“You know how the homeless people say “taaaaacksåmicke”, with that long “aah”? I wonder if that’s how they were taught to say it, or if that’s their natural accent?”
– Wife, the other day
My natural accent in Swedish should be Finnish, but is not. Of course I don’t know exactly what my Swedish sounds like, except that probably worse than I think. When I first moved to Sweden, and wouldn’t speak Swedish, my colleagues and new friends often – naturally – asked me how much Swedish I spoke to begin with.
My line – because of course I had a standard line for that – was: “It’s probably better than you think but worse than I think”. And I think that applies to my accent as well.
My Swedish was better than most people thought because while I never spoke Swedish in public – only with my TV at home – I had taken nine years of Swedish through middle school, high school, and university, and with good grades at that. You’d think the Best School in the World™ would have prepared me better for the move, but alas, I could only read the paper, write some emails, and listen to the TV – not utter a word.
Well, maybe three words. Pratar du engelska?
“Do you speak English?”
Even Wife and I spoke English with each other when we first met. In a way, my level of commitment became obvious just before New Year’s eve in 1999 when I returned to Sweden from my Xmas vacation in Finland, with the firm intention to switch to Swedish. An intention that turned into an act. Fortunately for me, Wife matched my commitment by showing a lot of patience as she witnessed my battle with prepositions – not to mention the different s sounds my mouth refused to make.
Now, once I was up and running with my Swedish, sometimes just walking about, at least making an effort to speak, new challenges arose, naturally. One of them was the number 27, tjugosju, which has two different sh sounds in it, both of them sounds that don’t exist in Finnish, and both sounds I couldn’t – and can’t – produce.
Naturally, then, all the parties I were invited to were at an address with the number 27 in it. Obviously all the phone numbers I was asked to repeat ended with a 27.
Of course there were ways around that problem. I’d only count to 26, and just stop. Or if I had to go beyond 27, I’d just go “26 … 28…”. Going to a party, I’d get a taxi to number 26. Or counting something, I’d just say, “I think there are 26 here … no, wait! One more.”
Sometimes I’ve had to walk long distances to get to number 27, but I’ve survived. I’ve had some close calls sometimes, but I’ve survived.
About ten years before I moved to Sweden, I was here with my mother, helping out at her company’s trade fair stand. We stayed at a hotel not far from where I moved later, and I often jogged – both “often” and “jogged” are relative terms – past the restaurant where Mom and I had dinner during our stay.
My job at the fair was very simple: I’d either be at the stand and ask people to wait until Mom was free to speak with them, or I’d be at the main lobby handing out brochures to visitors. I’d hand them out with a very polite var så god, “here you are”, each time.
I started out with a Finnish pronunciation, and then gradually moved towards a more Swedish one, from an s towards an sh sound, until I thought I had the local sound down pat. After a couple of hours of “vashogos” at the door, I got hungry, so I took the brochures back to Mom’s stand and walked towards the small kiosk to get a burger.
While standing in line, I looked at the menu, and I decided to get a burger and fries, but realized quickly that I didn’t know how to pronounce fries in Swedish. “Pommes frites?” Would that be “pomm fritt”, or should I also pronounce the s’s.
I was so preoccupied with the decision that I didn’t even listen to what the two people ahead of me in the line said, or that maybe the kiosk had meal combos I could order.
As I got closer to ordering, I went back and forth between the choices, and when I got to the window, I said:
“Two hamburgers, please.”
Then I handed the lady a 100-krona bill, and said: