How to Unlock the ‘Secrets’ of Swedish

Written by Dyami Millarson

The pointing of knowing Swedish is not just to be able to comprehend written and spoken Swedish, but also to produce your own sentences either in written or spoken Swedish. While comprehension is a big concern, sentence-building is equally a big concern for him who wishes to know Swedish. With this in mind, here follows an overview of things that one ought to pay attention to in order to unlock Swedish:

  • Observe the Swedish syntax. Swedish has an SVO general word order. However, when a phrase or adverb precedes the verb, the general word order is VSO. The prevailing word order in questions is VSO as well. Unlike all Frisian languages, Dutch and German, Swedish as a North Germanic language exhibits no SOV word order in clauses. Like English, the past participle precedes the object: Jag har sett det, I have seen it. This is, however, unlike all Frisian language, Dutch and German where it is the opposite way around: the object precedes the past participle. Edit on 15 October 2019: SOV is possible in Swedish high speech (högtidigt), but this might be deemed artificial. I think high speech is exceedingly rare, whereas in Continental West Germanic, SOV is the norm in many cases. If we were to count the frequency of SOV in any lengthy Continental West Germanic text as compared to lengthy texts in Swedish, then we would immediately see that SOV is extremely common in Continental West Germanic, not so much in Swedish. For as far as I can tell intuitively, SOV in Swedish might be an artificial imitation of German.
  • One has to take note of all the suffixes being used esp. in Swedish nouns and verbs. However, one should not get distracted by them, as I have pointed out yesterday on this blog, because the point is to grasp complete Swedish sentences.
  • One has to add den (if common gender) or det (if neuter gender) in front of singular definite nouns used with adjectives and de in front of plural definite nouns used with adjectives: den vackra dagen the beautiful day, de vackra dagarna the beautiful days. Note that the adjective ends in -a when used after de(n)/det. This is the weak form of the adjective. When the adjective is used after an article, demonstrative pronoun or possessive pronoun, the weak form of the adjective is used, which always ends in -a: den vackra boken, den här/där vackra boken, sin/hans vackra boken. When the adjective is used attributvely after ett/en or when the adjective is used attributively with an indefinite plural noun (några may be added for expressing grammatical indefiniteness – similar to the use of indef. article en/ett – before the adjective in this case) or when the adjective is used predicatively, the strong form of the adjective is used, which will end in in the singular if it is an en-noun, or in -t in the singular if it is an ett-noun, or -a if it is in the plural of any grammatical gender: en vacker dag a beautiful day, ett vackert/gott (god + -t = gott) hus a beautiful/good house, vackra dagar beautiful days, (den) dagen är vacker the day is beautiful, (det) huset är vackert the house is beautiful, (de) dagarna är vackra the days are beautiful. Note that the article de(n)/det may be omitted when the adjective is used predicatively (optional omission), but when it is used attributively, there is no other choice but to use the article de(n)/det
  • Swedish distinguishes sin and hennes/hans/deras. The former refers to the subject of the sentence, the latter does not refer to the subject. Han åkte hem med sin fru. He went home with his (own) wife. Han åkte hem med hans fru. He went home with his (another person’s) wife. The nuance is important, because while the former sounds innocent, the latter might be suggestive of adultery!
  • Note that the demonstrative is built in Swedish by combining här (denoting proximity) or där (denoting distance) with the article de(n)/det and when this demonstrative is used attributively with a noun, this noun receives the definite suffix as a rule: den här/där hästen (common gender sing.), det här/där huset (neuter gender sing.), de här/där hästarna/husen (both genders plur.). The construction of the demonst. pronoun takes time to get used to in the Peninsular North Germanic languages (excl. the Insular North Germ. languages spoken in Iceland and the Faroe Islands) when one is familiar with West Germanic languages where demonst. pronouns are not constructed with adverbs. After all, de(n)/det här/där looks not just weird to West Germanic speakers but intuitively incorrect, and that is why West Germanic speakers might have a hard time making sense of this at first (this is similar to what happens with den, which could cause significant confusion as to the meaning of the sentence). Even more bizarre in the eyes of West Germanic speakers is the fact that the definite suffix is used with the noun in cases where the demonstrative is used attributively. However, the grammatical logic of West Germanic could help make sense of this because the weak forms of adjectives is employed in West Germanic when a demonstrative is used attributively, which could also be considered a double marker of grammatical definiteness.
