Friday, March 6, 2009

Språk og Kultur (Language and Culture)

Here at Sons of Norway we get a lot of questions about Norwegian language and this blog gets a lot of visitors who are interested in learning Norwegian. I think it's awesome that so many people are interested in the subject, so in the future the blog will be running some more posts related to Norwegian language, vocabulary and etymology. To kick things off, we have an interesting post from Cultural Advisor Colin Thomsen on Skijoring.

Or is it Skikjøring?

Let's find out!

Here at the culture desk, we recently received a question about the word skijoring. It's an English word that refers to the sport of skiing while being pulled by an animal, usually a dog or horse. We had always assumed that the English-language term "skijoring" was a mutilation of the Norwegian word skikjøring (literally "ski-driving"). No less an authority than the Oxford English Dictionary attests to this etymology, calling it a "semi-naturalized alteration" of the Norwegian term. This makes perfect sense as the "kj" combination has no value in English (to say nothing of the poor ø) and an English speaker whose primary exposure to the word was in writing would only naturally pronounce the word as "skijoring."

But there's one problem. Skikjøring doesn't mean "skijoring." The word for that in Norwegian is snørekjøring ("leash-driving").

The Norwegian language makes lots of distinctions between types of skiing that English does not. For example snørekjøring is a general term that can refer to skijoring as we know it in the States, or the "Nordic style" of the sport where the dog and skier are separated by a sled. In competition, this sled (pulk) is loaded with weight of 20kg for male dogs and 15 kg for female dogs. Skikjøring is another general term for skiing without a precise equivalent in English.

However the skikjøring --> skijoring etymology could still be correct. Perhaps skikjøring had a different meaning, say, 100 years ago, or maybe there was some longer term (hundeskikjøring, for example) and only the skikjøring element was adapted, with changes, into English. Or perhaps whoever gave skijoring its name just didn't know Norwegian well enough to pick the right term to mutilate.

But as I did more research, we found yet another explanation. In a 1937 volume of the academic journal American Speech, Steven T. Byington offers a different etymology of the word. He begins by saying that Webster's dictionary "asks us to believe that skijoring is derived from skjgjøring, lit. 'ski-doing.'" He goes on:

When skis became famous, the French army organized a body of men on skis, and called them skiers, in French skieurs. These skieurs invented the practice of having horses pull them along on their skis. (The authority for the facts so far is the Britannica) The Norwegians, in adopting as a sport the method of the skieurs, called it skieur-ing, in Scandinavian orthography skijøring; for it is good Scandinavian custom, in borrowing a French word, to give it a phonetic spelling based on the analogy of Scandinavian orthography. When the sport came to the United States it was spelled skikjøring, as I well remember; but the newspapers went at once to printing it with a plain o in accordance with the habit of American newspapers regarding marks over vowels as unessential frills...

Byington is almost certainly right about dismissing skigjøring as nonsense (it's not a word) but how likely is it that the French "invented" being pulled by an animal? (And of all animals, why a horse? Wouldn't they have been more likely to eat it?)

Editorial note:
While we all enjoy a good joke at the expense of the French, it would be unfair not to mention thatTo be fair, it should be noted that in Norway horse meat is used in some sausages, such as Vossafår.

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