In Swedish parlance resides a strange little word nought more than two letters in length; a frequent and emotional participant in arguments and truisms, and near impossible to translate into English. The word “ju” (pronounced like “yew”) is classified as an adverb in the dictionary, but what does it mean?
“Ju” is an emphasizer of sorts; the verbal equivalent of a hand gesture meant to lend some abstract credibility to a statement. It substitutes “the” when Swedes use expressions like “the sooner the better”, however, tradition, for reasons unknown, mandates that only the first “the” should be “ju”:
The sooner the better. | Ju förr desto bättre.
It bears a resemblance to British English’s various courtesy-words and creeps needlessly into amicable conversations, lending emphasis to perfectly clear statements:
Yes, that’s how it is. | Ja, så är det ju.
I told you so. | Jag sa ju det.
It expresses surprise, a sense of having been deceived, or an assertion of an implicitly denied fact:
Oh, there you are! | Där är du, ju!
You said you couldn’t speak Spanish. | Du sa ju att du inte kunde tala spanska.
That didn’t hurt at all! | Det där gjorde ju inte alls ont!
Why are you asking me? It was he who started it. | Varför frågar du mig? Det var ju han som började.
The word is most likely Germanic in origin, as we find the equivalent “je” in German. Interestingly, Germans have several other applications for the word that Swedes do not, including “ever” as in “was there ever life of Mars?” and “a” as in “The room is €40 a night”.
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I was admiring a stained glass window in the Oxford Cathedral when I stepped on the foot of a little lady, sat on the bench just behind me.
“I’m very sorry,” I said, “I didn’t see you there.”
“That’s quite alright, young man,” she said.
I turned back to the kaleidoscopic halo of chipped rubies, jade, topaz and sapphires, populated by angels and laid out around the head of Saint George. I heard the lady’s voice behind me, somehow disembodied and intimate, unaffected by the acoustics of the massive vaults.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?”
“It is,” I said.
“There is an interesting story behind this window, if you care to hear it.”
“The man who built this window was a master at his craft, as you can see. This particular creation marked his best and final effort. Each day he worked on it until there was no more light to work by, and each day after the next he continued where he had left off. He scarcely ate or slept, obsessed with this window and the slice of heaven he believed it would bring onto earth. When he finally finished the window, he took a step back to admire his work, and promptly fell off the scaffolding and died.”
“Is that true?” I said, but as I turned around to face the lady, she was gone.