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In Swedish it seems very common to initially refer to oneself in the past tense when talking on the phone, "hej, det här var Nisse Hult från nonsensbyrån...", "hi, this was Nisse Hult from the nonsense bureau..."

Why is this? Is it a form of weasling, do we Swedes feel "this is" is too harsh/direct a way to refer to oneself?

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    This question does not seek usage guidance but linguistic explanation; no need to close it. -- Welcome to the site, Erik!
    – Keelan
    Sep 10, 2020 at 11:53
  • I'd like to remark that a similar thing happens in Norwegian too: Norwegians are often heard saying things like "dette var godt" (this was good) while enjoy a meal.
    – OmarL
    Sep 10, 2020 at 15:15
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    I'm voting to leave this open because it's not a Language-specific grammar and usage question
    – OmarL
    Sep 10, 2020 at 15:18
  • The only vaguely comparable thing I can think of in English is at the end of an on-location news report: This was John Doe in New York. It would be odd in a phone conversation.
    – Colin Fine
    Sep 10, 2020 at 16:56
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    @Erik “Det var dog irriterende” and similar are also used in situations where the irritant is an ongoing thing. For example, I believe I said those exact words mere minutes ago in the context of “Det var dog irriterende så elendigt jeg server i dag!” while playing badminton and serving like a pack of mashed potatoes. My inability to serve was not a past-tense thing, but something that had lasted all night and continued long after I moaned about it. Sep 11, 2020 at 20:04

2 Answers 2

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I have no references for this, I'm merely a native Swedish speaker with linguistics as a keen armature interest, but I have a hypothesis:

Whatever is going on, past tense seems to be used in a similar way in other languages, such as English or Spanish. I think the past tense could be considered a "polite verb form", though it may (have evolved to?) be used in other-than-polite ways as well.

In English, I would interpret the following as a polite present tense, though of course they could be interpreted literally as well.

  • Could you show me the way?
  • I was wondering if you could pass some potatoes.
  • I wanted to ask you for help.

Could and would are probably the most common words used in this context. (If someone objects that they are really conditional, not past tense, my point still holds: People use verb forms outside their literal meaning for politeness)

I know similar constructs in Spanish, and I think I remember there's something similar in German, though I'm less certain.

In Swedish, the following makes sense in a present-tense context:

  • Jag hade en fråga. (I had a question)
  • Ville du ha något? (Did you want something?)
  • (archaic) Ville Fröken ha något? (Did the Miss (you) want something?)
  • Namnet var Karl. (My name is Karl, lit. The name was Karl)

I include the archaic form addressing someone with Fröken for the sake of possible Swedish readers, as I find that trying to talk like an old movie make these past-tense constructions show up all the time.

I'm not sure they are necessarily more polite than they would be in present tense, but polite language and politeness don't always go hand in hand. (Compare the, admittedly extreme, English example "Would someone please put the bastard out of his fucking misery?". Despite all the polite forms and the euphemism, it's quite rude.)

TL;DR Whatever is going on, it's not limited to answering the phone. It's not unique to Swedish but happens in English and other languages as well.

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I don't speak a word of Swedish or Norwegian, but since there are no other answers, allow me to propose a hypothesis:

This was Nisse Hult started out as an answer to what used to be an implied question Who rang the phone?

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