Svenska and Me: A love/hate relationship

I have a love/hate relationship with the Swedish language.  I love some of the words for their practicality and some for their poetic nature.  The language is significantly "smaller" than English in terms of the amount of words.  Add that to the fact that all of my life I've heard how English is the most difficult language to learn and learning Swedish should be a breeze, right?  WRONG!!!  This language is a pain in the rumpa!

First off, I'm very proud of where I am with my Swedish.  I have worked hard to get to where I am.  I also like to think that I'm pretty sharp, so that's why I caught on so well.  In truth, I was lucky enough to have an awesome grandmother-in-law (Hi Birgitta!) that was willing to spend time teaching me proper (and sometimes outdated) Swedish.  She refused to speak English with me from the day we met.  Thankfully  I had completed Rosetta Stone Level 1 Swedish so I kind of understood her when she told me that in Swedish.  She's awesome, but hardcore.  I'll never forget trying to find her house from the train station while she gave me directions in Swedish.  I thought to myself, "This whole tutor thing isn't going to go well." Eventually she walked up and met me as I wandered helplessly around Mälarhöjden.  Class began immediately.  I learned hill, fence and leaves as we walked.  She said we would use all of my five senses to learn.  I touched the leaves and the fence.  We walked over to a well and she told me the story of the well.  I would later learn that Birgitta knows everything about everything.  If she doesn't know offhand, she has a book that contains the knowledge.  It's amazing, really.

My first series of lessons were twice a week from October 2006 until March 2007.  I smelled and tasted spices, wrote silly stories, sang in a choir (yes that happened), went for walks and anything else that Birgitta could come up with to teach me my second language.  All of this with minimal English spoken (only for an occasional translation).  I was skeptical of it, but it worked.  I left here confident in my Swedish.  I actually retained most of what she taught me.  I credit Birgitta whenever I get complimented on my Swedish.  She deserves it.  On top of that she fed me (that was a lesson too).  Can't beat that!

When we came back this time, my lessons resumed until I began working.  Birgitta was/is still amazing.  This time around we went through the Swedish drivers license book.  It's amazing how much you can learn about a culture through its driving rules.  Tack Birgitta!!!  The lessons are done now, but I wouldn't be able to interact with customers if it weren't for my lessons with Birgitta.  Sometimes I tell my friends some rules about grammar and they admit that they don't know them.  They've been just properly speaking this difficult language!  This is where it gets frustrating.  I rack my brain trying to form my sentences correctly and I feel like I will never ever be able to properly speak this language.

I think I'm at the point now where I can form this educated comparison of Swedish and English:  Swedish is more difficult than English!  Some things about the language are just ridiculous.  I'll start with one nuance that will never make sense…

"En" and "Ett" 
They look like two harmless words right?  En and Ett.  No more than three letters.  But those two words alone destroy any hope of a non-Swede mastering Swedish.  Bare with me while I try to explain… It's basically "A" and "An", but with the social skills of a serial killer.  You know how you say "a car" or "an apple"?  There is a reason for that, right?  "A" is said before a word beginning with a consonant sound (car).  "An" is said before a word beginning with a vowel sound (apple).  That's a freaking rule.  Easy, right?  But NOOO, not here.  In Swedish if you want to say "a car" you say "en bil".  If you want to say "an apple" you say "ett äpple".  But this has nothing to do with the beginning sound.  A table is "ett bord".  The reason I keep putting "a" or "an" in front of it is if I want to say "the (insert noun)" en or ett have to go to the back of the word.  That's right!  If I'm talking about "the apple" then I'm talking about "äpplet".  An apple on the table?  "Ett äpple på bordet" The apple in the car? "Äpplet i bilen".  Oh this is just the beginning.  En and ett also affect other words.  So if a word is an "ett word", then which (vilken/vilket), your (din/ditt), my (min/mitt), that (den/det) and EVERY ADJECTIVE is affected!  That's right.  A red car is "en röd bil" when a red apple is "ett rött äpple".  So the word "röd" is changed to "rött" because the word for apple (äpple) is an "ett word".  So all of this is affected by the fact that words are designated as "en" or "ett", but the only way you can know if a word is "en" or "ett" is to hear it in a sentence or just try it and see if people look at you like and idiot.  Personally, I assume every word is an "en" word until I find out otherwise.  I believe the majority of words are "en" words.  Whenever I hear an "ett" word I try and bank it in my memory.

