Swedish Phonology

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This article deals with the phonology of Standard Swedish (Rikssvenska) from a synchronical point of view. There may be a few references to regional variations, however, they are not explained in more detail. This entry is arranged into four larger parts: phonological systems, autosegmental phonology, phonological rules and phonotactics.


Phonological Systems: Segmentals

Phonemes, or rather segmentals, represent speech sounds which distinguish meaning. This can be proved by alining minimal pairs which differ in one single sound (e.g. here /hɪə/ - beer /bɪə/).[1] The process of producing phonemic sounds differentiates between place of articulation (e.g. bilabial, palatal, velar, etc.), manner of articulation (e.g. plosives, fricatives, liquids, etc.) and voicing (either voiced or voiceless). Since standard orthographic systems, such as the Latin alphabet, do not correspond to a universal depiction of these sounds, phonemes are described in the IPA. The IPA is a set of phonetic symbols to which for instance vowels and consonants belong. They form a large phonetic inventory which, on the other hand, is the basis for a phonological system.[1][1]


The Swedish alphabet comprises nine vowels: <a, e, i, o, u, y, å, ä> and <ö>[2]

Regarding the pronunciation of those vowels, the language consists of 18 phonemes which are differentiated by their length. There are nine long and nine short vowels which entail a difference of quality and quantity and are therefore distinguishable in meaning. The difference of length, however, is not marked by an orthographical change.[3]

Long Vowels

There are nine long vowel phonemes in the Swedish language. [2]

  Front unrounded Front rounded Central rounded Back rounded
Close ʉː
Close mid øː  
Open mid ɛː      
Open       ɑː

Short Vowels

Swedish makes use of nine short vowels. [2]

  Front unrounded Front rounded Central rounded Back rounded
Close ɪ ʏ   ʊ
Close mid e   ɵ  
Open mid ɛ œ   ɔ
Open a      

In many cases <e> and <ä> as in sett ('seen') and sätt ('a sort') coincide and are both pronounced /e/. This sometimes leads to the assumption that there are only eight short vowels and that [e] and [ɛ][2] are only allophones. Yet, /e/ and /ɛ/ are treated as phonemes in Standard Swedish.

Special Features

  • The phonemes /ʉː/ respectively /ɵ/ are similar to /yː/ and /y/, the lips are less rounded though,
e.g. hund /hɵnd/   ('dog')
     hus  /hʉːs/   ('house')
  • There are no concrete rules concerning the pronunciation of the letter <o> as in bok.[3] Sometimes it is pronounced as /oː/ or /ɔ/ and sometimes it is /ʊ/ or /uː/,
e.g. komma /kɔma/    ↔      gator /gɑːtʊr/
     ('to come')             ('gates')
     mor   /muːr/     ↔      idiom /idioːm/
     ('mother')              ('idiom')

Vowel Length

[3]There is no orthographical indication of a difference in vowel length, however, there are some rules of thumb which often apply. Long vowels only exist in stressed syllables. In unstressed syllables, the vowels are automatically short.

How to recognize a long vowel:

  • when it follows a single consonant or when the vowel is at the end of the word,
e.g. hat         /hɑːt/       ('hatred')
     kostym      /kɔstyːm/    ('costume')
     sko         /skuː/       ('shoe')
  • in front of consonant bonds which originated from flection or word formation when the vowel was already long in the original word,
e.g. polsk       /poːlsk/      ('Polish')                     originally from: Polen
     skrivna     /skriːvna/    ('written', part. perf.)       originally from: att skriva
  • in front of <-rd>, <-rn>, <-rt> and consonant+<l>,
e.g. hård        /hoːrd/       ('hard')
     barn        /bɑːrn/       ('child')
     fart        /fɑːrt/       ('speed')
     pärla       /pɛːrla/      ('pearl')

How to recognize a short vowel:

  • in front of double consonants
e.g. känna       /ɕɛna/         ('to know')
     ligga       /lɪga/         ('to lie')
  • in front of inseparable consonant clusters
e.g. hjälp       /jɛlp/         ('help')
     efter       /efter/        ('after')
  • quite often in front of <-j>
e.g. hej         /hɛj/          ('hey')
     pojke       /pɔjke/        ('boy')
  • in front of <-n> in the clusters <an->, <in-> and <kun->
e.g. anse       /anseː/         ('to think')
     inom       /inɔm/          ('within')
     kunskap    /kɵnskɑːp/      ('knowledge')
  • quite often in front of <-m>
e.g. om         /ɔm/            ('about')
     hem        /hem/           ('(at) home')

Minimal Pairs: Short and Long Vowels

Minimal pairs help to prove that two words differ in meaning based on one single sound which varies.


