When a Short, Sharp Intake of Breath Means “Yes” Posted by Transparent Language on Mar 19, 2009 in Culture, Swedish Language
My friend had to go to the doctor the other day, and afterwards, when we were having fika, he said: “wow, I guess I’m seriously sick. The doctor was making those scared little noises at pretty much everything I told her.”
As you can very easily guess, my friend is an expat and hasn’t been in Sweden all that long. And during his time here, it’s obvious that he’s been interacting mostly with fellow expats. The doctor’s visit was evidently the first time he got to talk to a real Swede. And judging from his description of their conversation, a real Swede it was indeed.
First I had to laugh (but just a tiny bit) and then crashed my friend’s expectations of being sjukskriven (being on sick leave) for a long time, because yeah, while he was sick, it wasn’t with anything really life threatening. Then proceeded to explain to him the meaning of those sharp intakes of breath – those scared little noises, as he called them.
Frankly, I got so used to those noises that I don’t even notice them anymore. And quite probably, you could even catch me producing them myself on a not-so-rare occasion.
My readers in Sweden know exactly what I’m talking about, and for the rest of you – I’ll do my best to explain.
At its simplest, I am talking about a sharp, sudden intake of breath. Some compare it to a “terrified” or surprised noise, or as my guy does – a choking attack in the middle of a conversation. Personally, the first time I heard it, I thought it was a sudden hiccup. Why? That’s exactly what it sounds like. Unfortunately, it signifies none of the above. At its simplest, it’s a sign that your speaker agrees with you, or acknowledges that he/ she heard and understood what you had to say.
(And here Anna draws a sharp breath.)
People (both Swedes and foreigners alike) say that in some regions of the country this custom is more prevalent than in others, but I’ve seen (or rather heard) it all over. Though maybe a bit more in the North than elsewhere. People also say that it’s a generational thing. Supposedly, older folks are more likely to start making that funny noise when you talk to them, but in my experience, plenty of younger ones do it just as frequently and with equal proficiency. One of my ex-coworkers, a woman in her twenties could even construct a whole vocabulary just out of sharp, sudden intakes of breath.
And yes, speaking of women, they tend to use this form of “yes” a bit more often than men. Frankly, I have very rarely had a guy go “hiccupping” on me like that.
And what about foreigners in Sweden? They either stubbornly resist, or after a few years, consciously or not, begin to do it themselves. So, when you also start adding this short, sharp intake of breath to you normal, every-day vocabulary, you know the time has finally come when you can honestly say that you have completely and utterly assimilated. Congratulations!