Americans of a certain age who grew up on the Muppets often adore the Swedish Chef. He is a touchstone of sorts, we can hear his voice in our minds, we can repeat the gibberish-sounding words and phrases he says to one another and know precisely what we are speaking of. It takes us back to childhood! But many actual Swedes hate the dude, or, really, really dislike him. After all, he's a stereotype, possibly offensive, certainly bumbling, and probably not even Swedish.
Slate's Jeremy Stahl investigates all this for piece that brings our nostalgia up against some current-day analysis: "What Do Swedes Think of the Swedish Chef?" Could anyone dislike the Swedish Chef? Yes. One key reason a lot of Swedes do is that that they're always being asked what they think about him. They don't think he's funny, partly because the nonsense he speaks is interpreted as Swedish, or Swedish-sounding, a fact "bewildering and annoying to Swedes," writes Stahl, who is married to a Swedish woman. (Stahl also taught Slate readers about the Swedish tradition of watching Donald Duck cartoons on Christmas Eve.) To Swedes, the chef sounds Norwegian. This is linguistics. Stahl explains, "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."
Stahl points also to the research of Stockholm University professor Tomas Riad, the author of an article "titled 'Börk Börk Börk. Ehula Hule de Chokolad Muus.' (The title comes from the Chef’s trademark untranslatable gibberish and means nothing in Swedish)." Riad believes that though the words of the chef mean nothing, the rise and fall of his sing-song tone make him more likely to be Norwegian, and Stahl includes a number of clips in his Slate piece to support this theory.
English-speakers, though, don't use this lilt and don't know the difference. Boorishly, we just lump everyone into the same "Scandinavian" group, calling him Swedish because, well, that's his name. Who knew the Swedish Chef would be at the source of so much cultural misunderstanding? But it seems clear from this piece that America needs to try harder. Sweden is not just Ikea, ABBA, Dragon Tattoo books, and meatballs. Sweden is most definitely not a Muppet, even if this particular Muppet has become a thorn in Sweden's side. Though some say there's a definite Julia Child quality to the chef, and an actual Swedish chef claims he was the inspiration for the character, it turns out Henson's inspiration for his chef may have simply been some Berlitz tapes. (And yet there's a further ax to grind: Maximilian Berlitz, founder of the company, was a professor of French and German, no less.)
Of course, if Henson had been creating Muppets in today's politically correct world, he might never have dubbed his chef Swedish. But maybe we should be glad that he did, so that a mere 37 years later we can bring such conversations as these to the global community. Don't laugh at the Swedish Chef; he is not amusing. Now we know.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.