Scandinavian verbs under scrutiny

Ida Larsson had always planned to be a biologist, but ended up a linguist. She claims that “studying languages is reminiscent of examining something in a lab.”  She is now working on a project to uncover how and why Scandinavian verb phrases change.

Ida Larsson (Photo: Private).

Scandinavian languages have centuries of common history and often show a develop in parallel. As such, it is fascinating to study the similarities and differences between these languages, according to Professor Ida Larsson of the Department of Linguistics and Scandinavian Studies.

She is the project manager for the research project "Variation and change in the Scandinavian verb phrases". Under the project, the researchers will be studying the Nordic languages – Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Faeroese and Icelandic – from the end of the 17th century until modern day.

“We will be studying how linguistic categories can vary in languages that are so similar and so closely associated as the Scandinavian languages are.   As the languages are so similar, it is easier to identify actual variations and what these involve,” explains Ida Larsson.

A study of reflexives

The project addresses four different but related linguistic phenomena: Verb-particle constructions (turn on the light), the benefactive case (bake me a cake), resultatives (paint the house red ) and reflexives (dress yourself). The project examines how these relate to each other, and to other aspects of grammatical systems in both the older and more recent variations of Scandinavian languages.

One of the issues studied is the difference in the position of reflexives. In the Scandinavian languages, some verbs require the reflexive pronoun “seg” (oneself) to have meaning, such as “vaske seg” (wash oneself) or “kamme seg” (comb one’s hair).

“In Swedish and Norwegian, the position of the reflexive pronoun differs. One example is the use of the term ‘to wash oneself’, requiring the reflexive pronoun in Scandinavian languages. In Swedish, you would say: ‘I går tvättade sig maratonlöparen’, while the corresponding sentence in Norwegian would be ‘I går vasket maratonløperen seg’. The reflexive pronoun ‘sig’ in Swedish comes after the verb but before the subject, while the Norwegian version ‘seg’ comes after both the verb and the subject. It is thus possible that reflexives have different properties and are therefore used differently,” explains Ida Larsson.

Important to also study consistency

The project researchers are however not solely interested in linguistic changes. They are equally interested in elements that do not change.

“If you are planning to study elements that change, you also have to look at those elements that do not change. We can find examples to show that, at times, languages appear to have a stable variation. In the older Scandinavian languages, we can find variation in the sequence of words in verb-particle constructions, and this sequence of words may still vary in Norwegian dialects – ‘skru lyset på – skru på lyset’ (or turn the light on – turn on the light). Swedish and Danish have changed, but in the opposite direction. In Swedish, the object must always come after the particle (skruva på locket), while Danish always has the object in front of the particle (skru loget på). In this example ‘locket or loget’ is the object and ‘på’ the particle. With this project, we are studying the partly stable variation in Norwegian, but also developments with the use of particles in Swedish and Danish.” 

Both written and oral sources are used in the project.

“We will be using a number of written sources, such as electronically stored text corpus. We are focusing on written sources with as little standardisation as possible, such as diaries and dramaturgical dialogue. These sources provide speech that is as natural as possible. We are attempting to investigate linguistic competencies, so oral speech is important,” she explains.

(Illustration: Annica Thomsson)


The study will also involve linguistic experiments. The participants will be asked to reformulate sentences that are displayed on a screen. Ida Larsson explains:

"Some of the phenomena we want to investigate are not normally used in spontaneous language and are therefore difficult to examine in a text corpus. We are therefore planning to use experimental methods to encourage people to produce the type of linguistic patterns we want to study. One example of an experiment is to provide a Norwegian informant with the sentence ‘maratonløperen vasket seg i går’ which translates as ‘the marathon runner washed himself yesterday’. We then ask the informant to start the sentence with ‘i går’ (yesterday) to see if they position the reflexive pronoun (seg) before or after the subject (maratonløperen). Norwegians and Swedes do this differently, but the Swedes also vary the word order to a certain degree,” Ida Larsson explains.

Like a laboratory study

Ida Larsson equates linguistic research to a laboratory study:

"We can examine linguistic categories by keeping selected factors constant while varying others," she says, and explains further:

“When you’re conducting research in a lab, testing how one object reacts with another, you can’t replace all the objects at the same time but have to replace one at a time. It’s kind of the same with Norwegian and Swedish. When studying Norwegian and Swedish, you can assume that my Swedish and your Norwegian are almost completely the same language, with only a few minor differences here and there.”

Original plan to be a biologist

The comparison with lab work is highly relevant in Ida Larsson's case. Before starting her linguistic studies, she studied biology for a year and a half at the University.

“I’d always planned on becoming a biologist but stumbled across linguistics. I find it incredibly interesting to study how languages sometimes change and at other times do not. Understanding how languages change appeals to me.”

Languages have a biological base

For Ida Larsson, the transition from biology to language was a relatively natural one. 

"The transition was not as peculiar as you might think. It is said that linguistics are closely related to the sciences. And in many ways, you can also say that language has a biological base – that which is specific for humans. And I believe that the changeover suited me as I’m much more interested in people – more the mind than the brain,” she explains.

As a Swede in Norway, she claims she has an advantage when researching such a subject.

“In many ways, people see Swedish and Norwegian as the same language – but when you start to dig deeper, you find incredibly vast differences. You constantly discover new aspects of your own language and become much more aware when reading historical texts or finding other kinds of variations. As a Swedish person in Norway, I’m constantly making new discoveries,” says Ida Larsson.

By Toril Haugen
Published Nov. 12, 2018 9:32 AM - Last modified Nov. 12, 2018 9:32 AM