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Why does ‘hand’ become ‘händer’ in plural? Posted by on Jan 24, 2012 in Culture, Development, Grammar, Swedish Language, Vocabulary

This is one question that boggles the minds of many learners of the Swedish language (as well as the other Nordic languages). Why doesn’t ‘hand’ just become ‘hander’ or ‘handar’ in plural?

The answer to this lies in a major change that occurred throughout Germanic Europe in the Early Middle Ages (which in Scandinavia was the middle of the Iron Age, 450~500 AD). The process is known today as the i-omljud in Swedish (in English the Germanic umlaut, i-umlaut, or i-mutation). What happened during this change was that an unemphasized i (prounced like ‘ee’ in modern English) in a word brought emphasized back vowels (vowels produced in the back of the mouth: a, o, u) forward, closer to i. For example, what you’re here to find out:

– The plural of hand in Old Norse was handiar. But since it is natural for human beings to simplify things, people began to say hændar (/´hændər/), combining the a with the i, creating a new sound, æ (pronounced similarly to the a in hat). From there, the æ as well as the ar at the end became more and more weakly pronounced, leading to its modern pronunciation, /´hɛndər/, orthographized as händer. The singular form, hand, however, remained the same because it lacked an i to change it.

The i-omljud also affected the other back vowels, o and u. Before this process, Old Norse only had five vowels: a, e, i, o, and u, like the rest of the Indo-European languages of that time. After the i-omljud, though, three more vowels had developed, namely y (what you get when you combine i and u), æ (i and a combined, as shown above), and ø (from i and o). The letters æ and ø were used when the Latin alphabet was first adopted but were replaced by the Low German ä and ö toward the end of the Middle Ages (in Sweden, 1050~1520 AD). Previously, Swedish was written completely in runes.

What about å then? When did that appear? Check back in one week and you’ll be able to find out!

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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.


Comments:

  1. Eric Swanson:

    Thanks for this excellent explanation. It is something I wondered about, but never had heard or read in an articulated explanation. English also has some examples of the omljud, I think.

  2. Julie:

    Thank you SO much for this. It is clear and useful and interesting, and I have no idea where else I would ever have discovered this information. It is of inestimable value in helping to understand and remember how Swedish works. Can’t wait for the next installment.

  3. Anuar Lv:

    I would like to know what was happening in Sweden at this time, you are mentioning they were going through the middle iron ages, but what was the cause of this major change? were they having a lot of exchanges with other countries? Or was the transition from the runes to the Latin alphabet? tack