Hej Hej!

Posted on 27. Jun, 2008 by in Culture

Everywhere you go in Sweden, people “hej” at you. If you don’t know that “hej” means “hello” in Swedish, you might be slightly confused as to why everybody is trying to get your attention. Because that’s what we use “hey” for in English, among many other things, right?

Hej!” in Swedish doesn’t have any of the negative English “hey!” connotations. Instead, it’s a multi-purpose greeting used by practically everyone in the country. It sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it? Like the kind of word you’d only say to those with whom you have a personal relationship. Yet in Sweden that word managed to cross from being just an interjection in casual speech to a national greeting.

And how did that happen?

The urban legend goes that in the late 1960s many foreign tourists complained that Swedes lacked proper etiquette when it came to greetings and social interactions. And because of that, the country was perceived as less than polite. The national Tourist Board overlords decided to quickly rectify this situation and instructed all hospitality workers to show off their good manners by greeting all and any customers. And a helpful linguistic genius came up with the idea of promoting the use of “hej”. It made perfect sense, “hej” is a simple word, sounds almost the same in any language and anybody can pronounce it correctly. In no time it became the standard greeting in the tourist industry. And from there, it migrated to other walks of life. That’s the story was told to me by an official from the Stockholm Tourist Office.

Is there any truth in this legend? A little. Among certain groups of people, “hej!” had been used as a greeting since the mid 1800s. Then around 1870s, when the students in Uppsala got the wind of it, the word became more and more popular. In the beginning of course, it was a greeting only used with people one was familiar with. You wouldn’t go all “hej!” on perfect strangers. For those occasions, Swedish had (and still has) more refined ways of saying “hello”.

Then came the radical 1970s. Sweden had just gone through a massive overhaul of its national language, the process known as “du-reformen”. Suddenly, it became OK to use the pronoun “du” (second person, singular) when talking to total strangers. Egalitarianism at its finest! “Hej!” quickly followed suit and became the greeting of choice for the masses.

Today, in addition to “hej!”, you may also hear these two variants:

Hej hej! = when said twice it implies friendliness and excitement to see you.
Hejsan! = this would be the “polite” version of “hej!” that you say when you want to be just a little bit more “official” and “proper.”

And finally,
Hejdå! = meaning “goodbye”.

 

Most of the readers of this blog are actively trying to learn Swedish at some level.  One of the resources we offer to help you learn Swedish free is our vocabulary builder, Byki Express. Many other language learning programs start by teaching grammar, but research has shown this isn’t the best way for an adult to tackle language learning. Byki knows that adults learn foreign languages faster by collecting a large pool of words and phrases to draw upon. The bigger your pool, the better you’ll be at communicating in your foreign language, so why not give Byki a try and see?  Hejdå! ;)

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36 Responses to “Hej Hej!”

  1. Maria Ebbeskog 9 July 2008 at 12:21 pm #

    The word hej or hey puzzels me. When someone says that word I expect people to stop as I am hard of hearing. But most of the time the person is gone :-(
    /Maria

  2. Ivor Rorquist 25 July 2008 at 10:58 am #

    Anna:
    I it is with joy and anticipation that I, on a daily basis if possible, tune in on your blog about daily life in Sweden. Your article on blueberry picking brought back warm childhood memories of my family’s yearly foray (actually our three day yearly vacation)into blueberry country in Western Canada, the blueberry area was located some sixty miles north of our farm.So we rattled in a Model T Ford these sixty miles over gravel roads armed with the necessary pots and pans needed for efficient berry picking as well as the detailed instructions from Dad regarding the way the job should be carried out. So, with Dad supervising we marched into blueberry country, a land of towering spruce trees, sandy soil and mosquitoes. We, each and every one had a quota to fulfil and Dad was there to ensure that the quotas were met To be sure the quotas were not very onerous but to an eight year old berry picking was not at the top of the list of delightful activities. Looking back some eighty years leaves one with a warm feeling of nostalgia and a wish that the experience could somehow be repeated. Such is life!! Incidentally, my dad and mother immagrated from Sweden early in the ninteen hundreds and began farming in an almost totally Swedish and Norwegian community. It was into this community that I was born in 1920.
    I am almost certain that I began speaking Swedish before I spoke English.
    Anna, keep up the good work — your blog is delightful–

    Ivor

  3. Anna 25 July 2008 at 11:12 am #

    Ivor,
    Thank you so much for your wonderful comment. It’s comments like yours that warm my heart and make me glad I write this blog!
    My best,
    Anna

  4. NJSwede 11 August 2008 at 10:00 pm #

    On our travels to Sweden to visit family, ‘Hej’ is said with heartfelt kindness every time by every one. There is nothing negative or challenging about it, and it is a very welcoming sound. Americans might be a little TOO defensive.

