With a feeling for the meaning of the words and place names
Name: Lars-Erik Edlund
Lars-Erik Edlund has been interested in place names and their meaning his entire life. They are also a part of his research regarding cultural boundaries, where a historical puzzle slowly appears.
As a 10-year-old, with his grandfather’s drawn maps in hand, Lars-Erik Edlund unconsciously acquired the guiding direction for his research career. The place-names that were on the maps fascinated the young boy and set his imagination in motion. A life-long interest in the origin of place names and words was born.
Could that 10-year old in the small Ångermanland parish of Trehörningsjö imagine that his interest in place names could lead to a professorship in Nordic languages at Umeå University 30 years later? That is exactly what happened. His sights were set on a teaching career, but once Edlund entered the university, he stayed.
“I was supposed to become a Swedish teacher, but when I wrote an essay about place names in my home parish, I got hooked. The origins of words and names have always interested me. It began with my 80-year-old grandfather’s stories. I traced his maps on greaseproof paper time and again. Names from his home parish such as Rysslandstjärnan and Turkarnäsudden captured my attention.”
The explanation of the imaginative names was that they originated from two mower teams that kept to those places, the Russians and the Turks, who competed to see who would be finished with the haymaking first.
“The inspiration of the names came from the Crimean War, which was much read about in the newspaper. This fascinated me.”
The Nordic countries are world leaders in place-name research. One explanation of this is that there is such rich material.
“In Sweden, there are as many old maps as in the rest of the world combined. On those maps, one can see how the place names change,” Edlund points out.
Conducting research on the meaning of place names and words is a bit like being an archaeologist or geologist. Some names mean exactly what they appear to mean, others have a meaning that has been lost through the development of the language. By studying the origin of a name, different cultural layers can be uncovered. They can be layered one upon another, just like different layers of earth.
“The most beautiful place name, in my opinion, is Rosvik and it is a prime example of this. Rosvik, which is located between Piteå and Luleå, has nothing to do with roses, as one might think. The original name was Ruoddinlaksi, which means the Swedish creek, and later became Roslax and ultimately Rosvik. This indicates that the area was settled by different groups of people at different times, Finnish speaking and Swedish speaking, and by people who mastered both languages because the name was able to be translated. From other ethnological material, we can see that there is a Finnish influence,” says Lars-Erik Edlund.
The derivation of Rosvik is a part of the large, interdisciplinary research project, Cultural Boundaries in northern Scandinavia: change processes in time and space. In this project, development in the northern Scandinavian cultural zone is studied.
What it is that makes some cultural boundaries difficult to move while others are swept away like autumn leaves is one of the questions that one seeks to answer. To achieve as clear a picture as possible, researchers from eight disciplines are included in the project. Forest vegetation ecology and religious studies are examples of two of these disciplines.
“In the Skellefteå area as well as the area from Luleå and north, one can see old Nordic influences. There are different layers on the coasts of Västerbotten and Norrbotten with Finnish and Nordic layers in both place names and cultural history artefacts. But sometimes the place name is all that is left that can bear witness of another cultural influence,” says Edlund.
Altough the different disciplines depend on each other to put the historical puzzle together, it is important that each discipline makes its own analysis and conclusions before the pieces are put together.
“What is dangerous if you do not do so, is that it easily becomes circular reasoning that can be mistaken. Not only place names and cultural boundaries are being studied in the project, but social boundaries as well.”
Lars-Erik belives that cultural boundary research teaches us more about history and how people build boundaries between us and them.
“I believe that this is highly applicable even today. We have two important cultural boundary areas: Skellefteå and the Nolaskog area where Nordic, Finnish and Same cultural boundaries have crossed. In the inner regions of Norrland, a separate language, the “borgarspråket”, was created, to speak with the Sami. These areas share in common that they are known for their entrepreneurship. Imagine if this is because there is a link between those who lived in the border regions being forced to be boundary-breakers, that they gained a skill in negotiating, that they became more flexible and innovative, which in turn resulted in a high degree of entrepreneurialism in both of the areas – this is a speculation I have.”
The project, which began in 1996 and was concluded in 2005, involved 30 researchers from eight disciplines and resulted in some ten papers and more than 50 monographs.
Once the project is summarised, Lars-Erik Edlund will take on another research project that deals with the script environment in Vadstena, and, yes, it should be pronounced Vasstena. The name is associated with the fish catching area, Vazt.
“Vadstena monastery was a script environment that gained major significance for the Swedish language. Among other aspects, we want to look at how those who wrote adapted to those whom they wrote for, the target audience they addressed. We want to understand the utility value of the manuscripts. I will myself look at a manuscript that contains epic romances of chivalry, and will then together with my colleagues summarise the project.”
This research is Lars-Erik’s greatest interest.
“I am actually a boring guy. I have no hobby. Human language is so rich. It teaches a great deal about people. Sometimes I listen more to how something is said than what is said. It is an occupational injury.”
As a passionate man of words, Lars-Erik Edlund also has a favourite expression that he feels is missing from the Swedish language.
“I think that it is a shame that the Norrland dialect’s “he”, which corresponds to put in English – is missing from standard Swedish.”
However, he does not want to point out any single word that he does not like.
“I have a somewhat mild, liberal perception. But some fashionable words can get to me. I must confess that I am not so fond of “typ” (like), although it undeniably serves a purpose, that must be recognised. The words that are good usually live on, the bad ones disappear,” says Lars-Erik Edlund with a smile.
Name: Lars-Erik Edlund
Interests: Place names, dialects, the history of language and association activities.