Category Archives: language

Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, WHAT?!

In my randomly systematic wanderings through Norwegian vocabulary I’ve finally got round to learning the days of the week. Not that I was completely unaware of them before, of course; but most of them are so similar to the English ones that they hardly need learning when it comes to understanding Norwegian. (There are a couple of exceptions. It’s easy to mix up tirsdag and torsdag, the words for Tuesday and Thursday; and lørdag, which looks as if it should mean “the Lord’s day”, i.e. Sunday, is actually Saturday.)

You probably know that several of the days of the week in English were originally named after Norse gods: Thursday, for example, is Thor’s Day. German calls it Donnerstag and French jeudi, both of which look very different, until you remember that Thor was the god of thunder and was considered equivalent to the Roman god Jupiter or Jove. Jeudi is a version of “Jove Day” and Donnerstag means “thunder’s day”. Similarly in Welsh it’s Dydd Iau, in which Iau looks to me suspiciously like another version of Jove. Thursday is “the day of the god of thunder” in a whole range of languages.  (Incidentally the rudimentary Latin I learnt at school included the exclamation Iupiter tonnans!,  “Thundering Jupiter!”)

Given my approach to learning Norwegian, it’s probably obvious that I wouldn’t be content with just learning the words. I wanted to look up their derivations, which I did using the Språkrådet / Oslo University online dictionary. Given where Norway is, I expected to find that the days were all named after Norse gods. Well here they are, with their approximate literal translations. (Where there are two versions, the first is bokmål and the second is nynorsk.)

What? Sun, moon, war god, chief god, thunder god, love goddess or mother goddess, and then laundry?

Well almost.  From the little information I’ve found online, @anitaleirfall’s reply to me on Twitter seems accurate (not that I doubted it):

It wasn’t really washday, then. It was bath night. But even so. Various heavenly bodies and beings and then . . . bath night.

My first instinct with this was to wonder whether “washing day” referred in fact to some kind of religious cleansing ritual. That might at least have some connection with the Norse gods, and make lørdag seem a bit more logical. And The Norwegian Wikipedia entry for lørdag does in fact make that suggestion, saying it was the traditional day for “rituelle vaskeseremonier“, and offers the nynorsk dictionary entry linked to above (for laurdag) as its source. The dictionary entry says only that there might be a link to religious washing.

So I don’t know whether any religious practice was behind this or not. Another explanation I came across seems at least as plausible: the days are named after the Norse versions of the appropriate Roman gods, but there wasn’t one equivalent to Saturn (after whom Saturday is named).

It does seem, though, that the Vikings had a reputation for having a bath on Saturdays, and that this was not universally regarded by non-Vikings as a normal thing to do. Here’s a wonderful quote which I discovered on The Viking Answer Lady’s site:

Perhaps the most telling comment comes from the pen of English cleric John of Wallingford, prior of St. Fridswides, who complained bitterly that the Viking Age men of the Danelaw combed their hair, took a bath on Saturday, and changed their woolen garments frequently, and that they performed these un-Christian and heathen acts in an attempt to seduce high-born English women:

It is reported in the chronicle attributed to John of Wallingford that the Danes, thanks to their habit of combing their hair every day, of bathing every Saturday and regularly changing their clothes, were able to undermine the virtue of married women and even seduce the daughters of nobles to be their mistresses.

[See original page for the references.]

In other words, “They come over here and they steal our women by wearing clean clothes and having a bath every week!”

So whether the Saturday bath was religious or not, it was enough of a feature of Viking life to make an impression on  foreigners and to have a day of the week named after it.


It’s all connected

Finally—after rather a long break in which all I really did was keep the vocabulary warmed up—I seem to have resumed the Norwegian-learning. Still the same technique: interact on Twitter in Norwegian, and learn whatever vocabulary and grammar I find I need in doing that. One or two people have made startlingly positive and very encouraging comments to the effect that I’ve been learning quickly.

