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.
Cecilia Browning has been living in the United States for more than 20 years, working for much of that time as an official at the House of Sweden and as president of the Swedish Women’s Educational Association. Over the course of two decades, she says she’s been asked about the Swedish Chef probably twice a year. She’s also been asked if she could translate what the Swedish Chef is saying at least 10 times.
“There are three things that people talk to Swedes about pretty uniformly: the Swedish Chef, Abba, and Ikea,” says Michael Moynihan, a Brooklyn-based journalist who is married to a Swede and founded the English language Stockholm Spectator magazine while living in Sweden as an expatriate.
Like me, he found that Swedes (or at least Swedish wives living abroad) get deeply irritated when they are confronted with questions about particleboard furniture, “Dancing Queen,” and the meaning of “Börk börk börk.” Moynihan says everyone who meets his wife approaches her with some variation of the Swedish Chef question, but she has learned to brush it off.
Britt-Marie Forslund, a cultural officer at the Swedish Embassy in Washington D.C., confirmed Moynihan’s observation, saying Ikea is the number one topic of conversation these days, with the other two coming in second and third.
“I’m proud about Abba usually,” Forslund says. “Usually, I think I protest a little about the Swedish Chef, who doesn’t sound Swedish to me.”
This defensiveness is not unique to Swedish expats—when I was living overseas, I found myself reflexively defending a government whose policies I didn’t support because I felt besieged by anti-American critics—but it seems especially pronounced when displayed by Swedes, who are generally portrayed in the media as staid, even-tempered people.
“When Swedes go abroad, they become zealous protectors of the Swedish brand,” Moynihan says. “Something as insignificant as the Swedish Chef is like a slap in the face.”
There is one Swede who embraces the Swedish Chef as a full-fledged compatriot. Lars “Kuprik” Bäckman claims to have been the inspiration for the Muppet and even named his company “Catering Svenska Kocken,” or “Swedish Chef Catering.”
The 67-year-old Swedish chef believes that Jim Henson saw him give a disastrous cooking demonstration during an appearance on an early version of ABC’s Good Morning America way back in 1969. On that show, Bäckman nervously mumbled in a “strange guttural sound of hu-do-do-bu-du-bu-do” that was neither Swedish nor English, similar to the noises of TSC.
Starting in 1976, Bäckman also worked in the dining room on the same 20th Century Fox lot where the Muppets was filmed. He says the dining room manager there, a Dane, believed that Bäckman, with his long red hair, curling mustache, and big sideburns, had to have been Henson’s muse. “He said ‘of course it’s you, you look like him, you act like a goddamn Muppet,’” Bäckman told me.
There’s a problem with Bäckman’s theory, however: He probably wasn’t the inspiration for the Swedish Chef. In 2001, when reports about Bäckman first started appearing in the U.S. press, Muppets head writer Jerry Juhl told muppetcentral.com that they were categorically false.
“I wrote, rehearsed, rewrote, brainstormed, and giggled uncontrollably a thousand times with Jim Henson as we dealt with the Swedish Chef, and I never ONCE heard him mention an actual Swedish chef,” Juhl, who died in 2005, wrote at the time. “I mean, that’s a story Jim would have told!”
Then there is the little issue of Bäckman’s accent. Bäckman is from Rättvik, in the Dalarna region of Sweden, one of the places Tomas Riad says the Swedish Chef’s voice couldn’t possibly have come from. The Rättvik accent is one of the very distinct ones that doesn’t have the same low-high-low tonality as the Swedish Chef, Riad told me.
Jerry Juhl, who helped craft the voice, said it did not come from one specific Swede, or from one specific Norwegian for that matter.
“Jim spent a couple of weeks listening to Berlitz [Swedish language] tapes while commuting to get his babble perfected,” he wrote. “Then, much later, I actually WROTE the babble! Heck, I come from good Danish stock, which Jim and I decided made me an expert in Scandenavian [sic] linguistics.”
While that seems to clarify the inspiration for the Swedish Chef’s language—it was Jim Henson’s Swedish for dummies audio tapes, mixed with Jerry Juhl’s Danish family—there was one final question that bugged me: Do Swedes find the Swedish Chef to be the hysterical character that he is? Or can they only see the bumbling, foreign-sounding cook as an affront?
“I think it’s hilarious and my kids love it too,” House of Sweden’s Cecilia Browning said.
“It’s not for us,” said Tomas Riad, the linguist. “It’s not funny for us to laugh at. It’s funny for other people to laugh at.”
Six years after we first met and after three years living in America, my wife’s opinion about the Swedish Chef hasn’t changed. “If he’s supposed to be Swedish, why is he a chef? That’s not stereotypically Swedish,” she says. “He doesn’t sound Swedish, he doesn’t act Swedish, and there’s nothing Swedish about him. He’s not funny.” She says he could be Norwegian, though.