The Swedish language
The only official language in Sweden is Swedish, which is spoken by most of the population. We also have five official minority languages in our country: Finnish, Meänkieli (Tornedal Finnish), Sami, Romani and Yiddish; languages that are not understood by a Swedish speaking person, but that are spoken in some areas and have been so for a long time.
Swedish is an Indo-European Germanic language and it belongs to the group East Scandinavian languages, meaning that Swedes understand Danish and Norwegian quite well. Finnish, on the other hand, is impossible for a Swede to understand since it is a Finno-Ugric language and belongs to a totally different language family.
Swedish is spoken in Sweden and in the eastern parts of Finland (Finland was Swedish territory from around 1200 AD until 1809 and about 6 % of the population still has Swedish as their mother tongue).
Swedish is one of the languages of the EU and it is spoken by about 10 million people.
There are many regional dialects.
Swedish is under strong influence of English. “Swenglish” adds new words to the language and many Swedes throw in English words and phrases when they speak. The various languages of immigrants and refugees also influence today’s Swedish.
Swedish is written with the Latin alphabet and there are 28 letters (29 if you include W).
There are 9 vowels in Swedish (A, E, I, O, U, Y, Å, Ä, Ö) and they all have a longer and a shorter form. Sometimes the length of the vowel totally changes the meaning of the word. For example, tak means roof or ceiling while tack means thank you, lös means loose and löss is lice.
The vowels can also change the meaning of words. Try to hear the difference between har (have), hår (hair), här (here), hyr (rent), hör (hear) or give this a go: be (beg), bi (bee), bo (live), by (village).
The vowels u and y are normally quite tricky to get right. You need to really circle your lips and bring them together at the same time. Hur mår du nu? How are you now? Fyra nya kylskåp (four new refrigerators).
Some wovels are words in themselves: i is the preposition “in”, å is a small river and ö means island. In dialect you can say “å i åa ä e ö” meaning “and in the river there’s an island”.
The vowels that follow G and K change the pronucnication of those letters. After the “hard vowels” A, O, U, Å G is pronounced “g” as in god (good) or gul (yellow) but when G is followed by the “soft wovels” E, I, Y, Ä, Ö it is pronounced as “y”: get (goat) or Göteborg (Gothenburg). Also, compare katt (cat) and kul (fun) with kök (kitchen) and kärlek (love).
You will find the letters Q, W and Z in some names or foreign words, but they are pronounced as “k”, “v” and “s”. wc, zebra.
R is pronounced in different ways depending on your accent. In standard Swedish you roll your R: Deras föräldrar bor i Örebro. (Their parents live in Örebro) but you can also pronounce the r at the back of your throat (like the French) or not at all.
S is always pronounced as “s” (never “z”) and J is always “y”: jag läser (I read).
We have some strange (old) spelling that does not correspond to the way we speak: the beginning of words gjorde (did), hjul (wheel), djur (animal) and ljud (sound) are only pronounced with “y”.
And it gets worse: The famous sj-ljud is written and pronounced in many different ways (good luck with the spelling!): kjol (skirt), skjorta (shirt), kikare (binoculars), skicka (send), stjärna (star), tjäna (earn), sjuk (sick), chans (chance) and dusch (shower) are some examples. Can you hear a difference in the pronunciation? It should be added that the pronunciation of these sounds also vary with the local dialects.
Some letters blend together and are pronounced more or less like one sound: pengar (money), fort (fast), kors (cross), bord (table), barn (child/children - you can have one or many barn, and quite logically barnbarn means grandchild/children), farlig (dangerous).
One last peculiarity is that Swedish can place many consonants after each other without any vowels in-between: strax (soon), svenskt ursprung (Swedish origin), västkustskt uttal (pronunciation from the west coast), but the last example is best to avoid.
Swedes stress all the words in different ways and you might think that Swedish sounds a bit like a “sing-song-language”. This intonation is well-known around the world thanks to the Swedish chef in the Muppet Show. Tycker du att det låter som om jag sjunger när jag pratar svenska? Do you think that it sounds as if I sing when I speak Swedish?
Lycka till med att lära dig svenska! Good luck learning Swedish!