German vs. Swedish: How close are they
Published on December 11, 2023 / Updated on January 9, 2024
If you speak German, you can probably understand a few words of Swedish. Perhaps you can even roughly guess the meaning of what’s being said. Swedish speakers may also understand a fair bit of German. Both languages have common roots, which are reflected in their similar vocabularies.
But there are also considerable differences between German and Swedish — especially in terms of grammar. We’ll show you the most important differences. You can then decide for yourself which language you want to learn.
The German and Swedish languages share a common origin in the Indo-European family, though they diverged over a thousand years ago. German belongs to the West Germanic languages, while Swedish is part of the North Germanic languages.
Migration and foreign linguistic influences shaped their distinct paths. One of the major developments in German was the consonant shift from voiced to voiceless consonants (which is why we say ship in English but Schiff in German). Because the ancestors of the Swedes migrated to Scandinavia before this change, it never made its way into the Swedish language, which was instead influenced predominantly by Nordic languages.
Swedish and German have their common ancestry to thank for their linguistic similarities. Many words are recognizable between the two languages, making comprehension easier.
However, false friends abound. Gift, for example, means “poison” in German but “married” in Swedish. Variances in noun capitalization and other linguistic nuances also distinguish the languages from one another.
German introduces three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine and neuter. Swedish simplifies this with two genders:neuter and common (for all the rest). In both languages, the gender partly determines which article is used for a particular word.
|der Mann (masc.)
|(den) mannen (common)
|die Frau (fem.)
|(den) kvinnan (common)
|das Kind (neut.)
|(det) barnet (neuter)
In German, either the definite article — der (masculine), die (feminine) or das (neuter) — or the indefinite article — ein (masculine/neuter) or eine (feminine) — precedes the noun as a separate word.
In Swedish, the definite article takes the form of the suffix -en (common) or -et (neuter). An actual article den (common) or det (neuter) is only added when context is lacking.
German challenges language learners with four grammatical cases that influence noun endings. These cases are nominative, genitive, dative and accusative.
In Swedish, the genitive is formed with –s, while dative and accusative rely on word position or pronouns, much as in English.
|Of the man
|to/for the man
Another notoriously difficult topic in German, even for intermediate learners, is verb conjugation. For those who tend to get lost in conjugation tables, it will be welcome news that Swedish verbs do not change their form according to number and person.
There are two subjunctives in German: the subjunctive I and the subjunctive II. The subjunctive I is mainly used in indirect speech, polite forms and certain fixed expressions. The subjunctive II is used for unrealistic conditions, wishes, assumptions and polite requests. You will be pleased to learn that in Swedish, the subjunctive is a thing of the past!
German’s unique word order in subordinate clauses, where the verb changes from the second to the last place, can perplex learners. Swedish, aligning more closely with English, maintains a consistent word order. The same is true for modal verbs and separable verbs.
A major difference between German and Swedish adjectives lies in their declension. In German, adjectives are declined according to the gender, case and number of the corresponding noun. In Swedish, most adjectives remain unchanged.
ein roter Ball – en röd boll – a red ball
eine rote Blume – en röd blomma – a red flower
der rote Ball – den röda bollen – the red ball
den roten Ball – den röda bollen – the red ball
According to the Foreign Service Institute (FSI), Swedish requires approximately 575–600 class hours for English speakers to achieve proficiency, while German demands 600–750 hours. The relative simplicity of Swedish in crucial grammatical topics accounts for much of this difference.
In summary, while both languages share a linguistic root, German and Swedish represent distinct linguistic paths with varying complexities for English speakers.
Swedish and German have some similarities. However, they also differ in important aspects such as declension and conjugation. This can make all the difference when it comes to the difficulty of achieving conversational fluency in Swedish vs. German. However, the final verdict as to which language is easier to learn ultimately depends on the learner’s unique abilities, enthusiasm and proclivity.