The mystery of Sweden and Switzerland

瑞典 [Ruìdiǎn] SwedenEver since I studied Mandarin in Taipei in the early 90s, I haven’t been able to solve the mystery of why Sweden is called 瑞典 [Ruìdiǎn] and Switzerland is called 瑞士 [Ruìshì]. There seemed to be no connection to the Chinese name and the foreign name.

Most countries would either be a phonetic translation such as Algeria or 阿尔及利亚 [Ā’ěrjílìyà] or having been influenced by Chinese culture such as Vietnam 越南 [Yuènán].

No one that I have come across has been able to explain why Sweden is composed by the two characters 瑞 and 典. and Switzerland of 瑞 and 士. It just didn’t make sense to me. Especially as the two characters didn’t form a meaning and seemingly also didn’t reflect a phonetic sound.

What I’ve come across is that in most areas where some variation of  Wu Chinese is spoken, the pronunciation for Sweden is something like [suidi] and for Switzerland [suisi]. Now, doesn’t that sound like ‘Sweden’ and ‘Suisse’?

Or, do these names come from the Cantonese pronunciation where in Cantonese pinyin there is 瑞士 (soey6 din2) and 瑞士 (soey6 si6)?

So my 50-cent theory is that the powers that be at the time were either speaking a Wu or Cantonese dialect and used the two characters that best represented ‘Sweden’ and ‘Suisse’.

Please feel free to comment if you have another better explanation or can elaborate on this subject further.

And then of course the mix up between Sweden and Switzerland (and this is not only in China) where someone would ask where I’m from and I’d say ‘Sweden’. The person asking would then point to his or her watch and say ‘Ah! Watches! Tall mountains, very beautiful country’. That’s when I start stalking about meatballs.

8 comments to The mystery of Sweden and Switzerland

  • paul

    haha ,very interesting topic towards Chinese word . I think you are familar with Chinese culture .
    Just like you said ,it may some confused between Sweden and Swiss ,especialy for foreigner .In my option ,this is per pronunciation,through i seldom consider this problem ,but i will pay attention on it .TKS


  • I was already to believe that first explanation until I hear about the pronunciation in Cantonese. Still a transliteration, but in a different spoken dialect. The mystery still lives!

    What is the next language to learn? That’s my mystery.

  • William

    you think that’s screwed up….. try figuring out the why they call Australia and Austria what they do…

  • […] Explained here by David Petersson. The problem for these two countries are nothing like their native names. Personally I think these two countries should be renamed to be more in line with the Chinese names, Sweden could be Rayden, what a cool name for a country, and Switzerland Rayguns R us, even better. sOmeone give Kofi Annan a call! Lets get this sorted. (Ed’s note, his exxcellency Mr Annan is no longer runnng the UN, you are fired, etc..) […]

  • I was always under the impression Switzerland had a 士 in it because of the cross on its flag :D

  • Dominic Wu

    Just checked with my Cantonese speaking wife of Hong Kong origin and confirmed the common pronunciation of the ‘Sw’ sound to the Chinese word of ‘Rui’. Since romanization of proper nouns are not always based on English, I further surmised that rather than Switzerland, the base pronunciation was likely derived from either Swiss or Suisse. Just as Germany was romanized based on the native language Deutschland and not the English translation. In dealing with matters of the world, one must consider all perspectives and not merely an Anglo-centric one.

  • Jeff

    Why do you think cha is tea and Beijing was called Peking? That’s what happens when people try to translate non-Mandarin dialects poorly. When you think of it most English country names are horrible mispronunciations of the actual names of the countries. “Sweden” doesn’t sound anything like Sverige, so it’s really China doing their best to pronounce a bad English pronunciation of Sverige :)

  • Paul

    David – I believe that the Chinese name for Switzerland derives from the name of a province of ancient Rome: Rhaetia (also spelled Raetia): Raetia overlaps geographically with modern Switzerland.

    Regarding Sweden, I think that “Rui-dian” is, in fact, phonetically similar to “Sweden” – just drop the “S” and you have “we-den” “W” and “R” are closely related to each other – consider how similar your lip position is, when you make an “r” and a “w” sound.

    – Paul

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