Phonemes Word with long vowel Word with short vowel
iː / ɪ vit vitt
eː / e vet vett
ɛː / ɛ rät rätt
ɑː / a fal fall
yː / ʏ byt bytt
øː / œ röt rött
uː / ʊ bot bott
oː / ɔ fåt fått
ʉː / ɵ Rut rutt

Hence, vit (white[UTR.SG]) and vit-t (white-NEUTR.SG), for instance, are both spelled with an < i >. Though quite often the doubling[2] of the (final) consonant is responsible for the shortened pronunciation of a vowel. According to this, the quality of the vowel changes from /iː/ (as in vit) to /ɪ/ (as in vitt). This verifies that, at least in the spoken language, length distinguishes meaning in Swedish.


Swedish is the only Germanic language which does not have any phonological diphthongs in its Standard Swedish variation. Only one quarter of all the languages in the world do not make use of diphthongs.[5] Consequently, every vowel in a vowel combination maintains its full phonetic value.[3]

e.g. fiol       /fiuːl/       ('violine')
     heroisk    /heroːisk/    ('heroic')[3]

Yet vowel combinations in a couple of loan words are treated like diphthongs.

e.g. schweizisk   /ʃvɛjtsisk/    ('Swiss')
     augusti      /augusti/      ('August')[3]


Swedish also differentiates between long and short consonants. In contrast to vowels, the oppositional length of consonants does not carry any meaning. Long consonants are often marked orthographically by a double letter.[3]

  Labial Alveolar Retroflex Palatal Velar Glottal
Plosive p, b t, d ʈ, ɖ   k, g  
Fricative f, v s ʂ ɕ ɧ h
Nasal m n ɳ   ŋ  
Trill / Flap   r        
Approximant       j    
Lateral Approximant   l ɭ      
[6] [2]

Annotation: Where two phonemes appear in a single column the first phoneme is always voiceless and the second one voiced.

The /ɧ/ Phoneme

Typical for Standard Swedish is for instance the /ɧ/ phoneme which is also often called the sj-sound[2]. It is described as a sound between [x] and [ʃ] but the existence of a real phoneme is often disputed. In some dialects, especially in northern and Finland Swedish, /ɧ/ does not exist and is instead replaced by a sound similar to the English /ʃ/.

e.g. mission ('mission')
     Standard Swedish:  /miɧuːn/
     Finland Swedish:   /miʃuːn/

The /ɧ/ phoneme renders the following consonant clusters:[Annotation 1]


  • the most productive: <sj->, e.g. sjö ('lake')
  • <sk-> in front of <e, i, y, ä, ö>, e.g. skina ('to shine')
  • <stj->, e.g. stjärna ('star')
  • <-sion->, e.g. passion ('passion')
  • <-tion->, e.g. reparation ('reparation');

exception: pronounced as /tɧ/ after a vowel in a dissyllabic word or when an <r> is preceding, e.g. motion, portion etc.

less productive:

  • <-sch->, e.g. dusch ('shower')
  • <-ssj->, e.g. hässja ('harp')
  • i.a. <sh-> and <j-> in some loan words such as sherry ('sherry') and att ha jour ('to be on duty')

The /ɕ/ Phoneme

Another typical phoneme in Swedish is /ɕ/. It is an initial sound which mainly occurs in front of a stressed vowel as in kök ('kitchen'). It appears in the following clusters:[3]

  • <k->, e.g. kök ('kitchen')
  • <tj->, e.g. tjock ('thick')
  • <kj->, e.g. kjol ('skirt')
  • in a few loan words such as check ('cheque')

In Finland Swedish, the /ɕ/ sound is often replaced by /t͡ɕ/ or /t͡ʃ/,

e.g. känna ('to know')
     Standard Swedish:  /ɕɛna/
     Finland Swedish:   /t͡ʃɛna/

