Many people who have heard the Swedish language being spoken have commented that it sounds very song-like, very melodic, with high tones and low tones, giving a “singing” effect. The people who noted this have often contrasted the prosody (intonation and language rhythm) of Swedish to that of English, which they say is much more monotone. But why is this so? What in the Swedish language makes it so “melodic”?
To begin with, Swedish has two types of emphasis: primary emphasis and secondary emphasis. Emphasis is putting more or less force into certain syllables in words. For example, in English, when we say the word document, we emphasize the syllable DOC-, giving it more force than -u- or -ment. We don’t say *doc-U-ment or *doc-u-MENT. Therefore, linguists say that the emphasis in the word document is on the syllable DOC-.
Unlike English, though, Swedish has, as previously mentioned, two types of emphasis. In English, we emphasize the word course when we say COURSE-book. We don’t emphasize book, saying *course-BOOK. And we definitely don’t emphasize both words: *COURSE-BOOK. The Swedes, however, do (at least in Standard Swedish). In Swedish, certain dialectal variants say KURS-bok, and none that I’ve ever heard say kurs-BOK. But in Standard Swedish, both syllables are emphasized, the first with primary emphasis and the second with secondary emphasis (In Swedish, huvudbetoning and bibetoning, respectively): KURS-BOK.
If you’re not quite sure what I mean, try saying course and book as if they’re separate items on a list, but immediately after each other. That’s approximately how kursbok is pronounced.
Keep in mind that not all words have both primary and secondary emphasis. Naturally, single-syllable words will only have one main, emphasized syllable. Words with two or more syllables can be tricky when it comes to figuring out if they have double emphasis. For instance, the word fågel, meaning “bird”, is pronounced with emphasis only on the first syllable, as FÅG-el; the word snigel, meaning “snail”, is pronounced with double emphasis: SNIG-EL.
So, double emphasis is one of the major factors that make Swedish sound more rhythmic and melodic than English – for those of you who think so. Another contributing factor – perhaps just as important – is the length of emphasized syllables. All emphasized syllables are long: they are pronounced for a longer period of time than unemphasized syllables. An emphasized syllable can have either a long vowel or a long consonant – never neither nor both. In kursbok, for example, the first syllable has a long consonant which must be complemented by a short vowel. In the second syllable, the vowel is long, so the following consonant (of the same syllable) must be pronounced as short.
If we look at fågel, though, which has both an emphasized syllable and an unemphasized syllable, the emphasized syllable FÅG- has a long vowel and a short consonant while the unemphasized syllable -el is comprised of only short sounds. In snigel, a double-emphasis word, SNIG- has a long vowel and a short consonant and -EL has a short vowel and a long consonant.
But you may be wondering what happens when words are put together and end up with what you would expect to be triple or quadruple emphasis. Take, for example, fågelkursbok, “bird course book”, perhaps a book for a course on birds. Logically, you would expect it to be pronounced *FÅG-el-KURS-BOK. But human beings have a tendency to make things easier for themselves (which, of course, makes sense). When it comes to words like this, only the first emphasized syllable of the first word and the last emphasized syllable of the last word are emphasized. So, in reality, fågelkursbok is pronounced FÅG-el-kurs-BOK and snigelkursbok would be pronounced SNIG-el-kurs-BOK.
Learners of Swedish: Don’t shy away! This is a very easy concept to learn once you’ve arrived in Sweden or managed to surround yourself with Swedish television and film. Just observe at first – people will understand you even if you mess this up. It just won’t sound natural, unless you happen to move to a part of Sweden with single-syllable emphasis. But the main goal is to be able to communicate, right? So if you can do that, you can focus on this fancy stuff later.
And finally, before I say goodbye, it would be worth noting that Swedes vary their tone much more than [most] speakers of English, again depending on dialect in both cases. That, combined with the aforementioned double emphasis and length of emphasized syllables, make for a very prosodic language.
As always, I hope you’ve all learned something from this post. I might upload a video at some point so you can hear how it’s done, rather than trying to figure it out by reading this complicated post. So stay posted!