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Sweden to get its first dialect dictionary in 150 years

A new dictionary of Swedish dialects is being published for the first time in over 150 years. The Local spoke to the linguist overseeing the project about how she's choosing which expressions to include, and learned some of her favourite Swedish dialect words.

Sweden to get its first dialect dictionary in 150 years
Archives at the Institute for Language and Folklore. Photo: Institutet för språk och folkminnen

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“When working with the dictionary, we avoid difficult grammatical terms and professional language. We want to try to explain the words in an understandable way,” Annika Karlholm, an archivist at the Swedish Institute for Language and Folklore, told The Local.

The last dialect dictionary was published in 1867 by the priest and linguistics researcher J.E. Rietz, Karlholm said. The new work will include explanations of each word's meaning “in a clear way” as well as example sentences showing how it is used.

The target audience is ordinary people who are interested in language, such as students or those engaged in researching the history of their family or local area.

“The hope is that the dictionary can contribute to people taking note of dialects and, perhaps most of all, traditional dialects,” Karlholm said. “We are choosing almost exclusively special dialectal words, ie. words that are only in the dialects and which are usually not included in standard language dictionaries.”


These 33 words entered the Swedish language in 2018
Photo: Cecilia Larsson Lantz/

Some subject areas have more dialect words than others, such as the plant and animal kingdom.

“There are many special dialect words for certain types of plants, birds and insects, for example blåklint (cornflower) which has names like blågubbe, duvustol and åkersilke, and odon (bog bilberry), with names like blåbuk, fyllebär, utterbär and ödbär,” said Karlholm.

“Then there are birds, for example spillkråka (black woodpecker) with names like blåkråka, dryp, hålkråka and tillekorp, and the tofsvipa (Northern lapwing) with names like bläcka, hornvipa and tivipa, and insects such as nyckelpiga (ladybird) with  names like bobba, fårpiga and åkerhöna,” Karlholm listed.

Another rich area for anyone studying Swedish dialects is food and drink, as well as weather. Karlholm highlights different ways of referring to light snow, such as flira and fnyka, or light rain which can be described using the verbs durra, hy, fjuska, and puska in different parts of the country.

So, which region has the richest dialect? It's Småland, best known outside Sweden as the home of both Ikea and children's author Astrid Lindgren, that has by far the most unique dialect words in the dictionary, according to Annika. 

However, she stresses that this has more to do with regional differences in how dialectal words have been recorded, rather than any innate difference in the dialects.

A traditional farm house in Småland. Photo: Alexander Hall/

When asked her favourite word in the collection so far, Annika picked out treakel which means liquorice.

“In ancient Swedish, treakilse meant 'antidote' but has, over time, come to refer to sweet liquorice in dialect. The reason for the development of the word is probably that liquorice has previously been used as a medicine,” she explained.

“Another word with an interesting etmology is tabberas, today best known from Astrid Lindgren's depiction of Emil i Lönneberga in the chapter Stora tabberaset i Katthult,” the archivist said.

Tabberas comes from the older Swedish word tabelras, which is linked to the French expression table rase, which in its turn comes from the Latin tabula rasa (wax painting with deleted writing). In older Swedish, tabelras was a term for card games with the meaning 'everything is taken away, nothing is left, clear house'. This meaning has then been further developed in the dialects.”

Because of the meaning 'clean table', tabberas is used in dialectal Swedish today to refer to a party, restaurant or event where all the food provided is eaten. In the Astrid Lindgren story, the character Emil puts on a party for poorer neighbours and serves all the Christmas food in the house.

Work on the dictionary began ten years ago, using the institute's language archives, and is expected to be complete by around 2027. But even before that date, parts of the dialect dictionary will be published on the institute's website. 

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For members


What irritates Swedes the most about the Swedish language?

A new study shows that more than one in five Swedes is irritated by the pronoun "hen", and the same number can't stand it when compound words are split up. Here's a rundown of the main offenders.

What irritates Swedes the most about the Swedish language?

One in five Swedes dislike the gender-neutral pronoun hen

In the study, carried out by Novus on behalf of language magazine Språktidningen, 22 percent of Swedes said that the pronoun hen was the most irritating aspect of the Swedish language. 

The first reported use of the gender-neutral pronoun, to be used instead of han (he) or hon (she), was in the 1950s, when it was used by language professor Karl-Hampus Dahlstedt, but it didn’t appear in writing until linguist Rolf Dunås wrote a newspaper article in 1966 proposing the introduction of the new pronoun.

