Swedish loanwords and pronunciation woes

2 minute read


I’m reading Oliver Sacks’ Uncle Tungsten and was delighted to find out that tungsten is a Swedish loanword (lit. heavy stone). That got me revisited my list of Swedish loanwords we have in English, as well as some names that have become scientific terms.

Wikipedia have quite an extensive list, but I shall mention just several that are common in daily conversations:

  • ombudsman
  • smorgasbord (Sw. smörgåsbord)
  • tungsten

Also interesting to me are the names of scientists (only Ångström is in the Wikipedia list). There are many pioneering Swedish chemists, particularly in physical chemistry. Here are some that come to mind:

  • Ångström: unit, 10-10 m
  • Celcius: unit, used in most of the world
  • Arrhenius: of Arrhenius equation
  • Linnaeus/Linné: father of taxonomy
  • Scheele: Didn’t know him before reading Uncle Tunsgsten. The ore scheelite is named after him.

I have this weird feeling after learning that tungsten is etymologically Swedish, that I’ve been pronouncing it wrongly. A little ashamed? Which I didn’t feel for other words, most likely because I learn of tungsten’s etymology after I know Swedish. (So in English the pronunciation would be /ˈtʌŋst(ə)n/ but in Swedish more like /tɵŋsteːn/).

That got me thinking about other loanwords in English in general. I’m a little indignant that some loanwords are pronounced close to its native pronunciation (or the English speakers try to), like French and German ones, while some are completely butchered, most notably Mandarin Chinese. Which I understand - sort of - but can’t people learn basic pinyin knowledge? I can’t speak Mandarin, but I can pronounce pinyin correctly, and you can make yourself understood even without the tones. If pinyin is too difficult - I will allow that - hiragana/katakana is considerably less so, and still I seldom heard Japanese words pronounced correctly by, ahem, monolinguals.

It’s also not helping that even the German ones are not consistent. For example, “Einstein” is pronounced the German way but “Zuckerberg” is not. I understand that one is an immigrant and the other one American-born so the latter is “Anglicised”, but still, imagine learning English anew and face all this confusion!

Also, what’s the deal with changing spelling in order to accommodate the so-called Anglicisation? For example, satay and tempeh are not how we spell it in Indonesia for sure (they are sate and tempe), but my bet is on the fact that the /e/ ending is usually silent in English, so the spellings are tweaked to avoid ending /e/ so as to avoid wrong pronunciation. Laudable, but still. Over-Anglicisation much?

Ok </rant>

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