Rue Poirier de Narcay

When I was 16 in 1988 I spent a couple of days in Paris with a language school. I brought the address for a game store, one that advertised in White Dwarf magazine. It was on Rue Poirier de Narcay, which turned out not to be a central location, and so I never went there. But I’ve wondered off and on through the years about this funny street name, “The street of the pear tree of Narcay”.

And now, of course, the net can cure any idle wonderings in an instant. Turns out, the street is named for a medical doctor, Robert Poirier de Narcay, whose dissertation De l’ascite congénitale was published in 1884. It’s about congenital ascites, “abdominal dropsy”. In 1900 the doctor published the novel La Bossue, “The Hunchbacked Woman”, which was re-issued in 1980.

So, no pear tree outside the game store.

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Curiosity Rover’s Message To Finders

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The Curiosity rover, a science robot the size of a car, is on its way to Mars where it will use a new landing system and hopefully spend several fruitful years trundling about. One of the coolest instruments on it is a laser gun coupled with a spectrometer: Curiosity can zap a rock from a distance and determine its chemical composition by looking at the colours of the light emitted by the heated material. I’m going to watch this mission closely.

On the rover is the above sundial cum camera calibration target, designed by Jon Lomberg (who already has three pieces of art on Mars). Note the orbits of Mercury, Venus, Earth (blue disc) and Mars (red disc). Around the dial are the planet’s name in various scripts and languages, including Sumerian cuneiform, Mayan glyphs, Inuktitut, Hebrew, Chinese and Hawaiian (I miss Arabic). The edges of the dial bear the following inscription, written by Jim Bell.

“For millennia, Mars has stimulated our imaginations. First we saw Mars as a wandering red star, a bringer of war from the abode of the gods. In recent centuries, the planet’s changing appearance in telescopes caused us to think that Mars had a climate like the Earth’s. Our first space age views revealed only a cratered, Moon-like world but later missions showed that Mars once had abundant liquid water. Through it all, we have wondered: Has there been life on Mars? To those taking the next steps to find out, we wish a safe journey and the joy of discovery.”

A fine piece, in my opinion! But it may contain the first copy-editing glitch on Mars. There’s a double space between “but” and “later” in the fourth sentence. A double space in space!

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I Don’t Fear For The Swedish Language

Year after year, the Swedish language is spoken by a smaller percentage of the world’s population. And year after year, the geographical area where Swedish is spoken shrinks a little. But year after year, Swedish is spoken by an increasing number of people. How does this work?

Although Swedish speakers in Sweden and SW Finland have low nativity figures, and thus lose relative ground locally to Finnish speakers, and globally to the fecund masses of e.g. India, Sweden also receives immigrants who cause the country’s population to grow slowly but steadily. And they all learn Swedish. In my area, which is home to people of 70 different nationalities, you’ll hear Chilean grandmothers talk to Bosnian grandmothers in broken Swedish in the street, while their grandchildren speak fluent native Swedish. In fact, looking at the statistics, I find that about 10 million people speak Swedish daily, and the number is growing. Swedish is thus not a small language, nor one threatened with extinction.

But Föreningen SprÃ¥kförsvaret (“Language Defence Association”) fears for the future of Swedish. They have kindly sent me a review copy of their new anthology Svenskan – ett sprÃ¥k att äga, älska och ärva, “Swedish, a language to own, love and inherit”, which collects opinion pieces about language issues from the past decade. Specifically, SprÃ¥kförsvaret fears that Swedish is being replaced or heavily influenced by English.

Swedish is my mother tongue and the language I know best. But I learned English at age four in a Connecticut Kindergarten. I am bilingual, and so are my children. My wife is fluent in three languages. In our house, Swedish, English and Mandarin are spoken and written daily, and with some flair I’m proud to say. I write this blog though, as well as books and papers about my research, in English in order to reach a global audience. I could write them a bit better and faster in Swedish, but few who share my interests would be able to read them.

I’ll just disregard the clearly unfounded fear that Swedish might be going extinct. As for Swedish changing, I’d like to point out that before AD 800, linguists see no reason to differentiate between the Scandinavian languages. That is, the Swedish language originated 1200 years ago as an effect of language change. It has since been heavily influenced by Low German in the High Middle Ages, by French in the Enlightenment period, by High German up until the Second World War, and by English after that war ended. In Forskning och Framsteg 2011:8 (p. 51) Henrik Höjer recounts the exact same fears as SprÃ¥kförsvaret voices, only regarding the threat from High German, and published in a 1906 book by one O.C. Kjellberg.

Studying SprÃ¥kförsvaret’s writings, you will find that they are driven by a mainly inclusive, non-xenophobic Swedish nationalism. They want EU parliamentarians to speak Swedish in Brussels. They keep referring to the competitive edge of Swedish industry, which they unsuccessfully try to make hinge upon the qualities of Swedish engineering terminology! (And I must admit that as a rhetoric device, the fortunes of that said industry packs no visceral punch whatsoever with me.)

