Hav or sjö? Posted by Transparent Language on Apr 23, 2009 in Geography, Swedish Language
When is a lake not a lake? When it’s a sea. Doesn’t make much sense, now does it? But unfortunately that’s how it can be in Swedish. Sometimes a lake is just a lake, but sometimes, even though it’s called a lake, it’s really a sea.
Of course, I am talking about the “hav” and “sjö” issue. And what inspired me to write about it was a heated discussion between a Swede and a foreigner I overheard on the bus the other day. The discussion was in English, the foreigner was asking lots of questions and the Swede was doing the explaining. Sadly, he wasn’t very good at it and I was seriously contemplating whether or not I should join in. But since one doesn’t just join random conversations taking place in public places in Sweden, I stayed silent. I was reading an interesting book anyway.
So, here’s my chance to add my 2 öre to the discussion, even though I seriously doubt that the foreign guy from the bus reads this blog.
But this was his question that started the whole discussion:
Why is the Baltic Sea called a “lake” in Swedish? And how come it’s not even called “Baltic lake” but “Östersjön” – Eastern Lake.
Hmmm… the easy answer is that: Since it’s to the east of Sweden, it’s called “eastern”, even though as far as I know the rest of the world calls it “Baltic”. That’s OK, I can live with that. Every language has its quirks and this is one in Swedish. And that was pretty much what the Swedish guy on the bus said.
But what’s up with this “sjö” (lake) business? That’s something the Swede had a much harder time explaining. And I can’t blame him. There’s Vänern, which is most definitely “sjö”, in fact Vänern är Sveriges största sjö and third largest in Europe.
So, if “sjö” means “lake”, then why do we have “Östersjön” (the Baltic Sea) and Nordsjön (the North Sea)? Well, the traditional reasoning is that those two seas were so well-known to the Vikings, they didn’t even consider them as seas, but as their own lakes. Fine, I can live with that, too. But then what about Sydkinesiska sjön (the South China Sea)? Was it also known to the Vikings? Mercifully, Sydkinesiska sjön also has an alternate name – Sydkinesiska havet. And that’s more like it. To make the distinction between lake-lake and sea-lake easier, the kind of lake that is a normal lake is called “insjö” in Swedish.
“Hav” means either a sea OR an ocean. So you can have for example Stilla havet (the Pacific Ocean) and Medelhavet (the Mediterranean Sea).
Ok, so if “hav” means “ocean” and there’s Stilla havet to prove it, then what about “Indiska oceanen”? Hmmm… a very good question. Luckily, you can say either “Indiska oceanen” or “Indiska havet” – both are fine.
And what about the Atlantic Ocean? To make things even more interesting, it’s simply called “Atlanten”.
- sjö (def. sjön, pl. sjöar, def.pl.: sjöarna) – stort område med vatten som inter inner och med land runt omkring, insjö – lake (or a sea in some cases
- hav (def. havet, pl. hav, def.pl.: haven) – saltvattnet som finns runt jordens landområden – ocean or sea.