The consequence of sequence. And of getting married?…

Some times it seems so obvious and yet it isn’t . If A = A and B = B then AB should equal AB,-and maybe even AB = BA, and yet languages don’t work like that…
Sequence of words matters. And, to make matters more interesting, the way the sequence matters is different between languages.

For instance, in English a “Work of Art’ is not the same as “Artwork”. A “Work of Art’ is something bigger, while “Artwork” illustrates books and ornaments wall.

The respective words in Danish are “Kunst” (English: Art) and “Værk” (English: (Piece of) Work). So, yes, you guessed it right: “Artwork” does NOT translate into “Kunstværk” in Danish. “Kunstværk” is the proper translation of “Work of Art”, while “Artwork” in Danish is more properly translated as “Illustration”, and also the English Artwork is being used often “untranslated”.

English ==> Danish :
Artwork ==> Illustration, Artwork
Work of art ==> Kunstværk

Sequence matters. So does a space.
In Danish a Husband is “Ægtemand”, which must not be confused with “Ægte mand”…

Danish ==> English:
En ægtemand ==> Husband
En ægte mand ==> a real man

And while we’re on the topic of Marriage, in Danish the word for Poison and for “Being Married” are the same. I have no clever explanation, but I am sure you can easily make a few of your own… 🙂

Danish ==> English:
Gift (adjective) ==> Married
Gift (noun) ==> Poison
Gave (noun) ==> Gift

Dr. Livingstone, I prepose?

It can cause some interesting missteps when one “translates” a preposition exactly – and it’s used differently in the target language.

Few years ago I was visiting Denmark during summer and was talking to a Danish friend of mine on the phone, trying to convince him to meet me downtown Copenhagen for a cup of coffee on a Wednesday night. He was making excuses (in Danish) that he had to get up early next day for work, so the idea of staying up late on Wednesday night – even in my entertaining company-, was not too appealing to him. And then I said (in Danish): “How about Friday evening then? Then you can sleep-in the next morning…”. Some silence followed and my friend said with a very dry voice: “I hope not….”…

You see, when Danes take an “extra one on the eye” (En ekstra én på på øjet), i.e. stay longer in bed in the morning, that is called “at sove ud”, i.e. the preposition is “to sleep OUT”. When you “sleep IN” in Danish, “sover ind”, you have passed on, you are dead… 🙂

Similarly, in  a technical document yesterday, the English sentence “Choose from pictures…” was (mildly) wrongly translated as “Vælg fra billeder…”. In Danish “Vælg fra” means “say No to something”, or “pick away they ones you don’t like (like bad apples from good ones, for instance).” So the English sentence means “pick the ones you DO like”, while the Danish translation means “pick the ones you DON’T like”.
The way to fix it is with another preposition, “ud” (meaning R

20;out”). “At vælge ud” is the inclusive way of chosing, while “at vælge fra” is the exclusive way of chosing.

So, two more correct translations might have been:
“Vælg ud fra billeder”(“Choose out from pictures”) or “Vælg ibland billeder” (“Choose from among pictures”)

Signing off here… (which is also tricky to translate. Danes “Sign OUT” not “off”)….
It’s good to know the difference between a PrEposition and a PrOposition 🙂 :


Have you heard of the Viking Sheikh?

Here are two words that really could be listed as each other’s proper translation in any English-Danish dictionary, but aren’t: (English) Ship <-> (Danish) Skab . “Skab” in Danish normally means”a closet” or “a cabinet”. i.e. a piece of furniture, -so nothing at all like a seafaring ship… What’s the connection?
As we all, and particularly linguists, know: “context is everything”, so, yes indeed a “ship” becomes equivalent to “a closet” when these two words appear not as standalone words, but as last syllables, or suffixes, of compound words indicating “something official”:

English ==> Danish:

Mayorship ==> Borgmesterskab
World Championship ==> Verdensmesterskab
Citizenship ==> Borgerskab
Leadership ==> Lederskab
Marriage ==> Ægteskab

I have an interesting theory about how this came about that a “Ship” became a “Closet”: I think the two words actually point back to a common Saxon ancestor-word from some 1300 years ago (say, around 700 AC), when the Viking Juts, Angles and Saxons came from what is today’s Denmark and occupied what is today England.

Whatever was spoken then must for a while have been the same language spoken on both sides of North Sea and then it gradually evolved differently into English on the left side of North Sea and Danish on the right side of that body of water:


It’s easy to imagine that both “-ship”  and “-skab” as suffixes have not much to do with their same-sounding stand-alone cousin words in both English and Danish, but rather both point back to a common ancestor-word signifying something official and authoritative. Something rather guttural in sound, as Danish still is today, where “h” and “k” sounded similar and so did “p” and “b”, and “a” and “e” were so flat, they could easily be mistaken for each other. So, probably something like “Skhaipb“, which then evolved into “-Ship” in  modern English and “-Skab” in modern Danish. And the old root-word signifying authority remains alive in the same word still present the same in both English and Danish: “Skipper“, i.e. the Man in Charge.

But wait then, what about the other word also present the same way in both modern English and modern Danish: “to Skip“? It seems paradoxical that “a Skipper” is someone in charge, who cares about details and deals with things, while “skipping” signifies the exactly opposite: to not care too much, to “touch and go”? I think this actually gives us another piece of the interesting historical puzzle of how Danish/English evolved from being the same into being different:

According to Wikipedia, the word “Skip” in old Norse actually meant what we today call a Ship. Knowing the shape of the Viking vessels suddenly it all makes perfect sense: the Vikings invent the shallow-bottomed vessels which sit so high in the water that they don’t cut through it, but rather “bump” or SKIP from wave top to wave top. So, SKIP was probably the first word. It meant “to avoid sinking to deep”, to  skip from plop to plop. Then the verb SKIP evolved into the noun SHIP as the art of skipping became signified by the vessels which moved forward in a SKIPPING way. Then Ships became very important as the Viking civilization evolved around the art of navigating the ships, so the words “Skhaipb” and “Skipper“, were derived from the word for Ship of yore to signify something official and important.
-And maybe, just maybe, the Arabs borrowed the word for an important man and made it into “Sheikh” – a Wise Man. As both archaeological finds and the great Hollywood movie “The 13th Warrior” with Antonio Banderas prove (OK, the latter may not be an entirely trustworthy historical source, but it sure is entertaining 🙂 ) there were widespread connections between the Arab and the Viking traders.

I am totally making this up, but it would be funny if some of this were true. We’ll never know 100%. It sure is fun to play Sherlock Homes, though, just by deducing how one word may lead to another….