ET Genealogi - Swedish language

Some notes on the Swedish language

By Nils William Olsson, Ph.D., F.A.S.G.

The Swedish language is a part and parcel of the Indo-European languages, stretching from India to Europe and through migration to the U.S., Canada, Mexico and South America. The language is a part of the North Germanic languages and is identified as an East Scandinavian variant together with Danish. The west branch includes Norwegian and Icelandic.

The main difference between these two Scandinavian branches is that Swedish and Danish have no diphthongs, or at least a very few. Thus the word for stone in Swedish and Danish is sten, whereas in Norwegian and Icelandic it is stein. The same thing is true for the word for bone - in Swedish it is ben, in Norwegian it is bein. There are other differences, but I don't wish to become technical. A few diphthongs can be found in Swedish. Thus a parish is Skåne is Raus and the name of the month of August is Augusti. The man's name of August is often pronounced Agust in the vernacular, showing how Swedes avoid diphthongs if at all possible. Curiously the Swede has no problem with the word for no, which is nej, nor for the popular forms for dig and mig (you and me), which are pronunced dej and mej. The Swedish word for pie is paj, where the English sound has been preserved and the Swedish word for the month of May is maj.

Though Finland is usually considered to be a part of Scandinavia so far as its culture and democratic forms are concerned, its language has nothing to do with the Indo-European languages, but belongs to the Finno-Ugric language family, which is believed somehow to be related to Hungarian and Turkish. The Finnish language is rich in vowels and diphthongs but poor in consonants.

Swedish has an alphabet which is very much like the English alphabet,with the notable exception that Swedish has three additional vowels, coming at the end of the alphabet - å, ä and ö. I shall return to these in a moment. On another respect the Swedes have almost totally eliminated the letter q. In older spellings this letter was followed by a v, much like in English, where q is followed by u. Thus before the spelling reform of 1906 the word for woman was qvinna, today the q has been replaced by the letter k, thus kvinna. The same thing happened to the words for mill = qvarn; twig = qvist and qvick = quick. In the case of proper names, however, there is a tendency to retain the old spelling, thus Qvarnström, Qvist, Qvick, Qvarfordt, etc.

Another letter, w, has been supplanted by v, and is no longer in the alphabet. However, it is often retained in surnames, sometimes to make the names seem more esoteric. Thus Wall, Wallgren, Wallenberg, Wikström, etc.

Often an H is slipped into a name, for no other reason but to make the name more unusual, thus we have surnames like Wahlgren, Dahlgren, Dahlstrand, Ohlsson, Pehrsson, Lundh, Strandh, etc.

Before the spelling reform in 1906 certain place names in Sweden had a silent H in the beginning of the name. This letter has now been eliminated. The more notorious place names are Hvetlanda in Småland, today Vetlanda; Hvalinge in Halland; Hvalstad in Västergötland, Hvena in Småland, Hvilan in Skåne, all today spelled without the h, thus Valinge, Valstad,Vena and Vilan. Be sure to check your place name in Rosenberg's gazetteer, before giving up.

One more of the spelling reforms of 1906 which might occasion you grief is the substitution of v for f in certain words, where f comes at the end of the syllable, such as löf, meaning leaf, which today is spelled löv. It is particularly common in surnames beginning with Löf-, such as Löfberg, Löfgren, Löfquist, Löfstrand, etc., where in translation the surname is always written with Lof- as the first syllable. For place names check out Rosenberg for spellings of Löfsätra, Löfsta, Löfstad, Löfvestad, Löfånger, Löfåsen, etc. A letter which is used infrequently is the letter c. It is found mostly in foreign loan words, such as ceder, cell, cement, center, check, cigarr, cirkel, cirkus, citron, civil, cykel, cylinder and cypress.

Let us now look at three extra vowels, å, ä and ö [Å, Ä and Ö] which appear at the end of the Swedish alphabet. I am not going to bore you with the history of these sounds, or how they came into being. The thing to remember is that they are separate letters and cannot under any circumstance be equated with a or o. They are just as important as other letters and must not be ignored. Ignoring the diacritical marks can spell failure for you in your research. As an example I can mention two parishes in Malmöhus län - one is Bosarp, the other is Bösarp.

It makes a world of difference in your research if you don't watch out for those diacritical marks. It is just as important as crossing a t, by not doing so, you are stuck with an 1.

Let us look at some Swedish words, where the diacritical marks change the meaning of a word -

	Swedish	Meaning	Swedish	Meaning	Swedish	Meaning

	adel	nobility	ädel	noble
	aga	punish	äga	own
	agg	grudge	ägg	egg
	akta	take care	äkta	genuine
	al	alder tree	ål	eel
	alv	subsoil	älv	river
	bal	dance,ball	bål	bowl
	bar	bare	bår	stretcher	bär	berry
	bast	bast	bäst	best
	bota	cure	böta	pay a fine
	fall	fall	fäll	rug, pelt 	fåll	hem
	fara	travel	fåra	furrow
	fasta	fast	fästa	secure
	gast	seaman	gäst	guest
	hal	slippery	hål	hole	häl	heel
	hall	hall	håll	direction	häll	flat rock
	hast	haste	häst	horse
	kaka	eake,cookie	käka	eat
	kalla	call             källa	well spring 	
	kapa	cut down kåpa	garment
	kapp	compete          käpp	cane
	man	man 	män	men 	mån	degree
	massa	mass	mässa	church mass
	mossa	moss	mössa	cap
	ort	community	ört	herb
	raka	shave	råka	encounter 	räka	shrimp
	rata	refuse	räta	straighten
	rova	turnip	röva	rob
	saga	story	såga	saw	säga	tell\
	skada	injury	skåda	behold
	skal	shell	skäl	reason	skål	bowl
	skålla	scald	skälla	bark
	skara	crowd	skära	cut	skåra	cut
	slakt	slaughter	släkt	family
	tala	speak	tåla	endure
	talja	pulley	tälja	whittle
	tät	tight	tåt	string
	trad	trade	träd	tree	tråd	thread
	vag	vague	väg	road	våg	wave, scale
	val	whale	väl	well

I could give you hundreds of additional words, that follow the same pattern, but the samples given here will demonstrate how tricky the diacritical marks are in making sense of what you come across.

[Rosenberg referenced above is the work Geografiskt statistiskt handlexikon öfver Sverige by Carl Martin Rosenberg. First published in 1882, and reprinted last in 1993 by Sveriges Släktforskarförbund. This is the best gazetteer of old Sweden, most farms, all parishes, legal districts (härad) and geographical areas are listed here.]

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Uppdaterad 28 december 2001
Copyright Elisabeth Thorsell