“Le” or “la”? Even the French can’t decide

If you’ve ever dabbled in the French language, you know the difficulty of memorizing which gender goes with which noun. Why is a beard — la barbe — feminine? Why is a bicycle — le vélo — masculine? Well you shouldn’t have to feel bad about your French language difficulties; turns out even the French can’t agree on which gender goes with which word.

A recent study conducted by Dalila Ayoun at the University of Arizona found that, “Fifty-six native French speakers, asked to assign the gender of 93 masculine words, uniformly agreed on only 17 of them. Asked to assign the gender of 50 feminine words, they uniformly agreed [on] only 1 of them. Some of the words had been anecdotally identified as tricky cases, but others were plain old common nouns.”

Put simply, even native speakers have a hard time distinguishing between le and la. But I’m not surprised, French is after all très difficile.

Via LanguageHat

Straight-up Scandinavia: Understanding the smörgåsbord

Smorgasbord is a word commonly used in the English language. The Merriam Webster Dictionary describes it as “a luncheon or supper buffet offering a variety of foods and dishes (as hors d’oeuvres, hot and cold meats, smoked and pickled fish, cheeses, salads, and relishes).” You can even use the word to describe a random mixture of things. But let’s take a look at its real meaning.

In Swedish the word is spelled smörgåsbord and breaks down into two parts: smörgås and bord. Smörgås of course means “sandwich” and bord means “table.” Scandinavians are big on open faced sandwiches and it is no surprise that one of their contributions to the global culinary vocabulary has to do with exactly that. This means that a true Scandinavian smorgasbord will always have a good selection of bread, butter and cheese, the beginnings of an excellent open faced sandwich. The first smorgasbord in America was seen at the 1939 World’s Fair held in New York, when Sweden’s delegation served up a traditional buffet as part of the exhibition. The American’s loved it so much they got rid of the pesky dots and rings over the “o” and “a” and americanized the word into its current state.

Although American lovers of Nordic culture like to use the word liberally, Scandinavians rarely use the word smorgasbord to refer to their buffets, and it is certainly not a staple of everyday life. Instead, the fancy buffet normally consisting of various fish like herring and salmon, even surströmming, cold meats and pates is saved for large gatherings, festive parties and special occasions. The most common variant on the theme is the julbord, the standard Christmas buffet which is served everywhere from family dinners to classy restaurants during the holiday season.

Straight-up Scandinavia: Learning the language of IKEA

I find that either you love IKEA or you hate it; you can probably ascertain my own leanings by the fact that I am writing this article. Coming from a Scandinavian family, we have friends who used to have stuff shipped from Sweden to the US before the store made its American debut — some people are just truly committed. But seriously, the company’s basic idea was pretty cutting edge back in the 50s when it started designing furniture. “Affordable solutions for comfortable living,” as the company’s motto goes, went along with flat pack and consumer assembled pieces. How intelligent to reduce costs by reducing the volume of a piece of furniture.

IKEA is a Scandinavian institution gone global, and despite whether you love it or hate it, you are bound to end up with one of its products at some point. I mean really, who can resist sleek Scandinavian design? And when you do find yourself with that Nordic sofa, bookcase, or lamp, you might be interested to know exactly what all of the funny names mean. Pyssla, Svala, Visdalen, Gök? Although it may seem like a jumble of Viking vowels, there is some method to the madness. IKEA’s founder Ingvar Kamprad was actually dyslexic, and he found that developing a system where products were named after places and things made it easier for him to remember them. Learning Swedish is great, but learning IKEA? Even better. A guide to deciphering the system that defines the IKEA language, thanks to a little help from the The Guardian:

Scandinavia unite:
Sofas, coffee tables, bookshelves, media storage and doorknobs — I agree, that last one is random — are named after places in Sweden; beds, wardrobes and hall furniture after places in Norway; and carpets after places in Denmark. And don’t think Finland gets left out; Finnish cities and places are the namesake for dining tables and chairs.
In the kitchen
Kitchens themselves — no, cooking in an all-Scandinavian setting does not require you to make meatballs — are normally named after Swedish grammatical terms. Going with the theme of cooking, kitchen utensils are named after spices, herbs, fish, fruit or berries. And just because Scandinavians are such believers in functional things, great words like Burken (meaning “the jar”) describe a line of spice jars.

