Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Swedish verb plot thickens

Something's been bugging me about those Swedish verbs. As I said, Holmes and Hinchliffe mention that something like 80% of Swedish verbs are in the 1st conjugation. That means they end in a in the infinitive and the imperative. What's bothering me is that this seems like a generalization that you'd want the grammar to capture, but it may just be a historical accident. Now, I think there is more to the picture.

Swedish (like a bunch of other germanic languages) is crazy for compounding. When it comes to verbs, there are two types of compounds: seperable and inseperable. This is just like the difference in English between throw out and grandstand, as in Frank threw out the ball and The lawyer grandstanded to the jury. And if you look at Swedish inseperable compounds you'll see that a verb can be the first member of the compound, for example brännmarka (to brand), sprutmåla (to spray paint), kryppköra (to drive slowly). But after a quick survey of Swedish verb compounds, I can't find one where the first member of the compound is one of these 1st conjugation verbs. This is just a preliminary observation that I need to confirm with a native speaker. But if true, WTF?

Peter Svenonius suggests that 1st conjugation verbs are formed by adding the suffix -a to the stem. And -a looks like a productive suffx for making verbs: färga (to color or dye)--from the noun färg (color) + a and bila (to travel by car) from the noun bil (car) + a.

So i'm still a little puzzled by how a Swedish speaker knows which verbs are first conjugation and which are not. I guess I'm going to have to sit down with a good list of the verbs and think this through some more.


boredoom said...

I'm not sure I understand this, but in the examples you give, isn't "spruta" a first-conjugation verb? Imperative and infinitive are both "spruta."

liberal elite said...

Hey, your absolutely right! I knew I should have thought this through more.

There are still some weird things going on, but at least there's not that.

boredoom said...

How do we know the sprut- part comes from the verb, though? Maybe it comes from the noun sprut?

liberal elite said...

The short answer is that noun-verb compounds are rare and usually the result of backformations. So you have a noun like 'spraypainter' and you make a verb out of it, 'to spray paint'. Like 'babysitter:babysit'.

But noun-verb compounds are not as rare in Swedish as they are in English or German. So the answer requires some more thought.

boredoom said...

The notion of noun-verb compounds (like skitmula) feels more natural to me than verb-verb formations. When I think of the word vrålköra, I assume it's a compound of vrål and köra, not vråla and köra. I guess that's because vrål kan also precede a noun, as in vrålåk.

liberal elite said...

It seems like noun-verb compounds are more common in Swedish than verb-verb compounds. That is probably why you have that feeling. I actually don't know if there is a way to tell whether something is a noun or a verb in a compound. We may have to stick to cases where there is no noun counterpart to the verb. If these exist.

The thing I'm looking for would be a clearly verb-verb compound where the first verb is from the first conjunction. Then the question is, what happens to the final -a? My guess is that it gets deleted, since this happens to nouns: flickvän. So maybe this tells us nothing. Oh well.

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