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What!? Meh!

In a previous blog post, I talked about what interjections my kids use when they are surprised. Mainly, they use “meh” and “what”, a Swedish conjunction and an English question word. In the process of becoming interjections, both these words have undergone some changes in how they are pronounced.

“Meh”, a variant of the conjunction “men” (‘but’), indicates surprised indignation on the part of the speaker. Depending on the level of indignation, “meh” can be pronounced [mæʡ] or [mæ] – the more distinct the glottal stop, the more indignant the child.

While “meh” expresses indignation, “what” can be used to express positively as well as negatively charged surprise. I first noticed my kids using “what” when they were about six years old and entered the formal school system. In Sweden, it is rare to study a foreign language earlier than year 3. In other words, they picked it up, not from formal language training, but from their peers. The pronunciation is usually something like [wɔt:], with an English sounding /w/, and more Swedish sounding /o/ and /t/ sounds. Especially the very

distinct, lengthened /t/ makes the end of the word stand out as Swedish sounding. Not a glottal stop in sight.

It is interesting though, that they clearly use /w/. Until the advent of the Word Wide Web and the vocabulary that was imported into Swedish along with it (mostly from English), the sound /w/ was only very rarely used by native speakers of Swedish. Other, older, import words that are spelled with the letter w had been adapted to the Swedish phonetic make up when they were imported. While a word could retain a w-spelling, it normally ended up with a /v/ pronunciation.

The letter w didn’t count as a letter in its own right in the Swedish alphabet until 2006, when the lexicographers working with the Swedish Academy Glossary, a comprehensive and handy dictionary for the spelling and inflection of the contemporary Swedish lexicon, decided to separate w from v. Previously, w had simply been considered a variant of v.

When words and expressions are borrowed between languages, they are tweaked, adapted and nudged to fit into the borrowing languages’ morphology and phonology. And sometimes it is the borrowing language that adapts a little. That’s when, just like that, an alphabet might gain a new letter, and a language a new sound!

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