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SWEDISH LANGUAGE

The true story behind the unusual way northern Swedes say ‘yes’

The unusual way some northern Swedes say 'yes' often surprises those unfamiliar with the dialect: a cross between a gasp and a slurp, it's a curious linguistic phenomenon. The Local explores where it comes from and what exactly it means.

The true story behind the unusual way northern Swedes say 'yes'
Does this word show there's truth in the stereotype of the taciturn northern Swede, or is there more to it than that? Photo: Lauri Rotko/Folio/imagebank.sweden.se

If you’ve never heard it before, imagine the sound made when sucking up a drink quickly through a straw. A sharp intake of breath, with the lips kept close together (different from what in English sounds like a gasp of surprise, when your mouth is typically wider open).

Non-natives often have stories of thinking a northern Swede is shocked or has a breathing problem the first time they encounter the noise. Swedes joke that to clean under a bed or sofa, just ask your friend from Norrland to take a look under it and while they’re looking, ask “is it dusty?” A darker joke notes that the best way to kill someone from the region is to wait until they’re eating, and ask if their food is good.

After The Local travelled to Umeå in 2015 to document the unusual sound, which you can hear in the video below, the northern Swedish “yes” went viral, with media across Sweden and from the UK to Australia covering the linguistic quirk.

So we know what it sounds like, but what’s the story behind the strange “yes” noise?

First, let’s look at what actually happens when you make this sound. The reason it sounds so bizarre is that most words and sounds in human speech are made by breathing out, but this is what’s called an ingressive sound, meaning the speaker is drawing air in. The northern Swedish “yes” is usually unvoiced, which means that the vocal chords don’t vibrate at all when you say it.

As for what it means, as the video shows, it’s a way of showing agreement or saying yes.

We can narrow it down even further: a 2003 study found Swedes used the ingressive “yes” with people, but not when they thought they were speaking to an automated machine. This suggests that it’s a part of informal speech, closer to “yep” than “yes”, but could also show that it’s a way to signal acknowledgement of the speaker.

The sound isn’t included in official Swedish grammar manuals, so it’s hard to outline any strict rules for its usage. Linguists can’t even agree on one way of documenting it: some use .jo with the full stop signalling inhalation, but others write the sound , schvuu, or schwup.

You probably wouldn’t hear the inhaled “yes” in every situation. It tends to show agreement with what the speaker is saying, but is weaker than a spoken ja or jo (the two words for “yes” in Swedish, the first generally used affirmatively and the second more often used to respond to a negated statement).

This is called backchanneling: when you respond in order to give feedback and show that you’re listening and understanding without the “turn” of the conversation being passed to you. If you’ve read Lord of the Flies, just think of it as the sort of response you’d give without needing to take the conch, and it can also be used to end a conversation you don’t want to continue. So it makes a lot of sense that ingressive sounds would be used for this kind of marker – it’s clear to the other speaker that you’re not trying to interject. 

Many Swedes think the sound is unique to the north of their country, and it has become a symbol of the stereotypical strong, silent Northerners, often used in TV shows and notably in advertising for Norrlands Guld beer.

In fact, you’ll hear an ingressive “yes” across across almost all of Sweden, but it’s more common the further north you go. The sound also becomes more distinct in the more northern regions, which is partly because of the different words for yes in the north and south.

In the south, ja is the main word for yes, with jo only used to respond to negative statements, but in Norrland jo is used more frequently and in a wider range of contexts. 

So ingressive yeses exist in southern Sweden too, but observers tend not to notice the relationship between this sound and the northern Swedish “yes”. When saying ja rather than jo, the speaker’s mouth is in a more relaxed position so that even when breathing in, you can hear the soft “j” that the word begins with. 

An inhaled jo on the other hand is much less clear, because the position your mouth is in, with lips almost pursed, when you say the word jo leads to a sharper intake of breath. It’s simply easier to say jo on an inhale compared to ja, which might be why the sound is so common in Sweden’s north.

In the Umeå variant heard in The Local’s video above, there’s no trace of the word jo at all, although we don’t know if the northern Swedish yes developed from inhaled forms of jo or developed independently.  

However, we do know that ingressive sounds exist in dozens of languages around the world, most often in similar contexts to the northern Swedish one, as an affirmation used informally. These inhaled yeses have been around for a very long time, although not studied in much depth.

One of the few researchers to have done so, linguist Robert Eklund who tracks ingressive speech extensively on his website, describes them as a “neglected universal phenomenon” and argues that these sounds aren’t uniquely Scandinavian at all, but have cropped up independently in societies across the globe. His research notes that the earliest mention of an inhaled, affirmative sound relates to an Eskimo language and dates back to the 18th century.

Hop over the Baltic Sea from Sweden to Finland and you’ll notice that in Finnish, it’s possible for entire sentences to be spoken while breathing in, and both words for “yes” are regularly said while inhaling. Ingressive sounds are also very common in Atlantic Canada (residents of Prince Edward Island also claim the sound as unique to them), parts of Maine, the north of Scotland, Ireland (sometimes grouped together as Gaelic) and Scandinavia. 

Because the phenomenon is so common across the northern hemisphere, theories have developed that the sound may have travelled with the Vikings as they crossed the seas for trade and battle, or that it is a way of coping with the cold, allowing people to communicate without opening their mouths too much.

But it’s also used in parts of Africa, Asia, and South America; it crops up in all inhabited continents and has been observed in pockets which are too remote and have had too little language contact with Scandinavia or Northern Canada for the sounds to be related.

Speakers of French might recognise the sound from the inhaled ouais, and in parts of Argentina, you’ll hear whole phrases spoken with inhalation, similar to the Finnish use of ingressive speech. Fun fact: ventriloquists are also believed to have used this kind of speech as a way of making their act more convincing as far back as the 17th century.