Retroflex Consonants

Furthermore the retroflex consonants /ʈ, ɖ, ʂ, ɭ/ and /ɳ/ are a fixture in Standard Swedish. In order to produce such a sound, the tip of the tongue is raised and bended backwards as far as possible so that it touches the rear teeth-ridge, respectively the hard front of the palate. In Swedish retroflexion is not very distinct. Therefore retroflex consonants can be described as supradental or postalveolar.[5] Retroflex consonants are orthographically represented by the consonant clusters < rt, rd, rs, rl > and <rn> and are a result of assimilation. Opinions differ concerning the total number of consonant phonemes since retroflex consonants are often treated as allophones. They only exist in those varietis of Swedish which use frontal /r/ allophones, i.e. the ones spoken in middle and northern Sweden. However, this does not imply that retroflex consonants exist in such a particular variety. In Finland Swedish, for instance, retroflex consonants do not exist. They are realised bisegmentally as /rːs, rːd, rːs, rːl/ and /rːn/. The same occurs in the southern Swedish varieties.[5]

e.g. kurs ('course')
     Standard Swedish: /kɵʂ/
     Finland Swedish:  /kɵrːs/

Since this article deals with Standard Swedish, which is the most dominant regional variety of Swedish, retroflex consonants are counted among phonemes. Hence, there are 23 consonant phonemes in the Swedish language altogether.

Minimal Pairs: Retroflex Consonants

In order to prove that retroflex consonants are phonemes, some minimal pairs can be arranged:

Lexemes Phonetic Transcription
bord ↔ bod /buːɖ/ ↔ /buːd/
barsk ↔ bask /baʂk/ ↔ /bask/
Karl ↔ kal /kɑːɭ/ ↔ /kɑːl/
fart ↔ fat /fɑːʈ/ ↔ /fɑːt/
varna ↔ vana /vɑːɳa/ ↔ /vɑːna/

Autosegmental Phonology: Suprasegmentals

In contrast to segmentals, suprasegmentals (lat. supra = 'above') deal with segments from a higher level, i.e. this category comprises more than solely phonetic sounds. Pitch (e.g. intonation), duration (e.g. rate, rythm, emphasis) and loudness/intensity (e.g. stress) are the most important suprasegmental features. They are established by a comparison of items (segments) in a sequence. [7]

Tone Accents

Swedish is a pitch accent language which has two distinctive accents related to the different syllabic structures in Old Norse. These two seperate patterns cause a difference in meaning. The first one is the acute accent which exists in all languages of the world. Only the grave accent is typical for Swedish.[3]

Acute Accent (accent 1)

The intonation ascends only one climax and then falls again. In the majority of cases, old monosyllabic words and words with the stress on the last syllable receive the acute accent.[3] It can occur in any accented syllable regardless of position.[8] However, there are also special cases where it appears:

  • monosyllabic words including their declination, e.g. húset
  • most words with two syllables which end with <-el>, <-en>, <-er>, e.g. fǻgel, vátten, vínter
  • plural nouns with mutated vowel in the third declination group, e.g. fötter
  • verbs in present tense which end with <-er>, e.g. kómmer, léker
  • comparative forms which end with <-re>, e.g. bákre
  • words which start with an unstressed syllable, e.g. betála, förhǻllande
  • most loan words and foreign geographic names, e.g. ǻngest, Búdapest
  • compounds with <-dag>, <-gård>, <-man>, e.g. mǻndag, stýrman


Grave Accent (accent 2)

It has two climaxes where the intonation first rises, then falls and therafter rises again.[3] The grave accent never occurs in the last syllable of a word.[8] Therefore only old polysyllabic or at least dissyllabic words receive the grave accent it. Like the acute accent, the grave accent also appears in other cases:

  • most Swedish polysyllabic words with the stress on the first syllable, e.g. àrbetare, gàmmal, tàvla
  • declination forms of monosyllabic words, e.g. dàgarna, glàda, tròdde
  • most compounds (exceptions: see above), e.g. òrdbok, skòlresa


Difference in Meaning

Acute and grave accents often distinguish meaning. The following example shows a monosyllabic and a dissyllabic word with the definite article attached to them. Considering the orthography, they cannot be distinguished, the pronunciation makes the difference though. audio sample

e.g. acute accent:
     'and-en      /ándɛn/
     grave accent:
     ,an'de-n     /àndɛn/

Further examples are:

Actual Word Acute Accent Grave Accent
slútetslùtet 'the end' 'closed' perf. part. of att sluta
vákenvàken 'the ice hole' 'awake'
skállenskàllen 'the bark' 'the skull'
égenègen 'own' 'peculiar'
tómtentòmten 'the estate' 'the Santa Claus'


Phonological Rules

Phonological rules describe processes in morphophonology and systematic phonology. Besides that they also explain diachronic sound changes in a language.

