I am back in Göteborg (Gothenburg) as Visiting Professor in the Unit for Human and Economic Geography at the University of Gothenburg. Each time I visit Sweden for a prolonged period, I try to do something systematic to improve, or at least regain, my limited Swedish. On this visit I opted for an intensive course. It was hard work; I haven’t thought about subordinate clauses for more than forty years, and learning vocab is much harder for me than it was then. Many people express surprise at this use of my time, since English is the second language of operation of Swedish academic life. All my colleagues here have to publish in English in order to establish an international reputation, and they speak and write English to a very high level. I don’t anticipate that I will ever be able to have an academic conversation in Swedish.
So why would I bother?
Is it a silly luxury, especially as a lot of it won’t stick when I return home? There are a number of reasons why I bother, but I suppose there are two main ones. First, to me it seems only polite, if you have a reasonably long-term relationship with another country, to make an effort to speak and understand the language. Second, language is such an important dimension of culture that even an introductory engagement with language can enhance cross-cultural insights and understanding.
Take the example of weeds. The Swedish word for weed is ogräs, literally ’not a grass’, the o prefix being used to turn words into their opposites or negatives (e.g. hederlig = honest, ohederlig = dishonest). How can this be, I wonder, as many weeds are grasses? (Jenny Atchison and I have been making a particular study of gamba grass, a Weed of National Significance in Australia. That peculiar Australian concept, Weeds of National Significance, causes great hilarity among Swedish colleagues.)
Well, one colleague explains, ’weeds are nature’ in Sweden. They are seen as plants growing where people don’t want them, for example in a garden or in a crop, but they are understood to be part of nature. For this reason weeds can’t, by definition, be found in protected areas (apart from the exception below). You can have invasive species, for example species that are poisonous or harmful in some way, but they are not necessarily weeds.
There is arguably much more acceptance here in Sweden than in Australia that weeds and people have a long shared history. Agricultural history is embedded within the national culture, partly because many Swedes still have family links to agriculture within a generation or two back.
There is even a nature reserve specifically to preserve weeds. It is called Dalby Västermark, situated 5 km east of Lund. Pesticides and artificial fertilizers are not used, making this a refuge of, as it says on the webpage, en naturlig åkerogräsflora (a natural field-weed flora), in an area of Sweden’s best arable land, so called 10+ quality. This is an example of det biologiska kulturarvet (biological cultural heritage), a concept promoted in recent years to include the biological remains of former land-use meadows, pollards and grazed forest. Joachim Regnéll and I wrote about these themes here.
So, Sweden has interesting connections to this recent report about the need to conserve the weedy relatives of many of our agricultural staples in the face of climate change. Arguments that seem somewhat strange in the Australian context make more sense in parts of the world with a long agricultural history (and vice versa of course).
As it happens, I did not learn about ogräs in Swedish class, but in conversations (in English) with academic colleagues. I think my point about the relevance of learning Swedish stands, but perhaps the jury is still out on whether this is the best way to spend time.
(Thanks to Robin Biddulph, Marie Stenseke and Joachim Regnéll for discussions and translations.)
You can follow Professor Lesley Head on Twitter @ProfLesleyHead. Other recent posts by Lesley include ‘The conversation we need to have about carbon’ and ‘Living with, living without weeds: bridging theory and practice’.