v17: sista

Last Friday was sista april, the last (day of) April, or Valborg (Walpurgis Night), when Uppsala becomes the party capital of Sweden.

Regarding the use of last and latest in English, style guides say that latest is used when there is an expectation of more to come, but last means there will be no more. However, I believe everyday English usage is a bit more forgiving, for example, knowing that Ian Rankin is alive and writing, the following seems quite reasonable to me:

Ian Rankin’s last book was really good.

But in Swedish, sista (last) can’t be used in place of senaste (latest):

Ian Rankins senaste bok var riktigt bra.

Senaste is the superlative form of the adjective sen (sen, senare, senaste = late, later, latest), and the opposite of tidig (early).

But a couple of exceptions: Norstedts gives both sista modet and sista skriket as translations of the latest fashion. However, Google finds more than ten times as many hits for “senaste modet” than for “sista modet”. “Sista skriket” (skrika = to scream) is both a punk band from Gothenburg and a 1993 Ingemar Bergman play, which kind of messes up the searches.

I’ll leave you with these words from the 18th century Chinese poet, Yuan Mei, found while googling:

Klädd efter sista modet

Rocklängden och hattvidden
ha nu under trettio års tid oupphörligt förändrats
men lyckligtvis har jag hållit fast vid den gamla stilen.
Utan att ha behövt följa med i den vansinniga galoppen
är jag nu klädd efter sista modet.

Published in: on May 5, 2010 at 14:44  Leave a Comment  
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v5: jagad

Continuing the verb theme, this week it’s past participles. In English, past participles of “regular” verbs are the same as the ordinary past tense, but irregular verbs have distinct past participles. The three main uses for the past participle in English are: (1) in forming the perfect, (2) in passive constructions, and (3) as adjectives modifying a noun:

(1) I have done the deal.
(2) The deal was done.
(3) It is a done deal.

In Swedish, the perfect is expressed using the supine form of the verb rather than the past participle, but the past participle is used as an adjective and also in passive constructions (however there are a number of passive constructions in Swedish, not all involving past participles, more on that in the future). Swedish past participles inflect like adjectives. Here, for comparison, are the (1) past tense, (2) supine, and (3) past participles [n=neuter, c=common, p=plural] of tvätta, to wash:

(1) Jag tvättade bilen. I washed the car.
(2) Jag har tvättat bilen. I have washed the car.
(3n) Huset ar tvättat. The house is washed.
(3c) Bilen är tvättad. The car is washed.
(3p) Bilarna är tvättade. The cars are washed.

It is a little confusing since some forms of the past participle are the same as the past tense or supine, but just remember the differences in usage between Swedish and English. Now on to the fun part…

One of my favourite movies is The Fugitive, starring Harrison Ford as Dr Richard Kimble. The 1993 movie is based on a 1960s TV series of the same name, but whereas in the TV series Dr Kimble travelled extensively throughout the US (the series lasted for four years), in the movie he essentially stayed in Chicago. So is it correct to call him a fugitive?

In Spanish, the movie is El fugitivo (and similar titles in many other languages), but in Swedish it is Jagad, which is the past participle of jaga, to chase (hunt). So, Chased. Similarly, Jaget in Norwegian, but in Danish, the movie is Flygtningen, The Fugitive. The Swedish for fugitive is flyende, the present participle of fly, to flee. At first I thought why not just use the direct Swedish translation of The Fugitive, but on reflection maybe Jagad does describe the movie better after all?

That was a simple exercise in translating titles; I don’t intend to get into examples such as of Steig Larsson’s book/movie Män som hatar kvinnor (Men who hate women) becoming The girl with the dragon tattoo!

To help extend your Swedish vocabulary, here are a few verbs in a fugitive theme:

jaga = to chase, hunt
greppa = to grab
sakna = to lack, be without, miss
söka = to seek
fly = to flee, run away

Published in: on February 2, 2010 at 22:12  Leave a Comment  
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v4: släpa

Verbs are important, but they are a lot more hard work than, say, adjectives. Swedish verbs come in four conjugations (two of which have subgroups), and each verb has five forms plus a couple of participles. One good thing about Swedish verbs is that there is no person/number/gender agreement to worry about, even for wildly irregular verbs:

I am; you are; he/she is.
Jag är; du är; han/hon är.

The five verb forms are the imperative (= stem form), infinitive, present, past, and supine. The only new term here is supine, which is used with har (have) and hade (had) to form the perfect and pluperfect, respectively:

glömm! = forget!
att glömma = to forget
jag glömmer = I forget
jag glömde = I forgot
jag har/hade glömt = I have/had forgotten

One of the ways I find new interesting words is from watching English language television with Swedish subtitles. I have a lot of respect for the subtitlers’ work. For instance, on a recent show, Eskimo Pie was subtitled as glasspinne. There was nothing visual or elsewhere in the conversation to indicate that the character was talking about an icecream, and no real reason why a particular brand of icecream was chosen. The direct translation of Eskimo Pie is probably Sandwich, but that’s possibly a brand name, so the more general glasspinne (maybe, popsicle or icypole, depending on where you’re from) seemed to do the job pretty well.

