v53: underbar

So far, most of my words have been short ones, but now it’s time to step up the pace a little and learn some morphology. Don’t worry, morphology (word structure) is fun! Morphology works like this – here are a bunch of words related to “snow”:

It snowed yesterday. There is snow on the ground. Tomorrow, it may snow; it will be snowy and snowflakes will fall from the sky.

Technical point 1. Word: there are five words related to snow; we can probably agree that there are four different words (although, five is arguable). Lexeme: I’m pretty confident there are four lexemes represented above; a lexeme is the set of words representing a particular part of speech (noun, verb, adjective, …), so we have snow/snowed (verbs), snow (noun), snowy (adjective), and snowflake (noun). Basically, a lexeme is a single dictionary entry. Lemma: the basic wordform in a lexeme set, or the headword in a dictionary; so if you look up snow (verb), you’ll also find snows and snowed. There should be a separate entry for snow (noun), which incorporates snows (plural).

Technical point 2. You may want to talk about morphological processes. Inflection is about changes within a lexeme set, such as snow -> snowed. Derivation is about changing lexemes (or parts of speech), such as snow -> snowy. Compounding just puts words together, such as snow -> snowflake.

But don’t worry too much about the above, let’s just make some words. Actually, previously we’ve looked at inflections for adjectives and nouns, and compounding, so this week it’s got to be derivations. Derivations are fun, and so are adjectives.

In Swedish as in English, common adjectives don’t have much morphological structure: bra (good), stor (big), vit (white), and so on. However, there are some specific word endings used to make adjectives. I’ll quickly dispense with -isk, for obvious reasons: aromatisk, turkisk (that is, -ic and -ish in English). Real Swedish adjectives end in -bar or -lig:

brännbar (combustible)
förutsägbar (forseeable)
sårbar (vulnerable)
underbar (wonderful)

behaglig (pleasant)
farlig (dangerous)
molnig (cloudy)
möjlig (possible)
ryslig (dreadful)

This is not a comprehensive list (I don’t have a reverse dictionary), and I’ve saved some of the best for future posts, but there are some interesting things here. First, ryslig is derived from rysa (to shiver). Second, the -bar words are generally equivalent to English words ending in -able or -ible, that is, the adjective describes an action that can be performed on the noun it modifies. Except for underbar (related to the noun ett under (a wonder) and the verb undra (to wonder)). Or not? If a thing is wonderful, is it full of wonder, or is it something you can wonder about (wonderable)? Go and wonder about that while I wonder about next week’s word, which will unfortunately not be “wonderful”.

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Published in: on December 29, 2009 at 14:04  Comments (3)  
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v52: galen

Not the 2nd century Roman physician Galen, but the adjective galen (mad, crazy). Swedish adjectives inflect, agreeing with the noun they modify. For indefinite nouns, there are three forms, which take the following endings: common singular (no ending), neuter singular (+t), and plural (+a):

stor, stort, stora

en stor bil
a big car

ett stort torg
a big square

två stora bilar / torg
two big cars / squares

With definite nouns, the adjective is used with the +a ending. There is also a definite ending +e, which is used: when referring to a male person; with past participles ending in -ad; and with superlatives ending in -ast.

There are of course exceptions to the regular pattern, which depend mainly on the ending of the base form of the adjective; for example, adjectives ending in -en, such as galen, have the following pattern:

galen, galet, galna

You’ll find galen in such phrases as galen vetenskapsman (mad scientist), galna ko-sjukan (mad cow disease), and the children’s book series Galna Gatan. See that? I’m already reinforcing previous “lessons”.

But galen also has a wonderful etymology; according to Norstedts Etymologiska Ordbok, the meaning derives from the verb gala, which is mainly now translated as to crow, but previously has meant to sing magical songs. Thus galen meant förhäxad genom trollsånger (bewitched by magical songs). Which doesn’t sound too bad, really.

God Jul och Gott Nytt År!
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Published in: on December 22, 2009 at 12:50  Comments (2)  
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v51: bäcken

A simple grammar lesson this week. Swedish has no word for the. Of course, you knew that, didn’t you? Swedish has a two-way “gender” distinction for nouns, but instead of masculine and feminine, it’s en (common) and ett (neuter). And the definite article, “the” is added to the end of the noun. So we see the following:

ett hus = a house
huset = the house

en bil = a car
bilen
= the car

Got that? Well, just wait until we get on to plurals. And, no, it’s not straightforward at all. Here are a few thoughts:

1) Swedish may use an article where English doesn’t. Astrid Lindgren’s character Lotta lives on Bråkmakargatan (Trouble-maker Street). Unlike GT, I prefer not to translate proper nouns, but in this case it’s an invented name and the point to note is that Swedish puts a definite article on the end of street names. This is not likely to cause you any trouble, but it’s interesting to think about the role of articles.

2) English may use an article where Swedish doesn’t. This may cause problems, but only applies to specific constructions:

De bor i nästa hus.
They live in the next house.

