Day 111: How to Pronounce the Letter Ö

Today is Midsummer Eve in Sweden, so tomorrow is Midsummer day.  We are not there to celebrate, but I thought I could share with the internet a little lesson in something Swedish: How to pronounce the letter Ö.

The Swedish Alphabet has 29 letters.  26 are A-Z, and then there is Ä (pronounced “ayh”, like apple), Å (pronounced “oa” like boat, with a little more accent on the 2nd half of the sound, the part with the a), and the mystical and frustrating Ö.  This is the 29th letter in the Swedish alphabet, and in my opinion it would be just fine if it was eliminated for being a silly letter.

Ö.  It’s not O, it’s Ö.  If you try to pronounce Ö like O, you will find yourself being looked at by Swedes with confusion.  I have learned that using “context clues” in Swedish is not common, so if you pronounce something incorrectly (as I commonly do as an immigrant), people just seem to get confused.  It is really hard to gain your confidence when learning a new language, because you need people to give you a break when you are learning – but nope, this does not happen in Sweden.  It might be because it is a relatively small country and language in Sweden is kind of like a fun game, where every different region has their own dialect.  Nonetheless, there is definitely a feeling of “speak it 100% perfectly, or do not even try.”  This can lead to some challenges, especially when there are complicated and long words and new letters (like ö) that we do not have in the USA.  Let me give you a real story that happened:

I was in a bar (the word for beer in Swedish is Öl), so I said, “jag vill har en ål” (I want to have a beer).  Notice I mistakenly said “ål” and not “öl”.  I should point out that in my head I speak perfect Swedish without any accent at all, but in reality I have a thick American accent and I probably speak really slow and broken sounding Swedish.  So, I pronounced “öl” like you would pronounce a normal o sound in English, and since I am from the midwest in the USA, it sounded more like “ål”.  The word ål means Eel in Swedish.

You can imagine then how confused the server was.  She literally did not know what I was saying, and I tried repeating the word Öl for her: ooooohl  oahaoal.  Not working (finally I just said “ok, I’ll have a beer.”).  Now, Americans, you will appreciate this – how many times have people spoken English with poor pronunciation, and you figured out what they were saying based on the context?  So, in a bar, where they serve beer, would I really be saying, “I want to have an eel”?  I of course now only say “jag vill här en lager” (lager = lager, just like english).  Or even better, go straight for the brand and skip all the pleasantries, and simply say, “Mariestads,” “Falcon,” or another Swedish beer brand.  In other words, when ordering beer in Sweden, don’t try to get fancy!

So, how do you pronounce this dreaded letter Ö?  Ok, here goes.  It’s like this:  Ö sounds a bit like “uh”, but if you made that sound while sticking your chin out.  It has to come from deep in your throat, but not sound all breathy (in other words if you sound like a murderer when you are saying it, you are not doing it right).  You could think of it like if you said “wall” and “wool” at the same time, and then took away the w and ll in the middle of it.  Easy, right?

Again to recap those 3 magic letters:

  • Ä = “ayh”
  • Å = “oa”
  • Ö = “wall + wool – w & ll”

If you are American and find yourself in Sweden wanting to speak the language, it is highly advised you practice this sound for at least 8-9 years before going.  Or, simply skip this letter at all costs, unless you want to end up trying to drink an Eel at the bar 😉


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