Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

A few notes on my language errors II

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Re-reading a text on experiences in Sweden, I found an example that simultaneously illustrates two problem areas: “false friends”* and a weaker knowledge of words for everyday items (or, more generally, a knowledge that varies with the domain). Specifically, I wanted to translate the Swedish “kartong” (“carton”) and jumped straight to “cartoon”… The mistake is understandable, seeing that all three words are derived from the French “carton” or ultimately the Italian “cartone”. The result is still border-line hilarious—and this is a mistake that a native speaker would be unlikely to make. Notably, there is a wide range of words that most native speakers learn as children and that only rarely feature outside e.g. home settings, implying that non-natives are unlikely to pick them up from language courses, science books, fiction,** whatnot.

*I.e. words from different languages that sound/look as if they mean the same thing, but where the actual meaning is different. However, to me, this is normally a greater problem between German and Swedish than a constellation involving English, because the languages are more similar. This includes many cases of words that used to mean the same but have since drifted apart. For instance, when, probably, my mother once complained that I was still unmarried, I tried the excuse that there were too few women at work—and, with the German “Frauen” (“women”) in mind I spoke of “fruar” (“wives”). (A closely related issue, if not “false friends” in a strict sense, is the many words in German that sound/look as if they would have an immediate equivalent in Swedish (or vice versa) but do not, or where there is an almost immediate equivalent with a slightly unexpected shape. Consider e.g. the Swedish “avlasta”, where a naive translator might try a faux-German “ablasten” instead of the correct “entlasten”.)

**Much unlike e.g. “homicide”, “evidence”, “subpoena”, …

More generally, knowledge of a language is often strongly domain dependent, depending on factors like what we have read and what fields we have worked in. I, e.g., am weaker with kitchen and “home” terminology in German and English than in Swedish, due to my Swedish childhood; but stronger with computer terminology, due to my German work-experiences and my English readings. Quite often, I have found myself in a situation where I am well aware of the word for a certain concept in one language but lack the same word in another, depending on what type of readings has created the awareness.*

*This is sometimes noticeable in that I use lengthier formulations or awkward terminology in one discussion and better terminology (for the same concept) a few years later. In some cases, e.g. “identity politics”, I have been aware of the concept before I learned the phrase in any language.

The “carton”–“cartoon” mix-up is not a case of confusing sound-alike words (a problem mentioned in the the first installment). In doubt, the “-ton” and “-toon” parts of the respective word are quite far apart in pronunciation. Instead, it was either a matter of having the right word in mind and not having a sufficient awareness of the spelling, or of grabbing the “false friend” instead of the correct word with too little reflection. (To tell for certain after more than a month is hard.)

In contrast, my mistaken use of “shelve”* for “shelf” is at least partially a sound issue (partially a “not good with home terminology” issue), although of a less unconscious kind: I was uncertain whether the singular of “shelves” was “shelve” or “shelf”, decided to go with “shelve” and to let the spell-checker correct me as needed—overlooking that there is a verb “to shelve”… (Implying that the spell-checker saw “shelve” as a correct spelling, being unable to tell from context that a noun was intended. Actually researching the spelling through the Internet would have given me the correct answer in a matter of seconds…) More generally, the question of “f” vs “v[e]” is often a problem, including my often forgetting the switch to “v” in a plural (e.g. “lifes” instead of “lives” as a plural of “life”) and hypercorrecting (e.g. “believes” instead of “beliefs” as plural of “belief”).

*In a number of recent texts relating to my attempts to buy shelves online, e.g. [1].

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Written by michaeleriksson

April 30, 2019 at 1:52 pm

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