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Bewildering Stories

The Critics’ Corner

Ransacking Language

by Bertil Falk

Anent the Scots Leid...” appears in this issue.

I’ve compared the Scots and English versions of the 23rd Psalm with a Swedish version. The linguistic resemblance is there:
  1. Herren är min herde, mig skall intet fattas.
  2. Han låter mig vila på gröna ängar, han för mig till vatten där jag finner ro.
  3. Han vederkvicker min själ, han leder mig på rätta vägar för sitt namns skull.
  4. Om jag än vandrar i dödsskuggans dal, fruktar jag intet ont, ty du är med mig. Din käpp och stav de tröstar mig.
  5. Du dukar för mig ett bord i mina ovänners åsyn. Du smörjer mitt huvud med olja och låter min bägare flöda över.
  6. Idel godhet och nåd skall följa mig i alla mina livsdagar, och jag skall bo i Herrens hus evinnerligen.
  1. The Lord is my herd, nae want sal fa’ me.
  2. He louts me till ligg amang green howes; he airts me atowre by the lown watirs:
  3. He waukens my saul; he weises me roun, for his ain name’s sake, intil right roddins.
  4. Na! tho’ I gang thro’ the deadmirk-dail; e’en thar, sal I dread nae skaithin: for yersel are nar-by me; yer stok an’ yer stay haud me baith fu’ cheerie.
  5. My buird ye hae hansell’d in face o’ my faes; ye hae drookit my head wi’ oyle; my bicker is fu’ an’ skailin.
  6. E’en sae, sal gude-guidin an’ gude-gree gang wi’ me, ilk day o’ my livin; an’ evir mair syne, i’ the Lord’s ain howff, at lang last, sal I mak bydan.

And then I found the word rannsaka most interesting, for that word is very much alive and kicking in Swedish. James Graham wrote:

The Gaelic and English words have the same Old Norse origin in rannsaka, literally a house search. It’s not hard to imagine what a bunch of Vikings just off the longboat meant by a ‘house search’. In these more civilised times we can all rannsaich the Internet for information — yet another word for Google.

“Rannsaka” is used in modern Swedish, but not very often, if ever, meaning “house search.” Here are three common examples of today’s usage of the word rannsaka in Swedish:

Rannsaka is actually more than “search” or “examine”; “scrutinize” is perhaps a better translation. Rannsaka can have the meaning “to be put on trial” also here with a stress on a case being scrutinized.

Copyright © 2012 by Bertil Falk

It is interesting, Bertil, how words can change color over time while changing shape very little. To take an example from southern Europe, the late Latin word testa meant ‘jug’. It became a slang word or colloquial term for ‘head’ and, eventually, the perfectly neutral word tête in French.

The normal Latin word, caput, has evolved into chef in modern French. Meanwhile, English borrowed “chief” from Old French. Both chef and “chief” still mean ‘head’ but only in a figurative sense.

Likewise, the Old Norse rann (‘house’) combined with saka (‘to search’) with the meaning that James Graham cites. Its shape and color have changed hardly at all in English since Viking days: “to ransack” means to search thoroughly, and it can have the connotation of a rough and ready search, even of vandalism or pillaging.

Meanwhile rannsaka seems to have become almost entirely figurative in Swedish. I have no doubt it’s a testimonial to Swedish and Scandinavian civilization and much to be admired.


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