    Hej då!

  5. Anna 12 August 2008 at 4:05 pm #

    Hi NJSwede!

    I think the problem here lies with the different “hejs”, so to speak. As you know, in the US, “hey!” has a slightly different tone and context. Even though both “hejs” sound the same, the frame of reference is a bit different. I guess for some people it might be hard to make the switch, especially if they’re not used to the friendly Swedish “hej!”. Know what I’m sayin’? ;)

  6. Ernie 10 November 2008 at 4:48 pm #

    …Hej! I am posting my first comment to your blog but I have been receiving your blogs since Augusti. I am new here in Swedenand find everything strange because I am used to hearing others speaks in english or in my own native tounge. I am also taking the infamous SFI course before I can do anything at all. I am bored but what can I do? Nothing, really!!
    … Keep up the good works, I am ‘läsa’ing what you skriv, lol! I like what you write. I have a friendster and I am bloging my heart out there. If you happen to have one please visit it one of this day. Ty again.

  7. Christina 22 June 2009 at 6:34 am #

    Hej!
    Interesting article.
    However, as a Swede I would disagree with what you write when it comes to the variation Hejsan. It is not a more formal way of saying Hej, but in my experience it is rather the opposite. Something you say when you want to be a bit more friendly or casual
    Greetings!

  8. Anna 22 June 2009 at 10:16 am #

    Hi Christina!
    You know, I thought exactly the same as you, but the lady at Svenska Akademien whom I asked about it when I was preparing that post explained that it was actually the opposite. And so I followed what she said and wrote it as such. After all, who am I to argue with an expert from Svenska Akademien, right? ;)

  9. Christina 22 June 2009 at 11:02 am #

    true… they are supposed to know… although language belongs to the people who speak it and not to a few experts…
    Maybe it was originally used as a formal way of saying hi and nowadays used as a less formal way…? I don’t know, but it is a common word and everyone I have met who has used it has used it in an informal way of saying hej, both in written and spoken Swedish. If you get a formal letter it will never ever says ‘Hejsan’, but it sometimes starts with ‘Hej’…

  10. Agne 19 January 2010 at 4:31 pm #

    hihi :) ‘hejsan’ maybe was formal before Karlsson.. not anymore

  11. John 21 May 2010 at 9:42 pm #

    My only experience of Swedish is via Wallander, currently being broadcast on the BBC. It is surprising, comparing dialogue with subtitles, how many words and phrases the two languages have in common.

    “hej” seems very complicated. On one occasion, in a recent episode, a policeman says “hey da” when he is obviously saying “hello” to a woman complaining about a dumped car. Is this meant to be dialect, or to imply that the character is stupid, or something else?

  12. Ãmir 21 August 2010 at 6:07 pm #

    I’m a bit confused now! I have heard people using Hej hej! as both a greeting and farewell, and I don’t quite understand it! And can u also explain more about Adjo and tjäna?

    tackar!

  13. nada 18 December 2010 at 11:50 am #

    jag och mamma är hema

  14. moa 18 December 2010 at 11:51 am #

    hahahhaha

  15. Clayton M 6 January 2011 at 4:38 am #

    My Danish friend is of the opinion the “Hej” has it’s roots in the English “Hey”. Do you happen to know if “Hej” originally comes from Swedish language? (this will settle a minor debate!) Thanks, -Clayton

  16. sarasweden 3 February 2011 at 2:34 pm #

    I have to agree with christina here. “hejsan” is in no sense a formal word in sweden today. i have actually never heard of it being anything other than informal and most people would never use it when talking to people they don´t know. /sara

  17. fredrik 15 May 2011 at 8:58 am #

    “hej” and “hej hej” can be used both as a greeting and a farewell. “hej då” only as farewell. “hejsan” is a friendlier way of saying “hej” but I can’t say that it is more formal or more casual than just “hej”. It’s just different.

