Category Archives: language

Twitter does it again!

As you most probably know, I’ve been learning Norwegian for the last 23 months, largely by conversing with Norwegians on Twitter with the help of two grammar books and various dictionaries. It’s been a fascinating process. (I haven’t blogged properly about the process yet; maybe one day I will.)

What I didn’t quite realise when I first started was the three-for-the-price-of-one nature of the Scandinavian languages. Norwegian, Swedish and Danish are really a collection of dialects stretching across Scandinavia, with no clear boundary between one language and the next. The borders between the countries determine which dialects are considered as belonging to which language, but that’s about as far as it goes. It turns out that learning one of the three languages means you can already understand substantial amounts of the other two if you’re prepared to do a bit of guesswork. Bilingual or trilingual conversations are common between the Scandinavians on Twitter: each participant tweets in their own languge, and generally has to explain only occasional words to the others.

Written Danish is so close to the Bokmål variety of Norwegian that Danish and Bokmål mostly just look like misspelt versions of each other. This isn’t very surprising, since  Bokmål is descended from written Danish. (Norwegian had no written form for several hundred years, while the country was under Danish rule.)

Swedish, however, is a lot less guessable, largely because the spelling is so different that Swedish words which are very close to the Norwegian equivalents can look quite different from them. But I’d like to be able to read Swedish without a struggle. I’m encountering more Swedish than I was, both on Twitter and elsewhere: for example I sometimes get Swedish replies to my Norwegian tweets or forum posts. Also one of my favourite authors, Tove Jansson, wrote her novels in Swedish, and I’d love to be able to read her actual words. Her writing is stunning even when translated, and I imagine it’s even more stunning in the original.

So I’ve been feeling the need to learn at least some Swedish. But I’ve no desire to laboriously plough through lots of information which simply repeats what I already know about the Scandinavian languages via Norwegian. What I’m really after is the differences from Norwegian. When is it safe to assume that the two languages work the same way? When isn’t it safe? Does that word which looks similar to a Norwegian one actually mean the same thing or not? It seems to me that learning Swedish this way is both less information to absorb, and a more integrated way of learning. Relating new information to what I already know makes it easier to remember and puts it in context, implying greater understanding than if it were random information.

So I’ve been toying with the idea of getting a book on Swedish written for Norwegians, rather than one for English-speakers.

Now, where does one get such a thing? Probably from a Norwegian publisher, at great expense . . .

Some of these thoughts came up in a recent conversation on Twitter between me, a Swede and a Norwegian. It was a good conversation which confirmed my feeling that getting material intended for Norwegians was probably the way to go. I wasn’t expecting what came next, though. Inger, the Norwegian, mentioned that she had a Swedish–Norwegian dictionary, from when she used to teach in a Swedish-speaking school in Finland. She said she had no further use for the dictionary, and that she’d therefore like to send it to me.

Human generosity is in my opinion a wonderful thing, and it’s no less wonderful when it comes from people you’ve never met. And in this case it came in a form which I’m happy to share in a blog post.

If you think Twitter is about nastiness, libel and boring minutiæ, then either you’re following the wrong tweeters or you’ve missed the point of the communities which form there.

Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog

He hath indeed, and I discovered it yesterday. Here’s a sample of what you’ll find there:

O my gentil rederes, it hath been a thinge of muche difficultee and laboure for to type euen the smallest entrie in myn blogge. For somer, lyk vnto a songe of Barry Manilow, hath ydrawn alle the spirit and vigor from my limbes and hert. For the gretre part of the hot moneth of July ich laye in my garden on my comfortable lawn-chaire and langwisshed lyk vnto sum yonge lover who hath ydumpede been. Ich daubede myn foreheed wyth a moyste towel and did drinke mvch of somer drinkes swich as margaritae and daquiri.

That’s from the introduction to his post Ich pwne noobs! in which his son Lowys (who has an Exboxe CCCLX)  introduces him to the wonders of “games of video”:

Ther were no swich games of video whanne ich was a yonge man, and thus ich knewe litel of the sport and mirthe that ys in hem. For soothly, thei aren quite clever and also do improue the coordinacioun of the hande and the eye. Lowys and ich dide sette at pleyinge of the games and we stoppid nat vntil the cokke of morwenyge dide crowe. It rockede, and from thenne on ich was caught in the trappe. [. . .]

