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When a Short, Sharp Intake of Breath Means “Yes” Posted by on Mar 19, 2009 in Culture, Swedish Language

My friend had to go to the doctor the other day, and afterwards, when we were having fika, he said: “wow, I guess I’m seriously sick. The doctor was making those scared little noises at pretty much everything I told her.”

As you can very easily guess, my friend is an expat and hasn’t been in Sweden all that long. And during his time here, it’s obvious that he’s been interacting mostly with fellow expats. The doctor’s visit was evidently the first time he got to talk to a real Swede. And judging from his description of their conversation, a real Swede it was indeed.

First I had to laugh (but just a tiny bit) and then crashed my friend’s expectations of being sjukskriven (being on sick leave) for a long time, because yeah, while he was sick, it wasn’t with anything really life threatening. Then proceeded to explain to him the meaning of those sharp intakes of breath – those scared little noises, as he called them.

Frankly, I got so used to those noises that I don’t even notice them anymore. And quite probably, you could even catch me producing them myself on a not-so-rare occasion.

My readers in Sweden know exactly what I’m talking about, and for the rest of you – I’ll do my best to explain.

At its simplest, I am talking about a sharp, sudden intake of breath. Some compare it to a “terrified” or surprised noise, or as my guy does – a choking attack in the middle of a conversation. Personally, the first time I heard it, I thought it was a sudden hiccup. Why? That’s exactly what it sounds like. Unfortunately, it signifies none of the above. At its simplest, it’s a sign that your speaker agrees with you, or acknowledges that he/ she heard and understood what you had to say.
(And here Anna draws a sharp breath.)

People (both Swedes and foreigners alike) say that in some regions of the country this custom is more prevalent than in others, but I’ve seen (or rather heard) it all over. Though maybe a bit more in the North than elsewhere. People also say that it’s a generational thing. Supposedly, older folks are more likely to start making that funny noise when you talk to them, but in my experience, plenty of younger ones do it just as frequently and with equal proficiency. One of my ex-coworkers, a woman in her twenties could even construct a whole vocabulary just out of sharp, sudden intakes of breath.

And yes, speaking of women, they tend to use this form of “yes” a bit more often than men. Frankly, I have very rarely had a guy go “hiccupping” on me like that.

And what about foreigners in Sweden? They either stubbornly resist, or after a few years, consciously or not, begin to do it themselves. So, when you also start adding this short, sharp intake of breath to you normal, every-day vocabulary, you know the time has finally come when you can honestly say that you have completely and utterly assimilated. Congratulations!

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Comments:

  1. Luke (Sydney):

    Something preserved in swedish from before the time of language may be 🙂 Seriously I am very interested in hearing it myself now. Is it common on TV as well?

  2. Curre:

    Yheehhsss…you got me caught in the act while reading 🙂 Being a native Swede, you´re my best Swedish (or should I say Sweden-) teacher. Funny little habits we have, that you put under spotlight. Keep up the good work!

  3. Steve (Västerås):

    @Luke:
    Take a look at the latest TV ad for Norrlands Guld beer here on YouTube…
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xNhOW9JVYzs

    While this is exaggerated for comic effect it is not too far from the truth. I like the way that the person that posted the video has even tried to spell the sound that Anna described in her post…
    “Pschu”

  4. Luke (Sydney):

    That’s gold Steve. Possibly how the sound was born 🙂

  5. Candy:

    LOL! I have been living in Sweden for three months now and have been noticing this phenomenon, I had to google it and found your blog! We live in Skane and the people down here (you’re right mostly women) do a combo “Ja” with the quick intake of breath but my boyfriend says his cousin who grew up in Vaxjo would open his mouth very slight and make an “O” and do a very sharp intake of breath, and that means “affirmative.” Is Sweden the only country that does this??

  6. Rupert:

    Spot on. I’ve been in Sweden for 10 years and I do it all the time. It disconcerts my friends from home when I go back and keep making all these little surprised sounds.
    What is this noise called? Linguistically I would perhaps call it a “reverse voiceless palatal-velar fricative”.

  7. Linda Seaton:

    Hello – I have watched the Swedish version of the Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest – (have seen all 3 Swedish versions) and now watching for the second time. I noticed the character of Lisbeth Salander has short intake of breath when saying yes – perhaps a bit too when saying no. I found it very interesting because I do the same thing, and my grandmother and others when I was growing up in Scotland. It was used all the time. I was unaware that I had continued doing this, since I have been living in Canada over 30 years. A friend, who was from Newfoundland, Canada, commented on it – saying that his grandmother did the same thing. His grandmother was born in Newfoundland, Canada, but was of Scottish heritage. Anyway, thought it was interesting. I believe it is more common in Scotland around the western coaster/island areas – but we lived in central Scotland (Perthshire). Obviously, it has also carried itself to this side of the Atlantic.

  8. Pól Mac Cana:

    I was looking this sound up to read about it. But I was doing this for the north of Ireland. A German friend of mine commented on it once when she was in my home town. We have one in-breath for ‘yes’ and another for ‘no’.

    Is this in other parts of Scandanavia? Could we have got it when we were a part of the Viking civilisation? Any ideas?

    Interesting at any rate.

  9. Ian:

    I have been working with a norweigan lady on and off for a few months and had started to wonder why she seemed to gasp in surprise at the most banal of comments that I made. But this week I was working with a number of people from Norway and Sweden and it seems that they all shared the surprise (and what I decided was wonder and awe) of my comments.

    Realism made me wonder whether this was a cultural issue and I found this thread which has confirmed that they were gasping in neither surprise nor wonder at my wise words………thanks!

  10. Andrew Mitchell:

    That’s all really interesting as I initially looked up the subject in an effort to source a similar trait in the North East of Scotland, especially in the farming communities. I have only ever come across it elsewhere in Southern Ireland.

  11. Steven Goldstein:

    First of all thank you for this item. I googled this because I noticed this behaviour in a Swedish client I have been working with and it intrigued me. The descriptions of the noise/reflex above are absolutely spot-on. By the way the client in this case is male early 40s.

    Yesterday I noticed this sound again in a new client, again male, in his 30s (Regarding the age issue), this time however he was Danish and had lived in the UK for the past 8 years. Thus suggesting this is a wider Scamdinavian trait.

    I would guess that neither of them are conciously aware of this behaviour anymore than we would be consciously aware we are nodding our head slightly when in a similar situation.

  12. RAS:

    was in finland recently. a cab driver did this before every sentence. and a very beautiful young woman did this before the word “hello”. i commented on this to both of them. they had no idea they were doing it. the sound is pronounced and loud.


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