Swedish Language Blog

Hav or sjö? Posted by on Apr 23, 2009 in Swedish Language

When is a lake not a lake? When it’s a sea. Doesn’t make much sense, now does it? But unfortunately that’s how it can be in Swedish. Sometimes a lake is just a lake, but sometimes, even though it’s called a lake, it’s really a sea.

Of course, I am talking about the “hav” and “sjö” issue. And what inspired me to write about it was a heated discussion between a Swede and a foreigner I overheard on the bus the other day. The discussion was in English, the foreigner was asking lots of questions and the Swede was doing the explaining. Sadly, he wasn’t very good at it and I was seriously contemplating whether or not I should join in. But since one doesn’t just join random conversations taking place in public places in Sweden, I stayed silent. I was reading an interesting book anyway.

So, here’s my chance to add my 2 öre to the discussion, even though I seriously doubt that the foreign guy from the bus reads this blog.

But this was his question that started the whole discussion:
Why is the Baltic Sea called a “lake” in Swedish? And how come it’s not even called “Baltic lake” but “Östersjön” – Eastern Lake.
Hmmm… the easy answer is that: Since it’s to the east of Sweden, it’s called “eastern”, even though as far as I know the rest of the world calls it “Baltic”. That’s OK, I can live with that. Every language has its quirks and this is one in Swedish. And that was pretty much what the Swedish guy on the bus said.

But what’s up with this “sjö” (lake) business? That’s something the Swede had a much harder time explaining. And I can’t blame him. There’s Vänern, which is most definitely “sjö”, in fact Vänern är Sveriges största sjö and third largest in Europe.

So, if “sjö” means “lake”, then why do we have “Östersjön” (the Baltic Sea) and Nordsjön (the North Sea)? Well, the traditional reasoning is that those two seas were so well-known to the Vikings, they didn’t even consider them as seas, but as their own lakes. Fine, I can live with that, too. But then what about Sydkinesiska sjön (the South China Sea)? Was it also known to the Vikings? Mercifully, Sydkinesiska sjön also has an alternate name – Sydkinesiska havet. And that’s more like it. To make the distinction between lake-lake and sea-lake easier, the kind of lake that is a normal lake is called “insjö” in Swedish.

Hav” means either a sea OR an ocean. So you can have for example Stilla havet (the Pacific Ocean) and Medelhavet (the Mediterranean Sea).

Ok, so if “hav” means “ocean” and there’s Stilla havet to prove it, then what about “Indiska oceanen”? Hmmm… a very good question. Luckily, you can say either “Indiska oceanen” or “Indiska havet” – both are fine.

And what about the Atlantic Ocean? To make things even more interesting, it’s simply called “Atlanten”.

  • sjö (def. sjön, pl. sjöar, def.pl.: sjöarna) – stort område med vatten som inter inner och med land runt omkring, insjö – lake (or a sea in some cases
  • hav (def. havet, pl. hav, def.pl.: haven) – saltvattnet som finns runt jordens landområden – ocean or sea.
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  1. Mats:

    Well, I think the easy explanation is that sjö used to mean both sea and lake. The word hav showed up sometime in the 16th century, if I interpret SAOB correctly. However, the names of certain seas have remained even after the arrival of the word hav, or maybe you can say that the sea meaning of the word sjö has remained for names of certain seas.

    Sjö is by the way related to sea, they come from the same Germanic word.

  2. Anna:

    Hej Mats!
    Thank you for your explanation. This is almost exactly what the Swedish guy on the bus said too. (It wasn’t you by any chance, was it? 😉 )

    But the foreign dude countered it with “so what’s up with those Vikings? If a sea was a lake to them, does that mean they didn’t really see much difference between their inland lakes and normal seas? Where ancient Swedes THAT stupid?” That’s why I mentioned that the discussion turned quite heated.
    He also pointed out the Germanic root of “sjö” as meaning “sea” and then wanted to know how come it ended up to signify a lake instead. And so it went round and round…

  3. Luke (Sydney):

    Don’t know if this has any thing to do with Vikings’ sense of humour. “Nah, that’s not a sea. It’s calm like a lake so let’s call it a lake!”

  4. David M:

    Hej Anna!

    I have a similar problem with ‘Rivers’ and ‘Streams’.

    When is a river an ‘älv’ or a ‘flod’ or even a ‘bäck’?

    If it’s supposed to be about size then someone slipped up on ‘den Ångermanälven’.

    (å ån åar, noun, doesn’t help either!) and I won’t bother to bring my Yorkshire beck into this.

    (bäck el. flod. el. sjö [med strömmande vatten] Definitely not Yorkshire).

    I live next to ‘Den Ångermanälven’ which is often written in english as ‘The river Ångermanälven’ when perhaps it ought to be ‘The River Ångerman’.

    Sometimes this language drives me crazy.

    I still love it. 🙂

    David M.

  5. Anna:

    Luke, I think you are totally SPOT ON here! 🙂
    I like your explanation the most and will be adding it my repertoire when talking about lakes and seas from now on. 🙂 Thanks!

  6. Kerstin:


    Unfortunately I don’t have any additional explanations, but in my mother tongue German it’s quite similar (which is not that surprising, because there are many other similarities) ‘See’ can either be lake or sea, but we have different articles. For a lake it’s ‘DER See’ (masculine) whereas the sea is ‘DIE See’ (feminine).

    Många hälsningar från Hamburg


  7. Luke (Sydney):

    Hej Anna, I am not qualified to explain things here. Having said, I can’t speak Swedish but I can think like a Viking now 😉

  8. Minty:

    Haha very amusing and brain tingling blog Anna! Even my Swedish boyfriend was confused 😛

  9. Stu:

    Hi Anna!

    I would have loved to jump to the Vikings’ defense!

    The thing that’s difficult to keep in mind is that languages were developed long ago. And they don’t have “software upgrades” like we’re used to in the modern world. The world of the Vikings didn’t have GPS, or even the need for the distinctions we’re making. In their Skando-centric (if I may) world view, the East Sea or East Lake was know to everyone who’d be speaking Swedish as an obvious point of reference.

    We’re the ones who have the problem because we’re trying to fit our modern world view to languages that grew before they were needed. Although it’s natural to try and make sense of the confusion, the right answer is always, “because that’s just how they say it”. It’s a shame the gentleman on the bus didn’t point out how many BIZARRE quirks of the English language we put up with every day.


  10. Anders:

    Thank you for your answer. It didn’t make me any wiser but it was sure fun to read about.

  11. Amanda:

    Maybe the vikings called it a lake because they could drink the water and therefore thought it probably wasn’t a sea. And at the same time it definitely looked big enough to be a lake.
    And once something has a name it is a very hard thing to change that name. We’re having a bit of bother in our country changing Wangarei to Whangarei.