The Puzzling Swedish Verbal Suffix -s

Written by Dyami Millarson

If anything puzzled me a lot whilst learning Swedish in 2019, it was the verbal suffix -s in Swedish. It is not so much that I did not theoretically understand what it meant, namely it denotes the passive voice, but I had practical difficulty accepting that -s was being used in such a way. After all, the suffix -s is only one small letter and you may easily miss it. Moreover, the -s is being used differently in the verbs of other Germanic languages that I am familiar with, such as in English, where the suffix -(e)s is used with verbs in the 3rd person singular of the present tense.

What confused me the most about Swedish is that the passive voice suffix -s could not only be used with predicates, but also with infinitives and past participles. This went against anything that I was used to, and it took more time than expected to get truly used to this. It had more to do with my psychology than with anything else. As with so many things in language-learning, psychology plays a huge factor. Sometimes you may have trouble accepting something psychologically because it goes completely against what you are used to.

Psychological acceptance is a much more important issue for language-learning than people may realise. I have often experienced with my own students that they were not willing to accept certain sounds, words or grammatical concepts because it was so alien to them. Whenever I saw this, I made an extra effort to guide them towards acceptance of the alien thing that they were rejecting. My role as a teacher was not as much teaching them a language, but it was to teach them to accept the language, such that the learning goes smoothly.

People have the ability to learn languages fast. Human beings have huge mental potential, but there is no guarantee that this potential will ever be achieved. A good teacher knows how to help others achieve their full potential. In a mystic way, it is helping people fulfil their destiny. After all, teaching and mysticism are historically linked. A teacher is also a mystic: he helps the student to accept the mysterious ways of the world and the universe. So it is with language: a good language teacher helps the student to accept the mysterious ways of a language and culture.

Thus, learning a language may be somewhat of a religious experience. I could someway explain that in greater detail and also explain in greater depth why the concepts of achieving one’s full potential and fulfilling one’s destiny are essential to the art of teaching. Yet we should return to the subject matter: the Swedish verbal suffix -s, which is actually rather a feature of the literary language than the oral language, was immensely confusing to me at the time. However, I do easily understand it nowadays, because after encountering it hundreds of times, I knew three things:

(1) the Swedish passive voice suffix -s occurs in predicates;

(2) the Swedish passive voice suffix -s occurs in verbs that are not used predicatively:

(2.a) the Swedish passive voice suffix -s occurs in infinitives;

(2.b) the Swedish passive voice suffix occurs in past participles including supines.

In the oral Swedish language, the suffix -s is replaced with the auxiliary verb bli(va) to express the passive voice. This is very similar to English where the auxiliary verb to be is used to form the passive voice as well as Dutch, Wood & Clay Frisian and German where the respective verbs worden, wurde and werden are used to form the passive voice. The system in the latter languages is somewhat more complicated than in English, because whenever a perfect tense needs to be expressed, as opposed to an imperfect tense, the equivalent of the verb to be has to be used.

Thus, the system in the Continental West Germanic languages fluctuates between two auxiliary verbs in order to express the passive voice, whereas only one auxiliary verb is used in Swedish and English. In its verbal simplicity, Swedish often resembles English more than Continental West Germanic languages. For instance, the conjugation of verbs in Swedish is similarly simple as in English, whereas it is more complicated in the numerous Frisian languages that are spoken in the Netherlands and Germany, the Standard High German language and the Dutch language.

I have now theoretically explained how the verbal suffix -s works in Swedish, and the purpose of this article is to help others accept this “alien” grammatical feature of (literary) Swedish. I will here not delve into examples of how that Swedish suffix is used. After all, one could easily take any Swedish text and there is a high likelihood that one will encounter this phenomenon. The point is to recognise it accurately and to know what it is. I might offer examples of this grammatical phenomenon in another article at a later time, but that was not within the scope of this article. I had already planned this article a year ago, but it took many months before I got around to actually writing about this phenomenon from the perspective of my own learning experience.

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