I’ve never felt I was learning it from scratch, though. For a start, I learnt German at school; Norwegian is another Germanic language, so there are lots of connections. If you know that eigentlich and wichtig in German mean  actually and important for example, it’s not so difficult to remember that egentlig and viktig in Norwegian mean really and important. In fact it’s a pretty fair bet (so far) that if changing –ig at the end of a Norwegian word produces something similar to a German one ending in -ich, the meaning will be roughly the same. Changing –lig to English –ly often works, too: for example nemlig means namely among other things. It’s all about connections.

These connections come up all the time. For example, it puzzled me for ages why Norwegian uses the word og for and. It’s clearly nothing like and or its German equivalent und. Neither is it like the French or Latin word et. It seems to be out on a limb, apart from being a bit like och which I happen to know is the Swedish version.

Except . . . well there’s og and there’s òg. They’re closely connected in meaning:  òg is an emphatic word for also. (The usual word for also is også.) Also isn’t so far from and. Maybe there’s a clue here . . .

I haven’t learnt Dutch, but I can understand odd snippets by relating them to German. Often the key is to replace a k with ch. So when yesterday I was looking at the Dutch word ook in a tweet, I found myself wondering whether it was equivalent to German auch and meant also. It does. And then suddenly og made perfect sense. Of course it’s nothing like and or und, because that’s not where it goes. It belongs with the German for also. Norwegian og = Swedish och = German auch. Suddenly it fits nicely into a pattern.

I visualise this as a sort of network with branches and interconnections. I hadn’t been able to see the connection because I’d wanted to attach og to the wrong branch. When I found the right one, the connection was obvious.

Staying connected

When I learn a new word—unless it’s a short one with no obvious connections to anything else—I try to learn not just the word, but its connections to other words too. This is a bit different from how we mostly learnt at school, where in most cases a new word was simply a new word which came as a single unit of information.

Take for example bemerkelsesverdig, which came up a few months ago. I learnt this group together:

  • å merke: to mark, notice
  • å bemerke: to remark
  • -else: ending used to make a noun from a verb
  • ei bemerkning: a remark (I had to learn this to avoid thinking it would be en bemerkelse)
  • verdig: worthy
  • bemerkelsesverdig: remarkable, noteworthy
  • I should also have learnt verd(-et), “(the) worth”, but didn’t think of it at the time.
  • I noted, but didn’t put on my vocabulary list, that be- at the start of Norwegian verbs seems to do pretty much the same thing that it does with English ones.

This has several advantages:

  • Learning all the bits of a word (morphemes) means you’re half way to learning lots of other words too which use the same bits.
  • You mostly don’t end up learning long obscure words before short frequently-used ones. A long obscure word is likely to be made up of several short frequently-used ones, which you learn straight away.
  • You start to get a feel for how Norwegian words work.
  • Sometimes you pick up little bits of grammar from seeing how the words are made.
  • The words fit into a logical pattern, which makes them easier to remember.
  • At least for me, the connections are interesting in themselves. Information you’re interested in is much easier to remember than things you feel neutral about.

Thinking back to when I first learnt a foreign language, I remember being encouraged to make connections between words. Guessing was not just allowed but encouraged. What does the unfamiliar word look as if it might mean? What English word might it be similar to? Have a guess! The guess might be right or wrong, of course . . . so you have to check. If you were right, a theory forms about how the language works. If you were wrong, you learn that the theory behind your guess didn’t work. Either way, you’ve learnt something.

I love these connections. They’re one of the things I most love about languages.


German was one thing. There was however another subject at school, which I absolutely hated: history. The school version had two basic problems.

  • It seemed not to be about anything remotely interesting or edifying. Most of the time it was about people killing each other or perpetrating other acts of inhumanity, mostly for rather silly reasons. (I’d hoped it would be about things like the history of science, or how archaeology works.) This made it incredibly depressing. There was enough cruelty in the world already, without having to hear about previous centuries of it as well.
  • I found it next to impossible to remember the information. It was a mass of names which all sounded the same, and dates which may just as well have been random numbers. There was no logic to it; no pattern of connections.

The second of those is the relevant one: I couldn’t absorb history because I couldn’t make the connections.

Not everyone might instinctively make such connections when learning a language, though. I was actively encouraged to do so. But I can imagine someone thinking entirely differently when they begin: “Don’t guess, because you might be wrong.  Look it up first, or ask the teacher. If you’re wrong, you’ll be setting yourself back by learning the wrong meaning. Since it’s a completely different language from your own, you must put thoughts of your own language out of your head. If you try to make connections they’ll just get in the way and mislead you.” That seems logical on the surface: if you’re going to learn something, you want to learn it right. But it takes away what I think is the most important tool for remembering things: connecting them to other things. It also, I think, stops you freely applying your intelligence to what you’re learning.


And so today I found myself wondering about these two opposite approaches, and about whether they might be reflected in how easy or difficult someone finds it to learn a language. Do different people gravitate towards one or the other approach, and find it easy or difficult as a result, or is it simply a matter of some people finding some types of information easier to connect together than other types? Or are some people able to remember random-seeming information without needing a pattern, even? I don’t know, but I find it an interesting question. As for me, I’ll continue making all the connections I can.

Boatswains and silicon

What do particle physics and breast implants have in common?

BBC mispronunciation, that’s what! I’m not sure whether this is a worrying trend or just a worrying longstanding tradition, but lately I’ve noticed what at least seems like an increased carelessness on the radio about the pronunciation of slightly difficult words. In some cases this is merely a bit irritating—as with the routine pronunciation of Angela Merkel as Anjullah Murkle, which probably just means the speaker is unfamiliar with how to say German words—but in other cases it’s downright misleading. Two of the latter variety have been in the news a lot over the last few days; meaning that the misinformation has been reinforced over and over again in various news bulletins.

Interestingly they both involve the same syllable, -on, in entirely different contexts. In one case it’s mispronounced; in the other it’s said instead of the correct syllable. Specifically:

Bosons are not boatswains

If newsreaders on Radio 4 are to be believed, physicists (sorry, generic scientists) working at the Large Hadron Collider are close to confirming the existence of something called “the Higgs Bosun”. Bosun is one of those words whose spelling used to be littered with apostrophes representing omitted letters. It is now spelt either bo’sun, bosun or boatswain. (Boatswain is the original form, and the other two are derived from it, presumably because its pronunciation is so different from its spelling.) The vowels rhyme with those in open.

I’ve never been quite sure what a boatswain was, other than that it was some role on a boat. So I looked it up. According to the OED:

boatswain (also bo’sun or bosun) n. a ship’s officer in charge of equipment and the crew.

So they run the LHC like a ship and they’ve spent all this time wondering whether the the bosun exists or not, but now they’ve finally half-glimpsed him? He must spend a lot of time working from home, then . . . Or is the Higgs a ship and he’s in charge of its equipment? Ah, that must be it. He’s not the Higgs Bosun but the Higgs’ Bosun. Bosun of the Higgs. Arrrrrr.

But of course what they really mean is the Higgs Boson. The OED defines a boson as

boson n. Physics a subatomic particle, such as a photon, which has zero or integral spin.

Ah, that’s it. The entry also includes a reminder that such particles are named after the  Indian physicist S N Bose.

The s  of boson is pronounced like a z, and unsurprisingly the word rhymes with ones such as photon, proton and Vogon. The -on is pronounced like the word on.

Its mispronunciaton as bosun puzzles me. Surely even newsreaders have heard of electrons, protons, neutrons, photons . . . ? OK so they may not have heard of fermions, leptons, nucleons, mesons, kaons, pions, gluons, gravitons, positrons or (a favourite from when I studied electronics) phonons, but the basic principle is clear enough: huge numbers of particles have names ending in -on, and in every case it’s pronounced the same way. Why would it suddenly change just because of a superficial resemblance to the term for a ship’s officer?

Silicone is not silicon

The other piece of news lately has been about women’s breasts. Specifically, ones containing what the newsreaders and even some of their expert interviewees have been calling “silicon implants”. There have been concerns that some of these may have been made using “inferior quality silicon”.

Rather than go to the OED, I’ll give you my own definition of silicon, focusing on its most relevant features. I had rather a lot to do with silicon when I was studying electronic engineering. It is

silicon n. A very hard, brittle, rigid, reflective material whose appearance is between that of glass and a metal such as steel. It has a crystal structure similar to that of diamond and is used in electronics for its semiconductor properties. Silicon is the chemical element Si, occurring naturally in the mineral quartz (silicon dioxide).

