Why the double-definite in Swedish?

Posted on 01. Dec, 2014 by in Grammar, Swedish Language

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As you study Swedish, you will notice that the definite form, or in more literal but less accurate terms the “the”-form, is often shown in two positions: at the beginning of the noun phrase and tacked-on at the end of the main noun in the noun phrase. In other words, you will often see the following constructions:

den svarta kattenthe black cat
det röda biblioteketthe red library

In the first example, den starts the noun phrase and tells us that it is definite, i.e. that the listener or reader whom we are trying to reach should know which cat we are referring to. The same function shows itself in the form of a suffix to the noun katt as -en. The word katt receives den and -en as definite markers because it is of common or n-gender. In the second example, instead of den and -en we have det and -et. This is, of course, because bibliotek is a noun of neuter or t-gender.

(Technically, the definiteness of the phrase is also expressed as the suffix -a at the end of the adjectives svart and röd. As a side note, all adjectives within definite noun phrases receive the suffix -a regardless of the gender and number of the noun they describe.)

So, the question a lot of people have is this: Why express definiteness in two places?

The truth is, you usually only do this if there is an adjective in the noun phrase. If you just want to say “the cat” or “the library”, you leave out the first definite article (den or det) completely:

kattenthe cat
biblioteketthe library

Note the “usually” in the statement above. There are cases in which one can say den katten and det biblioteket without any adjective in between. This is namely used as a short form for den där katten or det där biblioteket (that cat, that library, respectively).

There are also cases in which one can say den katt and det bibliotek. This is only allowed if there is a relative clause attributed to the noun provided. For example:

den katt [som sprang förbi precis] – the cat [that ran by just now]
det bibliotek [där jag hittade boken]the library [where I found the book]

This construction is mainly used to emphasize that it really is a specific katt or bibliotek the speaker or writer is referring to, but it is also perfectly grammatical to say katten and biblioteket in this case as well (without den or det):

katten [som sprang förbi precis]the cat [that ran by just now]
biblioteket [där jag hittade boken]the library [where I found the book]

The difference here is the same as the difference between katten and den katten: adding den emphasizes the specificness of the noun in question.

But I still haven’t answered the question: Why is definiteness so complicated in Swedish?

Earlier forms of Swedish were much more complex in general. Swedish had basically the same complex grammar as modern Icelandic once upon a time. Simplification of languages over time doesn’t always occur to the same extent in all domains. The complexity of definiteness in Swedish is actually much simpler than it was a thousand years ago, but still not all grammatical differences have been wiped out. That’s why we have the system we have today.

Thanksgiving Foods in Swedish

Posted on 26. Nov, 2014 by in Vocabulary

Thanksgiving in Sweden

That’s an American Thanksgiving in Sweden back in 2003. Notice the artistic angle of the photo.

American Thanksgiving is coming up. It’s the fourth Thursday of November (since 1941). There’s plenty to be said about the holiday in the US, both good and bad – there’s the consumerism that has bled over from Black Friday into the actual holiday, there’s the origins of the holiday itself, the romanticization of a coming together of the American Indians and the Pilgrims, which was (and isn’t) so simple and there’s also family, food, and football.

Sweden doesn’t celebrate American Thanksgiving. I know. Quite a shocker. They just aren’t that intrigued by the story. They’ve got plenty of other holidays, which you can read about here. Of course, that doesn’t mean that Americans in Sweden don’t celebrate Thanksgiving. And it most definitely does not mean you shouldn’t learn some vocabulary about Thanksgiving. You’ll want to regale your Swedish friends with the glory of your meal. Below you’ll find twenty words that can help you describe your Thanksgiving dinner in Swedish. It’s a simple vocabulary list with common Thanksgiving foods and drinks.

