Introduction to Swedish
By Urban Sikeborg, Stockholm 1997–98
• Swedish – a brief presentation ....................................................... 1
1. How to introduce yourself ............................................................... 2
Personal pronouns. ‘Är’, -er and -ar verbs in the present
2. Greetings and goodbyes ................................................................. 4
Common salutary phrases. Temporal expressions
3. Things in general and particular ..................................................... 7
Nouns in the singular. Indefinite and definite forms
4. Even more things ............................................................................. 9
Nouns in the plural. Cardinal and ordinal numbers
5. What is yours like? ........................................................................ 12
Adjectives (weak and strong inflection).
Possessive and demonstrative pronouns
6. To compare and to be compared .................................................. 16
Comparison of adjectives. ‘Ingen’, ‘något’, ‘varje’. Adverbs
7. Doing and being ............................................................................. 19
Tenses/Conjugation of verbs
8. A guide to the pronunciation of Swedish ..................................... 29
BY URBAN SIKEBORG
wedish is a fascinating and expressive language. It is also a melodic language, admittedly diffi-
cult to pronounce like a native because of its characteristic sing-song rhythm, but otherwise not S
more complicated to learn than English. Most Swedes born after World War II do speak or under-
stand English – many of them very well, actually – and you will probably be able to have a memo-rable and enjoyable stay in Sweden without any deeper knowledge of Swedish. But you will find that
just a few words of Swedish will work as a wonderful door-key to the Swedes, who have a reputation
of being rather reserved to strangers. Addressing someone in his or her native language is a matter of
respect, a way of showing that you play by their rules, so to speak. To learn a language means to
learn to understand the culture where it is spoken and the people who speak it. In a way, to learn a
language opens up a new world.
Swedish is a member of the Indo-European family, to which belong almost all European lan-
guages (with the exception of the Finnish-Ugrian, Basque, and Caucasian languages), and has many
features in common with all of these. Its closest relatives are Danish, Norwegian, and Icelandic. The
latter has due to its isolation remained remarkably intact from the Viking Age and therefore is very
difficult to understand for other Nordic speakers. Swedes, Norwegians, and Danes usually do not
have any difficulties in communicating with each other. Even though Danish is slightly more closely
related to Swedish than Norwegian, its ”hot-potato-in-the-mouth” pronunciation is the main obstacle when Danes and Swedes speak with each other, whereas Norwegian in that respect is very similar to
Swedish. All in all, the differences between the languages are not very big – most Swedes would
probably even find it difficult to tell whether a text was written in Norwegian or Danish. Since
Swedish also is the second official language of Finland, a basic knowledge of Swedish will thus
enable you to understand and make yourself understood in several countries.
There is no natural language which does not require years of study to master completely, but you
will soon acquire an impressive passive vocabulary. You will find that signs and headlines become
more and more comprehensible and that you within short will be able to browse through a Swedish
newspaper and get a good grasp of what is said. Learning Swedish is facilitated by the fact that over
the centuries it has borrowed thousands of words from Low German, French, and English; some very
common words in English have in turn been borrowed from the Vikings. This means that many
words will be familiar to you from the very beginning.
But a language is more than just a collection of words; without a basic knowledge of the gram-
mar, your linguistic proficiency will most likely be very limited. This introduction to Swedish pres-
ents a brief outline of Swedish grammar, with the emphasis on the spoken, everyday language. It is
advisable to browse through the rules for pronunciation in chapter 8 before each chapter. Otherwise
you might end up sending disquietingly like the Swedish Chef in the Muppet Show.
How to introduce yourself
ome foreigners have claimed that Swedes in general are rather reserved and stiff in comparison to
their own fellow countrymen. This alleged cultural feature is not a personal quality, however; you S
will soon find out that the Swedes are as passionate, wonderful or silly as most other people you
SENTENCES TO STUDY
Hej! Jag héter …… och kómmer från …… Vad héter du?
