Vikings, Verbs, and Very Old Swedish Posted by Marcus Cederström on Sep 23, 2016 in Grammar
“De gingo i land och kommo genast i strid med ställets innebyggare, som bodde tätt här” [They went ashore and immediately came in conflict with the inhabitants, who lived close together here], writes Frans G. Bengtsson in his novel Röde Orm about a Viking named Red Serpent. But what’s the deal with those weird verb forms? Gingo? Kommo? We got a question from a reader (hi, Russ!) about those verb forms in Röde Orm specifically, so let’s take a look.
First off, gingo is the past tense form of att gå, to go, and kommo is the past tense form of att komma, to come. But for those of you who have studied Swedish for a while, you know that the past tense form of att gå is gick and the past tense form of att komma is kom. So what gives?
Way back when, Swedish had plural verb forms. See that “de” in the beginning of the sentence? That’s determining the verb form of att gå and att komma. They went. They came. If it had just been Röde Orm himself who was going ashore, the sentence would have read: “Han gick i land och kom genast i strid med ställets innebyggare, som bodde tätt här” [He went ashore and immediately came in conflict with the inhabitants, who lived close together here]. That one word, de or han, for example, completely changes the form of the verb. It wasn’t just past tense though: jag äter/vi äta, jag kommer/vi komma, jag är/vi äro. And so on. The subject in a sentence has a lot of power over the verb. Or did at least.
The plural form of verbs isn’t used anymore. As Ylva Byrman writes in her article about this change, the plural form of verbs had fallen out of use in spoken Swedish long before writers stopped using it. She gives a wonderful example of what was, at the time at least, a piece of radical writing by Selma Lagerlöf who, in her 1906 book Nils Holgerssons underbara resa genom Sverige, used the singular form of verbs in dialogue, while leaving the plural form in place for narration. It’s a pretty brilliant way of blending the two while giving a nod to the way people actually spoke.
In the 1930s and ‘40s, Swedish writers moved further and further from the plural form. Röde Orm was written in 1941 so was starting to get a bit late in the game, although some places were still using the plural forms well into the middle of the century. In fact, Svenska Akademien didn’t officially accept the use of singular form for all verbs until 1973.
So why does any of this matter? People haven’t written like this for years. True. Kind of. You may run across this form if you’re reading in Swedish. You may run across this if you’re doing research in Swedish. You may run across this in old songs or poems (especially at Christmas as Linnea Hanell writes in “På julen ska det pluralböjas”). You may even run across this in those instances where people are trying to make their writing sound a little more old fashioned. And now you’ll know if they’re doing it correctly.
If you have any questions about Swedish as you continue learning the language, let us know and we’ll see what we can do to answer them.
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