Probably your best bet if you want to see a piece of silicon is to have a look at a solar panel, which is likely to be made out of it. A piece of silicon crystal basically looks like a piece of metal made out of glass, insofar as that’s a possible appearance for anything to have.

Whenever I hear the phrase silicon implants I immediately expect to hear something about electronic devices (“silicon chips”, “microchips”) being embedded in people’s bodies—maybe for purposes like allowing nerve impulses to control prosthetic limbs, or to let artificial retinas send signals to the optic nerve to help blind people see.

You seriously don’t want to be making breasts out of silicon.  Or at least not if you want them to be anything like real ones. If your thing is razor-sharp nipples which cut through anything they touch, or built-in body armour, then maybe. But stainless steel would be cheaper.

What they mean, of course, is silicone. This doesn’t just refer to one material, but to a whole range of them including oils, substitute rubber, and squishy plastics. There’s a Wikipedia article about silicones here. The -one is pronounced exactly the same way as it is in traffic cone, telephone, semitone and the like.

The key difference between silicones and ordinary plastics is that whereas those are based on long chains of carbon atoms, silicones instead use long chains of silicon atoms alternating with oxygen atoms. So the best way to think of them is as plastics, oils, greases etc based on silicon instead of carbon.

But emphatically don’t think of silicones as silicon: calling the material breast implants are made from “silicon” is as ridiculous as calling alcohol or rubber “diamond”. Even if you’re the Higgs‘ Boatswain. And definitely if you’re a BBC newsreader.

Waffles, weaving and bees

[Now with added wasps.]

You can learn all kinds of things on Twitter, especially if you follow the right people.

I recently started following Språkrådet, the Norwegian Language Council—mainly because they’re happy to answer usage questions on Twitter and because learning Norwegian without the help of a course or tutor means I have lots of questions. (I also use their online dictionary a lot, especially for things like checking genders of nouns.)

Today they tweeted a link to a short article on their website, about the word vaffel, which as you’d expect is Norwegian for waffle. Apparently a new children’s TV series has just launched, with waffles in its title.

Anyway their explanation of the origin of vaffel was interesting enough for me to want to share it. Since most people I want to share it with don’t read Norwegian, I thought I’d better try to translate it. Here’s the relevant paragraph.

Vaffel er opphavelig fra lavtysk og har det samme opphavet som ordet Wabe, som betyr ’vokskake i bikube’. Ordet henger sammen med å veve fordi vokskaka ser ut som mønsteret i en vev. Rutemønsteret i vafler ligner på dette mønsteret, og slik fikk vaflene navnet sitt.

My translation:

Vaffel is derived from Low German and has the same root as the word Wabe, which means “honeycomb in a beehive”. The word is related to å veve [“to weave”]  since honeycombs look like the pattern in a fabric. The pattern of squares in waffles resembles this pattern, and thus waffles got their name.

Is it OK to assume the same goes for weave and waffle in English? A quick look in the OED and in the Språkrådet dictionary reveals that

  • English waffle comes from Dutch waffel, which it’s hard to imagine being unrelated to vaffel or its Old German root.
  • English weave comes from “Old English wefan, of Germanic origin”, while Norwegian veve comes from Norse vefa. Again it’s hard to imagine that there’s no connection.

So, short of doing a linguistics course, I think it’s safe to assume that the English words waffle and weave have similar origins to the Norwegian ones vaffel and veve, and that the explanation of the Norwegian words is also true for the English ones.

So there you have it:

  • Honeycombs have a regular pattern reminiscent of something woven, so were given a name related to weaving.
  • The pattern of holes used for storing honey, syrup, jam etc. in a waffle just before eating is reminiscent of the pattern of holes in a honeycomb, which bees use for pretty much the same purpose.
  • waffles got their name from honeycombs, and indirectly from weaving.

