Särskrivning, explained

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:

Par med goda referenser söker köpa vatten nära hus eller tomt.

Explanation:

The sentence should read, “Par med goda referenser söker köpa vattennära hus eller tomt.” The intended meaning is, “Couple with good references seeks to buy waterfront house or lot,” the adjective vattennära literally meaning near (the) water. However, when vattennära is split into its root words, the sentence’s meaning changes to “Couple with good references seeks to buy water near house or lot.”

Incidentally, these sorts of misunderstandings almost never occur in spoken Swedish. A fluent speaker would recognize the differences in spacing, vocal inflection, and word stress between vattennära and vatten nära, and thus know which meaning is intended.

Also, this tendency is not unique to Swedish; compare German Getrenntschreibung, which I’m sure I’ll write about at some point.

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One thought on “Särskrivning, explained

  1. Pingback: Särskrivning | Linguistic Parlor Tricks

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