and öga (eye), but if you know more, please leave a comment.

As a native Dutch speaker, I sometimes try to take the lazy route and use the same gender as in Dutch, but unfortunately this doesn’t always work out well. For example the word for table is a common noun in Dutch (de tafel), while it’s a neuter noun in Swedish (bordet).

Somebody must have misunderstood somewhere

I’m not fluent in Swedish, so quite often I have to guess words when I try to speak. By knowing English and Dutch (and basic German) and given the fact that those languages all somewhat belong to the same group of languages, I have access to quite a large set of words to choose from to make a somewhat educated guess of what a particular word would be in Swedish. I noticed over the last couple of years that picking a Dutch word as a base for translation often leads to a more successful translation then when picking an English one. Since I mainly speak English at work and more then half of the time at home, I think in English, but I’ve often found myself saying “ah, that’s just like the Dutch word!” when asking people for a translation from English to Swedish.

But there are a few words that sound similar or might even be in the same area, but do have a different meaning in Dutch and Swedish. One typical example is the Swedish verb springa (to run), which is very similar to the Dutch (or German) verb springen (to jump). They both are a movement, but not the same one. I automatically translate to “to jump” instead of “to run”, which might lead to me jumping of a bridge instead of running across it.

Unfortunately I’m not a linguist, but I’m curious how this difference came to be. Somewhere, a long time ago, some viking must have mistaken the Dutch guy jumping off the bridge for him running off the bridge.

How the Vikings slaughtered the French

One of the more funny uses of foreign words in the Swedish I find is fåtölj, which means arm chair in English. The first time I saw this word written somewhere, I couldn’t figure out what it was, until I said it out loud. Then it’s obvious that the word comes from from the French word fauteuil, but has been completely butchered to make it into a Swedish looking word (complete with å and ö).