Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Please, gex youz acx xogexhez, Bew Yozk Ximes!

What if I wrote an article about The New York Times and decided to leave out the letters n, r and t and substitute some other letters in their places? It might become the Few Yolk Limes. Or the Bew Yozk Ximes. Ix would be absuzd, righx?

I just read "Pommes de Terroir," a short article about the specialty potato industry in Sweden, in Sunday's New York Times travel magazine. And would you believe it? The writer and editors completely disregarded three letters of the Swedish alphabet!

They just weren't there at all.

It's Spelled That Way for a Reason

The travel writer, Abby Aguirre, went to Skåne, one of Sweden's southern provinces, and visited the municipality of Båstad. Båstad, because of the å in the first syllable, is pronounced almost like BOO-stah." It's not spelled Bastad, as the Times would have it; Bastad sounds more like a snooty British rendering of bastard.

According to Båstad's website, there are different theories for how the town got its name. Like many place names, it could derive from an early resident's name. Båstad could be a shortened version bootho's-sted (the place where Bootho lives). Or perhaps Bodo's-sted. Both are regional names going back at least to the ninth century; we know of them because they appeared in a French chronicle identifying Norman/Viking men with origins in Skåne. Another possibility is that the name is a shortened version of båtställe (båt being the word for boat), probably meaning some sort of boat passage or landing.

But in either case you can see how keeping the å rather than an a in the first syllable of Båstad is absolutely key; spelled with an a it has a completely different pronunciation, one that would not link it to either of its possible origins. Thus, one could say that changing the å to a not only sounds like a nasty insult, but also robs the town of a bit of its meaning and history.

A rose by any other name...would be something else entirely

Continuing on through the Times piece, the sjö in Rammsjö is a word that means sea or lake. Sjo is meaningless and I'm pretty sure it's unpronounceable as well.

Also, a trädgård is a garden. It is composed of the elements träd (tree) and gård (yard).  Tradgard means nothing in Swedish. (In English it might be the name of some product advertised on late-night television, designed to protect your trad, whatever that is.)

Väderö is an island, indicated by the final element ö, the word for island. The first element, väder, means weather. Vader means nothing (unless we're talking about Darth).

Moreover, the name of the Cape on which the potatoes in question grow is, as it says on the sign pictured on page 107 of the magazine, Bjäre, not Bjare. Also, I believe the vodka is named after Börje Karlsson, not Borje, and the potato dealer's name is Göran not Goran. (Not only does ö sound completely different than o, but it also renders the g soft and thus is essential for intelligibility. I ask you: would Jennifer want you to call her Gonnifer?)

Finally, there's no such thing as farsk potatoes. They are färsk: fresh.

A language resonates with the history, the logic and the character of its people

I mention all of this not to be picky, and not to try to seem cooler-than-thou because I
know a little Swedish. I bring it up because I think it really matters.

I mean, come on! Man up, people!

They may inconvenience your typesetter, but the three letters å, ä and ö comprise nearly 10% of the Swedish alphabet. Ignoring them demonstrates a profound lack of respect for the Swedish language and for language in general. I mean, did the folks who standardized Swedish just go on a drinking binge one day and randomly decide to place dots over some of their vowels just for the heck of it? Well...maybe.

But seriously, however it happened, the fact is that Swedish has 29 letters. They are all necessary to differentiate the sounds of the language. A is different than å or ä. is different than ö.  They look different, they sound different and they have different effects on the consonants that surround them.
And the spelling of a word speaks to the word's composition, its meaning and its origin.

What is a travel magazine for, anyway?

Is it ignorance, laziness, or does the New York Times just not care about getting it right? Maybe it's just taking advantage of the good-naturedness of Swedes, of their willingness to extend themselves to understand us, even when we don't reciprocate. But in this global age, no one – certainly not a publication that considers itself to be relevant to people traveling overseas - can afford to display this sort of ignorance and disrespect. Getting the names right is an important part of showing respect and highlighting the beauty and uniqueness of a place and a people. That, after all, is what a travel magazine should be for.


  1. Nju jork tajms rajter iss nått so gådd inn Suedish...

  2. Snap! New York Times - - you have just been _served_!

  3. I admit, I get lazy and don't add these when chatting with friends. Not sure what the practice is in Sweden. In Czech, it is standard that during typing online you just use English letters. That is leaving out almost 10 czech letters!

  4. I agree with you 100 %!

  5. Hello Swedish Freak - I think that among friends, peers, colleagues, compatriots, "getting lazy" may be okay... If the people involved know what they're talking about from the context, then leaving out some letters just one more way we adapt a tool to meet our needs. (In English we might use "r" instead of "are" for example). But I think that the New York Times has a different responsibility...

  6. Thank you, Linnea! And thanks for reading!

  7. Are you expecting to much, from the Nju jock tjams??

  8. I guess I am, Mom! :)