v29: sjöodjur

I’ve heard a number of times that Swedish is a difficult language because of the sje-sound (/ɧ/). I find this a little unfair: I think it’s relatively straightforward to learn how to pronounce the sje-sound, whereas I can’t imagine learning other coarticulations such as those of Igbo (which don’t have nice IPA symbols).

Nevertheless, /ɧ/ features in Swedish tongue-twisters, and in this word I only recently found: sjöodjur (sea-monster). Apart from the difficulty in pronounciation, the morphology caught me. Sjö=sea, and djur=animal, but in this case -o- doesn’t mean opposite of, but abnormal instance of. So two distinct but related meanings for o-. SAOB tells you all about it. As well as odjur = abnormal animal = monster, another good example is ogräs = abnormal grass = weed.

Published in: on August 13, 2010 at 19:11  Leave a Comment  
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v20: provat

Swedish, like English, is a Germanic language. The Germanic languages derive from a common ancestor, proto-Germanic, which is thought to date from around 500 BCE. By around 200 CE, proto-Germanic had split into three branches: West Germanic (now English, German, Dutch, Frisian), North Germanic (now Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Icelandic, Faroese), and East Germanic (eg Gothic; now all extinct).

One feature of Germanic languages is the presence of a class of verbs (so-called weak verbs) that form the past tense by addition of a dental suffix (d or t), as opposed to strong verbs, which have a change in vowel sound to indicate past tense:

Jag arbetar. I work.
Jag arbetade. I worked.
Jag har arbetat. I have worked.


Jag dricker. I drink.
Jag drack. I drank.
Jag har druckit. I have drunk.

Note that in English, the two past tense forms of weak verbs are identical and end in d, whereas in Swedish the simple past tense has a d, but the supine has a t. One exception is the class 2b verbs, such as köpa, to buy, which have a simple past tense form with t:

Jag köper. I buy.
Jag köpte. I bought.
Jag har köpt. I have bought.

In English, the following is quite ungrammatical to me, although it may be OK in some dialects (as it is obvious what meaning is intended)?:

*I seen a lot of movies.

And so I thought something similar would be true in Swedish, which was why I suspected a typo when I read (something like) the following:

… för dig som provat på orientering tidigare …
… for you who already tried orienteering…

That is, the bare supine form of the verb prova, where I was expecting har provat. But after trying to learn all these grammar rules, a colleague tells me this is quite acceptable in spoken Swedish, and even passable in written Swedish, so *sigh*.

Published in: on May 31, 2010 at 17:25  Comments (3)  
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v3: osynlighet

Time to finish discussing adjective morphology. As a commenter pointed out, as well as underbar (wonderful), Swedish also has underlig (strange). But in case you might start thinking you discern some difference between the -lig and -bar endings, think again! Swedish has two similar words for edible: ätlig and ätbar, and three similar words for visible: synlig, synbar, and synbarlig. All those words are in SAOL, but some of my colleagues don’t think synbar is a “real” word. And interestingly, when it comes to opposites, SAOL lists only oätlig and osynlig.

I did say morphology was fun, and it’s also a useful way of packing a lot of meaning into a small space, but sometimes there’s a tendency to get a little carried away with it. For instance, on a crime show I was recently watching, one of the detectives was talking about the directionality of a line of blood drops, where the word direction would have done just as well. From a morphological standpoint, the noun directionality is formed from the noun direction, plus the suffix -al to turn it into an adjective, plus the suffix -ity to turn it back into a noun again. Sometimes suffixes do carry specific meanings (consider employer versus employee), but sometimes, as here, I can’t see that they do: the suffix -ality, in particular, often seems to serve the sole purpose of increasing the length of a word.

To illustrate the ability of morphemes to carry specific meaning, consider osynlighet (invisibility). Without all those little morphemes, one would have to say something like “the property of not being able to be seen”, which is verging on the unreadable. Note also that the order of the morphemes is identical in Swedish and English.

