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Swedish: Alive and not so slap

All living languages grow and change all the time. The only languages which do not change are dead languages. This is as true of Swedish as it is of English.

I think living languages are examples of consensus democracy at its most pure. All users of a given language will at some time and to some degree test the bounds of their language. This happens mostly when they are children and learning the language for the first time. They will add words, change grammar, alter pronunciation. Most often other language users around them will correct them, or simply ignore their innovations, and they will learn to conform to the consensus of the greater mass of language users.

Sluta ersäta svenska ordAs we grow older we become less and less likely to step outside the bounds of the language consensus, but some of us do, and sometimes our changes are taken up and used by others. Still, it seems that in order for a linguistic innovation to be adopted by others it must in some way conform to the consensus, even though in other ways it rebels.

Sometimes, very occasionally, a change may spread so widely and be so universally accepted that it actually become a part of the consensus. When this happens, after a few decades or generations, the innovation will come to be seen as a natural feature of the language.

I’m brought to thinking about this because of a letter in my local newspaper, Göteborgs-Posten, (“Fria ord” Monday, 6th August 2012. And I’d happily put in a link here but GP chooses not to make available on-line all the content of their daily paper. You’ll have to make do with the photo to the right.)

In a letter to the editor under the title “Sluta ersätta svenska ord”, which translates as “Stop replacing Swedish words”, the writer gives an example of a sentence in which six Swedish words have been replaced by English ones.

Teamet tog ett break, softade och shoppade bagar på airporten.
The team took a break, softed and shopped bags at the airport.

“If we don’t put a stop to all these English borrowings,” says the letter-writer, “soon we’ll all be speaking English!” Hmmm. His preferred sentence would read:

Gruppen tog en rast, slappade och handlade väskor på flygplatsen.
The group took a rest, relaxed and bought bags at the airport.

I strongly suspect the first sentence to be a figment of the writer’s imagination. Not that I would never expect to hear or read any or all of these words at some time or another, but that I would be surprised to hear a sentence so packed with English-isms, and very surprised indeed to see it written down in any context.

Be that as it may, I think the sentence beautifully illustrates my argument that innovation always attempts to conform to the consensus. See how all the English words in the sentence have been embedded in Swedish grammar.

Team-et … ett break … soft-ade … shopp-ade bag-ar … airport-en.

(And how do Swedes know that team and break are to be categorised as ett words while airport is categorised as an en word? It’s that consensus again, I’m sure of it! I’ve certainly never been able to internalise the ett/en rule after getting on for 30 years.)

It’s true there is a fashion for borrowing English words into Swedish, and that the trend has been going on and very probably growing since the 1950s or 60s. Every decade sees new English words come into fashion, but every decade sees once fashionable English words fade out of consciousness. However, before English, Swedish was influenced by French, and before French by Low German for hundreds of years. Very large numbers of Swedish words are in fact borrowings from German. And no doubt a few hundred years ago there were people who worried about the horrible influence of German on “our beautiful Swedish language”.

One of the mechanisms by which languages grow and change is exactly by borrowing words from other languages. All languages do it (though not always to the delight of the language police). Take a closer look at that sentence the letter-writer preferred.

Gruppen … rast, slappade … handlade väskor … flygplatsen.

Of these six words, just two and a half are Old Swedish: rast, handla and flyga. They all developed from the same proto-Germanic words that gave English rest, handle and the verb fly. Plats is an early loan word into the Germanic languages from the Latin word placea, which gave modern English place and modern German platz. According to Elof Hellquist’s Svensk etymologisk ordbok, väska (first recorded in Swedish in 1587) is a loan from an unspecified Slavic language. The verb slappa is first recorded in 1718 and seems to have been borrowed from the Dutch or Low German slappe, which by the way also gave English the first element in the word slapdash. Finally grupp is a 1781 loan from the French groupe, which is also whence English borrowed it about 100 years earlier.

I don’t really know why the letter-writer plumps for grupp instead of the much more Old Swedish lag, but I’m sure he has his reasons. I note he’s chosen to use rast instead of paus. (Paus strikes me as more natural in context – and more common in everyday Swedish.) But then he probably recognised paus as a loan from French (1810).

Incidentally, of the six English words that made his blood boil, only three are really Anglo-Saxon: team, break and soft. Shop was borrowed into English around 1200 from the Old French eschoppe, though it comes originally from the same proto-Germanic word that gave Sweden köp. Bag is a 13th century borrowing from Old Norse, though the Vikings may have got it from the Celts. Air is Greek by way of Latin and French, and port is an Old English borrowing from Latin.

The word airport is probably from American English and was coined 1919 in reference to Bader Field outside Atlantic City, New York – or so says the Online Etymological Dictionary.

I would love to add something more about soft as a verb, but I’ll hold it over as this article is already over the 900 – urk – 1000 word limit!


Online Etymological Dictionary
Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles
Svenska Akademiens ordbok
Svensk etymologisk ordbok

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