v24: simma

It’s summer here: midsummer, to be precise. The 10-day forecast keeps hinting that we may get to 30C, but it’s always on the 10th day, where the confidence intervals must be rather wide.

Something obvious to do in summer is to go swimming, after all, Sweden is full of water, generally in the form of lakes and the sea (that’s sjö = lake, and hav = sea). Also obviously, to swim = simma. Well, not quite. Simma is the act of swimming; to go for a swim in the sense of playing around in the water is åka bad or gå bad, that is, bathe.

W and V were historically considered variants of the one letter in Swedish, and it was only in the 2006 edition of SAOL that the two letters were given separate entries. A colleague of mine was recently delayed in the US because the surname in his passport (starting with V) didn’t match the surname on the ticket (starting with W). So as I struggle to speak in Swedish about swimming, oblivious to the fact that I should be talking about bathing instead, it’s a simple mistake to assume that the correct verb to use is svimma:

På helgen ska jag svimma i Mälaren.
On the weekend I will faint in Lake Mälaren.


Published in: on June 25, 2010 at 09:46  Leave a Comment  
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v23: måste

English has a group of verbs which serve to modify the main verb of the sentence in interesting ways. Such verbs as may, might, can, must, should. They are unusual because they don’t inflect like normal verbs (you must, *he musts), don’t have a complete tense paradigm (*you musted), and take other verbs (or maybe verb phrases?) as complements. So it’s a stretch to call them verbs. In English, they’re called modal verbs, or perhaps more clearly modal auxiliary verbs. That is, auxiliary verbs whose purpose is to indicate modality.

I’m going to stick with the SIL explanation of modality: mood and modality are about possibility, necessity, and reality, the difference being mood is about grammatical structure whereas modality is about meaning.

I gather that modal verbs are common across Germanic languages, and in Swedish they’re called hjälpverb, examples being kan, ska, vill. I want to look at must = måste. It seems fairly obvious that this is about obligation:

Du måste springa.
You must run.

But what’s the opposite of must? What is lack of obligation? In English, you must not run expresses an obligation to not run, rather than a lack of obligation to run. For example, consider possible synonyms for must (English is full of these, they’re not modal verbs by the way): need to, have to, be obliged to. In each case, don’t need to, don’t have to, be not obliged to, are not the same as must not.

It may not surprise you to learn that Swedish does it differently:

Du måste inte springa.
You don’t have to run.

To express negative obligation in Swedish, use the following construction:

Du får inte springa.
You must not run.

Now you can make sense of the motto of a local Thai restaurant:

Det måste inte vara starkt men det måste vara gott!
It need not be strong but it must be good!

I’m always hoping the motto refers to the food, rather than to the take-away bags on which it’s printed!

Published in: on June 24, 2010 at 00:06  Comments (3)  
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v22: nagel

Polysemy means a word having multiple meanings. But not just any meanings, polysemy refers to related meanings. If the meanings are unrelated, it’s called homonymy. This example from Wikipedia seems reasonable enough: bank as a financial institution and the bank of a river are homonyms, but the bed you sleep on and the bed of a river are polysemes.

But how do you decide if two meanings are related? The first edition of Lexis (“E-Journal in English Lexicology”) was devoted to the topic of polysemy, and there are some nice points made in the introduction (which is not to say you shouldn’t read the whole thing yourself; the final article in the journal has the catchy title Unbalanced, Idle, Canonical and Particular):

Ambiguity rarely occurs in discourse, for human beings, who are nearly always in a position, thanks to contextual elements, to disambiguate the comprehension of the informative content but it remains a source of problems for automatic comprehension.
There is no simple means to identify the different senses of a word.
The difference between homonymy on the one hand and polysemy on the other is to be thought of in terms of a continuum rather than a dichotomy.

So how do you work out if the separate meanings for a word are related? My first word in this blog was mjäll, which means both tender and dandruff, which are related and thus polysemes, although the relationship was not at all obvious.

Consider nagel. This is the nail on a finger, as opposed to spik, the nail used in carpentry. The former is a flat plate, the latter a spike, so are the different senses of the English nail polysemes or homonyms, what do you think? According to the OED, both meanings in English have the same etymology, the original word also including claw, so polysemes, I guess. But interesting that Swedish has two words where English has only one (it’s hard to imagine the different senses of nail being confused). And have a look at other North Germanic languages:

finger carpentry
Swedish nagel spik
Norwegian negl spiker
Danish negl nagle
Icelandic nögl nagli

Which I suppose is a good argument for trying to learn only one foreign language at a time, no matter how similar they may appear to be.

Published in: on June 13, 2010 at 21:42  Comments (1)  
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v21: fred

I once knew a doctor who said that if he was going to market a new drug, he would give it a simple, friendly, easy-to-remember name, and not worry about trademark issues. A name like Fred. In Uppsala we have a museum devoted to fred (Fredsmuseum). Not a drug or a personal name, but fred = peace (the opposite of krig, war). In English, peace can either mean the opposite of war, or else a state of calm and quiet. But not in Swedish: peace in the sense of not war is fred, and peace in the sense of calm is lugn or ro (see also my orolig post).

Etymologically, fred is related to English free = Swedish fri.

I was interested to see recently that a German cemetery is a Friedhof, presumably a rather peaceful place, but in what sense of the word peace? And according to the multiple translations in wiktionary, this word Friedhof seems to be unique to German. In Swedish, cemetery = kyrkogård (with a soft initial k) or begravningsplats, both of which I’m sure need no explanation.

So in Swedish, if you want to describe a sense of peace, you have to decide which variety of peace you mean. What about in English? Is peace ambiguous, which is why calm can be used instead? Is Swedish smarter to have two separate words, or is it always clear from the context? The phenomenon I’m referring to is called polysemy, and I’ll come back to it in the next post.

Published in: on June 1, 2010 at 17:39  Comments (2)  
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