What follows is a popular but rather comprehensive account of Swedish pronunciation. It has 4 parts - Tonality, Vowels, Consonants and finally an account of how Swedish pronunciation affects the accented English spoken by most Swedes. Popular means, among other things, that phonetic notation is not used.
Important components of Swedish pronunciation (Swedish phonetics) are:
It is the tonality of the language that gives Swedish its characteristic, easily recognizable melody. "The Swedish chef" of TV comedy doesn't speak Swedish at all, but is immediately recognised by the audience as Swedish, only because of his (rather badly) imitated Swedish tonality.
Standard Swedish is one of the few European languages -- together with Norwegian -- which exhibit tone within words as well as sentences. The functional "questioning tone" - when the tone in an interrogative sentence goes up at the end - is commonplace in most European languages, but in Swedish the tone is applied to all sentences, irrespective of function, and to most words.
Like Chinese, but mostly meaningless
The predominant Swedish tone is similar to the 3rd tone in Chinese Mandarin (high-low-high, i.e. the tone starts from a certain level, goes deeper down, and then rises up again). Mandarin tones only apply to vowels (and diphthongs) in the monosyllabic Chinese words, but the Swedish tone is also applied to consonants and to polysyllabic words.
Another difference is that the Chinese tones have semantic functions, while the semantic function of Swedish tones is limited to just a few instances - its main role is to give Swedish its characteristic "singing" language melody. If you misplace Chinese tones, then your sentence can easily become unintelligible, while misplaced Swedish tones merely expose you as a foreigner.
Don't even try
Some Swedish dialects, most importantly the Swedish spoken in Finland (Finland-Swedish), don't use the tone system of Standard Swedish ( = the Swedish that is spoken on TV and radio and is based on the speech of the people in Middle Sweden in and around Stockholm). To master the art of applying tones correctly in Swedish is not an easy task, and incorrect tonality sounds extremely ridiculous. For a foreign learner of Swedish it is better not even to try, but to apply the "flat" tone of Finland-Swedish, which is an accepted, easily understandable and well regarded Swedish dialect.
The spirit of the duck
An example of the few words where tonality matters is the word-pair anden (flat tone) and anden (high-low-high, with the "low" or "resting" centered on the first "n"). The first anden means "the duck" and the second anden means "the spirit" (or "the soul"). There are unfortunately no diacritical marks (as in Chinese Pinyin) for identifying the place and type of a Swedish tone, so the semantics has to be gathered from the context. But, as I have already noted, examples of words where tonality changes the meaning of the word are rare.
Norway is the cheerful winner
In the sister language of Swedish, Norwegian, the tonality is even more pronounced (no pun intended). There is no difference in principle, but the amplitude of the "high-low-high"-cycles is greater, giving Norwegian an even more cheerful language melody.
Pronunciation vs. spelling
What is covered here is mainly Swedish pronunciation, not Swedish spelling. But as we are going to make do without phonetic notation, a few words about the relationship between Swedish spelling and pronunciation are in order.
In spite of several spelling reforms during the last 100 years, Swedish spelling retains a plethora of archaic elements. The atavisms are not nearly as frequent as in English, but still painfully noticeable. This means that you will find several spellings of the same sound (in the words "hjul", "djur", "ljus", and "jul", the beginning "hj-", "dj-", "lj-" and "j-" are all pronounced in the same way, as "y" in English "yes"), as well as several pronunciations of the same spelling. Sometimes a letter (or a group of letters) is silent (unpronounced), but there are few rules or regularities (like in French) that help you to recognize silent letters -- "och" denotes the ubiquitous word "and", but it is most often pronounced "o", like the "o" in English "fore". There are in general no accents denoting stress or the length of a vowel. This can be a problem, as the pronunciation of long and short vowels is often different. An exception is the acutely accented "é", which follows the French spelling and denotes a long "e", like in "café".
Swedish is a language with a relatively high vowel-to-consonant ratio. It is not quite as vowel-rich as the Finno-Ugric languages Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian, but considerably more so than some Slavic languages like Polish or Croatian. An example of this is a dialectal vowels-only phrase coined by the Swedish poet Gustaf Fröding: "I åa ä e ö", meaning "There is an island in the creek".