Vad heter du? What’s your name?
Men’s names tend to go to chairs and desks while materials and curtains are women’s names. My mother has a nice set of place mats and chair pads named after her. I however, with a standard Scandinavian name like Anna, am far too common and get nothing.

Keeping the kids amused
IKEA’s great kids selection — I always get sucked in by the fun colors and random assortment of crazy stuffed animals — are named after mammals, birds and adjectives.

If you think you have all of that down, and have mastered the list of Scandinavian places and words, you can play the IKEA Game, where IKEA product names are picked at random out of a database and your job is to guess what the product is.

And if you are one of those IKEA-dreading individuals, you might want some help with IKEA survival during your next visit.

Straight-up Scandinavia: Fika, the quintessential Swedish word

Any trip to Sweden, be it for business, personal reasons or just because you want to stay in the Ice Hotel, is going to necessitate knowing the word fika.

In a grammatical sense it is a verb meaning “to take a coffee break.” But fika is so much more than a word; it is a Swedish way of life. Swedes love their coffee breaks (and I am not stereotyping). Fikas are happy afternoon gatherings between friends, study breaks for university students, and beyond that, absolutely necessary in the workplace. I dare you to try and find a Swedish company that doesn’t encourage a mid-morning fika for its employees; it is practically written into the contracts, although sometimes that fika time can turn into a casual business meeting.

The word can be used as a verb or a noun. Ska vi fika? (Should we take a coffee break?) or vilken trevlig fika! (what a nice coffee break). Originally the word was really only used for coffee, but nowadays there is often an implied consumption of an accompanying pastry, bun or small sandwich. And fika isn’t just about what beverage and food items are consumed, it is also about the social gathering that takes place. This is a time when Swedes gather and relax in a casual setting. A fika is therefore great option, and very standard, for a first Swedish date. Or for catching up on office gossip.

Fika is such an integral part of Swedish culture that MSN Sweden recently ran an article called Fika dig friskare (Fika yourself healthy) about the benefits of getting together with friends and being in a relaxing and enjoyable place like a cafe, or an outdoor terrace in the summer sun. But, as the article clearly noted, to really “fika yourself healthy,” the delicious Swedish baked goods that go along with the cup of coffee need to be switched out for a sandwich made with crisp bread. Not as glamorous as a kanelbulle (cinnamon roll) but tasty all the same.

If you happen to read Swedish and want to check out the article, you can do so here.

Sarkozy asks news channel for 100% French broadcasts

Browsing through a past edition of the Economist, I came across this article about a French news channel that broadcasts in English and Arabic. The channel was recently shocked when President Nicolas Sarkozy stated that he thought it should only broadcast in French.

France 24 is France’s version of Al-Jazeera, a way to communicate a French perspective on news but at the same time keeping it accessible to even those who didn’t get past their high school vocab list of bonjour and merci. Despite France 24’s difficulties in finding distribution channels in the US, the broadcasting company has offered a fresh perspective in comparison to other global news media.

Sarkozy wants the channel to become French only, because he is “not disposed to finance a channel that does not speak French.” Yes Sarko, blame it on the budget. Foreign Minister Bernard Koucher doesn’t agree with his co-worker, much like most of the managers of France 24 who have already committed to lobbying for their trilingual broadcasts. From a country that has its own academy to protect its language, it will be interesting to see where this goes, just make sure not to judge too hard.

One thing is sure: Sarkozy’s choice does seem odd given his pro-American stance, but maybe some people just want to keep things en français.