On Bellman’s “Lullaby”

Let us begin this blog by taking a look at the language of Carl Michael Bellman (1740-1795), perhaps the person most deserving of the epithet “Sweden’s national poet”. One of his many works is “Vaggvisa för min son Carl” (‘Lullaby to My Son Carl’), dated August 18 1787. Bellman’s other son, Elis, had just passed away in smallpox, and it is the fleetingness of life which Bellman chooses to emphasise in this lullaby. The song, set (as I understand it) to a traditional folk melody, almost seems to preserve the final echoes of the Middle Ages. It is beautifully rendered by Eloninona, or Elina Järventaus, on Youtube. It is hard to imagine that anyone of the great, masculine Bellman interpreters such as Cornelis Vreeswijk or Fred Åkerström could preserve the brittleness in Bellman’s idea of life in this way.

Project Runeberg gives us the lyrics:

Lilla Carl, sov sött i frid!
Ty du får tids nog vaka,
tids nog se vår onda tid
och hennes galla smaka.
Världen är en sorgeö:
bäst man andas skall man dö
och bli mull tillbaka.

En gång, där en källa flöt
förbi en skyl i rågen,
stod en liten gosse söt
och spegla sig i vågen:
bäst sin bild han såg så skön
uti böljan, klar och grön,
straxt han inte såg’en.

Så är med vår levnad fatt,
och så försvinna åren:
bäst man andas gott och glatt,
så lägges man på båren.
Lilla Carl skall tänka så,
när han ser de blomor små,
som bepryda våren.

Sove lulla, lilla vän!
Din välgång skall oss gläda.
När du vaknar, sku vi sen
dig klippa häst och släda;
sen små hus av kort – lull lull –
sku vi bygga, blåsa kull
och små visor kväda.

Mamma har åt barnet här
små gullskor och gullkappa,
och om Carl beskedlig är,
så kommmer rättnu pappa,
lilla barnet namnam ger…
Sove lulla! Ligg nu ner
och din kudde klappa.

I’m not a translator, so I cannot do the text justice, but it would be a shame if I didn’t even try:

Little Carl, sleep sweetly in peace!
You will awaken in due time.
In due time you will see our evil time
And taste its bitter gall.
The world is an island of sorrows
One moment you are breathing, the next you are dead
Returning to dust.

Once where a springwell flowed
Past some sheaves in the rye
There stood a little boy so sweet
Reflecting himself in the wave
First he saw his image so fair
In the wave so clear and green
And then, he couldn’t see it

That is the way of our life
And thus the years do pass
One second you breathe, well and happy
The next you lie on the bier
Little Carl shall ever think thus
When he sees the little flowers
That decorate the spring.

Lull to sleep, little friend!
Your well-being shall rejoice us
And when you’ve woken we shall then
Make a horse and sleigh for you
Then little houses of cards, lull lull,
We will build and blow down
And sing little songs.

Mother has for the dear child
Little golden shoes and a golden jacket
And if Carl is good
Then Daddy will come right now
And give the child some yummies
Lull to sleep, now lie down
And pat your little pillow!

The interesting thing with Bellman’s language is that it is eminently readable and understandable to this day. In this way it differs from the formal language of the 17th and 18th century, which today makes a very archaic impression. I often get the impression that older Swedish texts sound much more archaic than texts in English, German or French from the same time. Perhaps this is because I am more familiar with the Swedish, but I would also like to think that it is because formal Swedish has shed much of its earlier, heavy German-Latinate syntax and come closer to the spoken language throughout the course of the 20th century. Anyway, Bellman’s language is much more supple and agile. I will bring up some aspects that I find particularly interesting from a linguistic point of view:

Line 1: Lilla Carl. Adjectives in Swedish typically inflect in three different ways: common gender, neuter or plural. When modifying a definite noun, or when used as genitive attributes, or when used in a vocative context, adjectives also take a definite form. The definite form is normally the same as the plural form. The adjective “liten” (cf. English ‘little’), however, is irregular: it is “lilla” in the singular definite, but “små” (cf. English ‘small’) in the plural (definite or not).

So far, so good. But there is a further twist to the tail: when modifying nouns that are definite common-gender singulars and that are semantically masculine, adjectives can take a special ending: “den lång-a kvinna-n” (‘the tall woman’, lit. the tall-the woman-the) but “den långe mannen” (‘the tall man’). Originally, Swedish used to have a masculine and a feminine gender (more on which below), and this is a remnant of that system. Previously, the masculine ending -e could be used with all masculines (not just definite singulars), but that usage died out during the 19th c.

