IKEA Names II.

Back in 2003 I posted about a site “explaining a few of the basic rules of IKEA’s often bizarre-sounding product names”; now that the internet has grown and matured, I can point you to a much more comprehensive site, The IKEA Dictionary by Lars Petrus:

Part of what makes IKEA unique is their product names. Each name means something, often in a funny or ambigious way. When IKEA went international, they decided to use the same Swedish names everywhere. This makes sense from an organizational sanity standpoint, but it deprives most of the world of this particular joy.

Until now!

IKEA product names fall into a few main groups.
Proper Swedish words.
Improper Swedish words. IKEA laughs at the ‘rules’ of human language!
First names. Mostly Swedish, some Scandinavian, occasional exotic names.
Geographical names. Swedish, Danish, Norwegian or Finnish. Yes, there are patterns. Here is a map of all 320 places
A few names that defy categorization.
? Mystery names I haven’t figured out… Currently 130 out of 1362 names.

(Note that the original page has colors not reproduced above, which is why the sigla for Proper and Improper Swedish words look identical.) Via MetaFilter, where Foci for Analysis explains some of the words Petrus couldn’t:

Most of the words lacking definitions are actually old-timey names of towns, villages, hamlets, etc. Typically, they reference nature, agriculture or old professions.

KOTTEBO: KOTTE=cone, slang:individual BO=resident, dwelling, den, nest

BERGSBO: BERGS=mountain BO=resident, dwelling. den, nest


EKTORP: EK=oak TORP=cottage

Seejiq Abstract.

The Seejiq (called Seediq in Wikipedia) are a Taiwanese aboriginal people who speak an Austronesian language; I learned about them from Scott Simon’s article “Real People, Real Dogs, and Pigs for the Ancestors: The Moral Universe of ‘Domestication’ in Indigenous Taiwan,” forthcoming in American Anthropologist — or rather from the abstract, which is at the link. Why am I mentioning it here? Because the abstract is repeated in Seejiq (“Pnegluban seejiq ni kana samat o saw bi tkrakaw sun imi ‘nguciq,’ aji asaw quri pnegluban quri kmlawa ka nii…”), which I think is such a terrific idea I wanted to post about it. And don’t bother talking to me about practicality, because I don’t give a damn.


During Thanksgiving dinner (and I wish a happy Thanksgiving to all of my readers who celebrate it today), it somehow came up that three of the people at the table differentiated between the pronunciations of niche, using “nitch” for a recess in a wall and “neesh” for (in the words of Merriam-Webster) “a place, employment, status, or activity for which a person or thing is best fitted.” I myself use “nitch” in all senses; I was aware that a lot of people said “neesh,” but was astonished to find this bifurcated use, and am curious to know if others among you do the same thing (or differentiate them otherwise).

It also turned out that two of the three distinguished the two pronunciations of patronize, using the long a (pate-ronize) for “frequent (a store, theater, restaurant, or other establishment) as a customer” and the short a (pat-ronize) for “treat with an apparent kindness that betrays a feeling of superiority,” so if you differentiate those I would like to hear about it as well (and, in fact, any similar pairs that come to mind).

Singular They Is Word of the Year.

I find the whole “word of the year” thing annoying and generally ignore the many news stories based on PR releases by lexicographers and other harmless drudges trying to drum up a little attention, but I have three cheers for this one from Dennis Baron:

Singular they is word of the year for 2015. A common-gender third-person pronoun, singular they has been popular in English speech and writing for over 650 years. Although frequently classified by purists as ungrammatical, its use seems undiminished, and it may even be on the rise because it fills an important linguistic niche. In recent years, more and more English speakers have sought a gender-neutral alternative to pronouns that express the traditional male/female binary, turning either to invented pronouns like xe and zie, or to that old stand-by, singular they. Because singular they has witnessed a dramatic rehabilitation over the past year, the Web of Language Distinguished Usage Panel unanimously chose to honor it as word of the year for 2015.*

The footnote says, “Truth in advertising: The Web of Language Distinguished Usage Panel, charged each year with picking the Word of the Year, consists entirely of me.” The rest of the post contains a nice history of the form and its history, and I applaud Baron’s choice. If anyone has a problem with it, let them eat xe!