Swedish

English

en kalkon

turkey

en fyllning

stuffing

en sallad

salad

(ett) potatismos

mashed potatoes

en potatis

potato

en sötpotatis

sweet potato

en sky/en sås/en brunsås

gravy

en haricots vert/gröna bönor

green beans

en bulle/en fralla

dinner roll

ett bröd

bread

ett tranbär

cranberry

en tranbärssås

cranberry sauce

ett krås

giblet

en vaniljglass

vanilla ice cream

en äppelpaj

apple pie

en pumpapaj

pumpkin pie

ett rödvin/ett rött vin

red wine

ett vitvin/ett vitt vin

white wine

ett/en öl

beer

en äppelcider

apple cider

This is, by no means, a complete list. Traditional Thanksgiving dinners change from year to year, family to family, and region to region. Feel free to add some of your favorite parts of the meal in the comments below. And if you ate a turducken (that’s a chicken (en kyckling) stuffed inside a duck (en and/en anka) stuffed inside a turkey (en kalkon))? Explain to your friendly Swede what you’ve done and let us know how they react…

Swedish Grammar: General and specific “this”

Posted on 03. Nov, 2014 by in Grammar, Swedish Language

Ugnspannkaka
Mmmmm!

Hallå mina vänner! I had thought I was done with my series on demonstrative pronouns in Swedish, but I noticed a comment at the last minute with a great question that I decided deserved a full post.

You might notice when listening to Swedish that when a person is presenting something new, they will use det här, even if what they are presenting is of common gender (“n-gender”), in constructions such as this:

Det här är en hund.This is a dog.

Det här is the neuter gender (“t-gender”) form of den här, which means “this”. (More about den här here!) But hund is of common gender. Why in the world would it make sense to say det här when referring to a word of common gender if det här is a neuter gender declination?

But that’s the thing: By the time you say det här, you still haven’t assigned the phenomenon dog a noun. It is only when you say the actual word hund that the phenomenon dog acquires grammatical gender. You say det här because it is the default demonstrative pronoun for things (phenomena) that not yet been introduced into a conversation and have therefore not yet been assigned a grammatical gender.

But let’s say your friend is describing a set of sculptures (skulptur, common gender) to you. One of them looks like a dog (hund, common gender). She describes this particular sculpture by saying this:

Och den här skulpturen är en hund. – And this sculpture is a dog.

But if it is already clear that she is talking about sculptures, she might decide to leave out the noun skulpturen and say this:

Och den här är en hund. – And this (one) is a dog.

In this case, it would make sense to say den här instead of det här, because in the context, she is referring to one of the sculptures (skulptur), which is of common gender.

Your friend then shows you another sculpture. It is a sculpture of a house (hus, neuter gender).

Och den här är ett hus. – And this (one) is a house.

Even though hus is neuter, she says den här because she is still referring to one of the sculptures (skulptur, common gender).

Later on, you and your friend are walking along a street, discussing different types of trees (träd, neuter gender). She stops and points at a particular tree.

Och det här är en lönn. – And this (one) is a maple.

In this case, she uses det här (neuter) because she is referring to one of the trees (träd), which is also neuter. She could also have said det här trädet (“this tree”).

Next to this tree, there is a house. You and your friend have not been talking about houses. Nonetheless, your friend wants to point out that what you see in front of you is, in fact, a house:

Det här är ett hus.This is a house.

This time, she uses det här (neuter) as a general pronoun because she is referring to something new (a real house) that has not been introduced to the conversation earlier. She is not using det här to refer to the neuter gender word hus, which has not yet been introduced into the conversation and thus has not yet been assigned grammatical gender.

While you are looking at the house, a dog comes running out the front door to the sidewalk where you are standing. It stops and sits on the ground in front of you. Your friend points to the dog and says:

Det här är en hund.This is a dog.

Since she is introducing a new phenomenon (dog) to the conversation, she uses the general det här instead of den här because the phenomenon dog has not yet been assigned a grammatical gender in the conversation.

Roughly, if you are referring to something that is a member of a group, you start the sentence with the correct declination of den här for the gender of the group noun (for example skulptur) in the same way that, if you were to ask “Which sculpture?”, you would say:

Vilken skulptur? – Which sculpture?

to which you would answer:

Den här!This (one)!

because the gender of skulptur is common. If the actual word, which has a grammatical gender, has not been introduced to the conversation and is not part of a group for which you can ask “Which one?”, use det här.

I know, it’s a bit complicated, but just practice and you’ll get used to it in no time! :)