3) I’m still not sure about the best way to speak in English about Swedish proper nouns which already have an end article. For example, does it sound ridiculous to call the train from Uppsala to Arlanda airport “the Upptåget“?

4) Not all nouns ending in -en or -et are definite forms. For example:

en bäck = a brook
bäcken = the brook

ett bäcken = a pelvis [basin]
bäckenet = the pelvis [basin]

So the word bäcken has two quite distinct meanings, and to translate bäcken correctly, you need to know the context. It’s all too easy to slip up, as the following example from Norstedts dictionary shows. Looking up bäcken, we find sample phrases such as:

bäckens sorl
the murmur of the brook

The problem is, the phrase bäckens sorl belongs to the headword bäck rather than bäcken. What did I say? Context is everything!

And if you’re interested in the “No word for X” phenomenon, here’s a nice (and Scandinavian) post from Language Log: Rainbow-sparkling air sequins.

Published in: on December 16, 2009 at 17:53  Comments (1)  
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v50: feg

The Swedish word feg is variously translated as:

Norstedts: cowardly, dastardly, pusillanimous

Tyda: yellow, chicken, cowardly, craven, abject

Lexin: cowardly

My colleague says that feg does not mean quite the same as cowardly, but the word cowardly itself covers a range of meanings. In The Wizard of Oz, the Cowardly Lion was just timid, but cowardly can also have very negative connotations, and this is indicated (I just learned this) by the -ard ending, which is shared with nouns such as bastard, dastard, drunkard.

What struck me is that feg is a very short word, but cowardly is not. In an interesting article (Word length, sentence length and frequency – Zipf revisited. Studia Linguistica 2004; 58(1): 37-52), Sigurd and colleagues analyse (among other things) the relationship between the length of a word and its frequency of occurrence in large (around 1 million words) English and Swedish corpora. The title of the paper is a reference to Zipf’s statement that “the length of a word tends to bear an inverse relationship to its relative frequency”. Three letter words (feg) are roughly four times more common than eight letter words (cowardly). Of course this says nothing about the relative frequency of the individual words feg and cowardly, but I’m still wondering why Swedish uses such a simple word to express what English does with much more complexity (cowardly has more letters, more syllables, and more morphemes than feg), and why the word feg doesn’t exist in English?

Speaking of common words, the ten most common lemmas in written English (from the Oxford English Corpus) and the ten most common words in written Swedish (from a paper by Jens Allwood) are apparently:

English: the; be; to; of; and; a; in; that; have; I
Swedish: och; i; att; det; som; en; på; är; med; av

I will leave you to do the translation and also to work out the difference between a lemma and a word – you can find that out on the Oxford website.

Published in: on December 8, 2009 at 17:37  Comments (1)  
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v49: kön

This week, some words on pronounciation. Generally, the pronounciation of Swedish consonants is not too different from English. (Vowels are another matter: standard Swedish is said to have a 17-vowel inventory, compared to 10 for standard Australian, my reference language.)

One trick about consonants is the different pronounciations of g, k, and sk (and variant spellings). They are soft before e, i, y, ä and ö, and hard before a, o, u and å:

g k sk
before e, i, y, ä, ö: /j/ /ɕ/ /ɧ/
before a, o, u, å: /g/ /k/ /sk/

/ɧ/ is the infamous voiceless palatal-velar fricative, or sje-sound (sje-ljud), which occurs in many common words and is pronounced differently in different parts of Sweden. /ɕ/ is its close relation, the voiceless alveolo-palatal fricative, or tje-sound.

The sje-sound occurs at the start of common words like skinka (ham), skön (beautiful), skär (pink), sju (seven), and stjärna (star), while the tje-sound begins köpa (buy), kyrka (church), kjol (skirt), and tjugo (twenty).

But like every good rule, this one has exceptions. The exceptions are in the pronounciation of loanwords. But how do you know if a word is a loanword and thus a possible exception to the rule? They are not always obvious, and what’s worse, there are some loanwords that are identical to Swedish words, for example:

kön (soft /ɕ/) sex, gender

kön (hard /k/) the queue (loanword from French)

kör (soft /ɕ/) drive

kör (hard /k/) choir (from French again)

So do learn those, because you don’t want to mix them up, as this example shows, where Google Translate (GT) has a go at a report on MSN about the Christmas windows in the Stockholm department store NK (Nordiska Kompaniet):

MSN said: Kön med barn som ville lämna sin önskelista till tomten ringlade lång.

GT said: Sex with children who wanted to leave his wish list to Santa wound long.

I hope no-one told Santa about this!

And now, for your viewing pleasure, a little clip I found at Resume. It’s not a flashmob, it’s an ad for Radiotjänst, but it’s still fun to watch. You can even learn a useful Swedish phrase:

Tack för att du betalar din tv-avgift.
Thankyou for paying your TV licence fee.

Published in: on December 2, 2009 at 14:33  Comments (3)  
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