Thursday, September 04, 2008

Fun with the Swedish Language

Today I had a bit of an adventure in Swedish. Now I am pretty much fluent. I can speak the language, I can understand the language. I can have a conversation with most people without them realizing I’m not Swedish. But sometimes it still just kind of trips me up. Of course, the English language does the same but anyway.

This afternoon I found myself having to leave a message as a job follow-up. And I hate leaving messages. I always feel like I am rambling on, even if I have kept it short and concise. I also have a habit of wishing people a good day, evening, lovely Thursday, wonderful weekend, something to that extent. I’m not sure why, maybe it’s that friendly Americanism coming out. But today it just kind of felt like it went wrong. And maybe it would have gone wrong in English too. But I was working with Swedish.

It’s Thursday. I know it is Thursday. And today when I left a message for someone, I was assuming that they knew I knew it was Thursday and would probably not get back to me until next Monday. However, one should never assume, because it makes an ass out of u and me. Cute huh?

And I assumed. At the end of the message, I said, “I hope you have a wonderful Friday and a fortsatt trevlig helg.” A nice weekend basically. Sometimes I’m a little slow. And as I hung up, I realized what I had just done. Because had I received a message like that, I would have thought that the person was under the impression that today was Friday. Not Thursday. And we all know its Thursday. Unless you are in Australia.

This led to that fleeting moment of wanting to call back and correct myself. Which quickly passed because I thought it necessary to retain some semblance of dignity and not dig myself a hole. So I kept my cell phone shut.

But as the day wore on I started thinking about the Swedish language. And various adventures in Swedish. Which led me to some glorious Swedish words. Now I am well aware that this happens in every language. It’s just a collection of words that literally translated to English have a somewhat different meaning.

Sometimes, the Swedes just keep it simple as evidenced by the first word on the list. Other times, they mean what they are supposed to mean but just make me laugh because of my English language background. And so without further ado, a collection of Swedish words that bring a smile to my face. Please add your own in the comments sections, because there are plenty I’ve forgotten.

Grönsaker – literally “green things,” actually “vegetables.”
Tandkött – literally “tooth meat,” actually “gums.”
Surströmming - literally “sour herring,” actually well… fermented herring, rumored to be edible.
Jordgubbar – literally “earth men,” actually “strawberries.”
Kofångare – literally “cow catcher,” actually “bumper.”
Sjukhus – literally “sick house,” actually “hospital.”
Slut – literally “finished,” actually “finished” (but come on… it’s kind of funny).
BH – stands for “bröst hållare,” literally “breast holder,” actually “bra.”
Pepparkakor – literally “pepper cookies,” actually “gingersnaps” (but much more delicious).
Fruktkött – literally “fruit meat,” actually “pulp.”
Björnbär – literally “bear berry,” actually “blackberry.”
Jordnötter – literally “earth nuts,” actually “peanuts.”
Bröstvårta – literally “breast wart,” actually “nipple.”
Infart, utfart – literally “entrance, exit,” actually the exact same thing. But again. It’s just funny.

Welcome to Sweden.

Since I first posted this I've had a few suggestions. Some coming from the depths of my own mind, others from readers who have commented below. So here is an extended version:

Blixtlås - literally “lightning lock,” actually “zipper.”
Flodhäst - literally “river horse,” actually “hippopotamus.”
Kiss (from anonymous) – literally “kiss” obviously, actually “pee.” Keep reading.
Puss – literally well... your pick... actually “kiss.” Do not get confused and say you want to “kissa på dig” you might think it means you want to kiss them in some weird “kiss on you” way. If that’s your style. It would not mean that.
Tvättbjörn (from JD) - literally “washing bear,” actually “raccoon.”
Andedräkt (from anonymous) – literally “spirit clothing,” actually “breath.”
Färgglad - literally “color happy,” actually “colorful.”

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  1. I'm sure they won't even give your comment a second thought, don't worry about it! And thanks for the laughs. I enjoyed all of the literal translations, but laughed out loud at bröstvårta, jordgubbar and grönsaker. I have none to add, but will look forward to other responses!

  2. I think my favorite is actually tandkött, mostly because it just seems so gross.

  3. Just curious - did you grow up speaking Swedish at home? Was it difficult for you to start using it regularly when you actually came to live in Sweden? Hilarious post, by the way. I always find it interesting how a language (and culture) express some things that might sound strange to another.

  4. i've always been a fan of bastardizing the swedish language with direct translations from english. one of my favorites: "knullat up" or conforming to the swedish rules for a partikel verb "upknullat." my spelling might be off, but i think the point is clear.

  5. Kiss - "urine"
    This falls under the same category as slut and fart I guess.
    I remember growing up and hearing about the rock band "KISS".
    Fack - "workers union"

    För att kommentera dina tankar kring det här meddelandet du lämnade. Mottagaren utgår väl helt enkelt från att du inte är anträffbar på fredagen om det nu inte är så att h*n förstår din tankekedja direkt? Hursomhelst så förstår jag själva grejen att bli osäker på det där sättet. Händer mig jämt och ständigt. Det har ju inte så mycket med språk att göra utan snarare personlighet och så.

