Swedish and German are two languages that both belong to the Germanic branch of the Indo-European language tree. This means that they are related. It doesn't necessarily mean, however, that they're mutually intelligible. English, too, is a Germanic language after all.
To be more precise, German is a West-Germanic language. So are English and Dutch, whereas Swedish, along with other Scandinavian languages fall into the North Germanic category. You'd think that this meant that German had more in common with English, but due to the historical evolution of the two languages (and Latin, Greek and French influences on English), English and German aren't that close.
German has a lot in common with Swedish in terms of vocabulary. Many words visibly have the same roots, but grammatically, Swedish looks more like English than German. The German language has more variation in terms of verb inflection than Swedish. German has three genders, whereas Swedish has two, and while German has four cases, Swedish has none. Finally, Swedish with its "singing" pronunciation-style with its many vowels is very different from the monotonous German. For an English speaker, Swedish is without doubt the easier language to learn.
In the following I'm going to dive into what the differences are between Swedish and German in terms of pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary, and I'm going to have a look at the history of the two languages and how it sets them apart.
Swedish And German - A Tale Of Two Germanic Languages
The ancestor of both the German and the Swedish language is referred to as Proto-Germanic, and it's thought to be the language spoken by the first Indo-European settlers who arrived in Northern Europe some 3700 years ago.
Proto-Germanic was the language of Southern Scandinavia. It was spoken in present day Denmark, Southern Sweden and Southern Norway, from where it spread Southward to present day Germany and from there, westwards.
The language eventually split into different languages, each one evolving separately. These were North-Germanic, West-Germanic and East-Germanic and they are thought to have been spoken in Northern Europe around 2100 years ago.
The North-Germanic branches turned into Old Norse, the language that eventually evolved into the Scandinavian languages, Swedish included.
West-Germanic became German, Dutch and English, and the East-Germanic branch evolved into several, now extinct languages, such as Gothic.
For a long time, the languages continued to evolve separately, with only minor mutual influences due to trade and exploration, including the Scandinavian Viking-Age from around year 700-1100.
Later, in the Middle Ages, however, the Scandinavian languages became increasingly influenced by the Low German dialects spoken as a lingua franca by the Hanseatic League which dominated the Northern and Baltic Sea regions in the period.
During this period, the Scandinavian languages gained a significant amount of Low-German loan-words, which are still present in the languages today.
Low German was quite different from modern High-German, however. High German is different from most other Germanic languages in that it went through very specific changes in the pronunciation of its consonants, changes which the other Germanic languages didn't see to the same extent.
This, along with the High German relative grammatical complexity, is part of what sets Scandinavian languages aside from German today.
And the Scandinavian languages themselves? Well they're really very similar, so except for pronunciation, they all are very comparable.
The German And Swedish Alphabet And How They're Pronounced
Both German and Swedish use variants of the Latin alphabet today, even though earlier Germanic languages were mainly written in runes.
There are some differences, however, in how the Latin alphabet has adapted to the two languages, as well as some important differences in pronunciation.
In the following, I'll try and compare the alphabets of the two languages.
|A a||"A" as in "father"||A a||"A" in its long version in "father" or in the short version like "can"|
|B b||"B" (In the end of a word as "P")||B b||"B"|
|C c||"K" or "Z"||C c||"K" or "S"|
|D d||"D"* (In the end of a word as "T")||D d||"D"|
|E e||"E" or "A" (as in late, pet, about, garden")||E e||"E" (as in "pet")|
|F f||"F"||F f||"F"|
|G g||"G" as in "good" "K" in the end of a word, "CH" as in "ich" when spelled "-ig".||G g||"G" as in "good"|
|H h||"H" or silent||H h||"H"|
|I i||"EE" or "I" as in "sleep" or "fit"||I i||"EE" or "I" as in "sleep" or "fit"|
|J j||"Y"||J j||"Y"|
|K k||"K"||K k||"K" or "SH" as in "shovel"|
|L l||"L"*||L l||"L"|
|M m||"M"||M n||"M"|
|N n||"N"||N n||"N"|
|O o||"O" as in "grow", but with a longer "O"-sound or as in "pot"||O o||"OO" As in "too" or "O" as in "pot"|
|P p||"P"||P p||"P"|
|Q q||"K" but in combined "QU" as "KV"||Q q||"K"|
|R r||Like a French R or an Arabic غ (example) - in some dialects as a thrilled "R"||R r||Thrilled "R" like in Spanish|
|S s||"S" or "Z"||S s||"S"|
|T t||"T"*||T t||"T"|
|U u||"OO" or "U" as in "spoon" or "put"||U u||"OO" but pronounced quickly as "full" or something that resembles the German "Ü" but pronounced slowly (and slightly closer to "OO" than the German variant) (example)|
|V v||"V" or "F"||V v||"V"|
|W w||"V"||W w||"V" (except in English loan-words)|
|X x||"KS"||X x||"KS"|
|Y y||Like "Ü", except for English loan-words||Y y||Like the German "Ü" but closer to "I" as opposed to "U" which is closer to "OO"|
|Z z||"TS"||Z z||"S"|
|Å å||"O" as in the word "law"|
|Ä ä||"AE" (example)||Ä ä||"AE" (example)|
|Ö ö||as in "turn" or "earn"
|Ö ö||as in "turn" or "earn"|
|Ü ü||as en "stew"|
|ẞ ß||"S" as in "set" or "nice"|
* The German consonants D, L, N and T are pronounced in a slightly more "dental" way than in English, meaning that the tip of the tongue should dwell a little while longer and press a little harder against the front teeth when pronouncing the letter.
