Swedish: Gender of language names

Discussion in 'Nordic Languages' started by Wolfsblut, Nov 24, 2012.

  1. Wolfsblut New Member

    Rome, Italy
    I'd be grateful to anybody who could help me with this little doubt.

    I've always assumed that names of languages in Swedish (i.e. svenska, engelska, franska osv.) were short for det ___ språket and, as such, belonged to the neuter gender. However, as I read around a bit, I've started noticing how they take common-gender articles - for example svenskan, engelskan, and so on.

    How am I supposed to interpret this when it comes to gendering such nouns? Is the -n article to be considered a simple exception instead of an actual marker of common gender?
    As a practical example:

    dålig(t?) engelska
    talar du svenska? Jag talar det/den(?) också

    Thanks in advance for any information.
  2. Tjahzi

    Tjahzi Senior Member

    Umeå, Sweden
    Swedish (Göteborg)
    Your observations are very accurate. While it's true that languages take the common definite article, the situation regarding adjectives and pronouns is really messy.

    It appears that adjectives governed by a language in it's definite form, take common forms. However, when an adjective is governed by a language in its indefinite form, it takes either common or neuter forms depending on whether the adjective is used distributively or predictively. When used predictively, adjectives take their neuter forms, and when used attributively, they take their common forms.
    As for pronouns, they are common when definite and neuter when indefinite, like above (minus the attributive/predicative part).

    A few examples to illustrate adjectives:

    1a. Spanskan är populär i skolan. (Predicative usage + definite -> common)
    1b. Min svenska är dålig. (Predicative usage + definite -> common)

    2a. Han talar dålig engelska. (Attributive usage + indefinite -> common)
    2b. Jag tycker tyska är svårt. (Predicative usage + indefinite -> neuter)

    (Do note that a noun governed by a possessive pronoun is definite despite not taking a definite suffix, as displayed in example 1b.)

    And pronouns:

    3a. -Jag njuter av att höra italienskan. -Ja, den är vacker.
    3b. -Talar du danska? -Nej, jag förstår det inte.

    (It's worth noting that neither 3a or 3b is an example of a natural conversation, and languages are seldom referred to with pronouns.)

    In a way, this system could be said to be somewhat logical since språk is indeed neuter and the modern "adjective like" names for the languages did indeed arise the way you describe above and as such, they clearly used to be neuter. However, somewhere along the road those adjectives became nouns of their own and then happened to take the common gender (which in turn is logical since it's the only open gender) and as such took the common definite article as well as adjectives.

    Apart from the way it functions and once arose, there is little logic in this system, but I suppose it should be blamed on the fact that language names is a borderline case between regular nouns and proper names. Why we really needed to make languages definite I can't tell.

Share This Page