February 17, 2015 | Swedish

A Definite Article Shocker

Swedish articles often show up in unexpected locations.

In my neighborhood last week, I auspiciously came across a new Swedish cafe, Fika, pictured here. At least I think it’s Swedish; I guess it could be pretend Swedish. Att fika in Swedish means “to have coffee.”

Fika for Coffee, on the Upper West Side

Fika for Coffee, on the Upper West Side

It’s cool and all, but unfortunately I don’t think I will encounter many Swedes at Fika, so instead of going there, I will continue to hang out with my books and audio lessons.

After about 11 weeks of Swedish, making slow but somewhat steady progress, I am still dazzled by a linguistic feature I do not recall ever encountering in another language: the definite article is tacked on to the end of the attending noun. (The indefinite article is in the expected place, before the noun and as a separate word. But the definite is definitely a rebel!)

For example, in Swedish “dog” is hund and “the dog” is hunden, which as far as I can see is like writing dogthe. “Cat” translates as katt, and “the cat” you write as katten. Which in English seems sort of like writing catthe!

There are two genders in Swedish, one called common and the other neuter, and cats and dogs are both common gender. You can see that they are common in the -en ending used for the definite article. The majority of Swedish nouns are of common gender, so you see a lot of -n endings floating around.

Here are three neuter nouns, first alone and then with definite articles: 

  • barn = child, barnet = the child
  • universitet = university, universitetet = the university
  • djur = animal, djuret = the animal

This kind of mental reordering — reversing the familiar sequence of the article plus noun, and then fusing them fast — is challenging for this native English speaker. Which makes me suspect it is good for me.

P.S. I have just added two months to my Swedish studies. I am liking it. I need more time.

Comments (9)

Alex • Posted on Wed, February 18, 2015 - 12:06 pm EST

I’ve heard of masculine/feminine and even animate/inanimate, but common/neuter? That’s new to me!

Jorge Sivit • Posted on Thu, February 19, 2015 - 12:03 am EST

Hi, Ellen!

Really interesting! I didn’t know the definite article in Swedish was tacked on to the end of the noun.

Alex, if you want to know other ways in which nouns are classified in different languages / cultures, read George Lakoff’s “Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things”. The title refers to one of the classes in which things are divided in certain culture (I can’t remember which one).

Amanda • Posted on Thu, February 19, 2015 - 10:08 pm EST

After finishing my French tree on Duolingo I randomly and for no real reason decided to start the Danish one and encountered the same thing with the common/neuter and the definite article suffixes.  Actually all the Swedish words you cite are the same (animal is ‘dyr’) - except for coffee.  Usually in whatever language (in my limited experience) it’s some variation of ‘coffee’ (‘kaffe’ in Danish) so ‘fika’ is a bit left field.

I am glad to accept the mental reordering of definite suffixes in exchange for not having to do the mental reordering of verb conjugations!

Leszek • Posted on Thu, February 26, 2015 - 11:44 am EST

As I belive there is common and neuter gender, because masculine and feminine got put together into one gender - common, and neuter stayed. That at least happened in Dutch, so it could be the same thing in Swedish too :) I am not sure though. Also, Bulgarian puts the definite article at the end too. This is not so uncommon since I’ve already seen few languages with this feature.

Leszek • Posted on Thu, February 26, 2015 - 11:49 am EST

Amanda, “fika” doesn’t literally mean “coffee”. It is more of a culture thing. I actually had a fika today at school because one exchange student had her last day in our class and we wanted her to have “fika” with her before she leaves. It is more sitting, eating cookies and having a cup of coffee or tea or any other drink. In Swedish “coffee” is “kaffe” :)

Carol • Posted on Thu, February 26, 2015 - 1:06 pm EST

Fika doesn’t actually mean coffee. Like Danish, the Swedish word for coffee is kaffe. Fika is the process of drinking tea/coffee and often eating something small with it and is a huge part of Swedish (and probably all nordic) culture! But it’s not as far from ‘coffee’ as it may seem. One theory is that it comes from a ‘secret langugage’ called fikonspråket (the fig language) in which you put ‘fi’ in front of every word, and ‘kon’ after, making coffee ‘fikaffekon’. Another I’ve heard is that travellers often changed place of the syllables in a word making ‘kaffe’ ‘feka’ and then ‘fika’.

Amanda • Posted on Sat, February 28, 2015 - 2:00 am EST

Tak for the info about ‘fika.’  A lovely concept.  I’m trying to think of the English equivalent ...

Mike Tyson • Posted on Thu, July 02, 2015 - 1:41 am EST

Leszek already mentioned it, but Bulgarian also adds the definite article at the end. This, however, is a borrowing from other Balkan languages, and not a usual feature of Slavic (as I’m sure you know already).

There’s a great book out there that discusses this and many other issues amongst Balkan languages of different language families: Comparative Syntax of the Balkan Languages by Rivero and Ralli.

Mike (MSMT on FB ;)

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Tue, November 07, 2017 - 9:59 pm EST

Hi Mike! Belatedly I have bookmarked that Balkan comparative syntax book. Thank you so much for the recommendation. In the meantime, I have concluded that you are pretty hardcore in your book tastes, because I know you also liked that intermediate book on Russian verbs of motion on another page. Haha! :)

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