Swedish Language Blog

The Swedish Mile Posted by on Jan 12, 2010 in Culture

Sweden is on the metric system. Actually most of the world is on the metric system, but, having spent the majority of my life in the US, the metric system can sometimes feel a bit foreign. I know it makes sense logically. I know that by studying a few prefixes, anyone can learn the metric system. I know. That doesn’t stop the 17 years of feet and inches from dominating my thoughts sometimes.

Of course, learning about the metric system isn’t all that exciting, and definitely not unique to Sweden. But the “mil” is. Best described as a Swedish mile, a mil is not your average 5,280 foot mile. A mil is metric. Swedish style (and Norwegian, but we’re learning Swedish here).

In Sweden, when traveling by car, or really anywhere more than a few kilometers away, the measure of distance given is the mil. Ten kilometers. So driving 200 kilometers south of Stockholm will get you to Linköping. It will also mean you drove 20 mil. Running your holiday 10k means you ran an entire mil. Skiing Vasaloppet means you crossed over nine mil of frozen northern Swedish countryside.

Road signs, despite the colloquial use of the mil, are written in kilometers. So setting off for your trip to Linköping, you might see a sign saying you have 150 km left to go. The key there is the km. Not mil. This has led to confusion several times for Americans. And by Americans, I mean me. In both the US and Sweden, I have managed to confuse myself, once in the US seeing the mileage sign and thinking that we only had 60 km, or six mil, left. Wrong. Sixty miles.

After nearly three years here, I have begun to adapt. To be able to differentiate between the mil and the mile without thinking too much. Of course there have been moments, moments when I was expected to give directions and found myself telling someone they only have 30 miles to go when actually they had 30 mil. I’ve also been on the other end, jumping in when Swedes have given direction with the wrong mile. Average it out and I’m sure everyone ended up where they were supposed to. Just to be safe, if asking for directions and the word mil gets thrown out there. Clarify. American mile or Swedish mil?

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About the Author: Marcus Cederström

Marcus Cederström has been writing for the Transparent Swedish Blog since 2009. He has a Bachelor's Degree in Scandinavian Studies from the University of Oregon, a Master's Degree in Scandinavian Studies from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and a PhD in Scandinavian Studies and Folklore from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He has taught Swedish for several years and still spells things wrong. So, if you see something, say something.