As you may already know, the Swedish language has 9 vowels: A, E, I, O, U, Y (note that y is always a vowel in Swedish!), Å, Ä, and Ö. However, there is another way of grouping the vowels, rather than just alphabetically – according to whether they are soft or hard. Categorising vowels in this way will help with the pronunciation of many words in Swedish, as it can give you clues on how to say certain words.
Hard and soft vowels
When I say that vowels are either hard or soft, what I actually mean is that different vowels will affect certain consonants before them – giving the consonants either a soft or a hard pronunciation. So, actually, it is not the vowels themselves that are pronounced in a soft or hard way, but instead they affect consonants to be pronounced in a soft or hard way. And which consonants will they affect? They will affect words beginning with K-, G- and SK-.
This actually happens in English too. Just compare how you say “café” and “city”. The words both begin with C, but they are pronounced differently. From a Swedish language perspective, I would say that “café” has a hard kind of C, whereas “city” has a soft-sounding C. Another example is the different pronunciation of G in the words “guest” and “gist”, where I would say “guest” has a hard-sounding G and “gist” is soft. So let’s see how this works in Swedish.
Soft vowels: E, I, Y, Ä and Ö
Hard vowels: A, O, U, and Å
If you have any of the so-called soft vowels following either K-, G- or SK-, these consonants change to a softer sounding sound.
G- : göra (to do) – is pronounced with a soft “y” sounding sound: “yöööra, whereas gammal (old) – is pronounced with a hard-sounding G, a bit like in the name Gandalf.
K- : köpa (to buy) – is pronounced with a soft sounding “ch”: “chööpa”, whereas kan (able to/can) – is pronounced with a hard k, like in the English “can”.
SK- : sked (spoon) – is pronounced with a soft sounding sound, the same as in the number 7 (sju): “scheeed”, whereas skola (school) – is pronounced hard, like it reads (a separate s followed by a separate hard k): “skola”.
Because of theses pronunciation rules, there are some Swedish words that seem familiar to the English ear, and may even mean the same thing, but will be pronounced differently. I call these types of words “false friends” – they seem easy and familiar, but are in fact something else. For example:
kilo – means the same thing, a measure of weight, but is pronounced soft because of the I: “chiiilo”
sky – means sky in Swedish too, but is pronounced soft and with a long Swedish Y (like an English “ee” but with a more trumpet/forward-shaped mouth): “schyyy”
sko – means shoe, but this one is hard, because of the O: “skooo”
Of course, there are some exceptions, as always. Look out for the words “kille” (guy – should theoretically be soft, but we pronounce it hard), and “kö” (queue – again, should theoretically be soft, but is instead hard). Many of my students also struggle with the word “människa” (person, human being), and try to pronounce it as it reads, although we actually pronounce this “sk” in a soft way: “männischa”.
To hear a bit more about the hard and soft vowels, have a look at this video: