• Pardon my Swedish!

    Globe with European countries named in Swedish
    (Photo by Calvin Hanson)

    Whenever I heard my grandmother – who was from the North of England – say something was ‘dear’ (i.e. expensive), I assumed nothing could be more English than this classic colloquial word. 

    Then I was on Blocket – a Swedish eBay – and it had a little indicator on each sale item, telling you if Blocket thought the item’s sale price was expensive (or ‘dyr’ in Swedish). Hang on, I thought… dyr

    So, it turns out the English of the Danelaw regions have never stopped saying ‘dyr’. You can bring in your Latin expens, but when it comes to the price of bread, we’ll keep our own words, thank you very much!

    How come?

    Here’s another English colloquialism. Rather than asking ‘Why is that?’ we often ask ‘How come?’ What could be more English? Well, then I saw this sentence in my last Swedish class: Hur kommer det sig att en boxare inte får lov att tävla med skägg? (How come a boxer is not allowed to compete with a beard?) Hur kommer? How come?

    The more you look, the more you see. ‘Hoppa’ means ‘jump’. ‘Springa’ means ‘run’. ‘Pratar’ means talk, or prattle, as we sometimes say. ‘Barn’ means child, as any Geordie or Scot could tell you. And ‘kvinna’ – which sounds very like ‘queen’ – means ‘woman’. 

    English is a mongrel language

    It may have stalked the globe, but we all know English is a mishmash of Nordic, Germanic and French, with a solid spicing of other lingos from around the world. Living in Sweden, the debt to the Norse tongue is obvious. 

    Loads of Swedish words sound very like English equivalents. Even when it looks strange written down, when spoken the link often becomes clear. 

    When you see ‘Näste station’ on the screen in trains, you can make an educated guess that ‘näste’ must mean ‘next’, but when you hear the conductor pronounce it, it becomes basically the same word. 

    Language is always being made and unmade, as my son showed me with Lost and Found Words

  • Lost and Found Words

    The Lost Words A Spell Book by Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris

    This Christmas, I read my 3-year-old son The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris — a ‘spell book’ of poems and illustrations with the neat hook of celebrating nature words that have vanished from the Oxford Junior Dictionary in recent years. 

    Unprompted, he simply started naming the birds whose names he didn’t know. Here’s the result…

    Camilo’s new words

    • Canderlop — Heron
    • Gaiun — Raven
    • Kindercorn — Buzzard
    • Cheep — Wood Pigeon
    • Arandadoe — Sparrow
    • Lockantanj — Lark

    (The kingfisher and the magpie, which he already recognises, he simply called by their known names. Making up a name would be stupid, obviously.) 

    Living language

    The Lost Words has gone as viral as a large illustrated hardback can. It has spawned campaigns to get a copy into every primary school in Scotland, Herefordshire and no doubt elsewhere by now. It has touched a nerve. 

    The book makes the point that such things as the kingfisher or the dandelion have had other names that have fallen out of use. Kingfishers have been known as halcyon, evening angler and rainbow bird; dandelions as lion’s tooth, windblow and milkwitch.

    They also make up new names: colour-giver, fire-bringer, flame-flicker and river’s quiver for the kingfisher. Bane of lawn perfectionists, fallen star of the football pitch and scatterseed for dandelion.

    I expected The Lost Words to teach my son natural words we are losing. Instead, it led to him creating brand new words for birds he had never seen before. It turns out we’ll never stop speaking. It’s what we see that shapes our language.