Quick Introduction to the Swedish Alphabet and Its Fascinating History

Don’t worry, the Swedish alphabet is not as scary as the iconic Midsommar horror.

Quick Introduction to the Swedish Alphabet and Its Fascinating History

Let me start by telling you a secret about the Swedish alphabet. Swedish is not a phonetic language, therefore the pronunciation of the names of its letters does not necessarily coincide with the sound they represent. So if you are serious about learning Swedish, you’d better dive right into words and phrases. It’s best if you know this from the beginning.

Now, this doesn’t mean there isn’t a thing or two you need to know about the Swedish alphabet. Although complex when it comes to pronunciation, Swedish is an absolutely fascinating language. So don’t let Viking stories or famous horror Midsommar scare you. I’m sure you’ll love learning everything about the Swedish language and its alphabet so let’s get to it!

The modern Swedish alphabet

The modern Swedish alphabet? Yes, indeed. The Swedish alphabet didn’t always look the way it does today. But first things first.

The Swedish alphabet is based on the Latin script or the Latin alphabet. With a total of 29 letters, Swedish uses all the letters of the English alphabet plus three extra ones: Å, Ä, and Ö. These three letters are regarded as separate or independent letters and not letters with diacritics. If we were to look at the Swedish alphabetical order, Å, Ä, and Ö come after the letter Z.

The current alphabet is considered modern because it arrived in Sweden together with the Christianization of Scandinavia that took place between the 8th and the 12th centuries. As a matter of fact, the translation of the New Testament into Swedish in 1526 actually marks the beginning of modern Swedish.

How was Swedish written before the Latin script?

Swedish used runes before the arrival of the Latin script in Scandinavia. The runic alphabet, also known as futhark, was the first writing system the Norse and other Germanic people used for centuries. As it happens, isolated communities in a remote part of Sweden only stopped using runes 100 years ago. To this day, the runic alphabet is considered a writing system of uncertain origin as scholars cannot find solid proof to support its ancestry.

So how do runes look like? If you’ve seen Ari Aster’s Midsommar, you already know how runes look like because they were used repeatedly throughout the film. If not, here’s an example of runes written on some pebbles:

swedish runes on stones
“Swedish runes” by petr sidorov©

The Swedish language in a nutshell

Known in Swedish as Svenska, the Swedish language belongs to the East Scandinavian group of North Germanic languages and is the official language of Sweden and Finland. According to Ethnologue, the total number of Swedish speakers worldwide is over 13 million (both native and non-native speakers).

Mutual intelligibility with the other Scandinavian languages

Because Sweden ruled Finland from the 12th century until 1809, you’d think Swedish and Finnish are very much alike. Instead, Finnish is probably the most different from Swedish.

The languages that are mutually intelligible with Swedish to a larger extent are Norwegian and Danish. Due to their shared history, these three languages are quite similar, particularly in their written form.

Similar to the transformation the Romance languages went through over time, Old East Norse dialects were influenced by numerous factors. For example, between 800 and 1100 AD, Runic Swedish was only slightly different from Runic Danish, but they began to diverge during the 12th century. However, some aspects stayed the same. That’s why is easier to learn Swedish when you already know Danish and vice versa.

Pronunciation rules and usage

Being a Germanic language makes Swedish one of the easiest languages to learn by native English speakers. In fact, according to the FSI (Foreign Service Institute) of the US government, an English speaker would need about 575 hours or 23 weeks of practice to become fluent in Swedish. That makes Swedish even easier to learn than any Romance language such as Spanish, French or Italian.

In other words, the Swedish pronunciation should be a piece of cake for you. Here’s a short sample with the pronunciation of some useful prepositions:

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Uncommon letters

Before jumping to pronunciation rules, you should know that Swedes don’t really use the letters Q, W and Z. So, in truth, the Swedish alphabet has the same number of letters as English: 26.

Q, W, and Z will only appear in some loanwords such as queer, squash, web, or zon (zone).

Though officially in the Swedish alphabet, there are two other letters you’ll probably see in Swedish: ü and è. But again, these letters are only common in some loanwords.

General pronunciation rules

As you already know, the pronunciation of the names of the letters in Swedish wouldn’t really help you learn how to read Swedish. On the other hand, general pronunciation rules can come in handy:

  • c is pronounced [s] before e, i or y, and [k] in all the other situations;
  • lg is pronounced [lg] before a, o, u, å, and [lj] in all the other situations;
  • ch is pronounced [k] in the word och (meaning ‘and’), or not pronounced at all
  • k is pronounced [ɕ] before e, i, y, ä or ö, and [kʰ] in all the other situations;
  • g is pronounced [j] before e, i, y, ä or ö, and [g] in all the other situations;
  • gn is pronounced [gn] at the beginning of words, and [ŋn] in all the other situations;
  • rg is pronounced [rg, ʀg] before a, o, u, å, and [rj, ʀj] in all the other situations;
  • sk is pronounced [ɧ] before e, i, y, ä or ö, and [sk] in all the other situations.

Another specific situation that causes headaches among people who want to learn Swedish is the ‘Sj’-sound. Because its pronunciation varies considerably throughout Sweden, it’s difficult to make the right choice. So my advice would be to focus on the basics first and worry about specifics only once you’re conversational.


From 0 to conversational in Swedish

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