Some Differences Between Swedish and English

Also published as a Facebook note.

Having studied the Swedish language diligently for seven decades and the English language for almost as long (close to six decades), I cannot help noticing some of the differences between the two languages. Here are a couple of examples:

First, the concept of “evil”. The Swedish word for “evil” is “ond” (or – depending on the grammatical context – “ont”). So if I want to say that the Devil (or Ellsworth Toohey, or that weird philosopher from Königsberg whose name I kant remember) [1]is evil, this is the word I will use. Or, if I simply want to say “That was evil”, it becomes “Det där var ont”.

But if I say “Jag har ont”, this doesn’t mean, as one would suspect, that I have something evil in me, but that I have an ache, or simply “It hurts”.

This, perhaps, is not so odd – for, as Ayn Rand points out in “The Objectivist Ethics”, our first contact as children with the phenomena of good and evil is through the sensations of pleasure and pain. Pain is I signal that something threatens one’s life, i.e. of something evil.

But take another example. If I say that “jag är ond på någon”, this doesn’t mean that I am evil to someone, but that I’m angry with someone. Perhaps not so odd, either – since anger might be a reaction to something one regards as evil. (Also, the more common Swedish word for “angry”, which is “arg”, in older times was often used as a synonym for “ond”.[2])

But here is another expression: We often say “Jag har ont om pengar (eller tid)”. The literal meaning of this is “I have evil about money (or time)”, but this simply makes no sense in English. The actual meaning is “I am short of money (or time).” (Conversely, “I have plenty of money/ time” comes out in Swedish as “Jag har gott om pengar /tid”.)

Well, being short of something is a bad thing – and “bad” is a fairly close synonym for “evil” (in many cases just a difference of degree[3]).

Still, we might ask whether this means that we Swedes have a very profound understanding of “good” and “evil” – or that we are terribly confused about those concepts?

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The next example concerns the virtue of justice. Objectivists make a big deal about the fact that we deserve what we have earned. For example, if a man has earned his money by honest work, he deserves his money; if he has acquired his money by theft, or fraud, or levying taxes on the productive members of society, he does not deserve his money. Or if a man has earned respect or admiration by his actions, he deserves this respect or admiration; but if he merely clamors for those things, he doesn’t deserve them.

But in Swedish, this distinction between “earning” and “deserving” doesn’t exist. We use the same word, “förtjäna”, for both. And this makes it quite cumbersome to translate this point about justice into Swedish. The translator has to get around it by saying something like “we deserve such things as we have made ourselves deserving of” – but that is pretty self-evident, isn’t it?

The question here is whether we Swedes really have to be taught or preached to about this aspect of justice, when the point is already built into our language?

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The third example concerns the virtue of pride. Proper pride is the expression of genuine self-esteem – and is obviously a good thing in the Objectivist ethics. A different kind of “pride” is an expression of pseudo-self-esteem – and, for lack of a better word, we may call it “pseudo-pride”. (An example of it is a braggart.)

But in this case, the Swedish language does make a distinction. Proper pride is called “stolthet”, while improper pride is called “högmod”. So the expression “Pride goeth before a fall” in Swedish is “Högmod går före fall”, never “Stolthet går före fall”.

We Swedes understand the distinction! It is built into our language.

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There are of course umpteen such differences between Swedish and English. (The Swedish word for “umpteen”, by the way, is “femtioelva”, literally “fifty-eleven”.) The ones I have mentioned here have some philosophical significance. (Not much, admittedly, but some.)


[1]) The joke is off-topic, but I kant resist it.

[2]) As in the expression ”argan list”, which means literally ”evil cunning”.

[3]) Not in all cases, though. If a man does something bad by mistake, or out of ignorance, it does not mean that he is evil.

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