The letters used to denote the Swedish vowel-sounds are:
a, e, i, o, u, y, å, ä, ö
Note that the letters å, ä, ö are not seen as mere "umlauts" (a's or o's provided with diacritical marks), but as proper individual letters, with their own allotted places at the end of the Swedish alphabet. So simply brushing the "dirt off the top" of these letters, as monolingual English-speakers often do, plays havoc with the semantics of a Swedish word or sentence.
The vowels e, i y, ä and ö are considered as "soft vowels", which sometimes change the pronunciation of a preceding consonant. The "k" in "kök" (= kitchen), which is followed by a "soft" ö, is pronounced like the "ch" in English "child", while the "k" in "katt" (=cat), which is followed by a "hard" a, is pronounced like the "c" in English "cat". But don't expect this to be an unbending rule - the "k" in "kö" (= queue) is pronounced like the "q" in English "queue", in spite of the "soft" ö following it. Here is a list of pronunciations of Swedish vowel-letters:
- a --- like a in Eng. "bar", but with a slight shift toward the "o"-sound in Eng. "more"
- e --- long: like in "café"
- e --- short: like "a" in Eng. "hat"
- i --- like "i" in Eng. "pit" or "ee" in Eng. "keep"
- o --- short: like "o" in Eng. "not" and "fore"
- o --- long: most often like "oo" in Eng. "tool", at times like "o" in Eng. "more"
- u --- stands for several Swedish sounds without a proper English equivalent. The most common of these is somewhat similar to "u" in Eng. "rude", but not quite. In the word "nu" (= now) the "u" stands for a kind of vowel-consonant mixture, which is really hard for non-Swedes to pronounce. In the Swedish spoken in Finland things are more regular - here "u" is most often pronounced as the German "ü"
- y --- no equivalent in English, but rather similar to the French "u" and German "ü"
- å --- like "o" in Eng. "fore" and "yonder"
- ä --- long: like "ai" in Eng. "fair"
- ä --- short: like "e" in Eng. "best"
- ö --- a bit like "ea" in Eng. "earn", with slight variations in connection with some other sounds
Most Swedish consonant sounds are similar to the corresponding English sounds, with a few exceptions. But these exceptions, together with the special tonality of the language, give Swedish some of its characteristic features:
The letters used to denote the Swedish consonant-sounds are:
b, c, d, f, g, h, j, k, l, m, n, p, q, r, s, t, v, x, z
The consonants k, p, t are pronounced "explosively", i.e. with marked aspiration. The "s"-sound is always pronounced with ruthless Viking determination, in a turbulent blast of hissing air. A Swedish "s" corresponds to an English "ss", only more so. There are no voiced sibilants in Swedish, i.e. no parallels to the "s"-sound in Eng. "has" or the "zh"-sound in "journal". Here is a list of consonants:
- b --- like "b" in Eng. "best"
- c --- before a consonant or a hard vowel (a, o, u, å): as "c" in Eng. "café"
- c --- before a soft vowel (e, i, y, ä, ö): like "c" in Eng. "city"
- d --- like "d" in English, but less aspirated
- f --- as in English
- g --- before a consonant or a hard vowel (a, o, u, å): as "g" in Eng. "get"
- g --- before a soft vowel (e, i, y, ä, ö): as "y" in Eng. "yes"
- h --- like "h" in Eng. "ham". In certain cases, particularly in some Swedish surnames, the "h" is silent.
