Why do so many Swedish slang words end in ‘is’?

Hang around in Sweden long enough – especially if you’re in the capital or spending time with teenagers – and you’ll notice a peculiar language pattern.

The Swedish language might be known for its lengthy compound words, but in colloquial Swedish, many words have their ending chopped off and replaced with the suffix -is.

Most often, this happens to nouns. Buddy (friend) comes from the longer word partnerwhile cond (cake shop) comes from confectionery. Oh, cond can also be an abbreviation for condition (fitness), which means you have to rely on context.

Many -is words are words that describe people of a certain type: as well as celebrity and hiddenthis group includes words like look (actor), vaktis (security guard), lantis (someone from a rural area), coward (coward), fatty (fatty) and hottie (hottie).

But -is words also include all kinds of inanimate objects. Other common -is words are kindergarten (daycare) from day care, candy (sweets/candy) from sweets, sweets (snack) from snack.

That’s not too surprising, because these are very everyday words, at least in Sweden where daycare is heavily subsidised and Saturday sweets are a beloved tradition, and the more commonly used a word is, the more susceptible it is to linguistic change, just the same way that on a cobblestone path, the stones in the centre will be worn down the fastest because that’s the section that sees most footfall.

As well as nouns, a few -is abbreviations are interjections or exclamations, most notably Congratulations (congratulations) from the verb congratulatewhich has existed in Swedish in its shortened form since the 1930s, and servant (hey) from the longer greeting Hellowhich dates back even further to the 18th century.

Less commonly, adjectives can also get the -is treatment, such as Poppy (short for Popular).

Sometimes, it can even work backwards and -is can be added to words that were short to start with, such as celebrity (celebrity) from the adjective known (known), and its antonym hidden (nobody) from the adjective hidden (hidden).

When this happens, it’s usually a short adjective being turned into a noun. Both these examples were first recorded in Swedish in the 1960s. And verbs can also be turned into -is nouns, for example snack ice cream which comes from talk (to chat) and means ‘a popular topic of conversation’.

Another example of this kind of construction is quickie (literally ‘quickie’) which could technically mean anything else which doesn’t take too long (a quick look, a quick discussion, a quick walk) but like in English, is most often used to talk about brief sex. Again, context is crucial.

The creation of -is words has been going on since at least the 18th century so is an established word-building technique in Swedish.

It’s interesting not just because it can be used with so many kinds of words (nouns, adjectives, interjections and more), but also because it’s what we call a productive trend (an incredibly productive one, actually), since new -is words make their way into speech and, therefore, the Swedish language every year. In theory, you could apply the chop-off-the-end-and-add-is formula to many words, and people would understand what you mean.

You can even apply it to names in the same way you can often add ‘y/ie’ to abbreviations in English: Cathrin could become Cattis rather than the English nickname Cathy or Sven could become Svennis, as former England football manager Sven-Göran Eriksson was often called.

Photo: Simon Paulin/imagebank.sweden.se

In Stockholm and the surrounding area, -is words are especially popular, and are made up from names of locations and institutions as well as people. Medborgarplatsen in the Södermalm district becomes Medis and Rålambshovsparken on Kungsholmen island is called Rålis.

As for exactly where this linguistic trend comes from, it’s likely that Swedish -is has its roots in the Latin and Greek suffix -is.

Several linguists have said that students in the 18th century would use Latin in wordplay, by adding different suffixes to common words and names for comic effect.

Because of its history in student circles, these words generally have a more informal feel. And -is can sometimes act as a diminutive, like -ino in Italian or -chen in German, especially when describing a person; lantis for example is often seen as slightly insulting. This context means that -is nouns are often related to free time, such as sweets, sweets, bargains (from flea market meaning flea market), hungover (hungover, from hung over), ping pong (from ping-pong).

This means it’s got no relation to the English suffix -ish. Used almost exclusively in adjectives, -ish can mean “of/related/connected to” or “like/having the characteristics of”, for example in words like Swedish (of Sweden) or babyish (like a baby). This -ish has Germanic roots, and can be compared with German adjectives ending in -ish such as Swedish (Swedish).

English -ish also has the meanings of “about/close to” or “quite/a bit” when used in colloquial speech, for example “twoish” meaning “about two” or “scaryish” (somewhat scary). And some Swedish teenagers have borrowed this -ish ending, meaning you may hear things like at two o’clock (at around two) or braish (somewhat good).

But this newer trend is something quite different from the typical Swedish -is, which has existed for centuries and will probably do so for centuries to come.

Villa, Volvo, Vovve: The Local’s Word Guide to Swedish Life, written by The Local’s journalists, is available to order. Head to lysforlag.com/vvv to read more about it – or join The Local as a member and get your copy for free.

It is also possible to buy your copy from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Bokus or Adlibris.


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