German equally has a number of letter-combinations which are pronounced as separate sounds.
Swedish, too has a number of letter combinations which form unique sounds when found together. Another characteristic of Swedish pronunciation is that there always is a certain kind of "melody" to it. When long vowels are pronounced, they're almost always pronounced with a change of pitch from a high note to a low note. This is not the case for German which is pronounced in a much more monotone manner.
Comparing the two alphabets, I'd say that the German language is much more consistent in its spelling than the Swedish. Generally, when you've learned how German letters and letter combinations should be pronounced, you can read and pronounce even unknown words correctly, because they're pronounced "like they're written".
In Swedish, while rules certainly apply, there are many more exceptions, and for certain sounds there are several ways of representing them in writing and sometimes, similar sounds can be represented with different letters.
So is Swedish or German pronunciation more difficult?
I think it will probably be a tie.
Swedish has a few extra vowels than German, but many of them are mostly similar. German on the other hand has a few more consonants, such as the "guttoral" R-sound where you're thrilling from the back of your mouth instead of the front of your mouth like it's the case with the Swedish "R". German also has the "CH" sound which isn't present in Swedish.
Swedish And German Vocabulary
The German and Swedish language have quite a lot in common when it comes to vocabulary. Many words in the two languages have the same Germanic roots, which means that they show a clear kinship when comparing the words.
It doesn't mean, however, that the words are exactly the same. While Swedish and German have a lot in common, the historically dominant "Low German" language which used to be spoken by many in Northern Europe, is much closer to Swedish than High German, and it has provided many loan-words to the Swedish language.
Modern High German, on the other hand, often spells and pronounces words differently due to the "High German Consonant Shift".
This means that while the origins of many Swedish and German words are the same, in German, the words have undergone a historical transformation which has systematically switched certain letters with others.
Here are a few examples:
- "Ship" in English is "skepp" in Swedish, but "Shiff" in German, replacing "P" with "F"
- "Apple" in English is "äpple" in Swedish, but "Appfel" in German, equally replacing "P" with "F"
- "Door" in English is "dörr" in Swedish, but "Tur" in German, replacing "D" with "T"
- "Toe" in English is "tå" in Swedish, but "Zehe" in German, replacing the "T" with "Z"
- "Seek" in English is "söka" in Swedish, but "suchen" in German, replacing the "K" with a "CH"
Many words in German follow these and similar patterns which effectively make German words quite different from the equivalent words in other Germanic languages that didn't go through the same sound changes.
Be that as it may, if you're conscious of the common patterns of German words, you'll easily recognize a lot of words in the German language that you already know from English, just like it's the case for Swedish.
While German and Swedish have many cognates, you also need to be aware of the false friends, though! "Ost" in German is "east" but in Swedish it means "cheese". "Enkel" in Swedish means "simple" whereas in German it means "grandchild". And if you ask for "öl" in Sweden and in Germany, you might be surprised to be served beer in one place and "oil" in the other.
Grammar In Swedish And German - How Different Are They?
Even though Swedish and German have similar roots, they're quite different grammar-wise. In many aspects, Swedish looks a lot more like English than German and in many ways, Swedish is simpler and much less varied when speaking a bout grammar.
German has preserved the three genders that originally existed in Proto Indo-European several thousand years ago. Masculine, feminine and neuter.
This is interesting when compared to English where inanimate objects are gender-less and only people and animals are referred to as "he or she" (although with a neutral article like "a" or "the").
In German a "spoon" is masculine, and when speaking about it, it would be referred to as "him".
Swedish has two genders instead of three, but they aren't feminine and masculine like you'd assume, but rather "neuter" and "utrum" which is a merged masculine and feminine gender.
Where the German definite articles are "der" (masculine), "die" (feminine) and "das" (neuter), Swedish has "en" (utrum, or mixed) and "ett" (neuter).
Interestingly, however, the Swedish definite article doesn't come before the noun like in German (or like "the" in English) but is added as a suffix after the noun.
So "the table", which is "der Tisch" in German becomes "bordet" in Swedish.
"A table", however, which is "ein tisch" in German becomes "Ett bord" in Swedish.
