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Swedish proverbs Posted by on Nov 1, 2011 in Culture, Literature, Swedish Language

Personally, I love proverbs. They help me understand different ways of thinking and cultural differences. Depending on how big the cultural differences are between your country and Sweden some of these sayings you might have heard in your own language or can see the logic in them just by understanding the words. Others are however much harder to guess the meaning behind. Those times it might be easier to understand if you have heard the story behind them.

Proverbs can also be confusing for beginners in a language, but even native speakers don’t know all of them, so there are always new proverbs popping up for everybody 🙂  But I still feel that one of the most central parts to mastering a language and understanding a culture is proverbs. Logic is very different from country to country, maybe you’ll discover some differences you hadn’t noticed before.

To start off, this is a pretty commonly used proverb.

“Alla känner apan, men apan känner ingen” Literally translated this would be something along the lines of: “Everybody knows the monkey, but the monkey knows nobody”. This saying is often used to describe a situation when a person is known for something, and referred to by very many people. The individual in question doesn’t know any others involved. People know of somebody but they don’t have a personal relationship to them.

“Borta bra, men hemma bäst” Being away from home is nice but home is best. People often say this after being out and about for a slightly longer period of time.

“Bättre tiga än illa tala” Better to be silent than speak ill.

“Bättre fly än illa fäkta” Better back off (flea) than fight badly.

“Bättre än fågel i handen än tio i skogen” Better one bird in your hand than ten in the woods.

“Den enes bröd är den andres död”. One mans bread is another’s death.

“Den som ger sig in i leken, får leken tåla” If you play the game you accept the rules.

“Har man sagt A får man säga B.This proverb basically says that if you have started saying something then you have to finish. Eg. somebody is keeping the suspense up and

“Den som väntar på något gått han väntar aldrig för länge” One can never wait too long for something good.

“Det finns inget dåligt väder, bara dåliga kläder”, “there is no bad weather, there are only bad clothes”. This saying is time and again used when it is raining and school children do not want to go outside. It also indicates how “nature-loving” many Swedes are.

“Dra inte alla över en kam” Literally translated “Don’t pull everybody over the same comb” the bottom-line being “Don’t generalize people”.

“Genvägar är ofta senvägar” Shortcuts often turn into very time-consuming routes.

There are almost literal translations, many which probably came from English proverbs, for example:

“Gräset är inte alltid grönare på andra sidan”  “The grass is always greener on the other side”

“Gråt inte över spilld mjölk”  “Don’t cry over spilled milk”

“Den som spar han har” “Savers, keepers”

Have you heard or come across a swedish proverb you don’t understand the logic of? Post it and we’ll all try to see if we can explain anything! 🙂

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  1. Julie:

    Isn’t that ‘the grass ISN’T always greener…?’

    Love the proverbs, as you do! So useful, and so interesting.

  2. Karen:

    Usually when you make a grammatical error, I just chuckle and accept it as a silly slip-up that ocurs when we’re translating between languages. But, lest you lead people astray with the use of a wrong word, I felt I’d send you a quick correction today. In “Better back off (flea) than fight badly” the word “flea” should be “flee”. A “flea” is a small, annoying insect that is generally found in house pets and can transfer to humans, as I once learned when I moved into a rented house that was infested with fleas from the 6 cats that had formerly lived there. Once I realize there were fleas all over, I did want to “flee” (run away)!!!

  3. Avi Katz:

    The grass, of course, IS greener in the proverb.
    Two small English mistakes to fix: You meant ‘flee’ not ‘flea’; and E.G. not Eg.

  4. M.J.:

    My mom had a cutting board that said something like “If you will darn his socks and love him dearly, he shall walk on roses” (meaning perhaps a good wife makes a husband’s life a joyous one?). I think it was written in a slightly archaic/poetic Swedish choice of words. I’d like to find the original since I only can remember the translation.