- j --- as "y" in Eng. "yes" (NEVER as in "jam")
- k --- before a consonant or a hard vowel (a, o, u, å): as "k" in Eng. "keep", but more explosive
- k --- before a soft vowel (e, i, y, ä, ö): as "ch" in Eng. "check", but without the initial "t"-sound
- l --- as in English (almost)
- m --- as in English
- n --- as in English
- p --- as in English, but more explosive
- q --- as in English
- r --- "rolled" like in Spanish, but not quite as forcefully
- s --- like "s" in Eng. ""summer" ("s" is ALWAYS unvoiced in Swedish)
- t --- like in English, but more explosive
- v --- as in English
- x --- like "x" in Eng. "extra"
- z --- like "s" in Eng. "sing"
Curious archaic spellings
There are four consonant sounds -- 1) the "y" sound (like in Eng. "yes"), 2) the "ch"-sound (like in Eng. "check"), 3) the "sh" sound (like in Eng. "shoe"), and the "ng"-sound (as in Eng. "singer") -- each of which has a whole list of different spellings in Swedish. The reason for this irregularity is historical-etymological: it is easier to track the words back to their origins if these old irregular spellings are kept intact. These are the alternative spellings of
1) the "y"-sound (like in Eng. "yes"):
- dj --- djur (= animal)
- g --- gäst (= guest)
- gj --- gjorde (= made)
- hj --- hjälpa (= help)
- j --- ja (= yes)
- lj --- ljus (= light)
2) the "ch"-sound (like in Eng. "check"):
- ch --- check
- k --- kisel (= silicon) - many Swedes pronounce kilometer as "chilometer"
- kj --- kjol (= skirt)
- tj --- tjugo (= twenty)
3) the "sh" sound (like in Eng. "shoe"):
- ch --- chock (= shock)
- -ge --- garage (= garage)
- rs --- mars (= March)
- sch --- schampo (= shampoo)
- sh --- sherry
- sj --- sju (= seven). "Sju" in Standard Swedish is almost impossible to foreigners to pronounce. The "u"-sound that follows it, modifies the "sh"-sound to such a degree that it sounds almost like the German "ach"-sound. This difficulty can be avoided, if the learner applies in this case the Finland-Swedish pronunciation, which is more straightforward - in Finland-Swedish "sju" sounds like "schü" in German.
- skj --- skjorta (= shirt)
- stj --- stjärna (= star)
4) the "ng"-sound (as in Eng. "singer"):
- ng --- många (= many)
- gn --- regn (= rain)
- n --- bank (= bank)
Swedish accent in spoken English
Swedish pronunciation does have a number of peculiarities -- as all languages do. The peculiarities are frequently reflected in the kind of accented school-English that is spoken by most Swedes. Some of the resulting mispronunciations actually change the meaning of the English words and sentences in an interesting way. Here we will examine certain Swedish mispronunciations of English and try to find their origins in Swedish phonetics.
For a complete treatment of Swedish pronunciation (together with playable sound examples), please consult the Reference below.
Let us rejoice at a few interesting Swedish pronunciations of English. You may hear some of these during your next visit to the Land of Lagom:
Smoke gets in my eyes, it's hot as hell! --- Smoke gets in my ice, it's hot-ass hell!
As good as on the job --- Ass, good ass, on the yob.
George Morse is a joke --- Yosh Mosh iss a yoke
He spent four years in jail --- He spent four years in Yale.
Get rid of the junk! --- Get rid of the Yank!
Gin and tonic --- Yin and tonic (no Yang?)
He tied it to the jetty --- He tied it to the Yeti
Yellow submarine --- Jell-O submarine
The zinc is going to kill you --- The sink iss going to kill you
We are in a terrible jam --- We are in a terrible yam
Gimmick --- Yimmick
Some of the reasons behind these phonetic somersaults are:
- there is no voiced "s"-sound, nor any voiced "sh"-sound in Swedish, so without further ado a Swede replaces these sibilants (e.g. as, zoo) with the corresponding unvoiced ones.
- the Swedish "s"-sound is always very strong and stressed, corresponding to a double English "ss".
- "rs" in combination is pronounced as "sh"
- "j" is always pronounced as "y"
- "g" before soft vowels is (mainly) pronounced "y"
- English-teachers in Sweden spend a lot of time trying to correct these mispronunciations. But sometimes the teacher's admonishments are remembered backwards - it's not uncommon to hear "young" pronounced as "joung" and "yellow" as "Jell-O"
There are a number of other idiosyncrasies in Swedish pronunciation that are recognizable in the accented English spoken by Swedes. However, these rarely change the meaning of the original English expressions beyond recognition.
Introduction to Swedish(c) by Urban Sikeborg, Stockholm (1997-98), with playable sound examples: