It is always difficult to learn a new language. Memorizing vocabulary, learning the funny new sounds, trying to understand complex grammar. But one of the most difficult aspects of learning a new language is to be sure not to confuse words that are called “false cognates”. This is a phenomenon in language when two words from two very different languages have developed a similar meaning, or sometimes have diverged to become very different meanings. In Sweden, there has been one false cognate that has been particularly annoying for me, simply because people don’t know the difference. Today, I’m going to help us all get on the same page about this word, it’s meaning, and how it’s translation into english isn’t all that accurate.
The word is “älg”.
In Swedish, this word indiscriminately refers to both moose and elk. But these are very different animals from a brief visual inspection, and indeed completely different species.
An elk (Cervus canadensis) is one of the largest living animals in the Cervidea family, which includes all other deer-like animals. Like deer, it has a dendritic, or twig-like, antler pattern and live in forest and forest-edge territories (Wikipedia). In short they look like this:
Look at that tall guy! It’s like half of his height is antler! And don’t think he has spotted that photographer. He totally has and is currently trying to work out when to run away.
The moose on the other hand, is an even larger creature with a palmate characteristic to their antlers (broad and flat; almost plate- or palm-like). They are considered to be much more aggressive than elk, famously aggressive in fact. (Actually, if you are even in a car and you manage to anger a moose, you’d better drive off. Fast. ‘Cause they will destroy your car. And likely you inside of it.) They also tend to have a more downward directed proboscis (nose) than other deer. They look like this:
Doesn’t it look majestic! King of the forest, and all that. But really, these guys are huge. The gentle giants of the north. Until you mess with one. Then they go nuts. In fact it looks like this guy is planning on breaking into some cars this weekend.
Well, I hope you learned a valuable lesson. That an älg is not the same as an älg. A moose is not an elk and an elk not a moose. It’s not a quirky difference like that in the games of “Duck, duck, goose” and “Duck, duck, gray duck” but rather a very large and serious phenotypic difference, as well as a genetic one, that separates these two animals into separate names and species. In short, it is simply our language (Swedish that is) that has fallen short to distinguish between the two.
BONUS!!! Since we are in Scandinavia, and I’m from North America, I’d like to tell you about another phenomenon in language in which two separate groups of people can have separate words for the same animal. In Europe, this animal
is called a Reindeer. It is often referred to as such in North America too. But there, we also have another name for it: Caribou (not to be confused with Caribou Coffee from the great state of Minnesota). In Swedish, it doesn’t matter because they’re just referred to as ren. These guys live in the arctic and subarctic and tend to have slightly hairy or mossy looking antlers, which is funny because their favorite food is lichen (similar to moss)!
As a side note, I strongly recommend readers in Sweden to plan a trip up to Kiruna, in Norrland, to go see these guys in person. They can be very friendly and gentle, especially if you’re holding some of that lichen, or “reindeer moss”. I managed to get up there last year with friends and am desperate to go back as soon as possible!
Thank you for your attention and as usual if you have any questions regarding elk, moose, reindeer, or studies at KI, please feel free to contact myself or any of the other digital ambassadors from Karolinska Institutet.
(The proceeding has been a public service announcement from Ian.)