Retroflex Consonants

Not only are retroflex consonants fixed in most simplexes (e.g. barn) but they can also occur in other articulatory patterns:

  • Word boundaries:[2]

Retroflex consonants can cross over word boundaries if the final letter of a word is an <r> and the initial letter of the following word is either <t, d, s, l> or <n>.

e.g. vår triumf     /voːʈriɵmf/      ('our victory')
     hur mår du     /hʉːrmoːɖɵ/      ('how are you')
     under sängen   /ɵndəʂɛŋən/      ('under the bed')
     eller nej      /ɛləɳɛj/         ('or not')
     hur ledsam     /hʉːɭesam/       ('how sad')

In this case retroflex consonants are usually obligatory but along with unstressed, frequent and short words they are optional and can even lower the language bar.

  • Flections:

a) Genitive: When the genitive < s > is attached to a word ending with <r>, the retroflex /ʂ/ is used.

e.g. Peters hus        /petəʂhʉːs/         ('Peter's house')
     min mors affär    /minmuːʂafæːr/      ('my mother's shop')

b) Verbs: The retroflex consonants /ɖ/ and /ʈ/ occur in verbs with a final <r> in the word stem which receive the past and supine endings <-de>, respectively <-t>.[5]

e.g. stör-de                  /støːɖə/
     stör-t                   /støːʈ/

c) Participles: Furthermore the rule mentioned above also applies to past participles.[5]

e.g. en psykiskt stör-d                        flicka      /støːɖ/
     a  mentally disorder-PST.PTCP.IDEF.UTR.SG girl
     ett psykiskt stör-t                          djur     /støːʈ/
     a   mentally disorder-PST.PTCP.IDEF.NEUTR.SG animal
     den psykiskt stör-da                      flickan     /støːɖa/
     the mentally disorder-PST.PTCP.DEF.UTR.SG girl

d) Nouns: Almost all nouns receive the ending <-rna> in the definite plural. The ending is assimilated to the retroflex consonant cluster /ɳa/. The only exceptions, which do not carry a retroflex consonant, are the definite plural forms of neutral nouns, for instance ett hus (definite plural: hus-en) and ett äpple (definite plural: äpple-na).[5]

e.g. flickorna    /flɪkʊɳa/       (girl-DEF.UTR.PL)
     pojkarna     /pɔɪkaɳa/       (boy-DEF.UTR.PL)
     böckerna     /bœkeɳa/        (bok/DEF.UTR.PL)
     lärarna      /lɛːraɳa/       (teacher-DEF.UTR.PL)

  • Compounds: Retroflex consonants also occur in compounds.[5]
e.g. vårsång      /voːʂɔŋ/        ('spring song')
     vårdag       /voːɖɑːg/       ('spring day')
     vårnatt      /voːɳat/        ('spring night')
     vårtecken    /voːʈekən/      ('sign for springtime')
     vårluft      /voːɭɵft/       ('air in springtime')
  • Derivations:[5]
e.g. varsam       /vɑːʂam/        ('careful')
     förtala      /fœʈɑːla/       ('to asperse')
     lärdom       /lɛːɖuːm/       ('lesson', fig.)
     varning      /vɑːɳɪŋ/        ('warning')
     förlänga     /fœɭɛːŋa/       ('to extend')
  • Cyclic use:

Not only <r> but also retroflex consonants themselves can trigger a progressive assimilation. This rule is obligatory up to the word boundary. Across the word boundary it is optional.[5]

e.g. vårdnad        ɖ+n  -->  /ɖɳ/            ('child custody')
     korsning       ʂ+n  -->  /ʂɳ/            ('crossbreed')
     barnlös        ɳ+l  -->  /ɳɭ/            ('childless')
     bärnsten       ɳ+s  -->  /ɳʂ/            ('amber')
     hjärndöd       ɳ+d  -->  /ɳɖ/            ('braindead')
     etc. [5]

Exceptions [5]

The rules mentioned above do not always trigger a retroflex consonant as it can be seen by the following examples.

  • Often when there is a morpheme boundary between <rr> and <t, d, n, s, l>,
e.g. borrs    /rːs/      (drill-PASS)   
     bisarrt  /rːt/      (bizarre-ADV)
  • The infix <rl> can sometimes be either [l] or [ɭ],
e.g. pärla    [pɛːrla] or [pɛːɭa]         ('pearl')
     kärl     [ɧɛːrl]  or [ɧɛːɭ]          ('jar')
     Karl     [kɑːrl]  or [kɑːɭ]          

Nevertheless, across morpheme boundaries it is usually /ɭ/, e.g. härlig. Additionally, after a preceding /øː/ it is also often /ɭ/, e.g. curla.

  • The cyclic use does not apply to <rl> and <rst> if the letter < s > follows,
e.g. kärls           /ɭs/        (jar-GEN.SG)
     törstsläckande  /ʂt/        ('adipsous')

The Assimilation of <g> and <k>

Due to proximity, one sound influences the articulation of another sound. Thus the pronunciation of the velar plosives <g> and <k> differs according to the sound environment of the subsequent vowel.

