Pronouns & politics

Speed bumps, Djursholm
Speed bumps, Djursholm

A significant distraction to navigating Stockholm as an English speaker is the awkward hilarity of Swedish signs. Among our favorites are the pantbank (pawn shop) branches around town, where I envision making withdrawals on laundry day. The regulation of traffic speed (fart) is also ripe for juvenile humor. Some language lessons seemed in order.

English is universally understood and spoken in Stockholm; some of my coworkers thought it a waste of time to study Swedish at all. But speed bumps aside, we were curious to understand the Swedish model in more detail; and if Rita Mae Brown was right, Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going. We may not make much progress in our short time here, but it seems worthwhile to pick up what we can.

Lessons - 1We were lucky to book last-minute spots in Susanne’s Swedish Express beginners’ class, taught from her home in Djursholm. A little over an hour on the subway and bus took us to her lush suburban neighborhood, famous for celebrity mansions of ABBA and H&M. Her street was in a more modest area, but bursting with greenery this time of year.

Susanne’s syllabus spanned pronouns, pronunciation, and politics. Day one included the use of han (he), hon (she), and the han + hon = henrecently adopted gender-neutral hen. My colleagues confirmed the latter is increasingly common, despite its early association with the aggressive left.

We moved on to pronunciation, including the four non-English vowels ä, å, ö, and y . Other complications include g and k, pronounced and about half the time. The muppets notwithstanding, I’m enchanted by the musical quality of spoken Swedish; some of my favorites phrases: sjelv? (self, colloquially and how are you doing?); solklart! (obviously!); and regnbågsfamilj (an LGBT family).

RainbowsSweden was only the seventh country in the world where gay men and lesbian couples could be legally gift (in Susanne’s words, perhaps a gift, for some not so welcome), meaning married…or poison. Harder to translate is sambo, not-married-but-in-a-live-in-relationship (Kurt Russell is sambo with Goldie Hawn); this is so common that the Swedish census was one of only a few in the world tracking cohabitation as early as the 1990s. Or särbo, in-a-relationship-but-currently-not-cohabiting-for-logistical-or-personal-reasons (Helena Bonham-Carter was särbo with Tim Burton), another growing trend in Sweden and beyond.

Untranslatable concepts aside, most Swedish words share convenient roots with English. For example, Susanne charted for us the recent recovery by the left-wing Socialdemokraterna (Social Democrats) over the Moderaterna and Centern parties, which historically represented the Swedish right. The major parties have so far avoided coalition with the far-right Sverigedemokraterna (Swedish Democrats, SD) who support more extreme socialkonservativt and nationalistisk ideals. Bizarrely, in the buildup to this weekend’s Stockholm Pride festival, an SD leader organized a provocative alternativa prideparaden in a Stockholm Muslim neighborhood, pride?placing leftists in the awkward position of protesting a supposed gay rights event. But the paraden seemed to fizzle rather than ignite, drawing more interest from journalists than participants.

By the end of the week, our Swedish remained woefully limited; still, it seems easier getting around the subway and supermarkets without searching for English labels. Many thanks to classmates Janaki and Samantha, and particularly Susanne, for working with us!

Swedish class
Swedish Express class, Djursholm, July 2015

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