But occasionally subtitlers slip up, and the mistakes can be amusing. On an episode of NCIS (Navy CIS in Sweden), the conversation went:

Gibbs: We investigated crime scenes.
Franks: I investigated crime scenes; you schlepped.

Here, schlepped is the past tense of the Yiddish verb schlepp, typically meaning ‘to drag [something]’, so in the intransitive sense, maybe something like ‘drag one’s feet’: see thefreedictionary, for example. Interestingly, Yiddish is another of Sweden’s five official minority languages (remeber, I already mentioned Romani, so three more to go). Yiddish is a Germanic language, so it wouldn’t be surprising, would it, if we found similarities between Swedish and Yiddish words. And, in fact, the Swedish verb släpa does have both the transitive and intransitive meanings of schlepp.

But here’s what happened in the subtitling:

Original text: you schlepped
Correct subtitle: du släpade
Actual subtitle: du sov

Oops! Unfortunately, du sov = you slept, so the error was in mishearing you schlepped as you slept, but unlike the Eskimo Pie example, there were plenty of visual clues to the correct interpretation. Plus a (very) little knowledge of one of Sweden’s official minority languages would have helped.

Published in: on January 26, 2010 at 06:11  Comments (3)  
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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.

Published in: on December 8, 2009 at 17:37  Comments (1)  
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v49: kön

This week, some words on pronounciation. Generally, the pronounciation of Swedish consonants is not too different from English. (Vowels are another matter: standard Swedish is said to have a 17-vowel inventory, compared to 10 for standard Australian, my reference language.)

One trick about consonants is the different pronounciations of g, k, and sk (and variant spellings). They are soft before e, i, y, ä and ö, and hard before a, o, u and å:

g k sk
before e, i, y, ä, ö: /j/ /ɕ/ /ɧ/
before a, o, u, å: /g/ /k/ /sk/

/ɧ/ is the infamous voiceless palatal-velar fricative, or sje-sound (sje-ljud), which occurs in many common words and is pronounced differently in different parts of Sweden. /ɕ/ is its close relation, the voiceless alveolo-palatal fricative, or tje-sound.

The sje-sound occurs at the start of common words like skinka (ham), skön (beautiful), skär (pink), sju (seven), and stjärna (star), while the tje-sound begins köpa (buy), kyrka (church), kjol (skirt), and tjugo (twenty).

But like every good rule, this one has exceptions. The exceptions are in the pronounciation of loanwords. But how do you know if a word is a loanword and thus a possible exception to the rule? They are not always obvious, and what’s worse, there are some loanwords that are identical to Swedish words, for example:

kön (soft /ɕ/) sex, gender

kön (hard /k/) the queue (loanword from French)

kör (soft /ɕ/) drive

kör (hard /k/) choir (from French again)

So do learn those, because you don’t want to mix them up, as this example shows, where Google Translate (GT) has a go at a report on MSN about the Christmas windows in the Stockholm department store NK (Nordiska Kompaniet):

MSN said: Kön med barn som ville lämna sin önskelista till tomten ringlade lång.

GT said: Sex with children who wanted to leave his wish list to Santa wound long.

I hope no-one told Santa about this!

And now, for your viewing pleasure, a little clip I found at Resume. It’s not a flashmob, it’s an ad for Radiotjänst, but it’s still fun to watch. You can even learn a useful Swedish phrase:

Tack för att du betalar din tv-avgift.
Thankyou for paying your TV licence fee.

Published in: on December 2, 2009 at 14:33  Comments (3)  
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v37: mjäll

I was reading the restaurant reviews in Uppsala Nya Tidning (UNT) using Google Translate (GT), when I saw the following interesting description of a meal:

UNT: Rödingen (270 kronor) serveras mjäll och fin med paksoi, en asiatisk bladgrönsak, som är fyllig och saftig.

GT: Charles (270 SEK) served dandruff and fine with paksoi, an Asian leaf vegetable, which is rich and juicy.

Interestingly, when I first read it a few months ago, the translation of Rödingen was (correctly) Char, so I remain bemused as to how GT improves its translations. But dandruff?! Something one might expect to find at the hairdresser next door, but not on one’s fish! A much better translation is tender. That is, the word mjäll has two meanings, which have an interesting connection. Think about it for a minute, then read on to find out more.

I admit , I did make it a bit tricky by translating mjäll as tender; Norstedts is more helpful; their online dictionary says:

mjäll = transparently (diaphanously) white

Their etymological dictionary says:

som har en fin och mjuk konsistens
having a  fine and smooth consistency

That is, tender is a good translation for mjäll only when talking about cooked fish, but now you can see how other words, like Swedish mjöl (flour) and mala (grind) and English meal and mill are also related.

Next week’s clue:


Windmill; nice tie-in I thought.

What colour is the wind (this works just as well in English as in Swedish)?

Published in: on September 7, 2009 at 14:33  Comments (1)  
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