    By the way, swedes also have “tjena” which I guess originated around Gothenburg. Tjena is much more informal than “hej” and you can also use it when departing as a farewell. You can also put “tjena” and “hej” together as “tjena-hej” which is only used when leaving!

    such a funny little language swedish.. love it =)

    Reference: born and raised in southern sweden by swedish parents (now living in spain!)

  18. Jerry Nelson 17 September 2011 at 4:32 am #

    I studied Swedish in 1975 in Uppsala, I am happy to read from your blog that I probably do not have to worry about when to use “du” eller “ni” anymore! My brain would stumble over this as not only did I have to evaluate my relationship to the person, I had to remember the variations! Tack tack! Jag läser din blogg varje dag.

  19. Simon The Swede 23 October 2011 at 12:26 am #

    Nowadays you can even say Hej to complete strangers, Hej is infact the most used word when it comes to meet someone, almost no one says Hallå (Hello) to others. It’s very polite to say Ni (Du in a more polite art) to a bit richer person, or the person is also a member of a very very fine family. If you say “Du” To a person who is fine in Sweden you might be unpolite in the persons eyes. Sound it silly? Yes it is, but that how the Swedish language is. Swedish bad language: “Jävlar” means fuck, but it have no connections to make love, like in the english language, “fan” (the most used bad word) means the same as jävlar, Ä besides is outspelled like you say “ehhhh” but more round. Rövhål, is a word to say if you really hate some one, it means “Asshole” sorry but I can’t find how to tell you how to get it outspelled in the english mouth. Skitstövel, a rare bad word who often is said to Men that have act very dumb och silly to a woman. Men can also say Skitstövel, but that’s more rare. Hmm I have so much to tell you ladys and gentlemen!

    Hej jag heter Simon, means “Hello my name is Simon” good to know thing if you visit Sweden. The most Swedish persons are blond and have blue eyes, so if you see a darker person its most like that it’s a imigrant.

    “Ring mig” means Call Me
    “Halloj” is a slang of Hallå (Hello)

    “Tjenare” Is another word to make a greetings, it’s more a word to say to one you really know well. but also a friends friend.

    Never ever use the bad words if isin’t is neccesary, Swedish people won’t back down to a fight.

    “Krogen” in English means: The pub, so how to say What is the shortest way to the local pub?” I tell you rightaway, “Vad är den kortaste vägen till krogen?”

    That’s all I can think out right now, my mail is: Sl.lekander@live.com if you need more help with a outspell or spell of a word.

  20. www.go-to-sweden.com 7 February 2012 at 4:42 pm #

    That is so funny, and you have a good point. There is a lot of Hej-ing going on.
    Come by my page for more fun facts about Sweden if your interested..

  21. Caroline G. 13 March 2012 at 2:45 pm #

    When I lived in Sweden (before the FLood – it seems) people would often say Go’morron or even just ‘morron to people they might know by sight. Surely, some people still do?

  22. Allison Shields 12 April 2012 at 1:15 pm #

    I need help for my mother in Tenhult. Is there anyone who lives close. Jonkoping? Please help. Thank you

  23. Allison Shields 12 April 2012 at 9:43 pm #

    Hey all…Please disregard my earlier post for help. I have found a friend who has sent the police and rendered aid. My mother was ill. I now know how to get in touch with who I need in case there is ever a need in the future. Hard way to learn a lesson, but it was needed. Tak sa mycket!

  24. Filippa 16 April 2012 at 8:39 pm #

    Greetings, I’d like to inform anyone who wishes to pursue learning the Swedish language that “Hejsan” is far from a “formal” or “polite” way of speaking, it’s actually perceived rather as a bit more juvenile and playful than the other variations mentioned. If one feels the need to be exceedingly “polite” or “formal” it’s safe to say that goddag (good day) or godkväll (good evening) is to be preferred. These two are rather rare in usage, so I woudln’t recommend using them, since it might seem a bit strange. “Hej” isn’t a way of greeting friends and family, it’s a way of greeting strangers, senior citizens (even those with whom you aren’t previously acquainted), your boss, your new in-laws. We’re liberal that way, you use about the same vocabulary with your family as you’d use with new acquaintances (of course, there are nuances, needless to say).

