October 5, 2020

ABBA's Special Swedish Sibilants

I'm curious as to whether any of the members of ABBA have any non-standard features in Swedish.

Members of ABBA. From left to right: Benny Andersson, Frida Lyngstad, Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus.

The two men, Björn and Benny, grew up in major cities (Goteburg and Stockholm, respectively), so I don't expect them to have anything distinct from Central Standard Swedish. Frida (the brown-haired mezzo soprano) was born in Norway, but grew up in a small Swedish town which I can't find much about.

The members of ABBA having an interview in Swedish. Do you hear anything unusual? Sounds pretty standard Stockholm Swedish to my (limited) ear.

Agnetha (the blonde soprano) grew up in Jönköping, which is a town in Småland. Småland is a region in the south of Sweden which does have some interesting phonetic features, though Jönköping lies outside of that isogloss. I have found at least one phonetic curiosity from Agnetha.

Central Standard Swedish has a process of retroflexion that occurs when an alveolar /r/ gets too close to a dental consonant like /t, d, n, l, s/. The two produce a single retroflexed (or postalveolar) consonant: [ʈ, ɖ, ɳ, ɭ, ʂ]. So a word like "förstå" (to understand) will be pronounced [fœ̞ʂˈtoː].

This retroflexion only occurs in dialects that have an alveolar /r/ sound. In Southern Swedish, the standard /r/ is a uvular [ʁ] instead. This means no assimilation happens, so no retroflexion happens.

Agnetha grew up in the Southern region of Swedish, but she does not have that uvular [ʁ] sound. Does she still do retroflexion? Well, inconsistently.

In her debut single "Jag var så kär" (I was so in love), she sings "Men nu först förstår jag" (but now I begin to understand), with two opportunities for retroflexion: "först förstår." She actually splits the difference: "först" has [ʂ] but förstår has [s].

Men nu för[ʂ]t för[s]tår jag

I was tipped off to the existence of this detail by this blog (Swedish). Apparently this is the only noteworthy Swedish-dialect pronunciation in Agnetha's discography, because nobody else has made any reference to her accent.

Why the difference between [ʂ] and [s] in these closely related words? May have to do with the syllable struct. The /st/ cluster in "först" is in the coda, or end, of the word. Meanwhile the /st/ cluster in "förstår" is at the onset: för-står.

Perhaps underlyingly, the 'r' in "förstår" being in a different syllable than the "står" means that it cannot 'travel forward' and cause the 's' to assimilate. This would predict that the assimilation shouldn't happen across syllable boundaries.

So Agnetha's assimilation rules would be a little different compared to a Jönköping-er who has a uvular 'r', and no assimilation at all. It would be interesting to see how much other people from this region with alveolar 'r' have assimilation: similar to Stockholmers (lots of assimilation), similar to Southern Swedes with uvular 'r' (no assimilation), or variable assimilation (with different rules, or assimilation is part of a word itself).

I'll give Agnetha's discography a re-listen to see if she continues to avoid assimilation. Perhaps, this being her first single, nobody gave her any accent coaching. Once she became popular, record labels may have wanted her to sound more standard, and so she may end up avoiding this in the future.

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