Swedish Relationships – The Sambo

Posted on 05. Mar, 2010 by in Culture, Swedish Language

Swedish can be a very literal language at times.  Grönsaker for example means vegetables, literally though?  Green things.  Tandkött are your gums.  Or literally, tooth meat.  So the formation of the word sambo actually makes quite a bit of sense.  Sam a shortening of the word for together, samman, and bo a shortening of the word for accommodation, boende.  Sambo.  Together accommodation.

Sambo is a term that denotes a couple that lives together but is not married.  It can be everything from the couple who met in high school and moved in together when they were 20 or morfar finding someone to spend the remaining years of his life with.

That there is a term describing the phenomenon does not necessarily lend the sense of gravitas that it might suggest.  While there are plenty of people that never marry and instead live as sambos all their life, it has by no means eliminated the idea of marriage, as explained by Jennie in her post about Swedish Wedding Customs.  Many will go through several sambo partnerships in their lifetime.

There are several theories, reasons, ideas as to why the sambo is so prevalent in Sweden.  Everything from the lack of housing options to the secularism that is rife in the country. From wanting to test out living together to the sexual liberalness of the country.  Coming from the US where the discussion often centers on the sanctity of marriage, I personally find the whole idea refreshing.  There is something inherently Swedish about it, such a simple concept that makes so much sense.

For those of you in one of those long distance relationships with a Swede, I’d like to suggest a similar term.  Särbo.  This one meaning living separately.  Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean only those that find themselves with their significant other in a different country, but can also include people who live in the very same city.

Regardless of your relationship status, know that the Swedes probably have a word for it.

About Marcus Cederström

Marcus Cederström has been writing for the Transparent Swedish Blog since 2009. He has a Bachelor's Degree in Scandinavian Studies from the University of Oregon, a Master's Degree in Scandinavian Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and is currently a PhD candidate in Scandinavian Studies and Folklore at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has taught Swedish for several years and still spells things wrong. So, if you see something, say something.

21 Responses to “Swedish Relationships – The Sambo”

  1. Emilio Quintana 5 March 2010 at 11:11 am #

    I like English LAT

  2. Marta 5 March 2010 at 2:20 pm #

    This was one of the first words we learnt in the Swedish course 🙂 Most of the students had Swedish girlfriend or boyfriend, so, definitely, a very useful word.
    I had no idea about Särbo.Thanks!
    I enjoy your Swedish blog very much.
    Have a good weekend!

  3. Luke (Sydney) 6 March 2010 at 3:49 am #

    Marriage is artificial, a byproduct of civilisation and relatively a new thing. By nature, it doesn’t work well with our instincts, the kind of instincts that we have since our common ancestor is a frog.

    The marrige gene is not in our DNA. The siblings of our common ncestor might have that gene but I think they all died out as they failed to produce enougth varieties of offsprings to cope with natural selections.

    Of course, we need a different family structure to better support weman with children of different fathers. We don’t need to invent one as there must were one. We just need to figure out what it was.

    Sweden is still far from that but it’s as close as one can get and it is calling me…if only I can cope with the winter!

  4. Marcus Cederström 6 March 2010 at 7:26 am #

    @Marta – it is definitely a useful word here in Sweden.

    @Luke – the winter is doable… you just have to remember that once you get past the winter solstice, every day is getting longer.

  5. Ruth 6 March 2010 at 4:25 pm #

    Hi – are there any Swedish words or phrases that sum up “the good life” ? Or “perfect” ? We are being lent a Swede’s very special home and would like to make a thank you gift that incorporates a saying that would sum up the experience. I think “lagom” might be right or an insult – I can’t tell which!


  6. David 11 March 2010 at 11:13 pm #

    A quick Google search reveals that there are also other, more or less fanciful, derivations denoting other forms of cohabitation or not:

    mambo (from “mamma”): someone who still lives with his parents

    kvarbo (“kvar”: remaining): (1) same as above; (2) someone who’s broken up with someone else but still live together with him/her; (3) an elderly couple who remain in their home instead of moving to a caring home

    helgbo (“helg”: weekend): a couple who take turns staying at each other’s place during the weekend

    delsbo (“deltid”: part-time): a couple who cohabit part-time (Delsbo is also a town in Hälsingland, so it’s a pun)

    turbo (“tur”: turn): a couple who take turns living at each other’s place (pun on “turbo (drive)”)

    självbo: someone who lives on their own (“själv” means “by oneself” but is in contemporary speech starting to mean “alone”)

    There’s a much longer list at http://www2.unt.se/pages/1,1826,MC=81-AV_ID=921424,00.html .

    For those of you who are starting to master the subtleties of the Swedish accent system, what is noteworthy with these modern derivations is that they are all pronounced with accent 1, unlike traditional compounds on “-bo” (like all other compounds) that take accent 2 (cf. “nordbo”, an inhabitant of the Nordic countries).

  7. Marcus Cederström 14 March 2010 at 9:32 am #

    @Ruth – well literally it would translate as goda livet or perfekt but I suppose it really depends on exactly what you’re trying to say and how you’re trying to say it.

    I would say that lagom is not the right word choice though.

    @David – good call. there are quite a few to choose from

  8. Karina 24 November 2013 at 9:52 pm #

    Secular and atheist couples in the US get married in droves. Religion has nothing to do with the motive to get married. Also, the US for a long time had a marriage tax “penalty”; a couple paid more tax when married than when living together. Yet this didn’t stop people from marrying. So the blogger needs to do a deeper analysis. Things are not at all so simple as superficially portrayed here.

  9. Marcus Cederström 11 June 2014 at 3:49 am #

    You’re right, secular and atheist couples do get married in droves in the US, however, the religious aspects of marriage is still very strong in many wedding traditions throughout the US.

  10. Jeff 6 February 2015 at 7:23 pm #

    Having family in and having been to Sweden numerous times, the Sambo relationship is a breath of fresh air for defining a committed bond between 2 individuals, regardless of age, without the legal marriage contract. Here in the US and I’m sure in most of the world, that concept is foreign and uncomfortable to accept at best. In Sweden, it’s just another way that people live.

    My question is with the number of gay couples now getting married in the US, is the “sambo” term also used for gay couples living together?

  11. Gilbert 19 February 2015 at 2:28 am #

    The reason many Swedish couples live together is simple. They don’t want to commit to each other and they have liberal sexual views. To use an analogy, they want to eat an apple without paying for it. The problem of course is that if we don’t buy the apple, it’s never truly ours.

  12. Marcus Cederström 23 March 2015 at 11:47 am #

    Jeff, yes, sambo is used for all couples living together.

    Gilbert, an interesting opinion. The liberal sexual views of Swedes is a popular stereotype that has been around for quite some time!

  13. Justin Ong 5 May 2016 at 8:07 pm #

    särbo – living-apart partner, or (US English) LAT – Living Apart Together.
    [f Sw sär – lesion, wound, bo – live]

  14. Marcus Cederström 23 May 2016 at 4:26 pm #

    Love the LAT!

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