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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'
The sound is often described as being unique to northern Sweden. Photo: Anna Öhlund/

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 'jʉ', '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 recognize the sound from the inhaled 'ouais' (yeah), 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.

OPINION: Why do Swedes pepper their English with unnecessary English words?

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


The best podcasts for learning and perfecting your Swedish

Once you've learned the basics of Swedish, listening to podcasts is one of the best ways of increasing vocabulary and speeding up comprehension. Here are some of the best podcasts out there for Swedish learners.

The best podcasts for learning and perfecting your Swedish


Coffee Break Swedish 

Coffee Break Swedish aims to take you through the basics of Swedish in a casual lesson-like format. It is extremely easy to listen to. Each 20-minute episode acts as a mini-lesson, where Swedish native Hanna teaches Mark Pendleton, the founder and CEO of Coffee Break Languages, the basics.

All phrases are broken down into individual words. After new phrases are introduced the listeners are encouraged to repeat them back to practise pronunciation.

The advantage of listening to this podcast is that the learner, Mark, begins at the same level as you. He is also a former high school French and Spanish teacher. He often asks for clarification of certain phrases, and it can feel as if he is asking the very questions you want answered.

You can also stream the podcast directly from the provider’s website, where they sell a supplementary package from the Coffee Break Swedish Academy, which offers additional audio content, video flashcards and comprehensive lesson notes.

Say it in Swedish 

This lively podcast from Stockholm-based Joakim Andersson has an enormous amount of content, with a course of beginners lessons, and stand-alone lessons on various different aspects of Swedish usage. Andersson stopped making podcasts after 80 episodes to concentrate on his YouTube channel, which is also very much worth a watch, with a lot of interesting, and fun, snippets on how to pronounce and use Swedish. There’s also a merchandise site, with some fun Swedish-themed t-shirts. 

Pimsleur Swedish.

OK, so this is an app rather than a podcast, but the experience of doing the daily 30-minute audio lessons in Pimsleur Swedish is very similar to listening to a regular podcast. This is a highly structured audio-based language learning programme, which encourages you to learn through sound rather than the written word, and repeats vocabulary and grammar at intervals to implant them in your memory. It’s very effective, and is a good way to have decent pronunciation from the start. The downsides are the cost – at $150, or $20.95 a month, it’s not particularly cheap – and the fact that Pimsleur have so far only made 30 lessons, meaning it only gets you to quite a basic level.  


Radio Sweden på Lätt Svenska

This daily news bulletin in simplified Swedish put out by Sweden’s state broadcaster SR is a fantastic resource which, so far as we know, exists in no other country. It’s essentially the main stories from Ekot, SR’s main news bulletin, simplified and then read very slowly, with short sections of real-life interviews. If you go onto Radio Sweden’s website, you can read along with the text. Incidentally, 8sidor, which means literally “eight pages”, a newspaper in simplified Swedish, has a function which allows you to listen to the stories. 

Klartext on P4 

The Klartext news bulletin is actually designed for mentally disabled people, but it also works for beginners learning Swedish. It’s faster than Radio Sweden på Lätt Svenska, but still uses simplified language, so it’s good for language learners wanting to move a step up (so long as you don’t mind getting a bit more news than you might expect of particular relevance to the disabled). 

Simple Swedish

Despite its name, the Simple Swedish podcast from Fredrik Arhusiander, is not for beginners, but rather to help people who already understand basic Swedish develop their vocabulary and listening skills. The episodes aren’t graded, so can be listened to in any order, and feature Fredrik discuss his life, what he’s doing, what’s in the news, basically anything at all, in slow, simplified Swedish. With 146 episodes so far, there’s a lot of material to get through. Fredrik also offers his Strong Swedish online course for €199. 

SR Ekot nyheter 

After you’ve listened to the two simplified versions of Sweden’s official radio news bulletin for a few months, it might be time to try the real deal. The Ekot Nyheter podcast has three major broadcasts a day: in the morning, at lunch, and in the evening. If you make it part of your routine, you’ll find that what starts off a bit hard to grasp slowly becomes as easy to understand as news in your own language. 


Anyone with half-Swedish children can benefit from listening to Radioapan, “the radio monkey”, a podcast from Swedish state radio’s children’s channel which has original stories, children’s radio plays, and readings from children’s books. It’s a really great resource. 


Lysande Lagom. The Lysande Lagom podcast from Emil Molander and Sofi Tegsveden Deveaux combines analysis of the clichés and reality around Sweden and Swedishness with language-learning advice. It’s from Lys Förlag, the publisher which published The Local’s Swedish Word of the Day anthology, Villa, Vovve, Volvo, and it makes for very entertaining listening. 

Ekots Lördagsintervju

The long Saturday interview on SR, Ekots Lördagsintervju, is a great way to develop your listening skills, with host Johar Bendjelloul grilling party leaders, ministers, agency chiefs and other important people in the news  

Alex och Sigges poddcast 

The 10-year-old comedy podcast, Alex & Sigge’s podcast, is an institution in Sweden. It features Alex Schulman and Sigge Eklund, two novelists and media personalities, talking about the news, their lives and just about anything they find amusing. 


Currently Sweden’s most listened-to podcast, Rättegångspodden, which translates as “The Trial Pod”, exploits the fact that all trials in Sweden are recorded, with the audio available to the public, to develop dramatic true crime podcasts. The podcast’s founder Nils Bergman, also uses audio evidence collected by police, such as intercepted phone calls. For language learners with a true crime bent, this is a great way of improving your Swedish. The long form documentary podcasts on P3 also have a lot to offer for true crime enthusiasts.  


The Politiken podcast from Svenska Dagbladet is far and away the best podcast in Swedish on politics in the country. Wife and husband journalist team Maggie Strömberg and Torbjörn Nilsson analyse the week’s developments, with Strömberg providing up-to-the-minute gossip from the Riksdag cafeteria and Nilsson drawing on his encyclopaedic knowledge of Swedish political history to put it all in context. Linguistically, it’s quite rich, so regular listening will expand your vocabulary.  


Language geeks might enjoy Språket, a podcast from SR on language usage and etymology, which will help advanced Swedish learners get to grips with some of the things that puzzle even native speakers. If this is the sort of thing that floats your boat, then you might also enjoy Språktidningens podd, the podcast from Sweden’s language newspaper Språktidning.