How do I even pronounce the Swedish “sj-“?

If you are learning the variants of Swedish in the northern parts of Sweden, or that spoken in Finland, then one sentence should be sufficient to explain it. It is best approximated as a “sh-” sound. But if you are learning Swedish as it is spoken in places like Stockholm or Malmö, strap in, because you are in for a ride!

There is this sound in Swedish called the /ɧ/. It is so special, it appears that there is an international phonetic alphabet character made for this sound, yet how it is exactly articulated remains to be debated. In fact, the IPA describes it as a combination of the sounds  /ʃ/ and /x/ at the same time. In Swedish orthography, however, it is represented by multiple combinations of consonant letters — “sj”, “stj”, “skj”, and “sk” before front vowels like “i”, “e”, “ä”, “ö” and “y”.

One of the main issues in describing this particular sound is, there is a lot of spoken varieties of Swedish in Sweden alone. A variety in say, Orebro, could have a different way of pronouncing this sj-sound than that in Småland. Some linguists argue that there are actually two common variants of this sj-sound, but what we can say for certain is, the place of articulation is not truly agreed upon.

Characteristics of this sound can be largely described as such:
– It is an oral consonant, meaning that air flows only through the mouth, or oral cavity.
– It is a pulmonary consonant, meaning that it is articulated like most other sounds like “k”, “t”, and “p”.
– It is a central consonant, meaning that to produce the sound, air has to flow along the center of the tongue rather than along the sides (in which case it would be called a lateral consonant).
– It is voiceless, meaning that this sound is produced without vibrating the vocal cords (think “k”, in contrast to “g”).
– There is a velar component to the sound, meaning that its articulation involves something that has the same place of articulation as the consonants /k/, /g/, and /x/.
– It is a fricative consonant, so air is constricted through a narrow channel at the place, or in this case, places of articulation.

This sound’s existence in other languages is debated, although many phoneticians doubt its occurrence beyond Swedish. It has not stopped linguists from reporting such a sound in languages in Germany and the Himalayas. Wutun and Bahing are among the languages of the Himalayas that could have this sound, although its articulation might differ from the sj-sound in Swedish.

Kölsch is also another dialect that could have the sj-sound. A variety of the Ripuarian German dialect group in Germany, this sound can be heard in words with sounds that would otherwise have /ç/ in Standard German, like “ich”. Rebuttals against it include the difficulty in perceiving the distinction between this purported sound and the sh-sound. Some even suggested that this sj-sound might have been a “misunderstanding” or a mis-transliteration of the Kölsch phoneme.

So what does this mean for Swedish learners? Actually, there is not much, as using the articulation spoken in northern Sweden and Finland, which pronounces it as “sh-“, is generally understood in southern Sweden as well. Thus, if a learner chooses the easier route and says “sh-” rather than the sj-sound in say Stockholm, they should be fine.


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