https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Zmrzlina

Compound words and joint morphemes in Swedish

This post was originally written as a reply to another question, but I feel it deserves a post of its own considering its length and information delivered. The original question and reply can be found here: https://www.duolingo.com/comment/13151768

PLEASE NOTE That the information here is supplementary, meaning you really don't have to study it. As a learner of Swedish, I think you should focus primarily on getting the main chunks right until you are conversational and/or can read it fairly well.

The formation of compound words is an interesting part of the Swedish language. As you might know, Swedish, like the other Germanic languages except English, prefers compound words over the English method of just stacking them with spaces. Speakers of Dutch, German or other Nordic languages are probably familiar with how to form compounds and already have a feel for it, but English speakers with no prior knowledge of other Germanics might be a bit confused.

Theoretically, you could stack countless words to form a very specific compound word. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the longest word in Swedish is nordöstersjökustartilleriflygspaningssimulatoranläggningsmaterielunderhållsuppföljningssystemdiskussionsinläggsförberedelsearbeten with a baffling 130 letters. It means something like "North Baltic Sea coastal artillery flight reconnaissance simulator facility equipment maintenance follow-up system discussion contribution preparation services". That aside, the longest word in the Dictionary of the Swedish Academy is realisationsvinstbeskattning meaning "capital gain taxation".

In reality though, compunds rarely exceed three or maybe four parts. What's interesting is what happens when you put the words together. The most common thing is that a little -s- is inserted into the word. This is called a fogemorfem, a joint morpheme, for those who are interested in the noble art of linguistics. Other things might also happen, but we'll get to that later on in this post.

Firstly, We have the word blåbärspannkaka, meaning "blueberry pancake". Let's break down the word to individual parts. The word has four parts: blå, bär, panna and kaka. Blue, berry, pan and cake. Piece of blueberry cake.

Secondly, let's pay attention to the little -s- that shows up between the second and third element of the compound. That is how it generally works: the -s- is inserted after each even numbered word in the compound except the final one. This is the most important guideline!

Thirdly, we'll notice that the word panna lost its final -a. This is not uncommon with words that end on a vowel: losing it altogether when it is the non-final part of a compound. More on this follows below in the antepenultimate part.

Fourthly, the -s- might actually carry meaningful implications. On a language blog I found while writing this post, there was an example with the words "skolbokhylla" and "skolbokshylla". The individual words themselves mean "school book shelf", but depending on what we mean we might have to insert the -s-. The word "skolbokhylla" (without S) is a bookshelf for a school, but the word skolbokshylla is a shelf for schoolbooks specifically. Sadly, this distinction isn't always available. Some words just don't want the -s-, some words necessitate it.

Fifthly, the -s- is not needed if a compound word with two elements occupying the latter part of a three-piece compound is not considered by the speaker to really be a compound any more, as the parts are effectively one and the same now. One of these word are kraftverk (power plant). Let's form the word värmekraftverk. It has no -s-, because "kraftverk" here is treated as one word. But it we inverse it to kraftverksvärme (power plant heat), the -s- once more shows up to separate and show that kraft and verk belong together.

Antepenultimately, the most messy part: changes to word-final vowels. When a word ends on a vowel, there are several possible and unpredictable outcomes available, but only one correct one. Or, in a few select cases, more than one correct one depending on the context. The most prominent villain in this case is -a, which might morph into -o, -u, -e, disappear altogether or remain unchanged. The endings -o and -u are relatively rare, but occasional. Some examples of the changes are

  • Hälsodryck (health drink), from hälsa.
  • Gatukök (street food stand), from gata.
  • Tunnelbanevagn (subway car), from tunnelbana
  • Pannkaka (pancake) from panna.
  • Dataansvarig (responsible for data), from data.

If I am not mistaken, the changing of -a to -e is quite common, as is the dropping of the final vowel. With the other vowels, as much variation isn't seen. It's usually kept or dropped.

Penultimately, it has to be said that these are the general guidelines for compounds, not the rules. Lots of special occasions and exceptions apply, sadly. If you're unsure how things work with a specific word, ask a Swede if you can. This is one of the things where us native speakers just feel what's right and what isn't. If you are unable to ask a Swede, google your alternatives and see what's the most common, and go for that one. And if that doesn't make you wiser, just go for what should work and move on. It's not a big deal.

Lastly, some words of consolation. If you make mistakes with these things, you'll still be understood. Language is about communication and not perfection, and these things with -s- and vowel changes are a fairly minor part of learning Swedish and using it to communicate. As I stated above, the most important general guideline is that the -s- shows up after each even numbered word in a compound, except the final word.

Good luck!

February 5, 2016

11 Comments


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/tjasonham

What happens to grave and acute accents in long compound words? Do I need to pronounce each one clearly or can I mumble my way through all the syllables until I reach the last stressed syllable in the word? I feel like I hear Swedish people do the latter, but I could be mistaken haha. I'm mostly confused when it comes to compound words where each component is only 1 syllable long.

To me, the word "spårvagnsolycka" is split up into spår-vagns-o-lycka, but do I pronounce it as spÅrvagns-olYcka? spårvAgns-olYcka? spårvagnsolYcka?

Edit: This is an amazing post btw

February 8, 2016

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/MarcinM85

That's really interesting. I've never known why it is "en bilolycka", "en tågolycka" but "en spårvagnsolycka" (with -s-) but now it has become clear to me.

February 5, 2016

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Lisa1240

Very useful. Many thanks.

February 5, 2016

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Hegelacan

Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaft! But there are better words in German.

February 6, 2016

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/HoroTanuki

Donaudampfschifffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft :D

February 6, 2016

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Hegelacan

Das war es also! :D

February 6, 2016

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/chirelchirel

Wow! Thanks for this very informative post :)

February 5, 2016

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/MarcinM85

On the other hand, that -s- must be related to the genitive. It can only follow nouns, both as single words or in compounds.

February 5, 2016

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Joel__W

It most likely is. The -u and -o endings for words ending in -a comes from an old genitive form.

February 6, 2016

https://www.duolingo.com/profile/MarcinM85

Interesting. Those forms seem to be preserved in Icelandic. I've just checked "gata" in Icelandic: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/gata#Icelandic Its genitive singular is "götu".

February 6, 2016
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