Swedish Language Blog

Swenglish eller svengelska? Posted by on Mar 14, 2009 in Vocabulary

One of the commenters mentioned my funny English recently and that actually was a very good thing. As any expat who’s been living for a long time in a non-English speaking country can tell you, this is bound to happen. Sooner or later, your English will start deteriorating. And the funniest thing is, you might not even realize when instead of English you begin to switch to Swenglish (or svengelska).

Suddenly, you find yourself talking about “red days.” You begin to “eat pills” and to “follow” people to the movies. And when you hear yourself saying that your husband worked “in the commune under five years” you know it’s been a long time since you visited an English speaking country.

So, let’s take a look at some of the most common direct translation mistakes that both Swedes and long-time expats in Sweden tend to make, OK?

  • Vill du följa med?literally: Do you want to follow with? Correctly: Do you want to/ would you like to come (along)?

My former chef (who was not a chef) was a super-kind woman, who would always invite me to different activities. First time when I heard her say in English to me: “Do you want to follow us?” it took me a moment to figure out what she meant.

  • chef (def. chefen, plural: chefer, def. plural: cheferna) – correctly in English: boss.

I don’t even remember when it first happened that I started to replace “boss” with “chef” (of course when meaning “boss”) while speaking English. This has to be hands down the most common false-friends mix-up in Swenglish. And it’s an equal opportunity mistake, too – both native Swedes and expats make it.

  • röd dagliterally: red day, correctly: bank/public holiday.

You know you’re listening to two expats talking when you overhear this sort of conversation:

“Are we off tomorrow?”

“Sure, it’s a red day. What are your plans?”

“Dunno, go to the stuga maybe. Do you want to follow?”

  • äta tabletterliterally: eat pills, correctly: take pills.

This always confuses my husband when he goes to the pharmacy. He automatically asks to clarify: “You want me to eat while taking the pills?” Because my husband doesn’t speak Swedish, he and the unlucky pharmacist must communicate in English, and so further confusion ensues. Listening to them can be quite entertaining, actually.

  • under (when talking about time periods) – correctly in English: during

This is also a very common mistake. In December on of my friends who’s been living in Sweden for over 20 years asked me this: “Are you going to be home under Christmas?”

  • den röda tråden literally: the red thread, correctly: the main thread, common theme

We went to a lecture once where the speaker kept talking (in English) about the red threads in Bergman’s movies. My companion whispered to me quietly: “I didn’t know that Bergman was into the Kabbalah.”

There are of course many more of such words and phrases and this is just a small sample to give you an idea of how easy it is to fall into the svengelska trap.

And now, if you excuse me, I have pills to eat. I got sick under winter break.

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  1. Minty:

    Right now this makes me chuckle..but I dread to think of what things like this will do to me in 6 months time.

  2. Anders:

    Some say “äta tabletter” but it is not proper Swedish. “Ta en tablett” (or piller) is at least as frequently used.

  3. Kenia:

    Hej Anna! Interesting and useful post, as usual.
    Now I understand why my friend says either “eat the pill” or “take the pill”. First time I heard him I thought it was me who didn’t know the expression in english, now I see he has fallen into the “svengelska trap” =).

  4. Lulie:

    Haha, excellent. A Swedish friend of mine made the mistake of saying ‘the red thread’, thinking it was an English phrase too.

    Another interesting mix-up was about the word ‘after’…

    I discovered that ‘after’ and ‘behind’ are the same word in Swedish, and even same meaning! Sort of. “Italy is 20 years after us in every way” = “Italy is 20 years behind us in every way”, in Swedish.

    I’ll clean my room AFTER lunch — Jag skall städa mitt rum EFTER lunch
    You’re a bit BEHIND, aren’t you? — Du är lite EFTER, är du inte?

    My Swedish friend didn’t see ‘efter’ as having two different meanings until this caused some confusion when talking in English. Observe the following conversation about time zones:

    Lulie says: (10:49:48 am): It’s 10:50am here.
    Friend says: (10:50:01 am): ok. So it’s nine hours after..
    Lulie says: (10:50:07 am): After what?
    Friend says: (10:50:11 am): My time.
    Lulie says: (10:50:18 am): You mean before?
    Friend says: (10:50:24 am): No? I was where you are nine hours ago.
    Lulie says: (10:50:41 am): You’re 9 hours ahead — it’s 8:50pm there.
    Friend says: (10:50:42 am): So you are after me?
    Friend says: (10:50:47 am): Yeah.
    Lulie says: (10:51:00 am): So I’m before.
    Friend says: (10:51:06 am): No. :-O
    Friend says: (10:51:18 am): How can you be before when it’s morning where you are, and evening where I am?
    Lulie says: (10:51:55 am): So, I have to count nine hours to get to your time.
    Friend says: (10:51:58 am): Let’s just say like this: I get to 14 January before you.
    Friend says: (10:52:08 am): Therefore I am before you.
    Friend says: (10:52:48 am): If you think of it as a race, then you are nine hours after me.

    “He was going after me” in English means “I went, then he went”. But in Swedish it means the opposite. In English, ‘after’ = following… but couldn’t one think of ‘behind’ as ‘following’, too?

    Is this just a thing of Swedish, or it is in English too? The two words seem to be the opposite! And yet…!

    ‘Efter’ in Swedish always mean a younger thing, or a thing that’s newer/less smart.

    I’m sure there’s a simple explanation for the confusing difference, but I’m not sure what it is.

  5. Anders:

    After means after, or behind, in any language. I don’t know what confuses you. Maybe you confuse yourself:

    “You’re 9 hours ahead”
    “So I’m before”

    That doesn’t make any sense. Your friend is right all along – Europe is before, timewise, simple as that.

    In Swedish it means the opposite? Nothing you say corroborates that. And it’s obviously and self-evidently not true.

    “Less smart”? That’s just nonsense. “Efter” can mean “efterbliven” (retarded) but that’s not the meaning in the phrase you choose; it rather means less developed. Besides, “bakom” is just as common in this case, and it literally means behind. So your argument is pretty much dead in the water. There is nothing strange about how these words are used in Swedish.

  6. Christer:

    Here is a few favourites:
    Do you feel again me (Do you recognise me)

    Hello on you (Hej pa dig)

  7. Gabriela:

    I just found your blog and I think it’s very interesting and useful.This post in particular is hilarious! Being a chef myself I couldn’t help but wondering: if chef means “boss” in Swedish, what is the actual word for chef in Swedish? Not “cook”, sorry. I think they are different words.
    Congratulations on your blog!