If the voiced <g> precedes a back vowel it does not change its velar position and is pronounced as /g/. If it precedes a front vowel it is palatalised and pronounced as /j/.[9]

e.g.         /goː/         ('to go')  
     göra      /'jøːra/      ('to do')

Furthermore, the <g> is pronounced as /j/ when it follows <l-> or <r->, e.g. svalg ('throat') and färg ('colour')

A similar rule applies to the voiceless counterpart <k>. If it precedes a back vowel its velar position is maintained and pronounced as /k/. If it precedes a front vowel it is palatalised and pronounced as /ɕ/. [9]

e.g. kort /kʊʈ/         ('short'/'card') 
     köra /'ɕøːra/      ('to drive')


Phonotactics refers to the restrictions and allowed combinations of certain phonemic clusters in a language. Among other things, it deals with syllable structures, consonant and vowel clusters.

Syllable Structure

In modern Swedish the phonotactic patterns V:K and VK: are possible.[9]

e.g. tak   /tɑːk/    ('roof'),
     tack  /takː/    ('thank you')

Furthermore the cluster VK was introduced to Finland Swedish due to its contact with the Finnish language.

Likewise in many Germanic languages, the consonant cluster CCC is possible in Swedish, too. Combinations which are operative in spelling and in speech are <spr, spl, spj, str, skr> and <skv>.[9]

e.g. sprida     ('to spread')
     splittra   ('to splint'; 'splint') 
     spjut      ('spear')
     strejka    ('to go on strike') 
     skriva     ('to write')
     skvallra   ('to gossip')

<Stj> and <skj> exist in written but not in spoken form. These two clusters are pronounced with the typical Swedish /ɧ/ sound.[9]

e.g. stjärna   /ɧɛːɳa/     ('star')
     skjorta   /ɧʉːta/     ('shirt') 

All Swedish vowels except for /ʉ, ø/ and half-length vowels occur in stressed syllables. In unstressed syllables only short vowels can be found.

e.g. göra     /gøːra/      ('to do')
     gudom    /gʉːdum/     ('divinity')
     lärjunge /lɛːrjɵŋə/   ('disciple')


  1. 1.0 1.1 Mair, Christian. English Linguistics: An Introduction. Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag, 2008. Print. (pp. 250-252)
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 Hultman, Tor G. Svenska Akademiens Språklära. Stockholm: Svenska Akademien, 2003. Print. (pp. 13-18)
  3. 3.00 3.01 3.02 3.03 3.04 3.05 3.06 3.07 3.08 3.09 3.10 3.11 3.12 3.13 Lindholm, Hans. Svensk Grammatik: Lärobok i Svenska som Främmande Språk. Lund: Kursverksamhetens Förlag, 1974. (pp.15-39)
  4. Abramson, Arthur S., and Kerstin Hadding-Koch. "Duration Versus Spectrum in Swedish Vowels: Some Perceptual Experiments." Studia Linguistica 18.2 (1964): p.94-107. Web. 23 July 2013. (p.95)
  5. 5.00 5.01 5.02 5.03 5.04 5.05 5.06 5.07 5.08 5.09 5.10 Lindqvist, Christer. Schwedische Phonetik: für Deutschsprachige. Hamburg: Helmut Buske Verlag, 2007. Print. (pp.48-49, 58-62, 73)
  6. The International Phonetic Association. (2005). [Graph illustration IPA 2005]. The International Phonetic Alphabet. Retrieved from http://www.langsci.ucl.ac.uk/ipa/images/pulmonic.gif
  7. Johnson, Keith (2012). Introduction to Phonetics and Phonology [PDF document]. Retrieved from http://linguistics.berkeley.edu/~kjohnson/ling110/Lecture_Slides/4_Prosody/suprasegmentals.pdf
  8. 8.0 8.1 Gårding, Eva (1989). Intonation in Swedish. In Albert Di Cristo and Daniel Hirst (Eds.), Intonation Systems: A Survey of Twenty Languages (pp.112-130). Cambridge: Cambridge UP.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 Roelcke, Thorsten. Variationstypologie: Ein Sprachtypologisches Handbuch der Europäischen Sprachen in Geschichte und Gegenwart = Variation Typology. Berlin [et al.]: de Gruyter, 2003. Print. (pp. 183-185, 189)


  1. I partially took over Lindholm's examples, however, his argument that these clusters represent the /ʃ/ sound were changed by me and adjusted to the /ɧ/ sound.

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