Difference in repetition

Occasionally, repetitions of similar-looking or similar-sounding words can make perfect sense to fluent speakers of a language but completely confuse the uninitiated. Take, for example the following:

English (with an Australian accent): Sick Sikh seeks six Sikhs.

Swedish: Hon, hon hann inte, hon, men han, han hann, han.

Old Norse: Hann á á á á.

Mandarin: Youtube clip of a woman telling a story by saying “shi” for 37 seconds


Mail-order brides, anyone?

I hinted in yesterday’s entry that Swedish compound words should be hyphenated when split across text lines. Hyphenation can be used to abbreviate the first of two compound words with the same tail, but different heads. Incidentally, English has a similar phenomenon, e.g. “Would the first- and second-place winners please report to the medal stand?” Not hyphenating properly in Swedish can result in double meanings and misunderstandings analogous to those stemming from särskrivning, for example the following text from an advertisement:

Köp din brud eller balklänning till hyr pris.



No multilingual wordplay blog would be complete without some mention of särskrivning, a sometimes amusing, sometimes irritating phenomenon in written Swedish. Särsrkrivning, literally writing apart (though the word’s components are arranged in the opposite order), is the tendency to split words that should be combined according to Swedish grammatical rules. For example, when one uses a noun as an adjective, the adjective noun is attached to the front of the noun being modified, as in grammatikmästare rather than grammatik mästare for grammatical master.

Though särksrivning is not a new phenomenon, it has become more common in recent decades, largely thanks to the influence of English (which, of course, does not build compound words to nearly the same degree as virtually every other Germanic language) and typographers, who think ending a line in a book title or product name with a hyphen is ugly. In and of itself, this need not be a bad thing. After all, English, with its relative lack of compound words, is one of the most widely spoken languages on the planet. However, särskrivning in Swedish can result in hilarious double-meanings and misunderstandings. There are multiple websites devoted to cataloging these, among them Sverige mot särskrivning and Skyltat, but I wanted to share one of my personal favorites, from a classified newspaper advertisement:


Kristina från Duvemåla

The following exchange from the musical “Kristina från Duvemåla” takes place between an American reverend and several newly arrived Swedish women:

“If you’re hungry there’s more of the deer that I caught.”
“Han är kåt!”
“Eller kär!”
“Oh, I want to share what little I can offer!”
“Offer?!? Vad är det här?!?”


Spring has sprung

Upon finishing his meal at a Chinese restaurant, an Indian man (and native Hindi speaker) opens his fortune cookie. The back of the fortune encourages the reader to learn Chinese, and states that the Chinese word for spring is 春天 (Chūntiān). Our protagonist thinks, “चूतिया? क्या बकवास है?”