Truth be told, my first encounter with the Swedish language was possibly when faced with a new keyboard layout. If it is similar in most aspects to the English one, it does have a few intruders, namely ä, å, and ö. I couldn’t help but stare at this part of the keyboard where the 3 keys lived, cosily nestled between the letter L, and the key where the backslash would normally reside on a US keyboard, just to the left of the return key.
Wonders of a Nordic alphabet: From A to Ö
My second – equally surprising – encounter was with the Swedish alphabet. In my twenty-odd years of written and spoken life (thus discounting the mute diaper years), I had come in close contact with a fair few languages. And up to then all alphabets roughly had 26 letters (not always but roughly) and more importantly always ended with the elusive Z (the very one that is struck by an identity crisis and is called by two different names in English). Swedish, however, saw to it differently. Indeed, the last letter is none other than Ö. In other words, where the French change the sound of a letter with an accent e.g. e and é, the Swedes create a whole new entity, a living letter of its own right, and one confusing alphabet.
But, to be quite honest, my main and daily encounter with the Nordic language was for the simple act of living and trying to get to work, order food, shop… Only, even the oldest granny speaks fluent English. As a matter of fact, one may more easily survive in Sweden on English than in the outer Hebrides. Possibly because sheep are not so talkative.
SFI, my pass back to the school bench
And so, to tackle the irksome issue of not being able to chatter as freely as one may want to, I embarked on a government-run scheme called SFI which essentially stands for Swedish for Immigrants, only written in Swedish but I haven’t reached that lesson as yet.
The signing-up process took about 2 weeks. They asked me what I had studied, what I spoke, whether I could write. And of course my personnummer. Not a form can do without that godly number. Eventually, on a cold and dark Thursday evening, I made my way to Täby Comvux, room N103, greeted the teacher in my friendliest English, and sat down. And the nightmare began. I had fallen into a fairly good classroom. All the students spoke the language and followed the teacher in her antics. Even David, an Englishman proudly sporting the football shirt with St George’s cross, could handle sentences stringing together more than a few words. Oh Lord, I was lost. I remembered my first day in Portugal when I had met an Austrian student who could speak fluent Portuguese and scared me nearly enough to ponder going home. It took me a week before I realized that Austrian student was part-Brazilian.
Back in Täby though, I was frantically batting my eyes as if morse-coding ‘May Day’ but no one came to my rescue. As the teacher used more voluptuous gestures, I grasped some of the context. I could somehow make out she was talking about the Vesuvius, Naples, and Pompei. For some reason, my neighbor could not quite understand what vulkan stood for and so the teacher´s arms erupted into circular movements of flowing lava and bursting magma in an epic hand reenactement of the 79 AD cataclysm which wiped a prosperous Roman establishment off the map of Campania.
Apart from this glimpse into History Lane, the rest of the class was very much shrouded into a fog of mysterious words. And like the undisciplined student, I started gazing around the classroom. On the far left side of the wall, there was a map of geographical Europe, with names in English for some odd reason. I tried to find some solace in the thick red line separating Belarus from the Ukraine and then contemplated what it would be like to be sitting on top of the seemingly rugged Dolomites.
Praise the Lord for Rædwald
Rædwald was none other than King of the East Angles. Picture a triangle. See that pointy edge on the right-hand side? That’s the East Angle (look left if in Australia). On a more serious note, Rædwald (whose name I must copy and paste for lack of a key combination), ruled over what is now modern-day Suffolk. He was the son of Tytila, himself the son of Wuffa, himself the son of Wehha, all of which were Angles, descendants of a tribe believed to have come from the area around the Baltic sea, namely Northern Germany and the Nordics. After such an agitated history, Rædwald is now enjoying a well-deserved retirement on the shores of the river Deben, not too far away from Adastral Park.
In short, Rædwald somewhat descended from Sweden. In his luggage, his family brought some of the roots of modern-day English and these were the very roots that let me grasp on firmly to the second part of the class. And I exclaimed (in my inner-self) Praise the Lord for the Invasion of England by those Barbarians, the ancestors of the modern Swede and IKEA for both languages (English and Swedish) share a common vocabulary base. As we worked our way through a list of verbs we had to conjugate (rough start for a first class), I took guesses that were not as wild as the Saxons who rampaged through Medieval England.
For instance grip, gripa, griper, grep, gripit means to grab, akin to grip (as in get a grip, or grip on to something) while måste translates to must. Interesting similarities. If only I could put them to good use and avoid another bad hair day (dålig hår dag)
The naughty steps of grammatical errors
The final minutes of the class were a festival of exercises and conjugation all round with fill-in-the-blank sentences where one had to choose between different forms of the given verb. Not knowing what any of the words meant in the given sentences, I felt very much like Mr. Bean on exam day, even more so when I suddenly realized the ghastly test sheet had two sides to it lengthening the torture.
I looked at the verbs begging them to yield some secret about which form to use. But they didn’t reveal a thing, let alone their very meaning. And when I stared at either verb, I remembered the time I had pretentiously thought I could tackle Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in the original Old English version.
And in his geere for al the world he ferde
515 Nat oonly lik the loveris maladye
Of Hereos, but rather lyk manye
Engendred of humour malencolik
Biforen in his celle fantastik,
And shortly turned was al up so doun
520 Bothe habit and eek disposicioun
Of hym, this woful lovere daun Arcite.
The Canterbury Tales, The Knight’s Tale , Sequitur Pars Secunda
It was all Greek to me. One verb caught my attention and solely because my stomach was by then crying famine. That verb was strör (it means sprinkle) which sounded so much like struddle, Pili’s very own sweet tooth specialty she used to pop into the oven at #46.
As the teacher went around the classroom asking each student to read out a sentence with the adequate verb tense, I could feel my capital sentence approaching and my embarrassment growing in anticipation. When my turn came, I read out my Swedish tidbit Han måste sluta [drick] where drick is the verb to use. I tried a form, failed lamentably prompting the teacher to scold me and tell me that with måste (which essentially means to must), one must use a specific form (which I cannot recall). I had pretty much said a sentence which put in English would have been ‘he must stop drink’ instead of ‘he must stop drinking’. There I was ascending the naughty steps of grammatical errors at the speed of a foreigner’s Swedish elocution.
Time was finally up. It had actually flown by quite quickly. Somehow, I felt there was room for progress and perhaps an inkling of hope at the end of this long, dark tunnel of linguistic hoops and traps. Tomorrow is another day, tomorrow is day II of the lessons, tomorrow I won’t be any more fluent than Thursday but at least now I can say sprinkle the volcano.