Thursday, January 10, 2008

Swedish Särskrivning is a Cultural Faux Pas

Särskrivning. Not sär skrivning. The act of spelling two words as one instead of two. Some see this as akin to kicking puppies. And no one likes that. Now I’ve never kicked a puppy, but I’m sure I’ve been a särskrivare before. But come on. It’s just a couple of words. People write into the newspaper complaining about the downfall of Swedish education. There is even a Swedish Facebook group against it.

Ofcoursethisresultsinverylongwordsthatmakeitarealpainintheassfornon-nativespeakerstodealwith. But so it goes. Personally, I’m amazed at the emotions that this issue raises. Discussions are had about this, people get into heated arguments about it. Tempers flare. Emotions are revealed that most people never knew Swedes had. All because of grammar.

Särskrivning makes it easier to read texts without a string of big words. And who decided it was a good idea to smush two words together? And for those us, like me, who managed to avoid Swedish grammar, how do you know when to smush words together? The only rule I’ve ever seen was a teacher who wrote a letter to the editor in the newspaper and said that when in doubt write them together.

It just seems like it would be easier to always write them separate. Is there a Swedish literary department who keeps track of these rules? Are new words constantly being added to the dictionary because two words are combined? Why does English still have so many more words than Swedish if Swedes can combine everything into a legitimate word? So many questions. So few answers. There has to be a Swede out there who has command of this. I need your help. Comment.

The särskrivning phenomenon says a lot about the Swedish way of life. The Swedish people in general I think. This blog, being very much a serious cultural and anthropological study of the many nuances of Sweden, never fails to tackle new theories about what makes a Swede a Swede. And I believe this plays an integral role in the development of the Swedish psyche.

Clearly, the dark and massive amounts of space in this country (I just read that only 10% of Sweden is cultivated) give people a lot of time to think. Maybe too much time. Holding the Nobel Prize for Literature gives Swedes everywhere a sense of literary vanity. Maybe too much vanity. Despite their claims to modernity, Swedes love tradition, and so new, single words are frightening. Sweden has very few big issue problems. The US has Iraq, Sweden has grammar. I love it.


  1. hahaha soo true! I think its cuz they are scared if something isnt like it always has been.... and Im the queen of sär skrivning...;P

  2. The meaning of phrases can change if the words are written together or apart. This can be changes from subtle nuances to diametrically opposite meaning.

    E.g. rökfritt vs rök fritt. The former is smoking prohibited but the latter is smoke freely. And the classic en korthårig sjuksköterska vs en kort hårig sjuk sköterska. The former means a short haired nurse and the latter means a short hairy sick nurse. Or kassaapparater vs kassa apparater, cash registers vs worthless/useless devices

    So there is a real reason to keep those words together or apart depending on the intended use.

  3. Although Finnish is totally different from Swedish, the same phenomenon of putting words together is there too. And, yes, like Tim commented, also in Finnish two words separated has a different meaning. Like, 'talon mies' vs. 'talonmies'. First being man of the house, the latter janitor.

    It's a pain to Finns as well. Younger people write them separately, because they don't know better :) Also I'm not always sure when two words should be written separately, so there you go!

  4. Tim is right. it can totally change the meaning of the word (or words, as you call them).
    The rules are very easy - if it's two or more words that together create one word, you should write it together. Maybe it's just me, but to me that seems just as easy as always writing them separate as you proposed, plus it doesn't change the meanings of words just as Tim showed. That's why people oppose to it and also because it "Englifies" the Swedish language. Damn it, we want to keep our language Swedish. But I don't get that upset if someone särskriver but I don't do it myself, I mean why is it so hard to put them together?

    I don't think that English has so MANY more words. They probably got MORE words though, since they were invaded by the Romans and got a lot of Latin words and I don't know why but they also got a lot of French words. Not to mention all the Germanic words they already had. And no, all words that could be written together are of course not in the dictionary, I mean come on, then it would be like what, 500 billions words or something...