    Also, that Simon bloke a few commentors above is obviously mentally deficient, because a very small percentage of Sweden’s inhabitants have blond hair and blue eyes. But it’s true, there are REFUGEES in Sweden (of course, there probably are a fair few immigrants as well, but they are just as likely to be blond and blue eyed as the romanticised “majority” of Swedes our dear friend Simon so obligingly fancied us with). Nonetheless, most (as there might be occasional exceptions) refugees speak Swedish, some better than others but undeniably enough to get by.

    Another thing that Simon seems to have thoroughly misunderstood is that there is but one situation where one should refer to a single person with the pronoun “Ni”, when talking to the monarch. So if you were to refer to someone using “Ni”, you’ll most likely wind up looking rather silly, unless you do so in jest.

    As a conclusion, formal language is bull. Swedish is more or less devoid of it, which should come as a relief to anyone who wishes to master Swedish, because it’s at least one thing of your back.

    I hope I could be of some, however slight it might’ve been, help.

  25. Chuck Guerrero 23 June 2012 at 1:23 am #

    In the southern United States, people often greet each other with “hey”, which means the same as “hello”. This is not considered to be rude unless it is said brusquely. I don’t know where this came from. It’s just something we do here in the South.

  26. Christoper 8 August 2012 at 3:55 pm #

    Well i Think Hej is more Like hi. And its prenounced the same way As hi in english. But Hej is not a swedish word its a local national scandinavian word, and as most words or translations it comes from the english languess. Hej to everyone from denmark.

  27. Carl 9 November 2012 at 7:40 pm #

    “Hej” uttalas möjligtvis som “hi” på danska (but like “hey” in Swedish). vad som kommer varifrån är svårt att säga, men “hej” har moderna rötter sedan slutet av 1800-talet då engelskans inflytande på svenskan var mycket litet.

    As others have mentioned: the widespread use of “hej” is very likely to be caused by “du-reformen”. In the 50′s, people were still doing “titel-avläggning” a sort of “title-abandonment” in which you were supposed to say your name and college graduation year to each other, and then you’d address each other as “du”.

    And before “du”, pronouns were mostly avoided if possible: people used passive tense (“önskas te?”) or titles (“vad önskar ingenjörskan?”). Yes, the last one translates to “mrs engineer”!

  28. Johan 7 February 2013 at 2:02 pm #

    Hello,
    I love this, I by accident clicked on a link to this blog. As for the word hej, hejs, hejssan, hejdå and every other form of it, it is a tricky language to learn. Many words have multiple meanings such as Hej can be used as a shorter version of goodbye. often it is because we like to shorten the words to make it easier. Just like “Vad sa du?”(what did you say?) often is said as just “Va?” (What?).

  29. Ulf_S 16 February 2013 at 7:07 pm #

    I agree that the formal “You” (ie “Ni”) is rarely used today. Traditionally, it was more or less used as a way to talk down to people like servants or to markedly keep your distance. The friendly and polite way to address people was in the third person, and this is practically reserved for royalty today. “Du” was reserved for family and friends.

    It would be very rude to talk down to the king by asking him “What do You think?” when the proper way is “What does the King think?”.

    It’s a bit funny that young people today sometimes use “Ni” when they try to be polite, but don’t realize that it’s actually rude.

  30. Abigail 15 March 2013 at 4:12 pm #

    I really love this…i’ve found quite some interesting words that i really needed to impress someone.This is bra:-)

  31. Abigail 15 March 2013 at 4:14 pm #

    Awesome!!!!

  32. Little 12 June 2013 at 1:58 pm #

    I just Want to say: hejsan is a more childish and in one way, more friendly way of saying hej. It may not be more polite, or formal way. In fact, it isnt. The more formal way of sayin hej is a totally Different Word: goddag. This is not used often though, at least not among those who I know.

  33. Greg Nacci 6 July 2013 at 12:41 pm #

    Just wondering, before I consider subscribing… is that this an actual, individually composed letter to every single subscriber, or does every single writer compose a single letter each week and send the same composition to all of your subscribers they’re assigned to write to?


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