  6. @tab - I grew up speaking both actually. once we moved to the US it slowly turned into me only speaking English. however, my dad spoke Swedish with us even though we answered in English. and as I got a little older I decided that I kind of liked having that second language so worked omn responding in Swedish more often. by the time I moved here I was pretty fluent and it has only improved.

    @ellis - you'll be happy to know that the bastardization has continued and Swedes can use the term fucka upp. some guy even came out with a book titled aldrig fucka upp.

    @anonymous - I can't believe I missed kiss. well done. puss kind of gets in there too, it actually meaning kiss.

    and I think you're probably right about the message, chances are they understood and didn't think twice about it. I also agree that its more about my personality than my language skills because to be honest Ive done plenty of similar things in the English language. so it goes.

  7. my favorites:

    Tvättbjörn - literally "washing bear", actually "raccoon". Silly swedes, just call it a raccoon!

  8. One swedish word that is actually missing in english:dygn.
    ...And of course my favourite swedish word: andedräkt(=spirit clothing=breath). Very poethic, and it makes sense in a cold climate!

  9. another good one... and you're right, when it's cold out you definitely understand how that one works.

  10. Ive updated the list. You've done good people. You've done good.

  11. I don't know if any of these are funny:

    Dammsugare - literally "dust sucker", actually "vacuum cleaner".

    Mormor - literally "mothermother", actually "maternal grandmother".

    Järnväg - literally "iron road", actually "railroad".


    Then there are those Indo-European (Germanic or Latin in this case) words that have taken on different meanings in the two languages:

    Ansvar ("att svara för något") - "to answer for something", that is "responsibility"; same word as "answer."

    Korn - "grain"; same word as "corn"


    Then there are those words in English which stem from "Old Norse" ("fornnordiska", in other words old Nordic/Scandinavian for those who don't know what "Norse" means). Somewhere around 3% of the words in English stem directly from Old Norse (as opposed to, for example, just sharing Indo-European roots). Source: "The American Heritage Dictionary".

    Background: The British Islands were not only invaded several times by Scandinavians (often called "vikings"), but have also been under direct rule of King Canute/Cnut/Knut/Knutr of Denmark (in the case of England). Then there was the Norman ("north man", same word as the Swedish word for Norwegian - "norrmann") invasion of "Frenchified" vikings attacking and changing the course of English history at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 from what therefore is referred to as "Normandie").

    Here are a few examples:

    Husband - Old Norse "husbondi"; Swedish "husbonde", a word that during the 20th century has become superfluous as society has changed. It literally means "house farmer", kind of like "man/master of the house/farm".

    Cake - Old Norse "kaka"; modern Swedish "kaka" (meaning "cake" as well as "cookie").

    Egg (both meanings) - Old Norse "egg" and "eggja"; modern Swedish "ägg" and "egga" ("ä" is a modern version of an "a" with an "e" on top of it).

    Bag - Old Norse "baggi", extinct in Swedish, but still exists in Icelandic, "bag" borrowed back into Swedish in the 20th century.

    Dirt - Old Norse "drit" (dialectal Swedish, and same thing in modern Norwegian).

    Slaughter - slakt

    Keel - Old Norse "kjölr"; modern Swedish "köl" (the letter "ö" is a modern form of an "o" with an "e" on top).

    Weak - Old Norse "veikr"; modern Swedish "vek" ("svag").

    Crawl - Old Norse "krafla"; modern Swedish "kravla".

    Scale (only in its third meaning, as in a device for determining weight) - modern Swedish "skål", meaning "bowl"; similar spelling in Old Norse.

    Snare (as in the meaning "trap") - Old Norse "snara"; modern Swedish "snara".

    Gasp - Old Norse "geispa", to yawn; modern Swedish "gäspa".

  12. oh wow... this is glorious. Good work! Thanks, very cool to see all of this.

    And dammsugare is beautiful! I can't believe I forgot it.

  13. I hate the word bröstvårta, it's so horribly unsexy!

  14. yeah it is pretty bad, so is vårtgård, areola. Just not attractive names really.

  15. I find "igelkott" to be a really strange word. It means hedgehog, but translates as "leech cone", with some imagination.

    Two other things wort mentioning: "semester" is half a year of school in English, while in Swedish it means "vacation". "Gift" in Swedish means both "poison" and "married" in English.

    Great blog by the way, I love reading foreign views on Swedish culture!

  16. Damn, someone already wrote "dammsugare" - one of my favourites.
    However, I do have a few more.

    "Sugrör" is my absolute favourite. Literally "suck pipe", actually "straw" (the kind you put in a drink)

    "Ljusstake" - literally "light rod/boner/balls" (depending on how you use the word "stake"), actually "candle stick"

    "Stekspade" - literally "frying spade/shovel/trowel", actually "spatula"

    "Handtag" - literally "hand take/grab/grasp", actually "handle/knob" (as in e.g. "dörrhandtag" = "door handle")

    "Element" is a funny word in the sense that it means both "part/factor/unit" and, most commonly, "radiator"

    Well, there are a never-ending amount of hilarious translations to be done here, but yeah...I don't have the time or energy for that.

  17. There *is a never-ending amount of...

    Gosh, I SO can't believe I dropped the ball like that. Must've been tired.

  18. Yes! I love these. Good job folks!

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