Carl is a masculine, and the word occurs in a vocative context (“Carl, sleep sweetly…!”). Hence the adjective “liten” has adopted the definite ending to address this. But it’s not the masculine ending which is being used, but rather the common ending: it’s “lilla”, not “lille”. Why?

The answer is quite simply that the -e ending is more common in the so-called Göta (or ‘Geatish’) dialects in western and southern Sweden, while the dialects in the Upper Swedish dialectal area (around Lake Mälaren) prefer to use -a across the board. Since Bellman was from Stockholm, it’s natural  for him to use -a. In modern usage guides, -e is declared optional. In the 21st century, it seems as if the distinctions are becoming confused: -e seems to be taken as a generally formal ending, which is sometimes even used with female referents. The trend has previously been that the -e ending was in decline, but this is no longer quite so clear.

Line 4: “och hennes galla smaka”. Word by word, this is ‘and her gall taste’. Two things are worth saying. Firstly, “hennes” refers back to “tid” (‘time’). The Swedish Academy Dictionary (Svenska Akademiens Ordbok, SAOB) lists three different genders for this word: common, feminine and masculine. In other words, we use common gender now, but “tid” used to be feminine, with some masculine instances. What has happened in Modern Swedish, beginning perhaps in the 17th c. and finished late in the 19th c. was that the masculine and feminine genders merged into a common gender. As was mentioned above, some vestiges of the old three-gender system survive. For modern Sweden, “klockan” (‘the clock’) is ‘she’, at least when responding to the question “Hur mycket är klockan?” (‘What time is it?’, lit. ‘How much is the clock?’) – “Hon är fem.” (‘It’s five o’clock”, lit. ‘She is five’). For Bellman, “tid” is also feminine. It’s not clear to me that Bellman consistently uses a three-gender system: I’m more inclined to view this as an isolated instance, but I could be wrong (see below).

The second thing worth noting is the placement of the verb “smaka”: it’s final, just like in German. This is not typical of everyday Swedish. Rather, it is typical of a kind of poetic style, going back into the Middle Ages. If someone were to write like this today (which occasionally happens) it gives a very stilted impression. Modern Swedish instead uses “och smaka hennes galla”, as would English.

Line 6: “bäst man andas”. Bellman uses this construction three times in this song alone. It’s considered archaic today, but it is very appropriate in the context of the song and it’s hard to see what a direct equivalent would be today, either in Swedish or in English. Basically, the construction “Bäst clause A, then clause B” means that B happened just as A was happening. So “bäst man andas, skall man dö” means that while one is in the middle of breathing, one suddenly dies. And similarly, “bäst han såg sin bild så skön… straxt han inte såg’en” means that at one moment, the boy was seeing his reflection, but then, just like that, he didn’t see it.

Line 9: “skyl”. This is a word which I hadn’t encountered before reading the lyrics. I originally translated this word as ‘cover’, but I don’t think that’s right. SAOB gives two distinct meanings, both related to the verb “skyla” (‘to cover’, perhaps today mostly used in the sense ‘to cover up something which should not be seen (such as one’s nudity)’. One is ‘a shelter’, while the other is ‘a group of sheaves’. The latter may fit well with the word “råg” (‘rye’), but it seems a bit strange to talk of “en skyl i rågen” if what one means is that there was a group of rye sheaves. Rather, my impression is that Bellman is talking about something existing in a rye-field. So then perhaps “a group of sheaves stacked together in a rye-field” would be the most reasonable translation.

Line 10: “en liten gosse söt”. Bellman here puts an adjective after the noun, lit. ‘a small boy sweet’. Swedish would normally have “en söt liten gosse”. This is again an example of a poetic style, though I think one would find this pattern to be much more common if one goes back into Old Swedish.

Line 11: “och spegla sig i vågen”. “Spegla” is a contraction of “speglade”, ‘reflected’. All verbs of the 1st conjugation can be reduced in this fashion. It gives a decidedly spoken-language feel to the song. The first instances of this loss are dated back to c. 1500, and it’s widespread all over Scandinavia. It is now accepted in Nynorsk, but not in Swedish, where it might even be on the wane due to the influence from the written language.

Line 14: “straxt han inte såg’en”. Standard Swedish would have “strax” (‘soon’). The -t, attested since the 1630s, has been added by analogy with other adverbs on -t. It’s not considered to be acceptable in standard usage.

