German phrase of the day: Alter Schwede

So how exactly did the phrase "Old Swedish guy“ become a popular expression in the German language?

German phrase of the day: Alter Schwede
Photo: Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

“Alter Schwede“ does not actually refer to an older Swedish man, but is a colloquial expression, a so-called “Schnack” from Low German. This language is closely related to German and spoken by about 14 percent of the population in Northern Germany. “Alter Schwede” is, however, common as a term throughout Germany. 

READ ALSO: ‘Alter Schwede!: The surprising role of old Swedes in the German language

Without referring to a specific person, “Alter Schwede” is used as an expression of astonishment, with both positive and negative connotation.  

In reference to a person, “Alter Schwede” usually expresses an ironic indignation, but can also be meant seriously, as an  expression of outrage.  

So how did an old Swedish guy end up as a kind of friendly insult? After the end of the Thirty Years’ War, elector Frederick William of Brandenburg recruited experienced Swedish soldiers as instructors for his army to be rebuilt.  

READ ALSO: Nerdy flowers to alcoholic birds: the 12 most colourful German insults

As they were particularly good at drilling their subordinates, they were usually assigned as supervising sergeants.  

Within the army they were colloquially called “Alter Schwede”, and  the expression trickled into everyday speech.  

Example sentences:

“Alter Schwede, hier ist es aber schmutzig!”

“Wow, it’s very dirty here!”

“Alter Schwede, das ist aber eine schöne Überraschung.”

“Oh my, that’s a pleasant surprise.“ 

“Alter Schwede, heute möchtest du mich aber ärgern.”

“Dude, you  really do want to annoy me today.”

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Kätzchen and Büchlein: How to make German words smaller

German grammar is notoriously difficult. But the diminutive form – used to express a smaller version of the noun - is surprisingly straightforward.

Kätzchen and Büchlein: How to make German words smaller

Diminutives are forms of words that are used to express a smaller, younger or even cuter version of a noun. They are used a lot in German, so it’s definitely worth getting to know how they work.

In English, words often become diminutive by adding the suffix -let (e.g. drop becomes droplet, book becomes booklet). In German, the diminutive form (also called die Verkleinerungsform) is made by adding either -chen or -lein to the end of the word:

das Tier → das Tierchen

the animal → the little animal

der Stern → das Sternchen

the star → the little star

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How to pick the right German language school for you

Nouns with a, o, and u change their vowel to ä, ö, and ü. The e at the end of the word is usually dropped.

die Katze → das Kätzchen

the cat → the kitten

die Torte → das Törtchen

the cake → the little cake

die Blume → das Blümchen

the flower → the little flower

A selection of little Törtchen on a table.

A selection of little Törtchen on a table. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Catherine Waibel

The diminutive with -lein is used for words ending in -ch:

der Tisch → das Tischlein

the table →  the little table

das Buch → das Büchlein

the book → the little book

As you might have noticed, regardless of which gender the main noun is, the diminutive form is always neuter. See – told you it was simple!

Can you make any word a diminutive?

Pretty much. You can add the ending to any noun in German that is not itself a diminutive, e.g. Häschen (bunny) and Eichhörnchen (squirrel).

Common diminutives

There are many common German words that are diminutive, some of which you have probably been using without even realising it.

das Brötchen for example is the diminutive version of das Brot and means little bread.

das Mädchen, meaning girl, is actually a diminutive of the antiquated word die Magd meaning maid.

And lastly: Hallöchen! is a cute way to say hello there!