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What’s the deal with själv? Posted by on Aug 16, 2009 in Grammar

I was talking to an American gal who teaches Swedish (in the US) the other day and there was one thing she said that just stopped me dead in my tracks. And that was själv is a reflexive pronoun.” What? Please don’t tell me this is what teachers of Swedish in the US tell their students!

While “själv” may indeed look like a reflexive pronoun, especially when it’s translated into English, it most definitely is not. It’s just a word used for emphasis that someone performed a certain action all by him/herself. Unfortunately, because of this “himself, herself, myself, etc” bit, it frequently gets mistaken for a reflexive pronoun.

So how does this “själv” work in Swedish? Like this:

  • Jag kan göra det själv. – I can do it myself.

And now for a real reflexive pronoun:

  • Jag har skurit mig. – I have cut myself.

The first one simply emphasizes that I can do whatever it is that I’m supposed to do all by myself, just like a big girl should.

This example is a little bit different, but it also shows you what this “själv” is all about:

  • Han älskar bara sig själv. – He only loves himself.

There you have both “sig” and “själv” and yes, I know it can be confusing, but it’s really very logical, especially when you see “själv” as part of compound words.

Actually, I think it’s the easiest way to figure out what “själv” is all about – by seeing how it’s translated when used in compound words, like these:

  • självbetjäning – self-service
  • självdisciplin – self-discipline
  • självkritik – self-criticism


  • självförtroende – self-confidence

Can you see the difference now between “själv” and a real reflexive pronoun?

And oh yeah, I almost forgot. When talking about plural, then “själv” becomes “själva”, like this:

  • Studenterna själva ordnade festen. – The students themselves arranged the party.
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  1. Ethan Poole:

    “själv” does not translate to “myself”, etc., but it is still a reflexive pronoun (anaphor). You cannot have “själv” without a subject in the clause (binding domain). Yes, “själv” can be used as an adjective, but that’s not the same “själv” as the pronoun. It’s not uncommon for a “word” to actually be two or three words. Take “it” in English for example (pronoun, expletive, etc.).

    Take a look at binding theory (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Binding_Theory) for a better understanding.

    “själv” is a weird word in Swedish, but it has a reflexive pronoun form and an adjective form. Don’t get them confused. Of course, you are correct that it doesn’t translate like our English reflexive pronouns do, which is quite misleading for a teacher to say.

  2. Cornelis:

    Yes, and “Tack själv” sounds a bit strange at first!

  3. Nathan:

    While I appreciate your efforts to help others understand concepts that can be confusing, I feel that some of your statements need further clarification.

    Swedish “själv” is not an emphasis word as you state. Emphasis words such as “ju” are typically adverbs and used differently. “Själv” is, in most cases, a ‘normal’ pronoun but is, in some cases, an adjective.

    Pronoun examples:
    jag själv, han gjorde det själv, de frågade henne själva

    Adjective examples:
    själva arbetet, själva tanken, i själva Stockholm, i själva verket

    It is also worth noting that “själv” can be used for the philosophical/psychological idea of self.

  4. David:

    One should also note that an ongoing development in Swedish is that “själv” can mean “alone” as in “Jag har bott själv här i tio år” (I’ve lived alone (cf. English ‘by myself’) here for ten years”). However, the sentence “Jag har själv bott här i tio år” of course means “I’ve myself lived here for ten years”. But the sentence “Jag reste själv till Bryssel” (I travelled myself/alone to Brussels) is ambiguous. The use of “själv” instead of “ensam” is not considered to be fully acceptable by all but it’s becoming more common.

  5. Ethan Poole:

    I want to clarify that phrases like “tack, själv” most likely have additional syntactic structure not present when pronounced. Since I’m not an expert on Swedish syntax, I cannot say the exact full phrase, but something like “tack du själv” is probably pretty close. The same sort of things happens in German and in English. For example, “suit yourself” has a deep structure of “you suit yourself”, although no one would actually say such.

    And like I posted earlier, “själv” is not only a pronoun, but it’s pronoun “form” is a reflexive one.

  6. Ölänning:

    @Ethan Pool – Actually, “själv” does translate into “myself” in most cases. Now, “myself” in English is an adverb and that means that the Swedish “själv” is also most commonly used as an adverb, i.e. describing an action. Here’s an example:

    Jag gjorde det själv = I did it myself

    Exactly the same grammatical structure in the both languages here. I and jag=subjects, did and gjorde=verb, it and det=object and myself and själv=adverb. Here “själv” is used as Anna Ikeda said, to emphasize that you did something all by yourself.