This drives me insane because I'd rather not sound like an idiot, but the rules (or lack of rules in this case) leave me no choice.  I ask Swedes for tips or maybe a rule of some sort and they all say they just know.  I refuse to believe that!  How do you just know every word.  I keep telling myself that I will get a bunch of Swedes together and a dictionary and ask them to guess if some very obscure words are "en" or "ett".  I haven't done it yet, but I think the exercise would be fascinating!  It would be amazing if they got them all right.  I wonder about new words that are added to the Swedish dictionary.  Who decides if it's an "en" or "ett" word?  How do people know?  We have a TiVo box and I noticed a menu option titled "Mitt TiVo".  That means TiVo is an "ett" word.  Why?  Who decided that?  I find myself getting mentally exhausted when I speak Swedish because I have to think three sentences ahead.  No wonder people don't talk to each other here.

Där and Dit/Här and Hit/Var and Vart
Get this.  Both där and dit (pronounced "deet") mean "there".  Dit is like a location or destination "there".  Där is like a regular "there".  Här and Hit (pronounced "heat") have the same relationship to "here" as där/dit have to "there".  So if I'm at a party and I want to know if you're coming to join me here at this party, I would ask you if you're coming "hit".  If I found the remote we've been looking for I would use "här or där".  Does that clear it up for you?  Of course it doesn't.  Well just think, if you want to ask someone a "where" question in Swedish you would have two options.  You could use "var" or "vart".  Isn't that wonderful?!  In order to pick the right one, you have to think of the person's  possible answer.  "Var" is to be used if the answer would be given in a "där" way.  "Vart" is used if the answer would be "dit-ish".  NOW it all makes sense!  Feel free to pull your hair out at any time now.

I say all of this in jest.  I am psyched to continue learning Swedish.  The structure of a sentence is similar to English (subject/verb relationship) so one can get away with "thinking in English" and then basically translating words.  Swedes also get the gist of what you're trying to say because pretty much all of them can speak English.  So now  I've come to terms with the fact that  the best I can hope for is to just sound a little bit dumb when I speak Swedish.  The happiness I feel when I get complimented on my proficiency by one Swede can be leveled out by the pain of that pause, then quick switch to English by whomever I'm speaking to.  They do it to 1. make the conversation go smoother and 2. to show off how good their English is and thus in turn make me feel dumber.  Thanks, random Swede!

The Swedish language also has three extra vowels (Åå, Ää, Öö) Sounds like they were trying to make things more difficult, right?  Well not really.  Thankfully, each vowel has one sound here, so it actually makes Swedish easier to read than English.  When you see the letter "a", you know the sound will be that of an epiphany… "ah".  The only thing I had to do was learn the new vowel sounds and then I was equipped to read some basic literature - with minimal comprehension - but I was reading Swedish anyway.  There are some tricky letter combinations that are completely foreign to English speakers.  The letter "k" combined with some vowels (soft vowels) requires one to sound like there is flem in their throat.  Think of it like the letter "h" in English except instead of using the front of the mouth, you use the back of your throat.

Language imitates life.  Americans are typically more aggressive/outgoing by nature than Swedes.  The differences in the sounds of our "r", "g" and "j" is a direct reflection of this difference.  Swedish is like, "Hey man, take it easy."  I find myself putting my mouth in a relaxed state when I speak Swedish.  Kind of numb.  I soften up my letters.  If a word ends in "g", then I pump the brakes at the arrival to that "g".  The word "berg" almost becomes "berry" in order to be Swedish.  I fight the American urge to hit my listener in the face with a "BUHRRGG" sound.  I hope this makes sense.  A Swede imitating an American accent will most certainly use words with the letter "r" in it.  Here, an "r" is more with a half-roll.  Pronounced with the tongue more than pressed lips.  And the letter "j" might as well be a "y".  It's such a soft letter.  "Just det!" (like "Oh yeah!" or "Exactly!") is a popular saying here.  We want to pronounce it "jŭst dĕt", but it's really pronounced "yo̅o̅s dēt".  See how it softens up?  I had to tone down the aggression in my speaking.   

I love learning new words.  Some words just make sense.  Where we add new words, Swedes put words together.  We said, "Let's call this device that takes people to another level of a building an escalator."  Swedes said, "Let's call those rolling stairs what they are."  Then "rulltrappa" was born.

                                                          rull = roll   trappa = stairs

Now that makes sense!  Then there are some words  that are just poetry.  One of my favorite words is the Swedish word for jealousy.  The word is "svartsjuk".

                                                         svart = black   sjuk = sick

What is jealousy if not a black/dark sickness?  I love that.  I also love the word for clue "ledtråd".

                                                         leda = lead   tråd = thread

Poetic, I tell ya.  Now to determine if it's "en" ledtråd or "ett" ledtråd.  What if I want to ask where the clue is?  Do I use "var" or "vart"?  I guess that depends on what the answer is.  Maybe I need en/ett ledtråd!  Or to study more.  Or a drink!  Until next time...


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