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?

$ $ $

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?

$ $ $

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.

$ $ $

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.


A Short Note on Independence…

…and on the virtues in general.

The following is probably nothing new to you – you may have figured it out for yourselves – but I think it is worth mentioning and elaborating on.

Quent Cordair (the proud owner of an art gallery and of a dog named  Mollie) recently posted this on Facebook:

The man who needs you to know how independent he is, isn’t.

True enough. The truly independent person has no need to talk about his/her independence.

One commenter asked this rhetorical question:

Now I’m thinking about a man telling me how independent he is, or demonstrating how independent he is. Is purposeful demonstration of independence the same as declaration of independence?

Well, if one’s purpose in taking an action is to demonstrate one’s independence, then I don’t think the person is truly independent. A truly independent man, or woman, would simply feel no need to demonstrate his/her independence, neither to him- or herself, nor to others.[1]

The same holds true of the virtue of honesty. An honest person has no need to talk about his honesty. If someone has to speak about his own honesty, he/she probably has something not quite honest to hide. Likewise if he/she has to demonstrate or make a show of his honesty.

There is a good example of this in literature. If you have read Victor Hugo’s Toilers of the Sea (Les Travailleurs de la Mer in the French original), you will recall that one of the protagonists works very hard to acquire a reputation for being completely honest; but he does so in order to commit a theft which no one will suspect him of, since he is perceived as such an honest fellow. (It does not end well for him.)

This is of course an extreme and stark example – an artist stylizes reality, as Ayn Rand writes somewhere in The Romantic Manifesto. But I am sure you can find less extreme examples in real life.

One could make the same point about the other virtues, as well. For example, a productive person does not talk about how productive he/she is (unless it is necessary when writing a CV); he/she just goes on producing. And the man/woman of pride and unbreached self-esteem has no need of talking about it or making a show of it. The person who does most probably is trying to overcome some self-doubt. (Parenthetically, I don’t think Quent Cordair talks a lot about how proud he is of his art gallery; I just assume he is; and he should be.)

Humble people, on the other hand, seem to have a need to talk incessantly – not about their own humility, or even about the pride they take in being humble – but about how humble the rest of us should be.[2]

There is also a good literary example concerning the virtue of courage. In Alistair MacLean’s The Guns of Navarone, one of the protagonists thinks of himself as a coward and is ashamed of his own fear; so he performs brave acts just to prove to himself that he is, after all, not a coward. This does not help him overcome his fear. When the other protagonists find this out, they all tell him that they, too, are very frightened when they perform their courageous acts. The moral sense of this is that fear by itself is not cowardice; succumbing to the fear is.

And I cannot withhold from you a great quote from Aristotle:

It is well said, then, that it is by doing just acts that the just man is produced, and by doing temperate acts the temperate; without doing these no one would have even a prospect of becoming good. But most people do not do these, but take refuge in theory and think they are being philosophers and will become  good in this way, behaving somewhat like patients who listen attentively to their doctors, but do none of the things they are ordered to do. As the latter will not be made well in body by such a course of treatment, the former will not be made well in soul by such a course of philosophy. – The Nicomachean Ethics in David Ross’ translation, Book 2, Chapter 4; italics mine.

In other words: one does not become virtuous by thinking or talking about virtue (or even writing treatises on the subject), but only by practicing the virtues.[3]

And whether I myself am a truly independent person, or an abject second-hander, who just repeats what better thinkers have said before – that is a closely guarded secret. The same goes for the question whether I have a sense of humor or not.

[1]) Someone truly independent might write a novel featuring independence versus second-handedness. I have a vague memory of having read such a novel.

[2]) The exception to this rule is Uriah Heep in Dickens’ David Copperfield – and if you have read the book, you know where that ends.

[3]) For Scandinavian speaking readers, I have written about this here.