Swedish words and phrases to express “doing” something
I’d like to talk about something I’ve struggled with as a Swedish learner, and that is how to translate (or when not to translate) phrases that contain the word “do”. At first glance this seems like an easy concept, but in English we unknowingly use the word “do” in many contexts where it either wouldn’t exist at all in Swedish, or would be replaced by a different word.
Lately I’ve been listening to the phenomenal History of English Podcast by Kevin Stroud. (go check it out!) As so often happens, he brought up some developments within Middle English that set off a light bulb in my head that went “Aha! That’s why that phrase works that way in Swedish!”
In this post I’ll go over some Swedish vocabulary words for “do”, then give some examples of how “old fashioned” English can help you remember the correct way to phrase Swedish.
To Do – Att Göra
- Present – Gör
- Past – Gjorde
- Past Participle – Gjort
- Vad gör du? – What are you doing?
- Vad gjorde du igår? – What did you do yesterday?
- Vad har du gjort? – What have you done?
Differences between English and Swedish sentence structure
You’ll notice some interesting things in the example sentences. When asking a question such as “what are you doing?” in English, we have some extra words compared to the Swedish version. English uses our present tense “to be” (are) as well as the present tense “to do” (doing).
Swedish thinks this extra information is unnecessary. You might already know that the main verb is almost always in the 2nd place in a Swedish sentence, so “vad gör du?” equates to “what doing you?”. This is all the information needed here, and there really is no reason to add “are” into the question. When I started learning Swedish I would constantly add “är” into questions like these, before finally understanding that in Swedish the main verb can do all the work.
It gets a little clearer in the past tense version. “Vad gjorde du” equates to “what did you?”.
“What did I WHAT?!” I would ask in frustration, until it slowly sank in how odd it really was to use “did you do” in a sentence. Why would we use a past tense, and an infinitive tense of the same word like that? That question is what set off the idea for writing this post, and I’ll answer it when I go through the history segment toward the end. First I’d like to look at some common Swedish phrases using “göra”, and explain how and why it doesn’t always mean “do”.
“Do” vs “Make”
Looking up the translation of “göra” in most online translators will only give the meaning as “to do”, but it also is frequently used in place of “make” as well. This will trip up new Swedish speakers, as well as Swedes speaking English. There are many different phrases where do/make could be interchangeable, but sound a bit funny to a native speaker of whichever language. There are also multiple words for “make” that I’ve written about before, so those could be more appropriate for what you’re trying to say. I’ll go through some examples of some tricky situations I’ve run into.
- Make a mistake – Gör ett misstag
- This is one of the most common phrases I’ve heard Swedes mix up while speaking English. In English you “make” a mistake, in Swedish you “do” a mistake.
- Make food – Lagar mat
- Just in case you thought it was fine to start using “göra” anywhere we use “make”, you have to double check if there’s another verb to describe what you’re planning to do. In this case “make food” almost always becomes “lagar mat”, or “prepare food”.
- Doing a favor – Gör en tjänst
- Finally, here’s one where the English can be directly translated to Swedish. You can “gör en tjänst” the same as you can “do a favor”
- Do the dishes – Diska
- Here is a case where in English we can add “do” to a noun like “dishes” to mean we’re going to take care of the task. This can’t be done the same way in Swedish, but you can change the noun into a verb to accomplish the same thing. You could say “Jag kommer att diska” to say “I’m going to do the dishes”, or “Jag kommer att tvätta” to say “I’m going to do the laundry”.
- My head hurts – Mitt huvud gör ont
- Here is where we get into the really fun part of the history behind the word “do”, and why it differs between Swedish and English. Where does “gör” come into this phrase at all? How can you have “do hurt”?? This deserves its own section, so lets break it down.
How old fashioned English can help you learn Swedish
Episode 126 of the History of English Podcast goes into the history behind the word “do”, and why we currently use it the way we… do. I’ll take a paraphrased example from there and use it to explain the Swedish use of “gör”.
We can hear the phrase “the sun does shine”, and know exactly what it means, but it sounds a little bit old fashioned. (I could even say “the sun doth shine”, but lets keep it simple)
Around the end of the Middle English period the word “do” was used together with verbs to mark the tense of a sentence without having to change the tense of the main verb. You could say “the sun does shine” or “the sun shines”. In past tense you could say “the sun did shine” instead of having to change “shine” to “shone”. For a language that was rapidly absorbing vocabulary from other languages, this could have made it easier to convey meaning without worrying too much about having the proper verb tense.
This is how the verb “gör” works in the phrase “mitt huvud gör ont”. To translate literally: “my head does hurt”. Notice the similarity to “the sun does shine”? “Gör” is marking that “ont” is happening right now, even though “ont” is not a verb. In past tense: “mitt huvud gjorde ont” – “my head did hurt”.
Lets say you were at the doctor, you might be asked “Var gör det ont?” which would now be more familiar to English speakers as “Where does it hurt?”. Another way to ask this in Swedish could be “Var har du ont?”, or “where have you pain?”. This version takes us back to the earlier section on sentence structure, and the way English used to phrase questions before “do” began to shift the word order around.
If you’re living in Sweden these variations could be good to add to your list of basic phrases, as being able to accurately understand a doctor or communicate how you’re hurt could be crucial.
How Things Are Made
The final point I’d like to cover goes back to the use of “göra” as “make” instead of “do”, if we’re talking about the material something is made of. Lets try for example “the floor is made of stone”. You can say “golvet är gjort av sten”. Another example could be “stolen är gjord av trä” (the chair is made of wood). Now “göra” functions as an adverb (supporting är), in the perfect participle form (gjort), and is also changing form to match the en/ett of the subject (golvet är gjort, stolen är gjord).
It feels a bit like saying “the floor is done of stone”, or “the chair is done of wood”, which I would understand if I heard that in English despite sounding odd and a bit old fashioned.
I’m not going to get into that too much as it’s still a bit mind boggling for me, but I gladly invite any native speakers to chime in and help explain with any more examples! As always, I’m a learner myself so please let me know if I missed anything, explained something incorrectly, or if you have something to add.
Thanks for reading!