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.

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Published in: on December 16, 2009 at 17:53  Comments (1)  
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  1. […] 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 […]


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