And if it’s disappointing to learn the noise isn’t unique to Swedes, it gets worse. Ingressive sounds aren’t even unique to humans, with the phenomenon observed among several animals, including purring felines and calls from species ranging from monkeys to frogs.

But back to Sweden. Eklund’s research has found that Swedes use the sound extremely frequently, with roughly one in every ten ja’s said using inhalation. So sorry Swedes, your northern “yes” isn’t that unique, but it is still rather special.

Member comments

  1. Actually my British Grandmother and her friends used the drawing in of breath for ‘yes’ but usually accompanied by a short vocal sound. So, maybe this is an example of a linguistic ‘meme’!

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For members

SWEDISH LANGUAGE

New study reveals most offensive words in Swedish

Gender, age and political leanings all affected which words Swedes found most offensive, although racist and misogynist slurs came out on top, while religious swearwords were considered fairly mild.

New study reveals most offensive words in Swedish

This article does contain several words that some readers may find offensive. Consider yourselves warned.

Racist slur most offensive

Almost a third of respondents (32 percent) in the survey carried out by Novus on behalf of Språktidningen said that the most offensive word in Swedish was the Swedish version of the racial slur commonly referred to as the n-word, referred to in Swedish as n-ordet.

Attitudes towards this word varied depending on age. Almost two thirds (65 percent) of Swedes aged 18-34 considered it the most offensive word in Swedish, while only 5 percent of Swedes aged 65-84 were of the same opinion.

This may be due to the fact that the Swedish n-word was historically perceived as a neutral term used to refer to anyone with darker skin.

“When people who were older today were younger, the word was in use without being as loaded as it is now,” Kristy Beers Fägersten, English professor at Södertörn University, told Språktidningen.

Since the 1990s, the Swedish n-word has been perceived as more offensive, equivalent to the English racial slur ending in -er.

“I think many older people are aware that the word is problematic, but maybe don’t feel it at such a visceral level as young people do, who have grown up in a climate where you can’t even utter the word, but you say n-ordet instead,” said Beers Fägersten.

“Times have changed but it’s difficult to shake off the way you were raised.”

Views also varied among followers of different political parties. Only 11 percent of the far-right Sweden Democrats considered n-ordet to be the most offensive word, while 71 percent of Left Party voters saw it as the worst Swedish word.

Other groups who were more likely to rate this word as the most offensive word in Swedish were those with a university education and women.

The study did not ask respondents for their race or ethnicity, so it is not clear from the results whether white Swedes found the word more or less offensive than black Swedes, for example. 

Sweden Democrats were also the most likely group to consider svenne (a slang term for Swedes) the most offensive word in Swedish, with over a fifth (21 percent) ranking it highest, compared to only 4 percent of Moderates, Christian Democrates and Liberals, and one percent of the four other political parties.

Many Sweden Democrats consider svenne to be a racist word used by people with an immigrant background against ethnic Swedes, said Torbjörn Sjöström, CEO of Novus.

“Sweden Democrat voters consider themselves to a greater degree to be marginalised in Swedish society and see themselves as victims who have had to make way for other groups,” he said.

Misogynist terms more offensive to men

The next two most offensive words were hora (whore) and horunge (literally: “child of a whore”, but also an old term for a bastard, a child born out of wedlock).

Over a fifth of respondents (21 percent) said hora was the most offensive word in Swedish, while 17 percent considered horunge to be the worst. Men and elderly respondents were more likely to rate these words as the most offensive, which may be due to the fact that the word has been reclaimed by young women in particular.

“Of course, it’s a terrible slur to hear from someone who doesn’t mean well, but in younger age groups the word is also used in a friendly way,” Södertörn University Swedish professor Karin Milles, who specialises in language and gender, told Språktidningen.

“Girls sometimes call each other horor in a jokey way between friends. Using it in a playful way, like hörru din jävla hora (“listen up you bloody whore”) can have made the word less offensive for girls. But it’s still a loaded word for boys.”

Like other slurs reclaimed by different communities, it can still be extremely offensive when used by outsiders.

“It would be completely different if a man said it to a woman. That would make it offensive,” Fägersten said.

Sex and genitals more taboo for older groups

Words to do with sex and genitals were also considered offensive, with fitta, a word for the female genitalia, ranked most offensive by 11 percent of respondents. Just three percent of respondents considered the male equivalent, kuk, to be the most offensive word. In general, women considered both of these words to be more offensive than men.

These words can both be used to describe to the body part in question or as offensive terms for people of the body parts’ respective gender.

Women over 50 generally thought fitta was more offensive than those under 50, with 22 percent of women aged 65-84 ranking it the most offensive word. This group reacted more strongly to fitta than any other word, which Milles puts down to taboo in this age group around female sexuality. 

“For young people words to do with genitals aren’t considered as rude, because there’s been so much discussion around the fact that sex is normal and a beautiful thing, and that there shouldn’t be any shame in talking about it,” she said.

Just one percent of respondents felt idiot was the most offensive word in Swedish, with almost all people in this group aged over 65. This is probably due to the fact that it used to refer to people with intellectual disabilities, whereas now it refers to someone doing something stupid.

Religious words relatively mild

One thing which all genders, age groups and political groups had in common was the fact that traditional swear words to do with religion, like fan (devil), helvete (hell) and jävlar (also devil) were not perceived as offensive as swear words which related to sex, genitalia and ethnicity. Less than one percent of respondents in the whole study ranked one of these three words as the most offensive.

Fägersten believes this is in part due to the way in which the words are used. 

Jävlar, helvete and fan are just words you’d say, they’re not something you’d call another person,” she said.

English speakers may also have realised that Swedes often use imported English swearwords. like “shit”, relatively liberally. These are also considered quite mild.

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