Even though Swedish is said to be relatively easy for English speakers to learn, anyone learning Swedish will stumble sooner or later with the pronunciation of certain words. Where did all these consonants come from? How on earth is someone supposed to get this sj-sound right? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. As you can see in the video above, Swedish pronunciation can really be an uphill battle!
To get you on track, we’ll guide you through some especially tricky aspects of Swedish pronunciation, and with a few tricks (and a bit of practice), you’ll soon master it!
The Infamous SJ-Sound
To start, we’ve got the infamous sj-sound (a.k.a. the voiceless fricative phoneme, for all the aspiring linguists out there), as in sjuksköterska or sjuttonhundrasjuttiosju from the video. To make things even more complicated, several different letter combinations can be pronounced this way (sj, sk, skj, stj, sch and ch, as well as ti and si before –on), and this sound is unique to Swedish! As there’s not really a sound in English that we can compare this to, you have to learn it from scratch.
Our tip: Start by pronouncing an H-sound, which involves a quick puff of air. Move this further backward in your mouth, like a deep H. Finally, round your lips slightly while the air is coming out. If you’re still having trouble pronouncing the sj-sound, here’s a comforting fact: In some Swedish dialects (up north, for example), it’s pronounced like [sh] in “shop.” This can be a (temporary) solution for you until you get the hang of it.
Hard And Soft Letters
You might have noticed the first sk in sjuksköterska is pronounced soft as the sj-sound, while the sk at the end is pronounced hard, like the [sc] in “scar.” What gives? The difference in pronunciation is determined by whether the vowels are soft or hard. Swedish has five soft vowels: E, I, Y, Ä, Ö, and four hard vowels: A, O, U, Å. The vowels indicate how to pronounce a K, G, or sk that comes before them.
For example, katt (cat) is pronounced with a hard K, while köttbullar (meatballs) is pronounced with a soft K, similar to the English [sh] in “ship.” The same pattern applies to the letter G. In Gotland it has a hard pronunciation, like in the English word “goal,” while in Göteborg it has a soft pronunciation, similar to the [y] sound in the English word “yet.” You can compare this phenomenon to the letter C in English, which is pronounced differently in “Canada” versus “center.”
However, there’s no language rule without exceptions! I’m sorry to break the news to you, but some Swedish words don’t follow this neat rule. This is the case with kille (guy) and gem (paperclip), which are pronounced with a hard K and G respectively, even though they have soft vowels. Luckily, there aren’t too many of these exceptions, so you’ll just have to learn them when you encounter them.
Clusters Of Consonants
Letters on their own can be tricky, but Swedish can get really tongue-twisting when you have a combination of several consonants, such as in köksväxt (potherb). As a special challenge, try to say västkustsk köksväxt (a potherb from the west coast). This one is a tongue twister for native Swedes, too! Fortunately, this word in particular is not very common in everyday speech — even if clusters of consonants are.
Vowels With Dots: Å, Ä, Ö
When you read the Swedish word snurrfåtölj (swivel chair), you’ll notice that Swedish has a few letters that you won’t find in the English alphabet. These are Å, Ä and Ö. Å is pronounced like the English O in “or,” the Swedish Ä sounds almost like the word “air” in English, and Ö has a similar pronunciation to the [er] sound in the word “her.”
While the pronunciation of other Swedish vowels can vary depending on the word (like when it comes to pronouncing O and U), these three vowels are always pronounced the same way. Once you know them, you’re good to go!
Long Compound Words
Another tricky aspect of Swedish pronunciation is the prevalence of compound words, which are words that are made up of several shorter words, as in the case of sjuttonhundrasjuttiosju (1777). Here, it’s not so much the sounds themselves that are difficult, but to know where to break up each morpheme. Should tändsticksask (matchbox) be said as tänds-tick-sask or tänd-sticks-ask? Unfortunately, there isn’t a magic trick to detangle the words, but it will get easier as your Swedish vocabulary grows.
Don’t Be Misled By English
There will probably come a time when you read a Swedish word and think, “Oh, this is actually English!” In some cases this is true, as Swedish has incorporated many loan words from other languages. Jeans, call–center, and cool are words commonly used in Swedish (although their pronunciation is slightly different).
But be careful — some words are deceptive! The Swedish word bra means “good,” fart is “speed” and slutstation translates to “terminal station” (and is pronounced with the infamous sj-sound). French speakers, on the other hand, will likely recognize the word fåtölj (armchair) when it’s said, even though it’s spelled fauteuil in French.
In the end, Swedish and English have a lot in common, which helps you while you’re learning it. Keep in mind that practicing pronunciation and repeating words aloud is an important part of learning any new language. With some practice you’ll get the hang of it — even the tricky parts! Lycka till!