Friday, June 28, 2013

How good was Creation? Very or quite?

Creation: only "ganska godt" according to the 1703 Swedish bible
The book of Genesis tells us that following each of the first five days of creation God surveyed his work and in the words of the King James Bible, saw that it was good.  That covers most of creation other than land animals, and man and woman. On the sixth and final day when God had completed his work, he saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good; in the Italian bible grandamente buone; in the Swedish bible, mycket gott.

By now you’re wondering where all this is going, and perhaps suspecting it’s going nowhere. But as Polonius says to Hamlet’s uncle, perpend. For our next and final stop is the Swedish bible of 1703 (King Karl XII's bible): and here on the sixth day God says of his handiwork that it’s ganska godt. And finally I’ve come to my point, for to modern Swedish ears that sounds strange, as if God is saying his handiwork was only quite good. In fact I’ve seen a feminist blog claiming these words ganska godt show that up to the moment that God made woman he thought everything he made was just fine, whereas after making woman it all went downhill. Here however our feminist errs. Not in her assessment of the politics of religion, but in her knowledge of the Swedish language. For in 1703 ganska actually meant very, just as mycket in modern Swedish and grandamente in Italian. But the passage of time has diluted ganska’s sense so that now it means no more than quite or rather.  The German ganz from which ganska derives still means very, and so does Danish ganske.   All this I know because I’m spending a week with my mother’s sister Kerstin in LuleĆ„ where a couple of days ago the sun set at 23:55 and rose at 1:10 and we can read bibles at midnight without artificial light.

Which is handy. Inevitably when I come here the table is soon strewn with bibles in Swedish, English, Russian, French, German, Spanish, Greek, Finnish and Italian. That’s not where it began; but wherever it begins, that’s where it invariably ends. On this occasion it began with Jane Austen.

Jane Austen: repulsive wasn't so bad
I’ve noticed that in the 200 years since Jane Austen used it, the word repulsive has acquired extra strength. To her, repulsive meant (when used of a person) no more than off-putting or stand-offish, as in these two examples: from Mansfield Park, “She had not spirits to notice her in more than a few repulsive looks”; and in the denouement of Persuasion, “Anne could command herself enough to receive that look, and not repulsively.”   Whereas for us today the word is a real nose wrinkler. This trajectory, of a word gaining strength over the years, strikes me as unusual. The direction of travel is normally, I think, the other way. And that’s what I asked Kerstin about, which led to a discourse on the Swedish word ganska, and how it has evolved from very to rather.

Likewise astonished, when used by Milton, meant turned to stone as when Satan says of the fallen angels “The associates and copartners of our loss lie thus astonished on the oblivious pool.”  Whereas nowadays astonished means no more than exceedingly surprised; itself a word whose sense has diluted, for it used to mean ambushed or caught in the act, as when Dr Johnson, discovered in flagrante by his wife who expostulated “Sir I am surprised”, corrected her “No madam you are astonished, it is we who are surprised”; incidentally thereby illustrating that for him astonished had already declined somewhat in value.  Such are the considerations that led my aunty and me to ganska and a midnight table in the north of Sweden heaped with bibles.

LuleƄ: bible belt