    Saskia, come on you only use that as an excuse to "be allowed" to särskriva.

  5. well can't you ask the swedish nobel peace writer for the answer to this? he or she obviously knows something! or i would hope so anyways

  6. @saskia - it happens, there are just so many words that need to be written together it seems

    @tim - that's exactly the kind of answer I was looking for. Obviously it makes sens then not to separate words when it changes the meaning of the sentence. And thanks for all of the examples!

    @smek this - I've heard that it happens even more in Finland and that you see even longer words than in Swedish. Is this true?

    @robban - you're right... if it changes the meaning completely it makes sense, and it's not hard to put them together, but for someone who grew up writing in English it is incredibly difficult to get used to the idea of combining so many words.

    And I think you bring up something very interesting with Anglicization of the Swedish language. So many Swedes pepper their speech with English sayings, terms, or just words. It is hard to get through a conversation without hearing some English thrown in. But at the same time, as you point out, people are immensely proud of keeping the language Swedish. Seems to be two very opposing ideals.

    What I don't understand then is about all of the words not being in the dictionary. For example, when looking at Tim's comment: "kassaapparater vs kassa apparater, cash registers vs worthless/useless devices"
    those are two very different things and seems like they should both show up in the dictionary. I'm sure there are countless examples like this. Is this just something that is innate to native Swedish speakers that it is not necessary?

    @mrs. cecrux - you would sure hope so...

  7. Well, kassaapparat would be in the dictionary, I think, as would other sammansatta words that are regularly used. But I mean you can basically put all wrods together with all words in infinite combinations so it would be imposssible to have all sammansatta words in the dictionary.
    For example, ankstjärt (hehe, I know...) would be unnecessary to have in the dictionary and then you would have to have all words like that: andstjärt, gåssstjärt, måsstjärt etc. (you knwo the list...). instead you just have anka and stjärt, everybody know that you can put them together but there's no need to have the word ankstjärt in the dictionary. You get my point?

    All those people using an English word all the time probably has to do with you living in Stockholm. They always try to be so "international"...pathetic really...

  8. as a happy accident i discovered your blog. i think you left a comment on a blog i read sometimes regarding a post about learning a new language from watching the news of that country/language on TV. anyway, i'm glad i found you/this. my grandfather grew up on Öland before coming to the States when he was 18. i am beginning to feel a strong desire to visit and who knows, if i like it, maybe move there some day. anyway, i enjoy your writings and their helping me learn more about life in Sweden.

  9. You're right, there are veeery long words in Finnish, but some Swedish words are also long. Have never measured them in that sense.

    When it comes to the Swedish word kassaapparat, it's very confusing. If it was Finnish it would be written as kassa-apparat, since two same vocals close to each other but from different words are very hard to read when put together like this. That's one of the nasties in Swedish!

  10. @paul - glad you're enjoying the blog! you should definitely make a trip out here. it's always a good idea to go on an adventure.

    @smek this - hyphens would make things so much easier!

  11. reminds me of that post where smek this wrote, "slut station" referring to the train terminal. okej, could be quiet harmless when read/understood in swedish but since the blog is in english, it can easily be interpreted as the one with that dirty meaning. turned out to be quiet funny anyway in his entry!

  12. I thank Tim for already making it so very clear to you why you shouldn't "särskriva" I became actually quite angry myself when I read your text :-P

    I think that "särskrivning" is on par with replacing their's with there's, or it's with its, and vice versa. And I frequently see this mistake being made by mostly english speaking people :D

  13. @ mogli - you're right I love translating stuff like that... or not translating I guess. Or partially translating stuff like "slutrea" slut sale. Good times. Again my immaturity shines through.

    @mattias - Tim did do an excellent job of describing it. But I still see words that I just don't understand what the harm is in writing them as two words. and tomorrow I'm going to be paying more attention so I can find some examples because I'm done for tonight.

  14. That's right - I'm anti-American, don't bother asking me...January 27, 2008 at 4:57 PM

    Isn't it more Iraq has the US?