Addendum. Geoffrey Nunberg posted this on Facebook, adding:

I took Dennis Baron’s selection of singular “they” as his Word of the Year as occasion to change my Facebook pronoun to “they” (as in “Wish them a happy birthday”), not so much because I have a problem with cisgender pronouns, but as a finger in the eye of the pedants who think there’s something wrong with “Everyone took their coat,” secure in the grammar they learned in eighth grade at the end of Sister Petra’s ruler.

Automated Reconstruction of Ancient Languages.

This BBC Science story by Rebecca Morelle… well, really all I need do is point out that the affiliations of the authors of the paper it’s based on, “Automated reconstruction of ancient languages using probabilistic models of sound change,” are one Department of Statistics, one Department of Psychology, and two Computer Science Divisions. My basic response to any paper making claims about language that does not have at least one actual linguist on board is to toss it in the circular file. But I guess it’s possible that this system that “automatically and accurately reconstructs protolanguages from modern languages” (it slices! it dices!) might be useful in chewing through large quantities of data and spitting out correlations that could save linguists some time; at any rate, there it is for those who might find it of interest.

Languages and Ecosystems.

This Living on Earth story makes a point that’s been made here before but that needs to be repeated because it’s often neglected by those who think the death of languages is no big deal (why can’t they just speak English?):

But [Jonathan] Loh, who’s also a research associate at the Zoological Society of London, says that languages are dying off due to many of the same issues that plants and animals face.

“Some of the drivers that are driving the extinction of biodiversity — such as increasing global population, increasing consumption of natural resources, increasing globalization and so on — are applicable to languages as well,” he says.

And that’s no coincidence. Loh explains that languages have a lot of specific local knowledge built in. “The cultures have evolved in a particular environmental context, so they have an extraordinary amount of traditional ecological knowledge — knowledge of the local species, plants, animals, the medicinal uses of them, the migration patterns of animals behavior,” he says.

So when the languages die off, much of that knowledge goes with them. “Then children stop learning the language, they also stop acquiring that traditional knowledge,” Loh says.

There are plenty of linguists who are studying and trying to preserve native languages, but Loh wants to see them work with biologists to make sure that valuable ecological history isn’t missed. “Linguists often don’t have the knowledge of natural history that’s necessary in order to be able to record an endangered language because so much of the lexicon is tied up with names of species or types of ecosystems,” he says.

He argues that “if we can recognize that culture and nature are inextricably interlinked, then working on a biocultural diversity as a whole, as a subject, would be a more fruitful way of looking at conservation.”

As is so often the case, specialists need to talk to each other across the boundaries of their specialties.

The History of Nationalized and Marginalized Languages.

I thought this AskMetaFilter question was interesting enough to repost here; I couldn’t think of relevant books offhand, and I’m sure some of my commenters can:

I know there was this process in the last few hundred years of European history where newly forming nations, trying to take hold of themselves, would decree one language official (French, Spanish), and try to squelch all of the many other languages/dialects (Occitan, Catalan) spoken within their borders. Where can I learn more?

Simple googling is not turning up enough to assuage my curiosity. I have a bunch of questions: is there a name for this process? How much resistance was there to it in Europe (like the modern Catalan independence movement)? How similarly did this process play out in Europe vs. other parts of the world (Russia, Japan, China)?


These Fragments I Have Shored.

I have a few envelopes stuffed with the “pocket papers” I used to carry around to jot down phone numbers, book titles, and other bits of information I didn’t want to lose, and every once in a while, in a fit of nostalgia, I go through them. The one I have before me is a call slip from Yale University Library (“Books must not be marked, annotated, or defaced in any way”), so it’s presumably from the 1970s, and on its back are scribbled a few items. The first is self-explanatory:

WWI: “If a sgt said, ‘Get your f-ng rifles,’ it was understood as a matter of routine. But if he said, ‘Get your rifles,’ there was an immed. implic. of urgency & danger.”

