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The strange Scandinavian pronunciations of common English words
In the original Finnish, that sauna you're baking in is really more of a sowna
 
Sauna or sowna?
Sauna or sowna? Redlink/Corbis

You have a nice day of skiing, even though it's as cold as the tundra. Maybe you wish there were a geyser to dive into, but at least there's a sauna. And then it's time to reload at the smorgasbord.

Yes, your everyday vocabulary is packed full of Scandinavian words — though just about every one of them is pronounced differently from the original. Ski. Tundra. Geyser. Sauna. Smorgasbord. Norwegian, Sami, Icelandic, Finnish, and Swedish, respectively. 

In modern times, English has borrowed few words from its Nordic neighbors, but centuries ago, English had such a huge influence from Old Norse that some scholars have argued that English is really a Scandinavian language. But modern Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, and Icelandic have evolved, and so has English. And modern Finnish and Sami were never related to the others in the first place. So even though the words look straightforward, we still managed to change how they're said. 

Take tundra, for instance. It's a northern treeless frozen plain, of which there is so much where the Sami — formerly called Lapplanders — live. When the wind whistles across it (through what low vegetation there is), it whistles a "tune" — as in "tune-draw," which is how this word was originally said. And sauna, the original Finnish hot box: that au is like the "ow" you'll say if you touch the hot rocks.

What about the Finnish word (and ubiquitous brand) Nokia? In Finnish, the stress is always on the start of a word, so the Finnish forestry company that started making cell phones is said with emphasis on the No when it's at home. 

Consider geyser. The word comes from the Icelandic name of a particular geyser: Geysir. That's the Icelandic word for "gusher." But the Gey is not like just any "guy"; it's more like "gay." And the sir is also not a "sir" as in a guy — it's like "sear," even though it's not a dry heat… and, for bonus points, the final r is voiceless, as though you're whispering it.

And smorgasbord? The trick there is that the Swedish word has some condiments on it: smörgåsbord. It's actually three words — a smorgasbord of its own. Smör means "butter" and is related to our word smear, and those two dots mean the o is pronounced with the tongue forward as if for an e — the closest English gets to the sound would make "smurr." Gås means "goose" and is related to goose, and that circle makes the a like "or" with a British (or Brooklyn) accent. And bord means "table" and is related to board. In Swedish an r before a d disappears into the d. Plus there's an extra accent when you say the bord. So this feast table (which in Sweden is more like a cold sandwich table) is strangely familiar but still surprisingly strange. The closest you'd get in English would be something like "smurr goss boad."

But perhaps the biggest surprise is ski. How could anyone pronounce that differently? Guess what: k softens before i in Norwegian (and Swedish). Put an s next to it and it becomes a "sh" sound. So ski in the original language is said the same way we say "she." Which would make a ski bunny a "she bunny" — if we said it the original way.

Of course, we don't say it the original way. We pronounce these words as they look to us like they should be said. And guess what — we can get away with it. We stole those words fair and square.

You'll never get English speakers to look at ski and say "she." The alternative would be respelling — just like how Norwegian spells chauffeur as sjåfør to keep the pronunciation. We did try respelling tundra as toondra, but it didn't stick. Just as well. Could you get used to going sheing, looking at gaysears, sitting in sownas, and eating at smurrgossbods? I think not.

 
James Harbeck is a professional word taster and sentence sommelier (an editor trained in linguistics). He is the author of the blog Sesquiotica and the book Songs of Love and Grammar.

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