  15. Even if some words don't change their meaning if you "särskriver" them it's annoying because you need to know which syllables(?) to stress when you're reading the text. If you have to make a pause in between two särskrivna ord it just sounds different, you know?

  16. I do know... but unfortunately it doesnt make it any easier for me.

  17. Avoiding "sarskrivning" is so incredibly easy. That's why people are annoyed by it.

    You know what a substantive is right?
    A soul
    A ball
    A car

    Yeah you get it. In English a substantive can consist of two words.

    A corn bread
    A popcorn bag

    Corn and popcorn in these two substantives aren't ADJECTIVES they are just part of the word.


    However we DON'T have this in the Swedish language. SUBSTANTIVES CAN'T CONSIST OF SEVERAL WORDS.

    A corn bread = Ett majsbrod
    A popcorn bag = En popkornpase


    Majs and popkorn aren't ADJECTIVES they are part of the word. And therefore you can't write them apart.


    Is it really that hard to understand?

    Sarskrivningar sabbar takten nar man laser och ibland lurar dom en totalt. Sedan ser det otroligt slarvigt och omoget ut.

    Det ar sa latt sa otroligt javla latt att undvika det.

    Sedan blir det sa sorgligt nar du blandar in din engelska och sager saker som "jag forstar inte vad grejjen ar" du kan jamfora det med att totalt misshandla det engelska spraket med felstavningar overallt osv. Det blir jobbigt och lasa och ser allmant slappt ut.

    Det ar skillnad pa
    Ful gubbe

    Kul potatis

    Sjuk skoterska

    Finns hur manga exempel som helst.



    Vi har tillrackligt med idioter som valdtar varat sprak. Du som en vuxen manniska kan ju ta lite ansvar.

  18. its going to be ok. the sky isnt going to fall if I separate words every now and again.

    despite being fluent, Swedish is not my first language. I will make mistakes.

    I'll take some responsibility, so don't worry. You take yours.

    For example "A corn bread?" Nope. Never heard of "A corn bread." Ever.

  19. Fy, FAN "anonymous", var snäll och chill out, mannen. Det var precis vad som Hairy Swede skrev om -- folk gettin pissed off because of grammatik !

    Haha hairy, jag skrattade mkt när jag läste "US has Iraq, Sverige has grammar" hehehe så kul ;) men SANT. Oxå, dock, Sverige har ju sin egen interna kris nu...ARBETSLÖSHET, blehhh. Tror jag inte att nån har tiden att oroa sig över grammatik anymore :/ Fortfarande, jag oxå e swedish by blood, american by birth...I would like to say I have sufficient mastery of both languages, men fan särskrivning kommer alllllltid att vara ett problem för mej, fy.

    iaf, I don't care how fluent / not fluent / native / not native you are, no one on planet earth will always have perfect grammar...even the Nobel prize winner had an editor review his work before publishing it, självklart ! Everyone in the whole world sucks at spelling, because of our reliance on technology (ie, spellcheck). It's natural adaptation -- we aren't required to memorize proper spellings anymore.

    But I think we ALL should be responsible for being civil and polite; Hairy Swede has definitely done his part, "Anonymous" has not :/

    Tusen tack för din blogg, jag gillar det mkt!

  20. I couldnt have made that persons response up if I ahd tried. it was the perfect example of everything I wrote about.

    good to see others appreciated it as much as I did!

    I agree though, at some point, all those grammatical rules fall by the wayside. For example, I hate commas. But instead of ranting about them on blogs, I choose to use them incorrectly and not apologize for that.

    Some day I might figure out the whol särskrivning thing, if not, well Im pretty ok with that.

  21. It's never wrong to use hyphens. So if you find it easier, use them in every concatenated word. It may look a bit odd to a native with a hyphen in every other word, but they can't accuse you of grammatical errors. :)

  22. oooh, I love it. a sneaky way around the rule!

