While in Sweden, I am struck by certain linguistic conventions that make understanding unknown Swdish words much easier. Take skinka “ham” for example. It may at first seem totally alien to our English word but it occurred to me that it resembles our word shank.

Swedish skinka is related to Icelandic skinka ‎(genitive singular skinku, nominative plural skinkur) and both come from an Old Norse word meaning “cured pig leg”. The English word shank “lower leg” comes from Old English sceanca “leg, shank, shinbone,” specifically, the part of the leg from the knee to the ankle, which comes from Proto-Germanic *skankon. I suspect that skinka is related to shank because a pork shank is a cut of meat from the lower leg of a pig.

I made the unconfirmed etymological connection based on my knowledge of the Old Norse influence on English. Both English and Norse are of course derived from the Proto-Germanic language but they have diverged significantly over the years to the extent that by the Viking era, the languages were very different. Modern English has ‘shell’ and ‘skull’, and ‘shirt’ and ‘skirt’. These were originally the same Proto-Germanic words but we have two versions, one from Anglo-Saxon and one from Old Norse due to the Viking invasions of England. After the West and North Germanic tribes split in the Migration Era, the West languages shifted towards the “sh” sound which was written as “sc” but the North Germanic speakers pronounced it as “sk”. That’s why when I heard skinka, I thought of the word “shank”.

I’m quite confident in this guess because of known equivalents like English “shield” from Old English scyld which is sköld in Modern Swedish. Another much ruder example (NSFW WARNING) can be found in the English swearword shit which comes from Old English scitan, from Proto-Germanic *skit. All the West Germanic cognates are pronounced with “sh” at the start – eg: Dutch schijten, German scheissen, but not so for North Germanic cognates. The Swedish cogante is skit “dirt or excrement” and the adjective skitig meaning “dirty”.

So if you see a North Germanic word beginning with SK, you can guess what it means by changing it to SH and seeing what it then resembles in English.

Written by Tom Rowsell