“Såg’en” is used instead of the expected “såg den” (‘saw it’). “‘en” is here an enclitic form. It may be that the initial d- has just been dropped. But there is another story. “Bild” (‘image’) used to be masculine. In Swedish just as in English, the old dative has crowded out the accusative to form an object form of the personal pronoun. In the masculine, this is “honom” (‘him’). But the old accusative “hann” survived as an enclitic. It would have developed into “en” thus: hann > han > ‘an > ‘n > ‘en. And since “bild” is masculine, this may explain the enclitic.

The word order in this clause also deviates from Standard Swedish. Bellman uses S-Neg-V-O, while the presence of an adverb (“straxt”) would cause the verb to be fronted: V-S-O-Neg = “straxt såg han den inte”. If the clause had been a subordinate clause, for instance if it had begun with “att” (‘that’), then the negation “inte” would have ended up in front of the verb, but the verb would have ended up behind the subject: “(det var tur att) han inte såg den” (‘it was lucky that he didn’t see it’) or, if you want to emphasise that it was lucky that he, out of all people, didn’t see it, “(det var tur att) inte han såg den”.

Line 23: “skall oss gläda”. First of all, we see the verb used finally here again. But that wasn’t the point. Rather, I’ve here amended the text from Project Runeberg, which has “din välgång alla gläda”. I interpret this as meaning something like “your well-being will make all of us happy”. The problem is just that “gläda” has to be a finite verb (since there are no other finite verbs in the clause) and if it is a final verb, it must agree with a plural subject. Modern Swedish lacks subject-verb agreement, but in Bellman’s time there was at least agreement on number, like in English, and vestiges of the more complex agreement found in Old Swedish. But “välgång” is undoubtedly singular, and “oss” (‘us’) can’t be the subject either (since it’s the object…). Fortunately, a Google search reveals that the form “skall oss gläda” is used in this place on many websites, so this is probably just a case of Project Runeberg getting it wrong. Finally, Swedish would today use “glädja”: SAOB says of “gläda” that it’s ‘not much in use’. It would have been used in Bellman’s time, though, and he needs to rhyme with “släda” and “kväda”.

Line 24: “sku vi sen”. “Sen” (‘then’) is interesting in itself, since it’s a contracted form of “sedan”. It is now quite common in writing, but would have had a more informal ring in Bellman’s time. But the interesting form here is “sku”, a form which would have been common in the educated conversational language in Stockholm in Bellman’s time, but which is now considered a typical Finlandism: a form which is mainly used in Finland-Swedish. Today, it’s used as a shorter form of “skulle” (cognate with ‘should’, but meaning ‘would’), but this can’t be the form here: “when you wake up, we will make…” is neither conjunctive nor preterite, which is where you might find “skulle”. In contemporary Swedish, one would have “ska” (or “skall”), but that’s because there is no subject-verb agreement (these forms are originally singular). In Bellman’s language, one would expect “skola”. But I notice that SAOB writes that the form “skulla” exists ‘occasionally, in dialectally coloured usage’. If this had been the underlying form, it is easy to see how it would have become “sku”.

Line 25: “släda”. Standard Swedish would have “släde”. This word used to be masculine, and it used to have oblique forms ending in -a. What happened in many Upper Swedish dialects was that such masculines were reanalysed so that the nominative ended in -a and not -e. The standard Swedish language contains a mixture of such forms and the older ones, which were conserved further south. In this particular case, it is the -e form which has won out. In other cases, such as “skara” (‘host’, ‘group’) and “låga” (‘flame’), the Upper Swedish form won out. In yet some cases, the two forms exist side by side with synonymous meanings (“timme” and “timma” both mean ‘hour’) or with different meanings (“flotte” ‘raft’ vs. “flotta” ‘navy’, “grädde” ‘cream’ vs. “grädda” ‘the cream of society’, “ande” ‘spirit’ as ‘soul’ vs. “anda” ‘spirit’ as ‘attitude’: “laganda” = ‘team spirit’).

Today, “släda” is a typical Finlandism, but I can swear that I heard this form used by my nursery teachers in Uppsala c. 1990, many of which were from northern Uppland, which is perhaps the area in Sweden where these forms have lingered the longest.

Line 30: “gullskor” and “gullkappa”. Modern Swedish would use “guld-“. Old Swedish used both forms. Throughout Modern Swedish, “gull” has been typical of the spoken language and “guld” of the written. In the 20th c. “guld” established itself as the usual form in all registers.

There are many other things one could comment on, but this is enough for today. What’s interesting with Bellman, and which makes his texts reward close study, is that he gives the impression of using the fairly educated colloquial spoken language of the Stockholm of his time: neither a countryside dialect nor a stiff and formal poetic language.

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