Category Archives: Swedish

Swedish and Icelandic

Despite the fact that I speak one member natively, the Germanic language family has generally seemed fairly opaque to me. Of the Indo-European languages, high school studies in Latin pulled me to Romance, and residency in Ukraine towards Slavonic. However, one of the neat things about studying at University of Helsinki is that a Swedish course is always available, as Swedish is an official language of Finland. Joseph Voyles’ Early Germanic Grammar (Academic Press, 1992) has also given me a few basic sound laws to memorize to get from Proto-Indo-European to something near the modern languages.

I recently took a look at Snæbjörn Jónsson’s A Primer of Modern Icelandic (Oxford University Press, 1927). It’s a fairly poor textbook, with its grammar instruction being a mere series of tables meant for memorization without any texts to apply each bit one learns along the way. Still, it’s got some exercises at the end, and I was struck by how much I could understand from the first Icelandic text given for translation, though I have hardly any prior experience of the language:

Þu ert ríkur. Hann er fátækur. Ert þu sjúkur? Hversvegna ertu (= ert þu) svo reiður [cf. English ‘wrath’]? Jeg er glaður. Hún er ung. Við erum þreyttir og syfjaðir. Eruð þið svöng? Nei, við erum bara þyrst. Er hún löt eða iðin? Eruð þjer fjelaus? Það er föstudagur í dag. Í gær var fimtudagur. Á morgun er laugardagur. Það er of dimt hjerna. Hann er gamall. Það er ekki satt.

Here’s what the Swedish would be, trying to use cognates whenever possible:

Du är rik. Han är fattig. Är du sjuk? Varför är du så arg? Jag är glad. Hon är ung. Vi är trötta och sömniga. Är ni hungriga? Nej, vi är bara törstiga. Är hon lat eller arbetsam? Är ni panka? Det är fredag idag. Igår var det torsag. Imorgen är det lördag. Det är mörkt här också. Han är gammal. Det är inte sant.

(The one mysterious item in the Icelandic text is fjelaus ‘penniless’. I’m really stumped as to the etymology of this, and can only venture that it’s somehow related to fjelag ‘company, society’, which is cognate with English ‘fellow’.)

So Swedish and Icelandic seem to complement each other well. Since I first realized that they were so similar from this passage, I checked out Sigrid Valfells and James E. Cathey’s Old Icelandic: An Introductory Course (Oxford University Press, 1981) from the library, and now I’m productively moving along in both Swedish and Icelandic. Many items learnt in one language are usable with only slight modification in the other. It’s nice to see I’m finally getting somewhere with this branch of Indo-European.