Syn ye, my rederes, are folke lyk myself who kanne noght of games of video, ich thoghte ich wolde here descriven the wondirs of thes tales, and liste the names of sum of the moore notable games, as Lowys hath informede me of hem and shewn hem to me on hys manye computirs and consoles of gamynge.

Descriptions then ensue of such games as Donkey-Kynge (“Ye playe a peasaunt who hath yn his care a smal donkeye. Ye use the gentil beeste to dryve yower carte and to transporte donge”); Civilisatioun; and Grande Thefte, Collusioun, and Mayntenance (“Ye run arounde and commit various actes of trespass with force and armes, and then use yower patrones and affinitee groupes to get yow out of prisone”).

I found the posts I read very entertaining. But it’s also worth mentioning that the sidebar includes a number of links to background resources about reading Middle English and about the real Chaucer.

The home page of the blog is at houseoffame.blogspot.co.uk.

We not no understand

All the books [1] seem to describe Norwegian, Danish and Swedish as “three mutually comprehensible languages”. This seems to be true for the written languages: for example I’ve had one or two conversations on Twitter where the other person uses Danish and I reply in Norwegian, and I’ve noticed that the Scandinavians routinely converse in this way. I need to ask about the odd word here and there, but mostly the words are so close to Norwegian that the meaning is obvious if I know the Norwegian word. The spellings are different and sometimes the meanings aren’t identical or the grammar looks wrong, but it’s comprehensible. Swedish is more of a challenge, but still often guessable given a bit of effort.

Apparently Norwegians find spoken Danish a lot less comprehensible, though. @Sandramogensen on Twitter [2] recently introduced me to this sketch from a Norwegian comedy show. You don’t need to know any Norwegian or Danish to watch it.

Just so you know, there’s next to no Norwegian or Danish in the video. The parts that sound as if they might be Danish are actually in Danish-sounding gibberish.

There’s is, however, a sentence which might be in Danish. I’m not 100% sure what the shopkeeper says in his final attempt to communicate with the customer. It’s one of these:

  • Vi . . . forstår . . .  ingen . . .  ikke . . . !
  • Vi . . . forstår . . . hinanden . . . ikke . . . !

Those are both made entirely out of real words, but only the second is made out of real grammar. Vi forstår ingen ikke “translates” as something like “We not no understand”, while Vi forstår hinanden ikke is correct Danish and means “We don’t understand each other”.

I really want it to be the first one, since I think it makes the sketch funnier, but having listened a few more times I think it probably is hinanden rather than ingen.

I should probably also point out that kamelåså is an invented word. Google results for it lead either to the video or to pages talking about the video.

UPDATE

I’ve become aware of several things since writing this post nine months ago.

  • Several Norwegians and Danes have confirmed to me that the shopkeeper’s words are definitely Vi  . . . forstår . . . hinanden . . . ikke! (which I can also now hear quite clearly).
  • A Dane pointed out that the sketch contains one other snatch of real Danish. Towards the end, the milkman says [mumble mumble] tusen liter melk, just before saying in English “You just ordered a thousand litres of milk”. Tusen liter melk of course means “thousand litres of milk”.
  • There’s either an error or a pun in the Norwegian subtitles translating the English speech. The words “He gave me a file” are translated in the subtitles as Han ga meg noe feil, which means “He gave me the wrong thing”. “File” and feil sound identical and the file was in fact feil, so it’s hard to know whether that’s a joke in the subtitles or just an error.

Notes

[1] The two or three I’ve looked at. Which may or may not be a representative sample.
[2] And also at  http://www.sandramogensen.com

Silicon is not silikon!

Not so long ago I wrote a post grumbling about the routine confusion among newsreaders between silicon and silicone. Silicon is the hard, shiny, brittle element used to make things like solar panels and microchips. Silicones are a huge range of silicon-containing compounds including oils, squishy plastics, and the gel used in breast implants. They’re as similar to silicon as cod liver oil is to diamond.

The other night I found myself talking online, in Norwegian, about silicone earplugs. The silicone they’re made of has a consistency somewhere between warmed-up beeswax and Blu-Tack. The problem I always have if I use wax earplugs overnight to keep noises out is that the wax is slippery and the earplugs tend to fall out too easily as a result. The silicone ones have a built-in stickiness, meaning that they stay in.

