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Splendid Pears

Referring to a specific grandparent, it quickly becomes confusing (in English). There is simply no way of knowing which grandparent you mean if you say for example “my grandmother”, i.e. which of your parents’ mother?

This is similar to Norwegian, where the word “bestefar” and “bestemor” are used for both sets of grandparents. “Beste”, is equivalentish to “grand”, meaning “best”. A grand piano, a splendid pear*. Sounds very nice but very nebulous.

The Swedish word for grandparents is “mother-and-father-parents”. So far not so elegant. But. Here is the practical part: Your mother’s parents are mormor and morfar (“mothermother” and “motherfather”), and your father’s parents are farmor and farfar (“fathermother” and “fatherfather”). More specific, more practical- the term tells you exactly who you mean.

A specificity that is hard to negotiate, as exemplified by the Swedish subtitles of an interview with author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recently on Swedish television. Adichie is describing the reasons for writing about the Nigerian-Biafran war, and she mentions her family; the fact that her grandfather was in the war. The conscientious translator cannot know for sure which of her grandfathers Adichie is talking about, hence the solution to use the slash. Either/or. Morfar/farfar.


If we would agree that it is a lot more practical to say “morfar” than to say “my grandfather on my mother’s side” (following the question: “which grandfather”?), we still can’t really escape the slashes. Obviously, when two women or two men have a child and eventually a grandchild, then there could be various potentially confusing combinations of duplicate (or even quadruple) “mormor”, “farmor”, “morfar” and “farfar”. Suddenly that specificity (if it’s only applicable to heterosexual nuclear family structures) loses its shine. Perhaps the more vague and general prefix “grand-” is preferable after all; at least equally confusing for all grandchildren (barnbarn, “childchild”).

* päron (Swe) = “pear”, slang for “parent”.

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