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.

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Published in: on December 8, 2009 at 17:37  Comments (1)  
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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. I’m surprised ‘be’ is so common.


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