Swedish Language Blog

The origin of the word ‘på’ Posted by 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 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, 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 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 . 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 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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About the Author: Stephen Maconi

Stephen Maconi has been writing for the Transparent Swedish Blog since 2010. Wielding a Bachelor's Degree in Swedish and Nordic Linguistics from Uppsala University in Sweden, Stephen is an expert on Swedish language and culture.


  1. Alex:

    I love posts like this. I had always wondered about this and I’m glad just by chance this popped up and I now know the answer. I love learning about this happening in English as well.

    Like ‘nickname’ was ‘an eke name’ and then ‘a neke name’ (nekname->nickname) where the ‘n’ from ‘an’ was though to be part of the front of the next word.

    Looking forward to more historical points!

  2. Eugenia:

    Awesome insight! Would love to know more about Swedish etymology. Thank you.

  3. Anuar Lv:

    Tack! amazing post! give us more about the history of svenska!

  4. Mor:

    Etymology is always interesting 🙂
    thanks for post.

  5. Jean-Claude Frot:

    Same here, I love that kind of language history, and as I lived in Stockholm a long time ago, but never forgot swedish, I am allways interested in your posts. That’s why Internet is a great thing !
    God fortsättning !

  6. Christopher:

    Also worth noting is the similarity to “po” in the Slavic languages i.e. “po polsku” as in, “Czy ty mówisz po polsku/po szwedzku?” (Do you speak Polish/Swedish?).

  7. Ana:

    Very useful, thanks!

  8. Judy:

    So interesting! Thanks so much! I have an observation to add about Ni: Doesn’t “Kommen I hit” resemble the German “Kommen Sie hier?” There is so much similarity between German and Swedish. I wonder why German isn’t as close to Swedish as the Nordic languages. Why didn’t that language evolve into Kommen Nie hier?” Interesting…

  9. Aidan Fritz:

    Jag gillar de här språk historiska inlägg!