v12: häst

This week, some words about horses. As usual, all translations courtesy of Norstedts. Do you think this is an insult or a compliment?:

Han har minne som en häst.
He has the memory of a horse.

Actually, compliment: hästminne = phenomenal memory. Which may come in handy if you want to be a plugghäst (swot, crammer, ‘consh’).

There was a rather gruesome find in Fyrisån (the local river) lately (a dead body), but if ever a horse is found there, it’s unlikely to be a flodhäst [literally, river horse], since this is a hippopotamus.

The girl who is crazy about horses may seem like a good title for a Steig Larsson book, but this would be a hästtjej. There appears to be no male equivalent.

I pointed out to some colleagues the laughs generated in Australia by Tiger Woods’ comment about getting back to his old roots. Another term to be careful with in Australia is hästhov = horse’s hoof. The specific expression ‘horse’s hoof’ in Australian English is an example of rhyming slang (you can guess or look it up yourself!); when talking about an actual horse’s hoof, ‘hoof’ alone would generally suffice.

Finally, the most famous Swedish horse is surely the dalahäst, Dala or Dalecarlian horse, the traditional painted wooden horse which originated in the province of Dalarna in central Sweden.

Published in: on March 28, 2010 at 22:29  Comments (2)  
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v11: bli

Swedish, like English, has irregular verbs. However, in Swedish there is no person/number distinction for verbs, so it does seem as though life should be easier. As an example, consider that notoriously irregular verb, to be:

to be: I am; you are; she is
att vara: jag är; du är; hon är

However, there is a catch. In their fine book Swedish: An Essential Grammar (SAEG; 1st ed, p94), Holmes and Hinchliffe rather breathlessly state “No less than six Swedish verbs are used to translate different senses of the English verb ‘to be'” (I say ‘breathlessly because a number a English verbs can subsitute for ‘to be’). In addition to vara (present tense är; past tense var) they are referring to three verbs of location (sitta = sit; ligga = lie; stå = stand), as well as finnas and bli. Finnas (present tense finns) is typically used as equivalent to the English there is/are, as this example from SAEG shows:

I Uppsala finns det en domkyrka.
In Uppsala there is a cathedral.

Bli (present tense blir; past tense blev) is a bit more tricky – it refers to a change in state of some sort. Sometimes become could be substituted. This is easy enough to see when referring to a future event:

Hon blir tio år imorgon.
She will be/turn ten tomorrow.

But not so simple when talking about past events:

Vad blev resultatet?
What was the result?


Hur var vädret?
What was the weather?

Norstedts has the following usage examples for bli:

bli avrättad = be executed
bli överkörd = get run over
bli civiliserad = become civilized

Which, as a list of alternatives, is either someone making a deliberate joke or an insight into the mind of a lexicographer.

Published in: on March 22, 2010 at 14:58  Comments (2)  
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v10: bullrig

The word bullrig appeared in a front-page headline in UNT earlier this week, something about students being disturbed by the bullrig environment. This was a new one for me, since the only similar words I knew were food-related, which didn’t fit. However, it did give the chance to play with a little-documented feature of Norstedts online dictionary – it allows limited wildcard serches, for example a search for *bull* will find all words containing the string bull.

Two staples of Swedish cuisine are the kanelbulle (cinnamon bun) and the köttbulle (meatball). Interestingly, a meatball doesn’t contain meat, but instead a mystery ingredient known as köttbullssmet (meat ball mixture). A påvebulla (Papal Bull) is spelt differently, but I wonder if a påvebulle would be eaten by Catholics or Lutherans? The plural of bulle is bullar.

The two foods, kanelbulle and köttbulle, are both bullig, rounded. Norstedts translates Bill och Bull as Tweedledum and Tweedledee, which I first thought fitted in with the idea of the twins being quite rotund, but now I’m not so sure: Bill and Bull are actually characters in the famous Pelle Svanslös series of books, set in Uppsala and written by Gösta Knutsson from 1939 onwards.

But the students weren’t being bothered by meatballs, Papal Bulls, or fictional twins. They were bothered by noise (buller), and their environment was noisy (bullrig) rather than rotund (bullig).

So, some words I would regard as easily confused at the level of either spelling or pronounciation: edible round things (eg, kanelbullar, fiskbullar), nonedible round things (eg, fotbollar, snöbollar), and types of noise (eg, flygbuller, motorbuller).

Published in: on March 14, 2010 at 20:50  Leave a Comment  
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v9: dagsmeja

Snow? We have plenty of that here in Sweden at the moment. Words for snow? Swedish has one or two of those as well.

Of course, this is an opportunity to talk about linguistic relativity, the idea that differences in languages parallel (or even determine) the way speakers of those languages think. This is also known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, although neither Edward Sapir (1884-1939) nor his student Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897-1941) actually formulated the hypothesis.

One offspring of linguistic relativity is the story that Eskimos have many words for snow, therefore Eskimos conceptualise snow differently than do speakers of other languages. As it turns out, Eskimos really don’t have that many words for snow – see the Wikipedia article as well as Geoff Pullum’s writings on the subject (referenced in Wikipedia). However, Swedish has some interesting words for snow, so let’s test the hypothesis.

The word skare refers to snow crust, that is, where the surface of the snow has melted and then refrozen. See, the concept is simple enough, but Swedish has a specific word for snow crust, whereas I’d just use the English word crust. For other sorts of crust, the Swedish word is skorpa.

My favourite snow word is dagsmeja (or maybe dagmeja if you’re from south-western Sweden). From dag, day, plus mäghin, an Old Swedish word for power, it is snow which is melting on a sunny day even though the temperature is below freezing (if the temperature is above freezing, it’s , thaw). I don’t know of any comparable English word, but I know what the stuff is and can describe it well enough in English.

I don’t think any of the concepts inherent in words like skare and dagsmeja are difficult to grasp, and now if I tell you I’m looking forward to , but am having to make do with dagsmeja, you know exactly what I mean, even if English “doesn’t have words for it”.

Published in: on March 7, 2010 at 16:13  Comments (2)  
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