The poet, philologist and bishop Esaias Tegnér (1782-1846) once wrote,

All bildning står på ofri grund till slutet
Blott barbariet var en gång fosterländskt

“All our learning must always stand on a slavish foundation
Barbarism is our single true heritage”

This was in the context of how nice Tegnér felt that the late-18th century reign of Gustaf III had been. This was somewhat controversial in the time of national romanticism, as the Gustavian era had been inescapably saturated by French cultural imperialism.

And Tegnér was right. As European countries go, Sweden was very late with all the refinements of civilisation. Almost all Swedish words for civilised matters have recently been borrowed and adapted from Continental languages. Lately, for instance, I have been thinking about two words having to do with art, both from the French, both with fun etymologies.

An artist’s studio is known as en ateljé in Swedish. This is the French atelier, meaning “studio, workshop”, from the earlier astelier, meaning “pile of wood shavings or artisan’s workshop full of such shavings”, from Latin astella meaning “small spear or wood-shaving shaped like one”.

The opening of an exhibition is called en vernissage, from the same French word, which literally means “varnishing”. Artists would apply the last touches to an oil painting and seal it with varnish at the exhibition venue. The British painter Turner liked to make semi-finished oil paintings and finish them at opening night to show off to his audience. If I understand correctly, some of his most daring and abstract canvases are in fact such unfinished pieces that he never got round to doing up properly.

So, how do you think artists spend the week before an important varnishing? In their pile of wood shavings.

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  1. #1 Thinker
    August 15, 2007

    Of course, as befits a trading nation, we haven’t only imported words, but also exported them.

    For example, English has several words from old Norse: husband (from husbonde, “head of the household”), treshold (from tröskel) and window (from vindue; “wind-eye”, the hole at the top of your humble abode abode that let smoke out and light in). That last one is especially interesting since we Swedes have abandoned that word in favor of the french “fenêtre”, turning it into fönster.

    So hopefully, the artist at the head of the household, after crossing the treshold into his wood shavings will have enough light from the wind-eye to prepare for the important varnishing…

  2. #2 mary
    August 18, 2007

    It’s funny how so many of the peripheral nations, from Sweden to Indonesia adopted the same modern (coffee, police…) and technical words from the French and Germans who made them out of Greek and Latin. While Spain, Nederlands and England ruled the seas, they ruled the classroom until at least WWI. Just looking at the 5 August Allotetrapoid essay “En ny hedeniusdebatt” I see right off our shared loanwords debate, culture, religion, media, channel, radio, grassrootsorganization, mobilize, tradition, bronzeagemorality, and pagan in the first paragraph. That’s just the modern ones, not the ancient common origin ones like Thinker mentions (the, that, from, have, on, new, heathen, world, same, flame, clear…).

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