Hello! I am called … and come from … What are called you? Jag héter ……
I am called … Var kómmer du ifrån? / Várifrå?n kómmer du?
Where come you from? / Wherefrom come you? Jag är från … och studérar svenska hä?r. Jóbbar du i Stóckhólm? I am from … and study Swedish here. Work you in Stockholm? Nej, jag árbétar ínte hä?r; jag ä?r óckså studént.
No, I work not here; I am too/also student.
1. Personal pronouns
‘Jag’ (I) and ‘du’ (you) are pronouns, words denoting persons that perform an action. In English ‘you’ can
refer either to one individual or to several persons; in Swedish you use separate forms, depending on the num-
ber of people you are addressing. The Swedish so-called personal pronouns are:
Personal pronouns: Objective forms: Someone or something that is doing something (”You Someone or something that is the object of an action see”) (”I see you”) Singular (referring to one person) jag = I mig/mej = me 1dig/dej = you du = you (Er = you [polite form]) (Ni _ your [polite form])
han = he hónom = him 2hénne = her hon = she
3den = it den = it
det = it det = it Plural (referring to two or more people) vi = we oss = us ni = you er = you (Ni = you [polite form]) (Er = you [polite form]) 2
1. Swedes usually address each other with the pronoun ‘du’, regardless of what position they might have or if
they meet for the first time; in fact, the formal ‘Ni’ are nowadays considered old-fashioned and is mainly used when talking to older people. The English habit of frequently inserting the name of the person you are
talking to is not common in Swedish and can sometimes be felt too intimate.
2. The ‘o’ in ‘hon’ is pronounced like ‘oo’ in ‘good’.
44de (‘dom’) = they dem (‘dom’) = them 3. There are two words for ‘it’ in Swedish. This is because Swedish, unlike English, still define animals and
things in terms of gender, and is in this respect similar to the German with its ‘der, die, das’ and the
French ‘le, la’. Whether one should use ‘den’ or ‘det’ is decided by what gender the word it refers to has.
In the general and neutral meaning ‘it’ has in phrases like ‘it is cold today’, ‘det’ is used: ‘Det ä?r kallt
4. The words for ‘they’ and ‘them’ is normally spelled ‘de’ and ‘dem’ respectively, but are almost always pronounced ‘dom’.
2. Verbs – Doing-or-Being Words
‘Heter’, ‘kommer’, ‘är’, ‘studerar’, ‘jobbar’ and ‘arbetar’ are verbs, words that show what someone/something
is or does or what is happening. While English has two different endings for regular verbs depending on who is
performing the action – I read, you read, but he/she/it reads – Swedish very conveniently uses only one form, regardless of person: Jag kómmer, du kómmer, hon kómmer, vi kommer etc. Most regular verbs use the ending -er, -ar or -r when they are in the present tense, that is describe an action taking place now: ‘hon studérar’ =
‘she studies/is studying’.
‘Från’ is usually changed to ‘ifrå?n’ (literally ‘in-from’) when it stands after the word it is referring to or at the
end of a clause or a sentence.
Some countries and parts of the world with their names in Swedish
Read more about the pronunciation of Swedish in Chapter 8!
