Swedish Pronunciation – Hard and Soft Vowels

Posted on 31. Dec, 2013 by in Swedish Language

Trying to discuss pronunciation in writing is not always easy. In fact, I think it is downright difficult. But we’re going to try anyway, because pronunciation is obviously an important aspect of fluency. One easy way to improve your pronunciation is to understand how consonants respond to the vowels that follow. This post is going to focus specifically on what happens to the -g sound, the -k sound, and the -sk sound.

First let’s start with the vowels. There are nine vowels in Swedish: -a, -e, -i, -o, -u, -y, -å, -ä, and -ö. You’ll notice, if you’re an English speaker, that they look pretty similar except for those additional vowels at the end. Those nine vowels though, can be separated into what are traditionally known as hard (hårda) and soft (mjuka) vowels. The hard vowels are: -a, -o, -u, -å. The soft vowels are: -e, -i, -y, -ä, -ö. They are also sometimes referred to as front and back vowels. The hard vowels are the back vowel and the soft vowels are the front vowels. This describes where in your mouth that you articulate the vowels.

So, to review:
Hard/back vowels: -a, -o, -u, -å
Soft/front vowels: -e, -i, -y, -ä, -ö

With all that in mind, let’s take a look at the consonants. The few we’ll be looking at all change depending on the vowels that follow it. I’ll list a few words as examples that demonstrate each change in pronunciation.

We’ll start with -g.
The hard –g sound is similar to how you would pronounce the –g in the English word, gift.

  • Gata (street)
  • God (good)
  • Gul (yellow)
  • Gåva (gift)

Notice the –a, -o, -u, and -å that follow the –g.

The soft –g sound is similar to the –y sound in the English word, yawn.

  • Ge (give)
  • Gick (walked)
  • Gymnasium (high school)
  • Gärna (gladly)
  • Göra (do)

This time, notice the -e, -i, -y, -ä, and –ö that follow the –g.

Next, the –k.
The hard –k sound is similar to the –c sound in the English word cookie.

  • Kaka (cookie)
  • Koka (boil)
  • Kul (fun)
  • Kår (corps, group)

The soft –k sound is similar to the –sh sound in the English word, shopping.

  • Kemi (chemistry)
  • Kikare (binoculars)
  • Kyckling (chicken)
  • Kärlek (love)
  • Köra (drive)

And finally, the –sk.
The hard –sk sound is similar to the –sch sound in the English word, school.

  • Skatt (tax, treasure)
  • Skola (school)
  • Skugga (shadow)
  • Skål (bowl, cheers)

The soft –sk sound is similar to the sound of the wind on the ocean. This is one of the more difficult sounds to make in Swedish for a lot of students. And that’s ok. The pronunciation differs a bit depending on dialect. I prefer the wind on the ocean sound. The sound that many people try to say is most similar is the –sh sound in the English word, shoe. Now take that sound and move your tongue further back in your mouth and you’ll get closer to that wind on the ocean sound.

  • Skepp (ship)
  • Skinka (ham, butt)
  • Skynda (hurry)
  • Skära (cut)
  • Skön (beautiful)

Phew. There you have it. Hard and soft vowels and how they change the pronunciation of words. Maybe not a super exciting post, but hopefully a helpful one.

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5 Responses to “Swedish Pronunciation – Hard and Soft Vowels”

  1. chad Elmore 1 January 2014 at 11:14 am #

    Thanks for this. It is always good to know the rules, but it is so hard to apply when reading.

    My daughter and son (who are now fluent) told me that Skön (a new word for me) does not mean beautiful, but instead means soft or feels nice. they said that they would use vacker instead. Likely I used it in the wrong context. Can you provide me with the context of when you use that word.

  2. Linn 4 January 2014 at 12:34 am #

    Chad: ‘Skön’ as in the sense of ‘beautiful’ is an old usage (compare to the German word schön = beautiful). Nowadays though, it is most commonly used as a word along the lines of ‘nice’, ‘comfortable’, ‘good’, or ‘fine’.

    Some examples could be:
    Det känns skönt när du masserar mina fötter. (It feels good when you massage my feet.)

    Vädret är skönt idag. (The weather is nice today.)

    Det är skönt att sitta ner lite. (It’s nice/comfortable to sit down for a while.)

    Skönt att höra! (Good to hear!)

    I hope this helped! :)

  3. Marcus Cederström 9 January 2014 at 4:43 pm #

    I think Linn nailed it, although skön does sometimes still get used as beautiful to describe people or the weather (but this is really contextual and sometimes up to how you would translate it). It’s one of those words that if you look it up in dictionaries and Svenska Akademiens ordlista it is often still defined as beautiful or as synonymous with vacker.

  4. Johnnostockholm 2 April 2014 at 9:18 pm #

    I remember hearing hard and soft from my Swedish teacher. Så kön like queue and kön like gender? Exception. Kör like drive and kör like choir? Exception. Made me want to give up. But glad I didn’t

  5. Marcus Cederström 11 June 2014 at 2:38 am #

    Glad to hear you didn’t give up!


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