v40: dold

Compound words, particularly compound nouns, are common in Swedish. Swedish is more likely to have a compound noun where English might use a compound, a hyphen, or two separate words, for example vattenskyddsområde (water protection area). But of course, it’s not that simple: for example järnväg (railway) is a compound in both languages, but English is reluctant to extend the exercise: järnvägslinje (railway line).

Back to last week’s question: Norstedts lists the following: lögndetektor (lie detector), mindetektor (mine detector), and rökdetektor (smoke detector). But dold detektor means hidden detector. So I guess if we want to look for rules, we might say that the compound noun, made up of first element (FE) + second element (SE), is a specific type of SE, whereas separate words are used for a description of a general SE.

The following example works equally well in Swedish and English: blåbär (blueberries) are a specific type of berry, whereas blå bär (blue berries) are any old berries that happen to be blue.

That simple rule won’t cover everything, and a lot seems to me to depend on the differences between the ways adjectives work in Swedish and English. Contrast:

en kort hårig flicka = a short, hairy girl
en korthårig flicka = a short-haired girl

rök fritt = smoke freely (smoking allowed)
rökfritt = smoke-free (smoking prohibited)

There is a phenomenon in Swedish called särskrivning (separated writing), which refers to the incorrect use of separate words where a compound is correct. If you want to see the kind of fervor this stirs up, have a look at skrivihop.nu. While the “short-haired girl” example above provides a nice example of how linguistic functions are realised differently in English and Swedish, I do find it hard to take seriously the argument that särskrivning would result in any serious misunderstandings. But they do offer this helpful piece of advice:

Om det uttalas som ett sammansatt ord skall det också skrivas som ett sammansatt ord!
If it is pronounced as a compound word, it is also written as a compound word!

Yeah, right.

Next week:

Baker's van

How many Romani loan words (or loanwords or even loan-words?) do you know, and what does the picture have to do with anything?

Published in: on September 28, 2009 at 11:45  Comments (2)  
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v39: rida

I still struggle with the fact that in Swedish one doesn’t ride a bicycle. That is, the word rida (ride) is not used in connection with bicycles. As Norstedts puts it:

rida <ride on a horse>

Or, I suppose, on a donkey, cow, elephant, whatever. My Swedish colleagues give me funny looks whenever I talk about “riding to work”. I guess they’re wondering where’s my horse (donkey, cow, elephant, …)? It would however be equally wrong to say “riding a bicycle to work”; the correct word to use is cykla (cycle). However, Norstedts again:

fara, åka <…, ride on a bicycle, …>

Norstedts doesn’t even believe that cycling is a form of riding! Åka cykel means go by bike, and applies also to being in a child seat on a bicycle, or a passenger on the crossbar or handlebars, for example (in Australia, that’s a dink, or a donkey if you’re from South Australia).

Here is a sign that caused me some confusion. What do you think?:

no cycling!

Not so simple, is it? My colleague reckons it should be either Moped- och cykelåkning förbjuden (note the hyphen), or maybe Mopedåkning och cykling förbjuden.

It occurred to me that in English, it’s not only the vehicle that gets driven, but also the passengers within (Drive me to the airport, cabbie!). I wonder if the same is true in Swedish?

Next week:

This sign is on the ceiling just outside my office door. I wondered what is the dold that this detektor is hoping to detect – smoke, fire, radiation perhaps? How would a little knowledge of Swedish morphology have helped me out here?

Published in: on September 20, 2009 at 09:59  Leave a Comment  
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v38: blå

Coming back through Arlanda airport recently, I noticed an advertisement with the word blåsig, which my colleague said meant windy, as in blåsa (to blow), and wasn’t related to the word blå (blue). But the sky is blue, and the wind blows out of the sky, so do you think those words really could be related?

In fact, etymological dictionaries say that blå and blue are certainly related, deriving from a common Proto-Indo-European (PIE) base, *bhle-was (or maybe *bhleuos) “light-colored, blue, blond, yellow”. It seems that PIE speakers weren’t too fussy about their colour words; the Latin flavus “yellow” is also derived from the same root. [The * means there is no written example of the PIE word, it was “reconstructed” from known languages.]

Similarly, blåsa and blow are related, deriving from PIE *bhle- (or *bhel-) “to swell, blow up”.

All of which doesn’t really help in answering what I thought was a fairly simple question. In fact I had to go all the way back to PIE, which is supposed to have been spoken around 6000 years ago (and not written down), to not get a good answer. I could stick with my original theory, but I guess that’s not a very scientific way to study etymology. However, I did find out a lot about Swedish colour terms, and the history of the Swedish language, for future posts.

Next week:


There are a lot of bicycles in Sweden, but they hardly ever get ridden. Why not?

Published in: on September 14, 2009 at 08:05  Comments (1)  
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v37: mjäll

I was reading the restaurant reviews in Uppsala Nya Tidning (UNT) using Google Translate (GT), when I saw the following interesting description of a meal:

UNT: Rödingen (270 kronor) serveras mjäll och fin med paksoi, en asiatisk bladgrönsak, som är fyllig och saftig.

GT: Charles (270 SEK) served dandruff and fine with paksoi, an Asian leaf vegetable, which is rich and juicy.

Interestingly, when I first read it a few months ago, the translation of Rödingen was (correctly) Char, so I remain bemused as to how GT improves its translations. But dandruff?! Something one might expect to find at the hairdresser next door, but not on one’s fish! A much better translation is tender. That is, the word mjäll has two meanings, which have an interesting connection. Think about it for a minute, then read on to find out more.

I admit , I did make it a bit tricky by translating mjäll as tender; Norstedts is more helpful; their online dictionary says:

mjäll = transparently (diaphanously) white

Their etymological dictionary says:

som har en fin och mjuk konsistens
having a  fine and smooth consistency

That is, tender is a good translation for mjäll only when talking about cooked fish, but now you can see how other words, like Swedish mjöl (flour) and mala (grind) and English meal and mill are also related.

Next week’s clue:


Windmill; nice tie-in I thought.

What colour is the wind (this works just as well in English as in Swedish)?

Published in: on September 7, 2009 at 14:33  Comments (1)  
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