• Language family: North Germanic
  • Interesting features: Has an extra tone not featured in most other European languages, which gives it a ‘singsong’ quality. In the far north, you can say “yes” simply by inhaling

At just 7 years old, Swedish is one of the youngest languages at Euro 2016.

Well, in official terms anyway. Before 2009, the country had five official minority languages (Finnish, Yiddish, Meänklieli (Finnish dialects), Romani, Sami) but until then Swedish had never been officially ratified as the huvudspråk (head language).

As well as these minority languages, it’s worth remembering how diverse Sweden is, with nearly 200 languages spoken across the country. And as galloping globalisation has increased the spread of English, many Swedish terms risk being replaced or at least modified in areas such as medicine, economics and, very very importantly, sport.

The problems of using English

In multilingual team set-ups in Swedish football, English has become the de facto language of instruction. It’s understandable why this happens, but having English as the common tongue doesn’t always vault the language barrier as cleanly as you might hope.

Carl-Gustaf Scott cites the story of Tunisian Samir Bakaou, a native French speaker, who was taking part in his first training session with GAIS in 1984.

Coach Bosse Falk, a Swede who apparently had as loose a grip on the English language as Bakaou, directed the player to “go home”, which Bakaou took as a xenophobic insult. After some confusion it transpired that Falk was trying to tell him to track back – in the conversion from Swedish to English, backa hem, became “go home” instead of “move backwards [towards your own goal].”

Choice phrases

Food creeps into the language of football more than once in Sweden.

A blåbärslag (blueberry team) is one which simply isn’t very good, while a smörpassning (butter pass) is perfectly delivered. How much this reflects attitudes towards blueberries and butter in Sweden, we can’t say. We’re also unclear why luftpastej (air pâté) is a ball that is hoofed high in the air.

A gärdsgårdsserie (roundpole fence league) is usually an amateur league or a league in the lower divisions, and comes from a a very traditional way of building fences in the countryside. The closest in England might be a ‘tin-pot’ tournament, although gärdsgårdsserie is not quite as negative.

Finally, we have the highly pleasing bônkalag, used in the east of the country and referring to a team you’re supposed to beat easily. We just like the way it looks.

Who speaks what

Coming from the far south, Ibrahimovic speaks with a Skånska accent, which is full of guttural r sounds and is a lot like Danish. This is occasionally difficult for other Swedes to understand, but as a proud people the skånska give little quarter in changing the way they talk for others.

At the other end of the country, the Norrländska accent of Emil Forsberg is characterised by slow speech, simplified conjugations, and the habit of not saying very much at all. So economical with their words are they, in fact, that to say “yes” you can simply inhale.

And there is Gnällbältet – spoken west of Stockholm and literally translating as “the moaning belt” – but it’s probably for the best that no current players hail from that way.

And finally…

We’ve written before about Sweden is leading the way in terms of language and gender roles in football. Many clubs run programs to make players and supporters aware of how words and expressions reinforce stereotypes, with the aim of creating more inclusive environments. It’s an initiative welcomed by some, and less so by others.

What this means is you won’t hear official channels in Sweden talking about the national team (herrlandslag i fotboll), without specifying gender as well. Top work.


With thanks to Carl-Gustaf Scott, Kent Forsander, Jesper Enbom, Oskar Uneland, James McKie at Swedish Football Mafia Torbjörn Andersson at Malmö University, and Sofi Tegsveden Deveaux at Bee Swedish.