So Swedish is actually pretty simple when it comes to definite and indefinite articles. It's the same article which is simply placed before or after the noun. With German you not only have different articles for each Gender, but the articles change depending on whether they are definite or indefinite. And they change according to cases, which adds a whole other layer of complexity.
Cases is something that Swedish doesn't have. In German, nouns need to take one of 4 different cases depending on their function in the sentence. The sentence is in turn changed depending on which case is used. This makes for a rather complicated system.
The fact that German uses grammatical cases means that word order is less important.
These two sentences actually mean the same thing:
- Der Hund beißt den Mann
- Den Mann beißt der Hund
They both mean "the dog bites the man" even though an English speaker would assume that the second sentence means "the man bites the dog". The reason is that the "who's-doing-what" is specified with cases instead of word order.
In Swedish (like in English) you need to put the words in the right order to be precise.
In English, verb inflection is fairly simple.
- I come, you come, he/she/it comes, we come, you come, they come.
In German, this becomes slightly more complicated:
- Ich komme, du kommst, er/sie/es kommt, wir kommen, ihr kommt, sie kommen
In Swedish, however, the verb endings are all the same:
- Jag kommer, du kommer, han/hon/hen/den kommer, vi kommer, ni kommer, de kommer
In Swedish, unlike German (and English) the predicate adjective must agree with the subject in both gender and number.
In German, to say "the machine is noisy", "machine" being feminine you'd say:
- Die Maschine ist laut
To say "the airplane is noisy", "airplane" being neuter, you'd say:
- Das Flugzeug ist laut
And if the word "airplanes" is in plural, "the airplanes are noisy" would be:
- Die Flugzeuge sind laut
In other words, the predicate adjective for "loud" stays the same no matter the gender and the number. This is also the case with English.
In Swedish, however, the above sentences would be as follows:
"The machine is noisy"
- maskinen är bullrig
"The airplane is noisy"
- flygplanet är bullrigt
"The airplanes are noisy"
- flygplanen är bullriga
In other words, in Swedish, the predicate adjective always agrees with the noun in number and gender.
A Comparison Of A German And A Swedish Text
Finally, I'd like to compare an actual text-example of Swedish and German. The below texts are the Swedish and German translations of the first article of "The Universal Declaration Of Human Rights".
Se let's first have a look at the two texts, first the Swedish one:
Alla människor äro födda fria och lika i värde och rättigheter. De äro utrustade med förnuft och samvete och böra handla gentemot varandra i en anda av broderskap.
And now the German text.
Alle Menschen sind frei und gleich an Würde und Rechten geboren. Sie sind mit Vernunft und Gewissen begabt und sollen einander im Geist der Brüderlichkeit begegnen.
When looking at the two texts it becomes clear that there are many cognates and that most words show a clear resemblance. Exceptions to this are words such as:
- "födda" (S) and "geboren" (G) which both mean "born"
- "lika" (S) and "gleich" (G) which both mean "equal" or "alike".
- "utrustada" (S) and "begabt" (G) which mean "equipped" and "gifted"
- "samvete" (S) and "Gewissen" (G) which both mean "conscience"
- "böra" (S) and "sollen" (G) which mean "ought" and "should"
- "handla gentemot" (S) and "begebnen" (G) which mean "act against" and "meet"
- "anda" (S) and "Geist" (G) which both mean "spirit"
It is possible that some of the above differences are due to different "styles" in the translations, and that it would be possible to actually make the two translations even closer.
Other words are simply different between Swedish and German. While most words are of Germanic origin, the words that don't correspond might simply trace their roots back to words that were originally synonyms in Proto-Germanic or Proto Indo-European.
An example of this is the word for "spirit" which is "anda" in Swedish and "Geist" in German.
"Anda" can be traced back to the Proto Indo-European word for "breath" whereas "Geist" (and the English "ghost" for that matter) is related to an old Proto Indo-European word for "anger" or "agitation". They both became Germanic words which eventually came to mean the same thing, even though their initial meanings only very metaphorically approach "spirit".
Conclusion: How Close Are Swedish And German?
As demonstrated in the above, German and Swedish has a lot in common in terms of vocabulary, slightly less so when it comes to pronunciation and very little when we compare the grammar of the two languages.
It's been a long time since the two languages broke apart, and today they're far from being mutually intelligible.
But what if you were to study one of them? Which one would be easier to learn?
I think that, for an English speaker, there would be no doubt that Swedish is the easier language. You get a discount on the vocabulary because you already know a lot from English cognates. This is obviously also the case for German, but with Swedish, the grammar is delightfully simply and very close to English, where it's significantly more complicated in German.
Pronunciation wise, German and Swedish both have their challenges, but it's not a big deal for most English speakers, and you'll get used to pronouncing either language relatively quickly.
If you're interested in looking a little deeper into the two languages, try comparing them in my study time calculator and see much time you'll need to spend to learn them.
If you want to learn German quickly, you can read my (slightly optimistic) article on how to learn German in six months.