Czar Peter the GREAT and King Karl XII of Sweden: Ovänner/FROM HIstory for Assholes

How Do You Say That in English?

Bert Menninga
Jul 11, 2013 · 2 min read

As an expat, bilingualism comes with the territory. Although here in Sweden, it’s easy for English speakers to get by without learning the language. But with much effort and pain, I’ve managed to become fluent in Swedish, a language useless beyond the borders of Sweden (it’s not good to use even as a secret language outside the country — I can’t tell you how many times on the subway in London or New York what look to be natives turn out to be Swedes who can understand every catty comment I’ve made to my husband about our fellow travelers).

It is odd that learning Swedish has been so hard, since the grammar is so like English, with a big chunk of more or less shared vocabulary. But the barrier is the pronunciation, which is a bitch. There’s even a sound found in no other language: an intimidatingly difficult-to -produce cross between a W and an SH.

Learning Swedish has certainly given me a new perspective on language, both my mother tongue and my stepmother tongue. English has so many more words than Swedish, for instance. And Swedish as it is spoken uses a lot of passive tense and can be awfully indirect. For example, Swedes tend to express themselves with the phrase “it feels like” rather than just stating something outright.

There are also an awful lot of recent English words and terms that have slipped into the Swedish language, albeit occasionally spelled differently to maintain the English pronunciation.

But there are three words in Swedish that I wish we had in English:

  • Ovän — this is someone who is not your friend. They’re not necessarily your enemy either, they are simply an “unfriend.” People can become unfriends – ovänner – over time, or it can be instantaneous upon meeting someone. I am happy to say I have very few ovänner.
  • Att orka — this is a verb that means something along the lines of “to have the will, energy and interest to do something.” Mostly used as a negative, when you can’t be assed to do something. I am sad to say that I use this verb in its negative form — orkar inte — all too often. And I’ve even made up my own English version: I don’t have the ork for that, I sometimes say.
  • Kissnödig — here’s a naughty word that kids will love. It literally means “pee-needy” — i.e., in need of a WC. Such a simple adjective. Great fun for humans of all ages and useful, too!

    Bert Menninga

    Written by

    American editor in Stockholm working for the media company Bonnier (my tweets are my own opinions and not Bonnier's. Just so you know.)

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