Höstdagjämning (Pronounced [ˈhœstdɑːɡjɛmnɪŋ]); n. “höstdagjämningen”
“A quintessential example of the Swedish use of compound words is höstdagjämning.”
Happy fall, y’all! On this, the autumnal equinox, we say so long to the long days of summer and prepare ourselves for coming months of darkness. We’ve been experiencing the cool, crisp autumn weather for a week or two now, but something about the passing of the light to the dark makes it feel official.
Which brings me to this weeks Swedish lesson. Höstdagjämning, the Swedish word for the Autumnal equinox. In my Swedish class we are currently learning about the linguistic typology of the language, which is a fancy way of saying we are learning how to classify how and why Swedish is the way it is. And one way to classify Swedish is as a polysynthetic language, meaning it is rich with long, compound words.
Compound words are single words that are made of several words or parts of words pushed together. While English has some examples of compound words, such as doormat, crosswalk, and become, it does not hold a candle to how this linguistic tool is used in other Germanic languages.
Höstdagjämning can be broken down into three parts: Höst (autumn), dag (day) and jämning (leveling, evening out). As a definition for the autumnal equinox, this cannot be beat.
I was really hoping to find a certified explanation as to why Swedish (and other languages) uses compound words, or how they developed within the language, but I did not make it that far down the rabbit hole (If you know, please share in the comments). I have my own, slightly educated theory though.
Sweden is a fairly cold country, and life was hard here in olden times. Most vikings were actually farmers, who took to pirating, raiding and pillaging to supplement the poor soil and short growing seasons. Though they did produce art, and even an alphabet, it would make sense if language was not high on a list of priorities for people in such a climate. Unlike the flowery, artistic languages of France or Italy, which had much milder climates, language in the north had to be utilitarian and succinct, and so as the vocabulary grew, words were logically put together to create new words (fun fact: in Swedish, the word for vocabulary is ordförråd, which breaks down into ord – word, förråd – storehouse, or inventory).
As I’ve been learning Swedish, I’ve been fascinated by how prevalent compounds words are. My husband and I even joke that there are only about 1000 stand-alone words in Swedish, and everything else is just made up of those 1000. Some words are compounded rather logically, and the breakdown gives a pretty good definition of the word, such as höstdagjämning, or sjukhus for hospital (sjuk – sick, hus – house).
Others, though, have a logic that’s a little more…difficult to follow. The epitome of Swedish words, smörgåsbord (where English gets smorgasbord from, obviously), can be reasonably broken down into smörgås – sandwich, and bord – table, since it traditionally refers to a large table covered in bread and sandwich fixings. However, smörgås can be broken down further into smör – butter, and gås – goose. Perhaps the original Swedish sandwich consisted of buttered goose?
Still other words break down almost poetically. My favorite example of this is tålamod, which means patience (tåla – endure, mod – strength). It is reassuring to define patience as the strength to endure, especially in the mornings as I am trying to get myself and a feisty 15 month old out the door!
Summer sports have come to a close, the harvest is gathered and processed for winter, and kids are going back to their studies. As the separation between night and day levels off briefly, before finally succumbing to the dark of winter, höstdagjämningen is the perfect time to put away summer activities, and revel in the cozier activities of fall and winter: reading by candle- or firelight, gathering for a cozy fika, and of course, casual linguistical discussions!