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translates as “Stop replacing Swedish words”, the writer gives an example of a sentence in which six Swedish words have been replaced by English ones.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

Lenten fever

John Bostock (1773-1846), British physicianHay fever as a term is about 200 years old. As luck would have it, just after I published my previous entry, Hej Fever! I heard a snippet on the radio news referencing Dr John Bostock (that’s him over to the right), the man who first described and named hay fever in 1819.

Bostock was himsef a sufferer and set out to discover what the disease was. His first paper was a study of a single patient (himself), but being a physician and a scientist he knew this wasn’t enough. He had to find other sufferers. According to my radio programme, this turned out not to be so easy.

Why was it so difficult to find other hay fever sufferers in the early 1800s? The radio report made out that hay fever is a modern phenomenon; that it has become more common in our sickly modern age. Dr Bostock himself was convinced the condition was one that affected members “in the middle and upper classes of society… I have not heard of a single unequivocal case among the poor,” he wrote in 1828.

I imagine Dr Bostock trying to identify fellow sufferers. As the disease hadn’t been described or identified, how would he have explained what he meant? OK, he could’ve called it summer catarrh, but I’m not sure he didn’t coin that term too. No, he was trying to distinguish a specific condition so he’d probably have had to describe the symptoms he was after.

“Excuse me, my good fellow. Do you suffer from a seasonal springtime illness involving a sensation of heat and fullness in the eyes, an itching and smarting as of small points striking or darting into the ball, a copious discharge of a thick mucus fluid, a general fullness in the head, an irritation of the nose producing sneezing, which occurs in fits of extreme violence, a tightness of the chest and a difficulty of breathing, and a general irritation of the fauces and trachea? Possibly accompanied by a huskyness of the voice and an incapacity of speaking aloud for any time without inconvenience, a general indisposition, a degree of langour, an incapacity for muscular exertion, a loss of apetite, emaciation? Restless nights and profuse perspiration, your extremities however being generally cold, and an increase in your pulse from 80 to 100 or even 120 beats per second?”

I wonder how many people of the day – especially among the poor – would have answered ‘yes’ to that.

Spring fever
Hay fever aside, there is a long tradition of not feeling on top of things in the spring. And, yes, I know there’s an equally long tradition of exactly the opposite. There’s another term for this: Spring fever.

For some people spring fever is the term of preference for the seasonal obsession with cleaning that seems to seize people at this time of the year. For others it clearly means “an increasing energy, vitality and sexual appetite” or to quote another site “spring fever is when you get hot and horny”. No, I’m not going to link to that. 🙂

Instead I’ll give you this – a definition from the Urban Dictionary. Spring fever is … “Excessive horniness eclipsed by post nasal drip.”

Another definition suggests spring fever is actually the same thing that Swedes mean by vårtrötthet and Germans by Frühjahrsmüdigkeit; the tiredness you feel in the spring as the days grow longer. This in turn is variously interpreted either as an aspect of Seasonal Affective Disorder or as a physical weakness. (And I see from the current definition in Wikipedia that the physical weakness can also include “aching in the joints”.)

The Wiktionary identifies spring fever as a contranym, a word which functions as its own antonym “capable of meaning either invigorating or listlessness”.

A little bit more of a search on the Internet turns up another term, this one from the Old English: lenctenadle. The first part of the word comes from lencten (preserved in Lent) which was the Anglo-Saxon word for spring, the second part of the word, -adle, meant disease or sickness.

Hay fever, Spring fever, Lenten fever … are these perhaps one and the same thing? I’d like to believe it, but I’m not sure. The Anglo-Saxon dictionary I’m using glosses lenctenadle as either spring fever or … tertiary ague. Tertiary ague is a form of malaria! You get the shakes (the agueacute – fever) every third day.

On the one hand it’s malaria. (This is certainly something a damn sight more serious than snuva-snuffles!) On the other hand, it’s feeling a bit low after a dark northern winter.

Well, who knows. I think this all deserves much more study than I’m prepared to give it now (and I’m already more than 24 hours past my deadline for this entry), so I’ll close here and plan to come back to the subject later on.


Clark Hall’s A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary
The Medical Dictionary at The Free Dictionary
Online Etymology Dictionary
Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles (2nd edn) – in print
Rudy’s List of Archaic Medical Terms
Svenska Akademiens Ordbook
The Urban Dictionary

The portrait of John Bostock (and most of the symptoms of hay fever in the box) are from the Royal Society of Medicine’s Internet site, their entry on John Bostock.

Hej fever!

Birch flowers and leaves

Birch flowers and leaves

Shut the doors and shut the windows! I know the sun’s shining and it’s perfect weather outside, but it’s birch pollen season too and the last five days the pollen count has been through the roof.

Hay fever never used to trouble me till I lived through a really serious birch pollen season in Norrland in 1993. That seemed to sensitise me, and now it plagues me every spring.

I know I shouldn’t complain. I’m sensitive to birch pollen and then – what else? Cat dander, horses, hazelnuts – they’re all mildly irritating, but nothing to compare with birch pollen. And once the birch pollen season is over I’m back to normal.

This annual two or three weeks of misery is a salutary reminder to me of the difficulties other people go through. My sister has been sensitive to all sorts of pollen since we were children and I’ve taught students who struggle through months of swollen eyes, runny noses and shortness of breath from early spring to the beginning of the autumn.

This year’s birch pollen season seems to be more intense than usual – or I’m reacting more intensely. But it got me thinking about what this condition is called in Swedish and English and wondering when it was first identified. I mean, you wouldn’t expect that this was a new condition, would you? You’d expect that people have been having allergic reactions to pollen of one sort or another for centuries.

I think you’d be right, but it seems the term hay fever is only quite recent.

The standard Swedish word is hösnuva which makes me feel that Swedes don’t really take it very seriously. Snuva is what you call a runny nose, the sniffles. At least the English term involves fever which seems a lot more earnest.

A quick check on hösnuva in the Swedish Academy’s Online Etymological Dictionary shows that the word was first used in 1899; before that (from 1860) the condition was called höfeber … efter eng. “hayfever” as the dictionary says.


According to my edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, hay fever is first recorded in general use in English in 1829, but the term seems to have been coined in 1819 by John Bostock, an English physician who was the first person to describe hay fever as a disease. I’m guessing, but since he called it hay fever I assume he made a connection with grass (hay).

Before Bostock it seems to have been called summer catarrh. (There was an autumn catarrh as well.)

Open birch flower

Open birch flower

Nowadays when we talk about catarrh we generally mean the gunk that comes out of your nose or that you cough up from your chest when you have a bad cold or the flu. The word comes from the Greek by way of Old French, from katarrein a word meaning to flow down. (In my personal experience, catarrh does not flow, rather it thickly oozes – but I can see how the sense of the word developed.)

In time gone by catarrh could be pretty serious. Catarrhal fever for example was a general term used for the common cold, influenza, some forms of pneumonia … and typhoid. Catarrhal fever as a term comes from the days when people didn’t know what caused disease and tended to clump illnesses together depending on symptoms.

I still feel that summer catarrh and hay fever are more serious terms than hösnuva, not least because I spent a large part of May Day with a slight temperature, but all the other symptoms of a very intense fever: flushed face, cold feet and hands, a pounding headache and a pain in all my joints. I’ve never had such a bad reaction to pollen, and it’s not impossible that it wasn’t hay fever at all but something else, but I have no idea what that something else could be. So I’m going to blame the hay fever.

For more on this read Lenten fever.


Online Etymology Dictionary
Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles (2nd edn) – in print
Rudy’s List of Archaic Medical Terms
Svenska Akademiens Ordbook