Next week, time to tackle verbs again.

Published in: on January 18, 2010 at 21:08  Leave a Comment  
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v1: ojämna

The astute amongst you will have noticed that the headings of my posts always start with ‘v’, then a number. The Swedes will know that this means the ISO 8601 week number (vecka = week). It’s a reminder to me to post once a week, but it’s also commonly used in Sweden. So instead of talking about “the week of February 22nd”, one can just say “week 8”. I knew the ISO would come in handy one day! There’s a pretty simple rule to work out week 1 – it’s the week containing the first Thursday in January, and the numbering continues until the following year gets its own week 1. So this means that some years, such as 2009, end with week 53, and then 2010 starts with week 1: two consecutive odd numbers.

In Australia, garbage in our suburb was collected every second week, and we had a little calendar on the fridge to tell us which weeks those were. In Sweden, our garbage is collected on even weeks (jämna veckor), so I guess no collection to start the New Year.

And now here’s a little more adjective morphology for you: the Swedish prefix o- means un-. For example when recycling glass, there’s a choice between the färgat (coloured) and ofärgat (colourless) bins. Why there’s no word for “clear” glass, I’m not, well, clear. Similarly, the opposite of jämna is ojämna, but one could also use udda (odd). If you were paying attention last week, you should be wondering whether jämna -> ojämna represents derivational or inflectional morphology. And the answer, I’m sure you can work out for yourself (that’s what makes linguistics fun).

Note that the terms even/odd refer to the weeks, since they have numbers associated with them. You could make the mistake of extending that thinking, as a local scout group tries to do:

Vi har våra möten ojämna lördagar…
We have our meetings on uneven Saturdays…

They should say, Saturdays of uneven weeks, or Saturdays of odd weeks, but I know what they mean. Sometimes Saturdays can be uneven.

Published in: on January 4, 2010 at 21:38  Comments (1)  
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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”.

Published in: on December 29, 2009 at 14:04  Comments (3)  
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v40: dold

Compound words, particularly compound nouns, are common in Swedish. Swedish is more likely to have a compound noun where English might use a compound, a hyphen, or two separate words, for example vattenskyddsområde (water protection area). But of course, it’s not that simple: for example järnväg (railway) is a compound in both languages, but English is reluctant to extend the exercise: järnvägslinje (railway line).

Back to last week’s question: Norstedts lists the following: lögndetektor (lie detector), mindetektor (mine detector), and rökdetektor (smoke detector). But dold detektor means hidden detector. So I guess if we want to look for rules, we might say that the compound noun, made up of first element (FE) + second element (SE), is a specific type of SE, whereas separate words are used for a description of a general SE.

The following example works equally well in Swedish and English: blåbär (blueberries) are a specific type of berry, whereas blå bär (blue berries) are any old berries that happen to be blue.

That simple rule won’t cover everything, and a lot seems to me to depend on the differences between the ways adjectives work in Swedish and English. Contrast:

en kort hårig flicka = a short, hairy girl
en korthårig flicka = a short-haired girl

rök fritt = smoke freely (smoking allowed)
rökfritt = smoke-free (smoking prohibited)

There is a phenomenon in Swedish called särskrivning (separated writing), which refers to the incorrect use of separate words where a compound is correct. If you want to see the kind of fervor this stirs up, have a look at skrivihop.nu. While the “short-haired girl” example above provides a nice example of how linguistic functions are realised differently in English and Swedish, I do find it hard to take seriously the argument that särskrivning would result in any serious misunderstandings. But they do offer this helpful piece of advice:

Om det uttalas som ett sammansatt ord skall det också skrivas som ett sammansatt ord!
If it is pronounced as a compound word, it is also written as a compound word!

Yeah, right.

Next week:

Baker's van

How many Romani loan words (or loanwords or even loan-words?) do you know, and what does the picture have to do with anything?

Published in: on September 28, 2009 at 11:45  Comments (2)  
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