Speaking Swedish properly
An article by Niclas Fogwall: © 2016

Speaking Swedish is not easy. The Swedish language requires certain pronunciation and intonation which require a lot of training to master in full. Unfortunately, many foreigners in Sweden do not get much feedback from native Swedes on their language skills. Either there is none around when you need it, or they are too kind to remark on whatever failed pronunciation that comes from your mouth. This article gives you six lessons on how to speak Swedish properly.

Lesson 1: Do not ignore the weird characters - Å Ä Ö.

My wife started to learn Swedish as an adult. It is thanks to her that I was able to write this article as I have seen her struggle countless times with the language. When she met my parents for the first time, she wanted to impress them by saying "Good evening, how are you?" in Swedish. However, they looked like two huge question marks since they did not understand a word of what she said. This is because she did not take into account the rule of short vs. long vowels (more about that in lesson 2) and for ignoring the additional "å", "ä" and "ö" vowels which are in fact just as important as any other vowel. My wife said "god kvall, hur mar du" instead of "god kväll, hur mår du". There are no such words as "kvall" or "mar" in Swedish. It is like saying: "My cer is rod" instead of "my car is red". The correct pronunciation is "kväll" as in "bell", and "mår" as in "more".

Lesson 2: There are short and there are long vowels.

In the example above, the "ä" should be pronounced as in "bell", and the "å" as in "more". Fortunately, there is a simple rule involved here. If there are two consonants after the vowel, it becomes short. And if the opposite, one consonant after the vowel, it becomes long. So, with this rule in mind, "kväll" - the "ä" is short, and is pronounced as in "bell" whereas "mår" should be pronounced as in "more". Examples with the opposite rule: "lär" ("learn") is a long vowel and is pronounced as in "air", and "åtta" ("eight") has a short vowel and is pronounced as in "odd". You might wonder why one should bother to distinguish short and long vowels. I will explain this below.

Lesson 3: Lam is not the same as lamm.

In Swedish, words are distinguished by the use of short vs. long vowels. Words such as "lam" (paralyzed) and "lamm" (lamb) are very different, not only in meaning but also in pronunciation. In lesson 2, above, you learned that the pronunciation of a vowel is determined by the number of consonants immediately following the vowel. Here, "lam" is pronounced as in "garden" and "lamm" is pronounced as in "cut". Another example: "dam" and "damm". "Dam" means "lady", and "damm" means "pond". And you surely would not want to mix up a lady with a pond, would you? Again, think of "garden" and "cut", and you get the pronunciation right.

Lesson 4: Tomten is not necessarily the same as tomten.

Intonation is just as important in the Swedish language as the use of short and long vowels. Let us take a closer look at "tomten". A "tomt" means a building site. When speaking in definite form, it becomes "tomten". Let us pretend that there were such a word in English called "tomt". Then, in definite form, we put "the" in front of it. But, in Swedish, the definite form is displayed after the word. "Tomt" becomes "tomten". But here comes the challenge - "tomten" also means "Santa Claus". Thus, "tomten" is here not the same as "tomten". But how will we know what kind of "tomten" someone refers to? Well, the words are pronounced differently, and here comes the intonation part. Although both have its emphasis on "o", it is still possible to hear a distinction between these two words by their different intonations. "Tomten" (the building site) has a short pitch upward, whereas "tomten" (Santa Claus) has a longer pitch further upward.

Lesson 5: Her name is My but you can never pronounce it.

Some words can be a real pain to pronounce, unless you are a native Swede. Let us take a look at the female name My. Well, it is not pronounced "my" as in "my name is...". Far from it. In fact, I cannot find any English word that can resemble to it. Here is how to pronounce it: form your lips so that they pout, as if trying to kiss someone, and, at the same time, pronounce a very long vowel "y" as if saying "Lyndon" very, very, slowly, "Lyyyndon". But it does not end there. There is also a diphthong involved. Think of the word "moist". Before you get a permanent ache in your jaw-joint, listen to the correct pronunciation further below.

Lesson 6: Inversion is a Swedish rule.

"Yesterday, I watched a movie." In Swedish, the word order is inverted. Thus, it becomes "Yesterday, watched I a movie." This rule applies when there is an event occuring just before the verb. "Every time I watch a movie, I think of yesterday" becomes "Every time I watch a movie, think I of yesterday". Although you might get away with ignoring the word order, Swedes will understand what you are saying, nodding in understanding, but will feel sorry for you because you apparently are not able to speak properly. Moreover, if you hold a speech, and commit these mistakes over and over again, people will stop listening.

These examples illustrate typical mistakes committed by foreigners speaking Swedish. I can promise you that when you start learning the importance of short vs. long vowels, and the inverted word order, you have come a long way in your goal to speak like a native Swede. Unfortunately, most foreigners in Sweden never get to learn these important facts, which is why I wrote this article.

Below you can hear my own voice when pronouncing the words mentioned above.

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