Shocked at how languages evolve? No way!

As a native speaker of English, I’m often impressed by how much influence our language has throughout the world, especially in business and technology.

Other times I’m not so much impressed as embarrassed.

If you ride the subway into downtown Stockholm you might see this advertisement:
Advertisement in Swedish, with the English expression
That’s right. No way, the flippant, emphatic expression of denial, has made its way into the Swedish vernacular. I shudder to think what might be next.

Yet I shouldn’t shudder, and I certainly shouldn’t be surprised. Languages have been influencing and enriching each other for millenia. Case in point: knowing English and a bit of German, I had no trouble finding the subway station in Stockholm. I just followed the signs to Tunnelbanan.

Now that no way has entered the Swedish language, I’m willing to bet that — unless it soon falls out of vogue — it’ll evolve new shades of meaning in Swedish that it never had in English. Just like smorgasbord has evolved a metaphorical meaning in English — it now refers to any large and diverse collection — that it doesn’t have in Swedish.

Having gotten over my initial surprise and embarrassment, I realize that the Swedish no way is just another example of the eternal interplay between languages. It’s a reminder that language is dynamic, that it often goes in directions surprising and whimsical. It’s a fascinating and marvelous process. And if anyone thinks it’ll ever stop, I have two words for you:

No way!

18 thoughts on “Shocked at how languages evolve? No way!

  1. Mark Baker

    I think “no way” is a fine bit of language — nothing to be embarrassed about at all. It is brief, it is Anglo-Saxon rather than Latinate, and it is evocative — it says that there is no route that should bring us to the place. But there I have to use the latinate “route” to clarify the Anglo-Saxon “way”. There is no way I should have to do that. 🙂

    We should not see the Latin and French borrowings into English are less embarrassing or more proper than the Anglo-Saxon roots of the language. It would be better is we were more consciously Saxon in our word choices.

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Hi, Mark. You’re right: I shouldn’t be embarrassed — although the original source of my embarrassment had nothing (at least consciously) to do with Anglo-Saxon vs. Latin origins. Rather it had to do with “no way” originating in popular culture rather than in ivy-covered buildings or corporate skyscrapers. Once I got past that bit of lingusitic elitism, once I reminded myself that language belongs to the people, I was OK with exporting “no way” to the non-English speaking world. Besides, as you say, it’s evocative and direct. So what’s not to like about it?

  2. Colum McAndrew

    The way language changes and evolves swallowing up words and phrases from other languages is something that has been happening for millenium. As they say in France, “That;s life” 🙂

  3. Jeff Coatsworth

    I ran across this once:
    “The problem with defending the purity of the English
    language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse
    whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English
    has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them
    unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.”

    [James Nicoll, in rec.arts.sf-lovers, 1990. Mr Nicoll
    is a Canadian freelance games and science-fiction

  4. Colum McAndrew

    If you ever get the chance to hear Prof David Crystal at a conference, do so. Or read one of his books. He knows more about the history of the English language than anyone I’ve met and highly entertaining too. How the Flemish printers started re-spelling Samual Johnson’s attempt to spell phonetically because surely there’s a “h” in “gost”.

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  7. pisackson

    Actually, I doubt that “no way” has been integrated into the Swedish language. Rather this ad seems to show that it is available for use in Swedish culture — or simply in marketing language — because of the Swedes’ deep and wide knowledge and awareness both of the English language and of American culture through popular media. In the ad the expression is highlighted in a different color, which could be seen as signaling that it is to be understood specifically in terms of American culture rather than the Swedish language and culture.

    Think about this. In English we often say “voilà !” with the clear understanding that we’re citing French culture. It is not felt to be an English word (and the accent makes it particularly difficult to adopt wholesale into the language). It works because everyone is familiar with it.

    On the other hand, “tristess” in the same ad, which means boredom in Swedish, is a full-fledged part of the Swedish language although borrowed from French, where it doesn’t mean boredom (“ennui”) but sadness.

    It would be nice to hear from a Swede on this issue.

  8. Larry Kunz Post author

    You make a very good point, @pisackson: perhaps the Swedes understand “No way” to be a borrowed bit of English rather than part of their own language. I, too, would like to hear from a native Swedish speaker.

  9. Olof P

    “Quiquid latine dictum sit altum viditur” (anything said in Latin seems profound), and similarly, I’d say many Swedes seem to think that anything said in English sounds much better than a corresponding Swedish expression, and I think this is what the advertisers had in mind. Four-letter expletives are popular as well, and I think we (urban Swedes, anyway) are very influenced and impressed by (mainly) American culture; just look at advertising, TV commercials, movies, etc. I don’t think Swedes consider expressions like “No way!” a part of Swedish just yet, though, but rather a code switch to English for whatever desired effect (e.g. to sound cool).

    …says the native Swedish speaker with the NYC hoodie from the DITA class at CT in Kista…

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thanks, Olof. I’m grateful to get the impressions of a native Swedish speaker. I remember you and your NYC hoodie, and I hope that our paths will cross again soon.

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