Confusion Caused by Swedish Suffixes

Written by Dyami Millarson

As a North Germanic language, Swedish makes frequent use of suffixes that do not exist in West Germanic languages. This may be confusing, particularly to those who are not familiar with the North Germanic suffix system observed in Swedish nouns and verbs. Swedish uses suffixes with nouns to denote indefinite vs. definite, while this is the norm among North Germanic languages. For instance, hjärtan means hearts (indefinite), while hjärtana means the hearts (definite). Somewhat confusingly, the suffix -s may be added to plural/singular indefinite/definite forms to denote a genitive: hjärtans of heartshjärtanas of the hearts, hjärts of hearthjärtats of the heart.

At the same time, Swedish idiosyncratically uses the suffix -s and the lack thereof (linguistically indicated with ) with verbs to denote active voice vs. passive voice. For instance, att höra means to hear (active voice), while att höras means to be heard (passive voice). Confusingly, some Swedish verbs, such as att andas to breathe, occur only in the passive voice and must be understood as having an active meaning. While reading Swedish, these suffixes may confuse the learner to the extent that he loses sight of all meaning behind what he is reading, turning the Swedish sentences into frighteningly meaningless gobbledygook to the learner’s mind.

As we have seen above, a Swedish word is often a word with a suffix attached to it. When one encounters confusing suffixes in Swedish, my advice is to focus on the root of the word, such as hjärt- heart and hör- hear, rather than the distracting suffixes, such as -as-anas-ats, -ans and -an, because roots are meaningful parts of words, while suffixes are grammatical abstractions (they are not meaningful in the same way roots are). One can more easily guess the meaning of the Swedish sentences if one ignores the suffixes for a moment. Moreover, one may tell oneself to temporarily ignore the grammatical distinctions between indefinite and definite forms, genitive and non-genitive forms, and active and passive forms, because the meaning of the suffixes may in most cases be guessed from the context (for instance, they do not make a distinction between plural and singular nouns and definite and indefinite nouns in Chinese either, so it is not really that essential). Therefore, the suffixes in themselves are not significant, but they are rather clarifications of what can already be guessed from the context of the sentences. This must be kept in mind when one is reading Swedish sentences.

Understanding suffixes is not the point, but the point is to understand the sentences themselves and consequently to see the confirmation of the structure of the sentences in the suffixes. The suffixes may be understood as a reading/listening aid. They are not an end in themselves. The roots are the point to focus one’s full attention on while reading or listening to Swedish sentences. The comprehension of Swedish sentences depends on a learner’s ability to not just know the grammar, which is more or less secondary, but to grasp the meaning of the roots of the words that he encounters. It is an attention exercise as well as a memory exercise, because relying on one’s memory, one ought to know what the roots mean and if one does not know the meaning of the root, one may try to guess its meaning based on the context before picking up a dictionary.

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