I wanted to recommend them to the person I was talking to. I also wanted to be sure that I was recommending silicone earplugs and not ones made out of silicon. Looking up silicone on EasyTrans (a site I use a lot for finding quick equivalents) took me to the Norwegian word silikon, which I only trusted 90%. So I looked up silicon, half expecting to see silikon again, but the translation shown was silisium. A quick check in Bokmålsordboka, the online dictionary run by the Norwegian Language Council, suggested that these were correct: it says that silikon is silisium-containing plastic. That’s not 100% accurate (not all silicones are plastics), but it’s the right way round. All silicones contain silicon.

Is Norwegian silikon the same term as English silicone, though? The easiest way to check this was to look in the Norwegian version of Wikipedia. Its entry on silicones confirmed for me that they are indeed the same. However, the section on terminology actually went so far as to include

I engelsk blir ofte «silicon» (norsk: silisium) og «silicone» (norsk: silikon) forvekslet, noe som skaper forvirring, selv om det ene er et grunnstoff og det andre er en kjemisk forbindelse.

which translates as

In English “silicon” (Norwegian: silisium) and “silicone” (Norwegian: silikon) are often mixed up, something which creates confusion, even though one is an element and the other is a chemical compound.

So there you are: English-speakers’ bad English is bad enough to be worthy of mention in a non-English Wikipedia article . . . (Though i engelsk looks a bit dodgy to me. Shouldn’t that be på engelsk?)

And it’s clear that silikon is one of those words one has to beware of because the English word they look equivalent to is in fact the wrong one. Related, but wrong.

  • silisium: silicon
  • silikon: silicone.

Incidentally, something similar arises with this nice set of words which starts off looking equivalent to English but then goes somewhat haywire:

  • fotografi: photography (so far so good)
  • å fotografere: to take photographs, or to pose for photographs
  • en fotograf: a photographer
  • et fotografi: a photograph.

There’s a connection here with music practice, too. When learning a piece, you need to practice the obvious, easy parts as well as the difficult ones. Otherwise you can come a cropper in the concert when you suddenly forget which of the various obvious fingerings you were going to do, or discover that the note which was obviously an F sharp is actually an F natural and you’re the only one playing it as a sharp . . . Similarly in learning new words, it’s important to check that they mean what you think they do even if it seems obvious. Sometimes the obvious meaning is right, sometimes it’s wrong, and sometimes it’s just one of a range of meanings a word has. Often the other meanings aren’t obvious at all, but are ones which you want in your vocabulary because they’ll come in handy at some point.

The future of the apostrophe?

Yesterday this tweet appeared from @hazelblackberry on Twitter.

””””””’ pic.twitter.com/pLtEn1gq

It led to this photo:

Wall notice reading "Key's for Shearer's Quarter's Room's Are located on the Utilities' wall inside Shearer's Quarter's Compound."

Used with permission..

What’s so wonderful about this is that every single apostrophe is wrong even in the words which should have one. That takes some doing. It’s slightly disappointing that there are two S’s and an s which don’t have apostrophes, but every s at the end of a word has one. [1]

Given this level of confusion, part of me is wondering whether one day something like this will happen:

Diagram: s without an apostrophe disappears from the alphabet and is replaced by two forms in which the apostrophe is merged with the letter. These then merge together and produce a new letter of the alphabet.

Since the letter s is always used with an apostrophe, the apostrophe becomes part of the letter. First there are two versions, depending on the placement of the apostrophe, but by this stage nobody can remember which is right anyway and it’s such a pain trying to choose between the two different s’s that the two forms merge.

Actually I suspect this won’t happen, since so much English is now typed rather than handwritten. More likely the apostrophe will go out of use unless the very straightforward rules for its use become widely known again. It’s an interesting thought, though. And drawing the illustration gave me an excuse to experiment a bit more with the graphics tablet that arrived the other day. 😉

Footnote

[1S’s as the plural of S is correct: letters of the alphabet are the sole exception to the rule that apostrophes never make plurals. Consider the other ways of doing it and you can see why. With no punctuation, the plurals of a, i and u would be as, is and us, which are virtually impossible not to read as the standard two-letter words. Try giving the a, i and u italics: as, is, us—almost as bad. Or putting them in single or double quotes: “a”s, “i”s, “u”s, ‘a’s, ‘i’s, ‘u’s. It’s hideously messy and looks rather strange. The simplest solution is a’s, i’s and u’s. If you regard the letters as being short for their spoken names, the apostrophe becomes logical for some letters: t’s is short for tees and z’s is short for zeds for example, with the apostrophe representing the omitted -ee- and -ed-.