Of all the
academic opponents that I have faced during my brief intellectual career
perhaps none have proven as formidable as the Swedish language. My desire
to pursue Scandinavian linguistics began three years ago while I lived
in Europe and contemporaneously pursued a love interest with a beautiful
Swedish woman. If love is stronger than death, as countless romantics have
proclaimed over the centuries, then surely, I thought, love could catapult
me with ease through the mere process of gaining fluency in her native
tongue. Not even being a monolingual American (or in other words an
average American) could sidetrack my optimism, for after all, if love
could not carry me then I could always fall back on my previous tinkering
in German, Greek and Hebrew.
as I soon discovered, my optimism proved gravely misguided. The truth is
that Swedish stands alone in the world as a linguistic anomaly. It is in
fact a world unto itself.
For this reason,
I offer the following as a warning to those, who like the confident and
love-struck student I once was, find themselves attempting with naivety
to access what is, at essence, an inaccessible language.
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One problem with
learning Swedish is that it relies heavily upon tone to carry meaning.
In this respect it has more in common with some Asian languages than anything
As a tonal
language, Swedish, like Chinese, is particular in that words differ not
only in quantitative respects (such as the difference between dog and
dogmatic) but also in qualitative respects (as dictated, for example,
by accent and melody). What this means is that speaking Swedish correctly
depends not only on what is said, but also how one says it.
As a native
speaker of American English and therefore a master of monotony, my
attempts to formulate words with respect to accent have not come without
frustration. There is perhaps nothing I have done more embarrassing
than engaging in deep theological conversation about the Trinity, only
to later discover that I had spent the better part of two hours talking
about the Father, the Son and the Holy Duck (Anden as opposed to Anden).
Of course, such discrepancies would be forgivable if they were rare occurrences.
Swedish affords no such luck, boasting over three hundred similar accent-differentiated
word pairs. In case this is not difficult enough, Swedish also relies
upon melody to carry meaning. All of us have heard parodies of Swedish
by the likes of the Swedish Chef, and all of us, it seems, are able to
replicate this singsong nature of the language with relative ease. But
to accurately reproduce the Swedish melody in the heat of conversation
is something altogether different. Proof of this comes each time I attempt
to share a melodic sentence with a native speaker. In these situations,
blank stares of incomprehension by my Swedish counterparts are often the
only communication we share up until the point that my girlfriend or another
merciful Swedish bystander bails me out by repeating the exact same sentence
with the proper melody. Herein rests one of my biggest complaints with
this tonal language: despite having perfect vocabulary and perfect grammar,
I am still able to mangle it beyond recognition.
lest we give too much credit to the role of melody in making Swedish
inaccessible, we must also discuss Swedish sounds. As I have discovered,
the sounds of Swedish are nearly impossible to grasp. Perhaps the most
elusive of these is the voiceless palatal-velar fricative (or in layman’s
terms, the “sje sound”).
have a monopoly on this one, for it exists nowhere else in the world. In
this respect, trying to replicate the sound is like trying to shoot black
targets in a pitch-black room after being spun in circles for ten minutes:
one simply has no point of reference to even begin. To further complicate
matters, numerous regional variations within Swedish lead to a relative
lack of national standardization. Whereas in the north, the sje
sound resembles something like the rush of water coming from a faucet,
the same sound in the south carries more similarity to the noise one makes
when swinging a golf club.
of standardization only compounds my dilemma, for even if I reproduce
with perfection the sounds of Skånska, the dialect of my girlfriend
from the south, ninety percent of Swedes will still laugh at me between
mutters of “It sounds like he’s golfing!” At this point, one would
hope that the student of Swedish might at least find refuge in some sort
of standardized spelling.
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we are left hoping.
is of no service when trying to spell in Swedish. Characteristic of the
language is the tendency to include pointless consonants that contribute
absolutely nothing to the pronunciation of Swedish words.
Perhaps this way of spelling extends from the deep-rooted belief in Sweden
that all people are equal and that nothing in society - even letters of
the alphabet - is to be excluded from participation. Although I am not
so sure about this theory, I am sure that spelling in Sweden is more about
luck and guesswork than it is about method. In the example of the voiceless
palatal-velar fricative used above, even though having the sound of running
water or a swinging golf club, it is spelled “sje”. However,
this is nothing compared to the “y” sound (as in “yes”)
and the “sh” sound (as in “ship”) which have
the respective renderings of dj, g, gj, hj, j, lj and rs, sch, sj, skj,
stj. On the positive side, at least if I have to take a guess at spelling
these sounds I have decent enough odds. A one in five chance for the former
and a one in six chance for the latter aren’t too bad.
If the student
of Swedish has been able to make it this far in the learning process, one
still has to contend with the language’s absence of spaces and the cumbersome
compound words that form as a result. Whereas in American English we
insert space breaks between words to allow for our short attention spans,
Swedish demands far greater concentration. In America I may go to
the store to buy nail polish remover, but in Sweden, shoppers don’t bother
with such word trivialities. Instead they go straight to the make-up aisle
and purchase a bottle of nagellacksborttagningsmedel. As an American, I
can’t even say this word nevertheless transcribe it correctly.
such as this will inevitably shape my future Swedish career choices.
After all, I would hate to have to work in the information technology industry
and deal with produktionsstyrningssystemsprogramvaruuppdatering.
no doubt that learning Swedish is a difficult task and for this reason,
one should heed my warning and not enter into it lightly. However,
there is also no doubt that this task is well worth the effort. Whether
one is trying to impress a girl or just looking for a challenge, Swedish
promises to be a fulfilling lifetime pursuit. And in this pursuit, regardless
if it proves humbling or humiliating, the student can always be assured
that it will be fascinating, even if it remains forever inaccessible.