After that, use of the pronoun was mostly limited to those within the LGBT community until 2012, when a children’s book sparked debate and media attention thanks to the exclusive use of hen to refer to its characters.

In 2015, hen entered the Swedish dictionary, a move which made it more difficult for critics to argue that it wasn’t an established or accepted alternative to han or hon.

As Språktidningen’s editor-in-chief Anders Svensson points out in this article, the pronoun hen has had an ideological and political dimension since debate took off in 2012, and this is still clearly visible today.

Although 22 percent of the survey’s respondents listed hen as the most irritating aspect of the Swedish language, this number rose to a whopping 50 percent amongst respondents who identified with the Sweden Democrats.

On the other side of the political spectrum, those sympathising with the Left Party, the Greens, the Liberals or the Centre Party were least likely to find hen irritating, with a mere 5 to 7 percent of these groups putting it in first place.

Torbjörn Sjöström, CEO of polling company Novus, told Språktidningen that these results didn’t surprise him.

“The fact that hen is irritating for Sweden Democrat sympathisers more than others is not surprising. People join that party because they want things to be like they were in the past. A new word which is gender-neutral symbolises a lot of the developments these people are against,” he explained.

One in five against särskrivning

The same amount, 22 percent, stated that särskrivningar – writing compound words incorrectly as two separate words – annoyed them the most.

This may sound like a minor error, but särskrivningar (literally: “separate writing”) can lead to major misunderstandings. Just look at these amusing examples of särskrivning gone wrong:

En rödhårig kvinna: “a red-haired woman”

En röd hårig kvinna: a red, hairy woman

Kassapersonalen: “checkout workers”

Kassa personalen: “useless employees”

Barnunderkläder: “children’s underwear”

Barn under kläder: “child under clothes”

In contrast to debates over the use of the word hen, debates over särskrivning have raged since the 1800s, where they were often considered to be major mistakes if featured in a text. One reason for this, Svensson notes, is that order in itself was seen as beautiful at this time.

Maria Bylin, language advisor at the Swedish Language Council (Språkrådet), told Språktidningen that she recognises this argument in modern debate on särskrivningar.

“You associate developments in the language with the country and with society,” she explained. “So whatever changes you can see in the language, you think it will happen in society, too.”

One popular scapegoat for this increase in särskrivning is the influence of English on the Swedish language. In English, we have fewer compound words than in Swedish, although they do still exist: a few examples are postbox, doorknob and blackberry. It is, however, harder to form compounds than in Swedish.

To return to the examples above, it would look strange to write “redhairedgirl”, “checkoutworker” or “childrensunderwear” as compounds in English.

So, is the rise of English to blame for mistakes in Swedish? Not according to linguist Katharina Hallencreutz, who noted when studying high school students’ English essays that they had no issues writing English compound loan words such as makeup or popcorn. 

This also wouldn’t explain the large amount of särskrivningar seen in historical texts in Sweden: they feature heavily in laws dating back to the 1200s, as well as Gustav Vasa’s Swedish bible translation, which was published in 1541.

One surprising result of the survey was the fact that young people were more likely than older people to find särskrivningar irritating:

“That surprised me a bit,” Svensson told public broadcaster SVT. “Often you hear the argument that older people think young people write carelessly and särskriver too much.”

Svensson wasn’t sure why this was, but did have a theory: “I suppose those who have recently finished school – most of them have learnt when words should be written as one word, and when they should be separate,” he told SVT.

English loanwords

The influence of English on the Swedish language was a major bugbear for a number of respondents, though. As many as 15 percent of those in Novus’ survey answered that “unnecessary English loanwords” were the most irritating thing about modern Swedish.

English loanwords were most irritating amongst Swedes over 65, where 29 percent stated they were the number one source of irritation, a number which was much lower in other age groups.

Lena Lind Palicki, a Swedish lecturer at Stockholm University, said that this could be to do with comprehensibility. She noted that irritation over English loanwords was especially high amongst older respondents who had left school at 16.

“We can assume that these people have a lower level of English, and then it’s a democratic problem, if English loanwords are used which can be difficult for many people to understand,” she told Språktidningen.

Palicki can’t imagine that English will remain as large a source of annoyance in the future as it is now, though.

“The irritation over English loanwords may have gone out of date in twenty years. Today’s youth will not start to be irritated by the same things as today’s elderly, but they’ll probably start making a symbolic issue of things they struggle with in school today,” she told the magazine.