    It should be noted that while “själv”, when being an adverb, may often be translated into “myself” there’s also times when,despite being an adverb, it can’t be translated into myself. Here’s an example:

    Själv var jag hemma

    Now the literal translation would be “Myself I was home”. But that doesn’t make any sense. So what does “själv” mean in this sentence. To demonstrate that I’m gonna put the sentence in a bigger context, here:

    – Vad gjorde du igår = What did you do yesterday?
    – Jag jobbade hela dagen = I was working the whole day).
    – Jaha. Själv var jag hemma. = OK. I, on the other hand, was home.

    So in this sentence “själv” is used to emphasize that I (or myself) did something different than someone else. So, it could be roughly translated into “I, on the other hand”.

    I would say that both these uses of “själv” are by far the most common uses of the word. However,”själv” is never used as a reflexive pronoun, I’m sorry. I’m a Swede and I’m very much into languages, so I should know what I’m talking about.

  7. Ölänning:

    I put some more thought into the matter and realized you were right, “själv” may also be used as a reflexive pronoun or as a part of one. Here’s an example:

    De såg sig själva i spegeln =They saw themselves in the mirror

    Here “sig själva” is a reflexive pronoun, reflecting back to “they”.

    It’s a really complicated word, which can be used in many ways. So, I’m sorry but to my defense it IS a very confusing word.

  8. Ethan Poole:

    I am sorry, but själv and myself are not adverbs. It is a pronoun (and hence a noun) because it refers to something in the real world (this is an oversimplified definition). Adverbs tend to bear more association with adjectives. Many linguistics view adverbs and adjectives as the same thing because they share very similar syntactic structures.

    Jag gjorde det själv.

    In this case, both “jag” and “själv” are co-indexed the same thing: whoever is saying the sentence. There is nothing adverbial about “själv” or “myself” in English.

    Also, I said it doesn’t translate into “myself” because of the blog post above.

    “själv” is a reflexive pronoun and it can’t be otherwise unless someone can find a sentence where “själv” is not c-commanded by a subject pronoun. Obviously, we are talking syntactically and not morphologically.

  9. Ölänning:

    Uhmmm.. OK, I know what you’re saying. That’s alright. Just one question on that… What does “morphologically” mean?

    I have to say that this just got way too complicated for me… I stand corrected, I guess… Not that I can really tell because I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about… 😉 But you seem to know a lot more about grammar than I do, at least.

    But I thought “myself” and “själv” were adverbs in the sentences I wrote since they describe how the verb was done. Isn’t that the definition of an adverb? Or am I completely off?

    Although, “själv” does translate into “myself” a lot of the time.

  10. Ethan Poole:

    First, I apologise for using jargon and such, sometimes I forget everyone doesn’t study linguistics. I will try to clarify things a bit more.

    Morphology is the study of word formation. What I meant was that I wasn’t including the words with “själv” in them, like självbetjäning or something. Since själv can be used to form part of a word *and* as a word itself, it is impossible to generalise its use (as the other of this post kind of tried to do).

    “Myself” and “själv” aren’t adverbs because a noun cannot be an adverb. “I did it myself” might seem like an adverb, but this is called apposition and it still considered a regular pronoun.

    “själv” is a rather confusing and complex word, no doubt about that. My point is that it *is* a reflexive pronoun, even if its usage does not mirror that of English.

    A little fun fact, Swedish has a reflexive genitive pronoun: our favourite little “sin” (or sitt/sina). Most languages tend to handle reflexive pronouns quite differently. Swedish has many parallels with English, whereas Spanish and Chinese do not. The problem is that Swedish’s “själv” differs every so little that it makes it kind of confusing, especially in translation-driven instruction.

    I hope that makes sense. 🙂

  11. Anna Ikeda:

    this is Anna from the blog, I need your email address, pretty please! With sugar on top! If you could be so kind and leave a comment with an email address that you can be reached at, that would be great. Of course no one will see the address, except the folks at Transparent. Thank you so much!!!!

  12. Ölänning:

    @Ethan Poole – No, don’t apologize. If anything I should apologize for thinking I knew more about grammar than you. Well, I guess that’s sorted out then… Never knew you could delve so deep into one little seemingly uninteresting word like “själv”… Thanks for the grammar lesson, though!

    @Anna Ikeda – I wrote my real email-address for this comment.

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