  23. Well, I can tell you it's more or less the same in Denmark. Almost all words made up of two words should be concatenated there as well, and not written apart - though many people do. And no - using a hyphen is not acceptable according to grammar rules ;) They can only be used in a few specific cases, and not when words are supposed to be concatenated to one word.

  24. well clearly my hopes of spelling properly int he scandinavian languages are dwindling...

  25. As a Swede I think it's really easy to understand särskrivning, and it's important to understand särskrivning if you want to write correctly in Swedish.

    It may seem rather unimportant for a non-Swede, but it can be a big problem when communicating with a Swede.

    But I guess it's just a matter of time before you get the hang of it.

    I have the same problem with English, I skipped most english classes in school and I started to work when I was 16, so I still have some problems with the grammar.

    Who/whom - in Swedish there is only one word - vem, much easier.

    To/too - For a Swede these two words can be confusing, cos they have so many meanings (and it doesn't help that they look almost the same).
    In Swedish we have - till, att, på ,intill, emot, jämfört, också, för, även, alltför, dessutom and many more.

    I don't mean that the Swedish grammar system is easier or better, cos I know that the Swedish language is one of the most difficult to learn.

    I just mean that the only way to learn a language is to use it, speak, write and read.

    Hairy Swede har du några bra knep för att veta om man ska använda to eller too?
    Jag vet ju att to betyder typ - till, att, på och att too betyder också, för, även.
    Men ibland blir jag ändå jäkligt osäker, så finns det något knep man kan använda om man blir osäker?


  26. I have definitely made the occasional when writing emails to colleagues that has resulted in some laughter.

    when it comes to to or too though I think your best bet is this: the additional "o" means you are talking about something additional. "too" much candy for example or that you would like some candy "too." in all other cases, you can pretty much be confident with the "to."

    that made a lot more sense in my head than it did when written down. hopefully it made sense.

  27. That's a good example Hairy, you just know which to use (to/too) but it's hard to explain, right?

    It's the same with särskrivning for Swedes, we just know.
    But when someone ask you about it, it can be a problem sometimes to explain.

    Well, it's not the end of the world if you don't särkriver correctly.


  28. I might say trying to explain the trick is too hard. see what I did there? to/too. man I am amazing.

    anyway, agreed, and I do actually thnik I am getting better at the särskrivning. its just taken damn near three years.

  29. How stupid can you get? It has nothing to do with being afraid of change or having too much time to think.
    Just ask yourself why we humans have languages to start with. To communicate, right? And a language is nothing but a set of rules and sounds that the speakers of the language have agreed upon to mean specific things. One word is assigned to one object, feeling, colour or whatever. So when someone puts up a sign that says "rök fritt", what the hell does that mean? Can I smoke or can't I? Or "mjuk glass". Or "vår rea". Is vår rea a spring sale or our sale? Is blå bär a blueberry or assorted blue berries ffs?

  30. Stumbled across this thread by accident. It is all an example of "attitudes" towards a new language when you are trying to learn it. There is a very persistant myth about 'särskrivning'; that it doesn't exist in any other language. Totally false. (Just like the ubiquitous myth about the Swedish word "lagom".) In ALL languages it is necessary when the result would mean something else, such as in the examples here. In English, consider for instance "a groundhog" vs "a ground hog". The first is an animal, and the second some quite brutal animal abuse. English is just as difficult to learn as any other language, including Swedish. You're just focussing on what you don't understand. Similarly a Swede first arriving in the US would not understand the difference between groundhog and ground hog. But it is no reason to be saying it makes the language more difficult than any other.

  31. Mona, that was totally a joke. And while I struggle quite a bit sometimes, I am well aware that it has nothing to ACTUALLY do with how much time Swedes have to think or that they are afraid of change.

    And Danny, you're right, I totally didn't get it at the time. And still struggle with it today sometimes. But having taught languages for four years now, I do think that little things like this make for challenges when learning a language. Of course, by many accounts, Swedish is still a quite easy language to learn for a lot of people.