The second is more cryptic:

kwoy inam (ma) — mild piece of chaffing
kwoy lumata (sis) — very serious
kwoy um’ kwava (wife) — Mal only heard twice; learned of its exist. only after had been long in Trob’s

This turns out to be from Ashley Montagu’s The Anatomy of Swearing (as you can see, I’ve been interested in the topic for a long time); you can read the very instructive passage at Google Books (page 323). And the third is the amusing sentence “If I had a son who was an idiot I would make him a parson”; this turns out to be an anecdote about “that witty clergyman, Sydney Smith,” whose “quick rejoinder” was “Your father was of a different opinion.” Once again, I say thank heavens for the internet!

Swearing: US vs. UK.

This BBC.com piece by Erin Moore is an extract from her new book That’s Not English: Britishisms, Americanisms and What Our English Says About Us; both it and a Wordorigins.org thread suggest that the book is largely ignorant tosh, like most books on language by non-linguists, but I’m posting about it for the following delightful paragraph:

Celia Walden, an English woman who moved to Los Angeles, described for the Telegraph her realisation that Americans “don’t use expletives as much as we do.” She found it refreshing (“I haven’t been cursed at in nearly a year”) and noted that her “new sensitivity” to swearing might be related to having become a mother to a child whom she’d rather “didn’t end up like the tiny mite I once saw fall out of his pushchair in Shepherd’s Bush, look accusingly up at his mother, and calmly enunciate the words: ‘Bloody hell’. I still wonder whether those were that poor child’s first words.”

After that she quotes a wonderful Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie sketch “based on the idea that if the BBC wouldn’t let them swear on the air, they’d simply make up their own curse words”; I recommend it as well. (Thanks, Eric!)

Linguistic Self-hatred.

Karina Picó Català writes about “Why I’m ashamed of speaking my mother tongue”; after describing being in a restaurant and hearing two obvious Catalans speaking Spanish for the waitress’ benefit, she says:

The concept of self-hatred was first used by the North American psychologist, Gordon W. Allport, to refer to the feeling of shame a person feels for possessing certain individual characteristics that she despises in her own community. However, it was the Spanish sociologist, Rafael Ninyoles, who pioneered its application to linguistics, which then evoked interest well beyond Spain. What does self-hatred mean in linguistics?

In a situation of self-hatred, the speaker feels ashamed of speaking his own language, which he considers to be inferior, and he substitutes it for another, usually the dominant language, which possesses greater social prestige. Far from being a phenomenon exclusive to Catalan, it is present in various linguistic settings around the world. It is found in languages like Breton (against French in France) and Quechua (against Spanish in Peru). Displaying a complete rejection of his mother tongue, the speaker not only attempts to switch to the dominant language, but also modifies his accent and his name (e.g. if the speaker is named Josep, he introduces himself as José); hiding, ultimately, any indication of his origin.

Even if it initially begins as only an individual linguistic behaviour, it often ends up rippling through an entire community. On the one hand, you have the speaker who decides to abandon her language, and feels a sense of disdain towards those who decide to remain loyal to it. On the other, there is the speaker who accuses the former of being unfaithful to her community and wanting to assimilate into the dominant culture. [...]

Where does one look for the causes of this phenomenon? Perhaps in the apathy of a people who no longer care about their language? Perhaps in the 40 years of the tortuous Franco regime, which took it upon itself to “unify” Spain, rapaciously fighting against regional culture, destroying linguistic diversity and making great strides towards the eradication of Galician, Basque, and Catalan? The roots of the phenomenon are no doubt deep; but that is another story altogether.

“How do I explain it? Catalan is…like the slippers you wear at home: comfortable, but old and ugly,” my grandmother once explained to me when I asked her why she had not brought my father up in Catalan, despite it being her mother tongue. “Spanish, on the other hand, is like the shoes one wears on Sundays. Leather shoes, elegant, and flawless. Nobody goes out into the street exposing oneself to the world in ragged and dirty shoes, don’t you see, dear?”

When a language becomes nothing grander than those slippers you walk around indoors in, when it has lost all prestige, it is only a matter of time before the speaker no longer feels comfortable using it—and abandons it entirely.

Sad but illuminating. (Via the Facebook feed of Slavomír Čéplö, aka bulbul.)

Incidentally, she ends: “‘Vaja bé,’⁴ I blurt out, somewhat sad. I gather my change and leave the restaurant,” and the footnote says “A common Catalan expression to bid farewell.” I first thought the verb must be a Castilianism for vagi, but this discussion showed me it’s authentic, if archaic/regional.