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).

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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).

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.

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).