The origin of the word ‘på’ Posted by Stephen Maconi on Jun 22, 2012 in Swedish Language
Different people learn languages for different reasons. Different people are also interested in different aspects of the language they are learning. One of my personal favorite aspects of the Swedish language is its history, and having studied the history of the Swedish language at Uppsala University, I have a lot to share with you about it!
In case you are unaware, this is not the first time I have written about Swedish linguistic history on this blog; you can also check out my previous linguistic history posts here:
– The history of Swedish loan words
– The great Swedish vowel shift
– The letter å
– Why does ‘hand’ become ‘händer’ in plural?
Let’s start with the earliest form of Swedish. The Swedish language is considered to have become a language of its own (different from the other Nordic languages) around 800 AD, the beginning of a period known as runsvenska perioden, or the Runic Swedish Period. The only form of Swedish writing we have available from this time is carvings in rune stones. At that time, the word meaning på was an. (Note that this bears a striking resemblance to its English equivalent “on”. This is one example showing that Swedish and English have similar roots.)
Strange, right? After all, på and an look nothing alike. Well, several processes have taken place between these two stages. Remember that languages do not evolve overnight; it takes hundreds of years for significant changes to occur.
The first thing that happened was a nasalization of the vowel /a/, caused by the following nasal consonant /n/. Those of you who have studied and/or heard French being spoken can refer to the nasalization of the /a/ in maintenant, caused by the /n/. Nowadays (in standard French, anyway), the /n/ isn’t even pronounced. The same thing happened in Swedish – the /n/ sound nasalized the vowel /a/ and after a while, the /n/ disappeared.
After that, the nasalized /ã/ gradually transformed into a more closed sound, today written as <å> (and perhaps even more often as <o>). Okay, so now we know where the <å> in på comes from. But how in the world did that pesky <p> get in there?
The answer to this question is much simpler. People very often used the combination upp å (“upon” in English, from “up on”), often enough that the <p> had eventually stuck to the <å> and the entire word å was transformed to på. This transformation has occurred in Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian, while the word in Icelandic and Faroese has evolved into á in both languages.
And that, my friends, is how the word på came about. A similar case to the last stage is seen in the word ni. Originally, the word was I, a form that still survives in modern Danish. Swedish verbs used to be conjugated by subject, and asking several people or someone of authority to do something required a verb ending, -en. For example, Kommen I hit. – “[Please] come here.” Because of this frequent usage, people got used to pronouncing an /n/-sound before I and with time, the word itself slowly turned into ni.
Hope you found this article interesting. Don’t be afraid to browse around the blog for more interesting articles about the Swedish language!
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