Friday, April 05, 2019

compound words

Painting by Kyli John (detail)


I've been seriously trying to improve my Swedish. Aside from translating Swedish from books, and learning a few Swedish songs, I've been following the Swedish news service SVT nyheter on an almost daily basis. 

That's brought up what I consider one of the most demanding aspects of Swedish vocabulary, the host of compound words, in particular those beginning with simple prepositions or other common prefixes. I've pasted my running list of common ones below... It's a tiny sample; there are thousands more.

Swedish is well known for being an agglutinative language, meaning that where in English we have a term of two or three words, in Swedish this tends to be presented as a single word. (For example, "chairman of the board" is "styrelseordförande"; "in terms of animal welfare" is "djurskyddsmässigt".) These "words" can be coined at will, so only the common ones are listed in dictionaries. But once you've overcome your fear at the formidable string of characters, this is not a big issue. When translating, you notice that it can make Swedish writing seem tautological to English-speaking eyes. A British botanist would say about his new handbook: "Every species is given a description." A Swedish botanist would say the equivalent of: "Every species is given a speciesdescription".

But here I'm talking not about agglutinative coinages but about ordinary compound words, the same thing that we have in English (probably in even greater numbers): words like "demanding", "consider", "translating", "description", "overcome", all in what I've just written. There's a difference, though. The English compound words are predominantly Latinate, and the verbal or nominal part often has no independent meaning (except perhaps as a rare archaism). Thus we have demand, command, remand, but not mand; invoke, revoke, provoke but not voke; describe, inscribe and proscribe but not scribe (vb). My strong impression is that in the predominantly Germanic compound words in Swedish the verbal part is usually meaningful on its own; as in "overcome".

The difficulty for a learner of Swedish is that the meanings of the compound words are so hard to guess, even though Swedish is quite a close relative of English. We share many of the prepositions and prefixes (in, under, over, up, out..). Despite this, it's surprisingly rare for a Swedish compound word to have a cognate English equivalent. In the list below I've noticed only one: "förbudet", clearly related to the English "forbidden". 


An [ down](rare except in compound verbs)
Anledningen the reason
Ansenlig considerable
Anställda employees
Ansvar responsibility
Använde used

Av of, by
Avgift charge,fee
Avgå resign
Avgångsvederlag severance pay
Avslöja reveals
Avslutas is ended
Avtal agreement
Avtalsbrott breach of contract
Avvisat rejected

Be- only as prefix
Begäran request
Behållas retained
Beklagar regrets
Bekräfta confirm
Bemöta answer, deal with
Beredning preparation, (committee)
Beslagtas seized
Beställdes commissioned
Betonar emphasizes
Betyda mean

Biträdande assistant

De- only as prefix
Dementera deny

Er- only as prefix
Erbjudit offered
Erfarenhet experience
Erkänner acknowledges

Fort fast, also prefix meaning continuing
Fortfarande still

Framgår appears

För for före before
Förbudet prohibition (cognate)
förenlig compatible
Föreslogs was proposed
Företag business
Företräds represented
Förfärande terrifying
Förfärlig dire
Förhållande relationship
Förhållanden conditions
Förluster loss
förmögenhet fortune
Förslaget the proposal (compare föreslogs)
Förstå understand
Förstöra destroy
Förtal slander
Förtegen reticent
Förtroliga confidential
Förundersökning preliminary investigation

Genom through
Genomfört implemented
Genomslag impact

In in
Införa introduce
inställt cancelled
Inställda på. Willing to
Inverkan impact

konkurrent competitor

Med with
Medborgare citizens
Meddelat announced
Medfången cellmate
Medför cause
Medvetna aware

Ned down
Nedmontering dismantling
Nedrustning disarmament

Nu now
Nuvarande current

Om round, around
Omfattande extensive
Omsorg  care (health, social)
Omständigheter circumstances
Omvärlden abroad

På on, in, at
Påbörjades started

Re- prefix only
Reklam advertising

Till  to, for
Tillfrågad prompted
Tillfällig temporary
Tillräckligt sufficiently, enough
Tillträdde assumed

Underlag foundation, basis
Underrättelse intelligence, notification
undersökning investigation

Upp up
Uppdrag. Task, mission
Uppger states (says)
Uppgörelse settlement
Upplösning resolution (photo)
Uppmanade invited
uppmärksamheten attention

Ut out
Utförts performed
Utgjort constituted, posed (e.g. a threat)
Utreda investigate. Utredare investigator
Utrymmet space (eg advertising)
Utskott committee
uttryck  expression
Utträdesavtalet exit agreement

Åt to,towards åter back
Återhållsam restrained, reserved
Återges reproduced
Åtgärder measures (safeguards)

Över over
överenskommelse agreement
Övergrepp abuse
Överhuvudtaget at all
Övertänt ignited

If you look over the meanings of these words, you can see they talk about imagined concepts; things we can't directly see or smell or touch. They are, however, just the things that news stories are about. A buttercup doesn't make news. But a settlement, a resignation, an investigation, comprehensive yet restrained citizen measures... That's quite a different matter! This is the language of power, it's a toolkit for talking about impact, on us and on others.

On the other hand, this language is quite rare in poetry. For various reasons poets have usually preferred to evoke the tangible and the concrete: a mossy rock, a cheek, a branch, a boat.

It can seem like a progressive limiting. Shakespeare and Donne used a lot of commercial and economic terms; Wordsworth, Tennyson and Hardy, not so many. Arnold's "Scholar-Gypsy" is evidently in some sense a poem about worldly power. But it conducts its critical investigation by leaving the language of power decisively unspoken; by heading for the pastoral fields.

The Cambridge School, you might say, lost faith in this centuries-long project. They dramatically changed direction. Aware that the language of power is chiefly deployed by those who have a stake in power, it felt like poetry was neglecting a duty to contest the terms. The powers that be should not have it all to themselves, for instance to control and manipulate their euphemisms for profiteering, abuse and exploitation.

So Cambridge poetry aggressively and disgustedly incorporates the language of power. Its popular and establishment reception reminds me a bit of the reception of Schönbergian serialism, though without the press outcry. Everyone can understand the point of it but few can abide the results. Even a century later, it's rare to hear Schönberg's serial music on Radio 3. A pity, because it's a wonderful thing. I wish I felt so unconflicted about J. H. Prynne's Brass or John Wilkinson's Lake Shore Drive. I suppose I'm not quite so ignorant of poetry as of music; so everything appears more of a battleground. And besides, this poetry is art of our own time, rarely a matter of simple satisfaction.


Painting by Kyli John

[Image source: from Collision, Kyli John exhibition at the Herrick Gallery, 93 Piccadilly (9th - 14th April 2019.)]

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