Africa Iran Áfrika Irán America Iraq Amérika (Nórdamérika, Irák
Argentina Ireland Argentína Írland Asia Israel Ásien Ísrael Australia Italy Austrálien Itálien Austria Japan Ö?sterríke Jápan Belgium Latvia Bélgien [with a 'hard' g] Léttland Bosnia Lithuania Bósnien Litaúen [the accent on the
diphthong 'au'] Brazil Macedonia Brasílien Makedónien Canada Mexico Kánada Méxiko Chile Norway Chíle Nórge China Pakistan Kína Pakistán Croatia Poland Kroátien Pólen Czech Portugal Tjéckien Pórtugal Republic
Denmark Rumania Dánmark Rumä?nien Europe Russia Európa Rýssland Egypt Scotland Egýpten Skóttland England, Serbia Éngland, Stórbritánnien Sérbien Great Britain
Estonia Slovakia E?stland Slovákien Finland Slovenia Fínland Slovénien France South Africa Fránkrike Sýdáfrika Germany Spain Týskland Spánien Greece Sweden Grékland Svérige [pronounced as if its
Swedish spelling were
'Svérje'] Holland, the Switzerland Hólland, Néderlä?nderna Schweíz [the diphthong is Netherlands pronounced with an 'e'
sound, not as in German] Hungary Thailand Úngern Thaíland [the stress on the
diphthong 'ai', like in
English] Iceland Turkey Ísland Turkíet India Índien
Greetings and goodbyes
t has been said that the first impressions last. If that is true, it may be valuable to know how to
greet somebody in a proper way (Swedes are not, for instance, very given to cheek-kissing). Here is I
a list of some salutary phrases in Swedish. Try to find a couple you think could be useful and
Hej! This is the most common way of greeting someone, be it in a
formal or informal situation, and can be used as an equivalent of
‘How do you do’ as well as ‘Hi (there)’. Tjéna[re]! Informal and friendly. Actually an abbreviation of 17th and 18th
century phrases like ‘Jag förbliver Eder ödmjukaste tjänare’ (I
remain your most humble servant). Tja! Very informal and cool. An abbreviated form of ‘tjenare’, often
in combination with ‘ba’ (‘tjá’ba’), a reduced form of ‘bara’
(only), which in Swedish can be used like the English ‘sort/kind
of’ as a filler without a real meaning. God mórgon! Used in both formal and informal situations. Good morning!
God dag! This equivalent to ‘How do you do’ is mostly used to people you Good day! call ‘Ni’, e.g. elderly people, and on formal occasions. God kväll! The Swedish ‘good evening’ salute is nowadays mainly reserved Good evening! for somewhat formal meetings or to people you address with the
‘Ni’ pronoun. The synonymous expression ‘God afton’ is rather
antiquated by now.
‘Tj’ is pronounced a bit sharper than the English ‘sh’ sound – as in ‘shut’, but with the middle part of the tongue pressed more towards the palate (cp. German ‘ch’ in ‘ich’).
If you just have been introduced to someone you might add:
Trévligt att rå?kas! Demonstrating that you are a polite and well-behaved person. Nice to meet [you]!
Ángenä?mt! This equivalent to German ‘Angenehm’ and French ‘Enchanté’ Pleasant/nice [to meet you]! is definitely old-fashioned, but could be popular among mature
Like in English some consonants change sound when they are followed by certain vowels (café - city; guest -
gist). These so-called soft vowels are in Swedish: e, i y, ä, ö. The ‘g’ in ‘angenämt’, which preceeds the soft
vowel ‘e’, is therefore pronounced like ‘y’ in ‘yes’, not like ‘g’ in ‘good’. Read more about the rules for pro-
nounciation in chapter 8!
If you know the person in question you can ask:
Hur står det till? Has got a slightly formal touch, but can also be used in informal How stands it to? situations.
Hur är det? Informal, very common. How is it?
Hur har du det? Informal, very frequent. How have you it?
Hur är lä?get? A bit more informal, very common. Hos is the situation?
Lä?get? An abbreviated and more informal form of ”Hur är läget?”. A The situation? common combination is: ”Tjá’ba! Läget?” Hur går det? Could refer to life in general, but also to a specific task or job. How goes it?
Hur mår du? Showing concern, focusing on the health/well-being of some-How feel you? body.
Hur är det med [famíljen]? Showing more personal interest when including someone else. How is it with [the family]?
Tack, [bára] bra! Very common. Can be used no matter how you feel … Thanks, [just/only] fine!