SprÃ¥kförsvaret’s rhetoric sometimes brings to mind paranoid extreme right sloganeering, with “high treason, a kind of national suicide initiated on society’s highest levels” (p. 13), “voluntary colonisation” (p. 30), and “… we have many leaders in this country, that is politicians, corporate leaders and others, who completely seem to have lost loyalty with their country when it comes to the language” (p. 30). Also, SprÃ¥kförsvaret is to some extent motivated by their personal interests as language teachers and interpreters – non-English languages, that is. Not very selfless when you think about it, though many of the members appear to be of retirement age.

No, I don’t fear for the Swedish language. And to tell the truth, I wouldn’t actually care much if it were indeed threatened. Because as an archaeologist and a multilingual citizen of the world, I see the issue in a long-term cultural relativist light. People in my part of the world didn’t speak Swedish 1200 years ago and possibly they won’t 1200 years from now. Swedes didn’t know much English 100 years ago, and possibly they won’t 100 years from now. But they will continue to speak. And that’s what matters.


Lindblom, Per-Åke & Rubensson, Arne (eds). 2011. Svenskan – ett sprÃ¥k att äga, älska och ärva. Stockholm. 152 pp. ISBN 978-91-633-9292-4.

Update 8 November: And Språkförsvaret replies.

Bellman’s Pale Rhenish

Dear Reader, please try saying “ENSKTBLEH”. Yes, six consonants in a row. ENSKTBLEH. OK? Now sing it, loudly and happily. Go!

I’ve spent three happy days at the first ever Picture Stone Symposium in Visby, listening to papers, moderating some bits and giving a presentation of my own that went down pretty well. And one evening I was reminded of a) that I’m a weird singer, b) that one of C.M. Bellman’s least felicitous phrases occurs in one of his best-beloved song lyrics.

During a reception Thursday night in the Picture Stone Hall of the Gotland County Museum, a UK colleague asked me and a lady whose name I didn’t catch to sing something in Swedish. She suggested Bellman’s Bort allt vad oro gör, “Begone All Troubles”, and we went at it. Now, I don’t have great vocal range, defined as the number of notes between the lowest and highest ones I can comfortably sing. But my main problem is where that range is on the scale. My high tenor is out of phase with most people’s ranges, so when this lady intoned the song, she put it right in a spot where I couldn’t do the whole thing without frequently switching octaves. Sigh.

“Begone All Troubles” is about relaxing and sampling wines. And this is where Bellman makes the singer go ENSKTBLEH. Vad det var läckert! Vad var det? Rhenskt bleckert? Oui, Monseigneur. “This was really good! What was it? Pale Rhenish? Yes Sir.” RhENSKTBLEckert. Silly drunken poet.

The word bleckert fell out of use more than a century ago. It is a cognate of “bleach” and Sw. blek, “pale”. The vintage may still be around though: apparently it was made in the area between Coblenz and Andernach. What’s it called nowadays?

By the Great Pharaoh

When annoyed, my dad (born in ’43) will sometimes use a pretty awesome expletive that has largely fallen out of fashion. Men dÃ¥ fÃ¥r han väl se till och ordna det dÃ¥, för höge farao! “So he’d better make sure to get it done then, by the Great Pharaoh!”

This expression belongs to a common category of mild Swedish curses where a word similar to something nastier is used. Farao is similar to fan, “devil”. Likewise, we’ll say jösses (Jesus), tusan (a thousand [devils]) and sjutton (seventeen [thousand devils]) . Meanwhile, Swedish doesn’t even have a word for “bugger” and the activity seems not to have been spoken much of until recently.

People Messhall Pickled Cabbage

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My wife’s from Zhejiang province, and so is this can of pickled cabbage that she bought yesterday. I like the label a lot. It’s not quite Engrish: of course, we would say “people’s mess hall”, but the Chinese characters actually denote an extremely basic canteen-like eatery. A mess hall, a canteen, maybe a refectory; very latter-day Maoist. It’s a correct translation.

I endorse the pickled cabbage of the Chun’an Qiandaohu Nongxing Food Co., Ltd.. It is by far good enough to be served not only in mess halls.

Restaurant Engrish

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“Lie Fallow” means “in your spare time, without a prior appointment” in Engrish.

Everybody loves Engrish, the surreal dialect of English found on signs, in menus, on clothing etc. in the Far East. Much of it seems to stem from blind over-use of dictionaries, where the non-Anglophone user picks one of the possible translations of a term at random. Here are a few examples I’ve caught recently at restaurants.

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The breakfast menu at our hotel in Hecheng had some fine variations on rice porridge and its condiments.

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