If you’ve ever met a Swede, chances are you asked her the following question: “What do you think of [ABBA/Ikea/The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo/socialized medicine/the Swedish Chef]?”
For Swedes, it’s the last of these questions—the one about the unintelligible, shotgun-wielding, and much beloved chaos Muppet—that is especially vexing.
I know this because it was one of the first questions I asked my Swedish wife when we were introduced. “I don’t see how it’s funny,” she responded in a tone that I took at the time to be an endearingly sarcastic deadpan, but would soon learn was actually an endearingly sincere deadpan.
The Swedish Chef does not speak any known language, and the fact that his nonsense words are so widely interpreted as Swedish-sounding is bewildering and annoying to Swedes.
“What has always struck me is that the Chef is probably based on a Norwegian sing-songish accent rather than a Swedish one,” Maaret Koskinen, a film studies professor at Stockholm University, wrote in an email when I asked her about the Swedish Chef’s cultural influence in Sweden.
Swedish and Norwegian share a common linguistic antecedent, and Swedes and Norwegians easily understand each other’s languages. The accents are quite different, however, and there are words that are exclusive to each dialect. The tongues are dissimilar enough for Swedes to be able to hear Norwegian in the Swedish Chef’s ramblings instead of Swedish.
“I think it sounds much more Norwegian,” Cecilia Browning, the general manager of Washington D.C.’s House of Sweden (the home of the Swedish Embassy), told me when I asked her about the accent.
It turns out that these impressions are supported by academic research. According to Stockholm University linguistics professor Tomas Riad, the Swedish Chef’s accent could as easily be from Oslo as from Stockholm.
Riad, one of 18 members of the prestigious Swedish Academy, which determines who wins the Nobel Prize in literature, wrote an article in the Swedish language magazine Spraktidningen titled "Börk Börk Börk. Ehula Hule de Chokolad Muus.” (The title comes from the Chef’s trademark untranslatable gibberish and means nothing in Swedish.)
While Swedes obviously don’t understand a single word spoken by the Swedish Chef, Riad writes, the Chef makes them think of Norwegian because of the way his tone rises and falls.
TSC can’t possibly be from the Skåneland region on the southern tip of Sweden or from the Dalarna region in the middle of the country, for example, because these accents don’t feature TSC’s lilting, low-high-low tonality. Take a listen for yourself. Here is a well-known (in Sweden) interview of Swedish soccer star and Skåne native Zlatan Ibrahimović, in which the player grows increasingly frustrated with sports journalist (and fellow Skåne native) Peter Jihde because of his line of questioning:
Even an English-speaker notices that Zlatan speaks with a less pronounced sing-song aspect than the Swedish Chef. That’s because the Skåne accent has what linguists refer to as a single tonal peak. Norwegian, on the other hand, goes back and forth between two tonal peaks, a “singing quality” that stands out to nonspeakers. Stockholm Swedish has something of this singing quality, too, but it’s even more pronounced in Norwegian, as the high tone keeps rising at the end of each phrase. So when Swedes—even Swedes from Stockholm—hear TSC’s exaggerated tonal rise, they hear something akin to Norwegian. Note how the Swedish Chef’s voice rises and falls and rises on the words that sound like hung deshung dehur veborg at the start of this clip:
Now watch this clip of legendary Norwegian Olympic biathlete Ole Einar Bjørndalen on a Norwegian cooking show. At about the 60-second mark, you can hear him start to talk in a sing-song Norwegian accent with the typical tonal rises:
English employs changes in pitch to signify intonation (to indicate we’re asking a question, for example), but Swedish and Norwegian use “lexical tones” to signify a word’s meaning. Constantly changing intonation is therefore a common feature of both languages. English-speakers simply aren’t used to it, which is why any such shift in intonation sounds plausibly Scandinavian to us.
“It’s what you people hear, when you hear Swedish,” Riad told me.
As for his personal opinion on whether or not TSC sounds Swedish, Riad is with his countrymen. “I can see where it comes from, but it doesn’t sound like Swedish to me,” he says.
Aside from the sound of his speech, there is a second aspect of the Swedish Chef that bugs Swedes, especially those living abroad: the frequency with which they are asked about the Swedish Chef.