Skápligt / Hýfsat With the Swedish avoidance of superlatives. Quite frequent. Fairly well / Decent
Så där / Det kúnde vára bä?ttre. Two variants of the same theme: ”Not very well, but I’ll sur-So there / It could be better vive”.
Ínte så bra, tyvä?rr. (You are expected to show genuine concern when somebody Not so good, unfortunately. tells you this.)
How to say goodbye…
Hej då! Very common, can be used anywhere. Hello then!
Adjö?! Formal, dismissive. When used alone equivalent to ‘good day’.
Adjö? så lä?nge! More informal than just ‘adjö’: ‘goodbye for now’, ‘so long’.
God natt! Informal, very frequent. Good night!
Farvä?l! Outmoded, often used in a melodramatic way. Farewell!
Ha det så bra! Informal, very common, like ‘take care’. Often in combination Have it soo good! with ‘hej då’.
Vi ses: See you! We see [each other]:
in morning [i.e. tomorrow] ??i kväll
in evening [i.e. tonight] ??snart
??om en stund
in a while
??på må?ndag / tísdag / ónsdag / tórsdag / frédag / lö?rdag / sö?ndag on Monday/Tuesday etc.
Things in general and particular
ractically nothing is left in English of the rich inflection of words that characterized the prehis-
toric ancestor of the Indo-European family. Traces of this ancient and very complex system of P
showing the exact meaning of a word in a sentence by changing its endings are still preserved in
many formations in related languages, to some extent also in Swedish. This can be seen in how
nouns, i.e. naming words (denoting persons, animals, things, material, and abstracts, like house,
love, and dog) are treated. To use the correct forms of a Swedish noun you need to know the answers
to the following questions:
Is the word an en word or an ett word?
??Indefinite or definite
Does the word denote something in general (indefinite form: ‘a bus’, any bus) or someone or something
specific (definite form: ‘the/this bus’)?
??Number: Singular or plural
Are you referring to one thing or several? (See chapter 4!)
This is less complicated than it sounds, however.
GENDER: EN OR ETT?
First of all, in Standard Swedish all nouns belong to one of two genders or sexes: the en-word group 1(in which we find approximately 80% of all nouns) or the ett-word group (around 20%). It is im-
portant to know which group a noun belongs to if you wish to speak good Swedish, since the group
belonging affects what endings or special forms of other words to use – but it may be comforting to know that the differences between the groups are not very big, and very seldom would anyone have
any difficulties in understanding you just because you have mixed up the groups. English is very
simple in this respect, since it treats all the nouns the same way: There is no grammatical difference
2between ‘a woman’ and ‘a child’, for example. In contrast to this very easy-to-learn system Swedish sees ‘woman’ as an en word (‘en kvínna’) but ‘child’ as an ett word (‘ett barn’), and therefore uses
two different words for the English ‘a’ to differentiate between them.
The rules for telling whether a noun is an en word or an ett word are rather intricate as well as vague, and it would be easier just to memorize each noun together with the article ‘en’ or ‘ett’ to
avoid confusion. Words denoting people and animals, though, are, with very few exceptions (among
them ‘ett barn’, and ‘ett djur’ – an animal), en words. If you are not sure what form to use, treat the noun as an en word; statistically you would then be right four times out of five.
1. Many Swedish dialects still use the older division of nouns into three genders: masculine, feminine, and
neuter, and refer to things as he, she or it, like German. In Standard Swedish the nouns of the original
masculine and feminine genders form the en-word group.
2. English has also two forms of the indefinite article: ‘a’ and ‘an’ (as in ‘an example’) both derived from the
word for ‘one’. Since which one to use is decided by the initial sound of the following word only, they do
not have the grammatical significance as the Swedish ‘en’ and ‘ett’.
INDEFINITE OR DEFINITE?
In English you use the word ‘the’ (which with a linguistic term is called ‘the definite article’) to
show that you are referring to one or several things or individuals in particular: ‘a bus’ but ‘the bus’,