Dangerous homonyms

Handle with Care

I said the other day to one of the teachers in our Swedish course that “vi är gift,” to tell her that Matt and I are married. The word gift means “married” as an adjective for a singular subject.

Unfortunately, for the way I constructed it with vi or “we,” without the reflexive pronoun, it means “poisoned.”

Oh, those funny Swedes.


Gift is not the only word that could lead you into muddy waters.  Kör, for example, as a verb, means “to drive” and is pronounced with a soft k (almost like “shore”), as in Jag kör en bil [bil means “car”]. But as a noun, the same word pronounced with a hard k (like “core”) means “choir.”

Things like that make me feel a bit, well, crazy.

Another one I recently came across (while watching my favorite Disney cartoon, Ferdinand the Bull or Ferdinand den tjur, which is a story for another time), seems even more dangerous than “poisoned” versus “married.”  The word is rädda.

As an adjective, rädd, it means “scared,” “afraid,” or “frightened.” The “a” is added for the plural form of the adjective. As a verb, att rädda means “to save” or “to rescue.”

This, I think, might prove rather confusing in a grave situation — are these people frightened, or are they telling me to save them?  What the heck? (Of course, “grave” is a fun one in English, right? Do you mean “serious,” or “dead and buried”?)

I was considering making a whole list of these kinds of words, but I think there may be too many.  And this kind of discussion invariably leads to the question, how many words are there in a language? The Oxford Dictionaries (OED) list more than 170,000 English words, with many caveats that it is impossible to count exactly. And the corollary to this question is, does it matter? (Wikipedia’s entry on English includes one linguist’s thoughts on counting words, and that the belief that a “larger lexicon leads to ‘greater richness and precision'” in language and thought is akin “to an obsession with penis length”.[86])

That said, I still have the same number of meanings to learn, if not the same number of words. Plus, overlapping meanings mean I have to learn more about the nuances of actually *speaking* and communicating in Swedish, in order to understand intended meanings in context.

Um.  Well.  I can’t say I am feeling entirely positive about this, but time and experience will help — and already have!

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2 Responses to Dangerous homonyms

  1. Kim says:

    Those homonyms are interesting. I recall that in some languages with strong root systems (Hebrew, Arabic) homonyms like that give deep insights into the way native speakers think…in other languages (Japanese) homonyms disclose where Chinese/English/Portugeuse influence has happened…what do they tell you in Swedish? It must be fascinating.

    • zurichsee says:

      I have no idea yet — today we had another session of this. The words vary seemingly so slightly by pronunciation that it may just be a way to tell if someone is native or not!

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