Speaking about body parts in Swedish

Hi, Some of you might have noticed sentences such as this one which is not completely literal when you translate it from English to Swedish or vice versa. In English you say: ”[…]now his foot hurts”, but the Swedish sentence literally says ”[…]now he has pain in the foot.”

Swedish dislikes to use possessive pronouns with body parts. Body parts is reflected in the language as something which is a part of you and not necessarily something you own, so Swedish often prefers using a definite article (the foot) rather than a possessive pronoun (my foot).

Icelandic, which is related to Swedish, takes this one step further, you cannot use possessives with body parts at all, you would say e.g. ”I brushed the teeth in me” rather than ”I brushed my teeth”, but in Swedish you can say ”my teeth”, but in many constructions it is avoided.

Look that these examples and the English translation:

  • Jag har ont i foten/huvudet/benet. (My foot/head/leg hurts; lit. I have pain in the foot/the head/the leg.)
  • Han fastnade med foten i stängslet. (His foot got stuck in the fence; lit. He got stuck with the foot in the fence.)
  • Du är röd i ögat. (Your eye is red; lit. You are red in the eye.)
  • Hon fick bollen i huvudet. (The ball hit her head; lit. She got the ball in the head.)
  • Han satte hatten på huvudet och gick ut. (He put the hat on his head and left; lit. He put the hat on the head and went out.)
  • Kan vi stanna? Jag är trött i benen. (Can we stop? My legs are tired.; lit. Can we stop? I am tired in the legs.)
  • Nu är det dags att sträcka på benen! (Now it’s time to stretch our legs; lit. Now it’s time to stretch the legs.)
  • De har inte ens skor på fötterna. (They’re not even wearing shoes; lit. They don’t even have shoes on the feet.)
  • Jag bröt benet när jag spelade fotboll. (I broke my leg when I played football; I broke the leg when I played football.)
  • På operationen fick de skära upp magen på honom. (During the surgery they had to cut his stomach open; lit. During the surgery, they had to cut open the stomach on him.)
  • Han bar säcken på ryggen. (He carried the sack on his back; lit. He carried the sack on the back.)
  • Borsta tänderna och gå och lägg dig! (Brush your teeth and go to bed; lit. Brush the teeth and go to bed!)

This doesn’t mean that you cannot use possessives with body parts or own them, there are many examples where you can:

  • Hans hjärta brast när han såg dem tillsammans. (His heart broke when he saw them together.)
  • Hon har väldigt sköra armar. (She has very brittle arms.)
  • Hans huvud är stort som en ballong. (His head is big as a balloon.)

But I just wanted to make you aware of that many constructions in English where you use a possessive with a body part corresponds to a construction with a definite article in Swedish instead.

God jul! (Merry Christmas!)

December 23, 2014



December 24, 2014

And we do this in English too sometimes: "I got hit in the head" :)

December 30, 2015

"Body parts is reflected in the language as something which is a part of you and not necessarily something you own" Jag älskar svenska :D

March 31, 2015

Thank you for the post!! Merry Christmas to you as well!! (:

December 23, 2014

Hej, thanks for the topic.
I have a question:
One of the sentences in the course is: Jag har ont i ett finger, and the translation is I have pain in my finger. Is it possible to use indefinite form to denote the same meaning as Jag har ont i fingret?

August 18, 2016

Yes, that’s a very common way of saying it.

August 21, 2016

Thanks for the explanations!

December 23, 2014

"I used to be an adventurer like you, but then I took an arrow in the knee." - Whiterun Guard

Tack så mycket!

January 17, 2016

Tack så mycket! God jul!

December 24, 2014

Väldigt intressant, tack så mycket Lundgren8!

March 25, 2015

Ohhh, this is the same in Icelandic, so it is easy for me. I wonder if this applies to all Old Norse-derived languages?

January 28, 2016

It’s much more stronger in Icelandic, but there is a tendency in Swedish as well.

January 28, 2016

Lots of languages are like this. Take Spanish "Me duele la cabeza", lit., 'Me (it)hurts the head'. That is, "My head hurts".

September 22, 2016

Similar thing in Scottish Gaelic. My father, whose first language was Gaelic, would always use The English form "Time to brush the teeth" etc...

January 27, 2017

German is similar: Ich habe mir die Zähne geputzt (I have brushed my teeth, lit.: I have to-me the teeth cleaned), but we do also say things like Mein Bein tut weh (my leg hurts, lit.: my leg does pain).

April 11, 2017

The explanation was very good, the explanation with examples even better. Thanks for taking the time to write this up, Lundgren8.

October 1, 2017


March 31, 2015

Tack så mycket ..

July 25, 2015

Tack, detta kommer att vara väldigt nyttig, eftersom jag är i ett medicinskt universitet.

November 29, 2015

Tack så mycket!

September 8, 2016
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