Addendum: wasps

(Sept. 2012)

And now wasps enter the equation, though possibly by another weaving-related route. Today I had to look up the word veps which is what they’re called in Norwegian. The online dictionary I use is really a pair of dictionaries which can be searched simultaneously: Bokmålsordboka and Nynorskordboka. (Bokmål and Nynorsk are the two standardised forms of written Norwegian.) Here’s what they both say about vepswith my translations. (You should probably trust the first translation more than the second, since the variety of Norwegian which I know is Bokmål, not Nynorsk.)


veps (beslektet med veve) insekt av  familien Vespidae [ . . . ]
wasp (related to weave) insect from the family Vespidae [ . . . ]


veps (kanskje samanheng med veve, med tanke på korleis bolet blir laga) 1. orden av årevengja insekt; Hymenoptera [ . . . ]
wasp (maybe connected with weave, considering how the nest is made) 1. order of veined-winged insects; Hymenoptera [ . . . ]

So, weaving enters into it again, but this time it might be because of the idea of weaving a nest . . . or is it because of a connection with bees?

A question for grammatically aware Norwegians

Or anyone who knows more Norwegian grammar than I do, really.

Recently—after years of not quite getting round to it—I’ve started learning Norwegian. Or attempting to. Searches for evening classes and the like proved fruitless, as did searches for affordable Norwegian-learning books, so I’ve had to come up with my own process for learning the language. The basic process is:

  • Take a fragment of Norwegian, such as a tweet from one of the Norwegians I follow on Twitter. (Twitter is ideal for this! I never have to try to understand anything more than 140 characters long.)
  • If I don’t understand it and don’t want to look up all the words straight away, use the Opera Inline Translator extension to get a somewhat garbled, but still helpful, idea of what it means.
  • Look up any new words in the rather thin Norwegian dictionary I managed to get hold of. Also,  if possible, look up the component parts of the words.
  • If I don’t understand how the grammar fits together, either look up the relevant section of Louis Janus, Norwegian Verbs and Essentials of Grammar or make a note that I need to. (It’s not sensibly possible to learn all grammar at once, even a tweet at a time. But it is possible to add, say, “adjectives with definite nouns” to a list of things to put off learning learn later.)
  • When in doubt, plague ask a Norwegian. with questions

Today I thought it was time I got to grips properly with the past tense and past participles. (Just for regular verbs; irregular ones are their own particular nighmare.)

Apparently Norwegian regular verbs are grouped into  four classes according to what ending they use to form the past tense: -et or -a for Class I, -te for Class II, -de for Class III, and -dde for Class IV. Past participles are the same but minus the final -e. The book makes some comments about what kind of verb typically belongs to each class.

“Is this Class I, Class II, Class III or Class IV?” isn’t really the sort of question one wants to be asking when looking at a word. The relevant question is “what ending goes on this, and why?” So I’ve tried to re-work the information in the grammar book into something which is easier to remember and use. I came up with these rules of thumb below. They’re just for regular verbs, and I know that irregular ones won’t follow them. But hopefully, if my rules are right, I’ll be able to tell what the irreguarities are, and that will make it easier to learn them.

Here’s my attempt:

  • The basic past tense ending is -te after a consonant or -de after a vowel.
  • But Norwegian doesn’t like triple consonants. So if adding -te would produce three consonants in a row, use -et instead (or -a if it suits your dialect).
  • However, -ldte and -ndte are OK, since -ld and -nd act like single consonants. Also -ll-, -mm- and -nn- will be contracted to -l-, -m- and -n-, so the -te ending is still OK for verbs whose stems end with those.
  • -g or -v at the end of the verb stem softens the ‑t in the ending to ‑d, so we get -gde and -vde (not -gte and -vte).
  • If the verb stem ends in a single, stressed vowel, then the -d in the ending is emphasised too, by doubling it so the ending is -dde.
  • For a past particple, use the same endings but without any final -e.

Or more briefly: for regular verbs

  1.  Use -te after a consonant and -de after a vowel.
  2. If a triple consonant other than -ldt or -ndt would result, use ‑et (‑a) instead.
  3. -g and -v soften –te to -de.
  4. A single stressed vowel strengthens -de to –dde.

And my question is: do these rules seem right?