  • Swedish (interrogative) adverbs take motion into account just like English in the past: varifrån whence (= from where) vart whither (= to what place) vs. var where (no motion), härifrån hence (= from this place) vs. hit (= from this place) vs. här = here, därifrån thence (from that place) vs. dit thither (to that place) vs. där there (no motion). This may require additional attention and practice to familiarise oneself with.
  • Confusingly to West Germanic speakers, there are two translations for ‘it’ in Swedish: det and den. The former may come as the most natural to West Germanic speakers, but the latter may take time to get used to. The difference lies in the fact that det refers to ett-nouns whilst den refers to en-nouns. So when you just used a sentence with bok book (en-noun) and want to say it is beautiful, then you render it as den är vacker, or when you just used a sentence with hus house (ett-noun) and want to say it is beautiful, then you render it as det är vackert. West Germanic speakers may confuse den for an accusative form, but it is either an article or pronoun in Swedish that makes no distinction between either nominative or accusative. The genitive or possessive form of det and den is the same in Swedish: dess. Since they share the same form in the gen./poss., one does not need to worry about the distinction between the two in that case.
  • One must note for oneself what one considers the hardest (short) frequent words in Swedish. For me, these were the following: att to, att that (relative pronoun), then, at that time (adverb), since (conjunction), eftersom since/because (conjunction), genom through, eller or, och and, ju you know, där there, här here, som as/like, som who(m)/that/which (relative pronoun), än than, när when, hur how, varför why/wherefore, därför therefore, kvar left/remaining, bort away, bara only, men but, inte not, också also, mycket very/much/a lot, ännu still, fast(än) although, ljus light (noun), sol sun, olika different, än then, allt everything, stor big, lite a bit/little. In the beginning, I had a hard time getting used to these words.
  • Note typical expressions where the variation makes no sense: att ha ont i magen to have stomach ache, att ha ont i halsen to have neckache, att ha tandvärk to have toothache, att ha huvudvärk to have headache.
  • There is no single translation for the preposition “of” in Swedish: till, av, i, etc.
  • Swedish distinguishes two kinds of participles: the supine that may be used with the auxiliary verb ha and the past participle that is only used as an adjective. Example: Jag har skrivit, I have written. Den skriven brev, the written letter.
  • Swedish makes very specific distinctions between paternal and maternal grandparents. No exact translation of grandparent is possible, one will have to specify what side of the family it is.
  • As far as rote memorisation is concerned, one should memorise all Swedish conjunctions and frequent adverbs, all the personal and possessive pronouns as well as all their forms (that is for the pers. pron.: the nominative, merged dative-accusative, and genitive; that is for the poss. pron.: the merged feminine-masculine and the neuter), and the forms of all Swedish strong/irregular verbs.
  • Give due attention to somewhat less frequent yet peculiar words that one might like to use in one’s own sentences: syn eyesight, dagg dew, axel shoulder, blixt lightning, styrka strength, moln cloud, åskväder thunder-storm, etc.
  • Select vocabulary by theme of what one expects to use or what one expects to encounter in correspondence/conversation. My main interest has been to learn linguistic vocabulary for Swedish: language/speech, dialect, tongue, teeth, ears, to learn, foreign language, grammar, etc. However, I am competent in other areas as well and so I can understand Swedish texts on a variety of topics. It is just that I expect to use Swedish particularly in a setting of language-learning and language science and I expect to use it especially for answering the question whether or not some speech system is a language or dialect, to answer the popular question what is the distinction between language and dialect, and to answer the recurring question why I have learned this or that particular language.

Language-learning is all about what one decides to dedicate one’s mind and time to. We have neither unlimited energy nor time. So we ought to be efficient by keeping our specific goals in mind.

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