Tag Archives: WordPrompt


bridge between denmark and sweden

Øresund Bridge. Image © Daniel Larsson, reproduced under a CC BY-NC 2.0 licence.

I’ve been re-watching The Bridge, the crime series in which a Swedish police team and a Danish police team work together to solve crimes that usually involve people in both countries, which are linked by the bridge from the title.

What may seem strange to monolingual speakers is that the characters speak their own language (that is, Swedish or Danish) and understand each other without having to revert to a third language (for example, English or German). This phenomenon is called intercomprehension and has presumably existed forever between people who speak different languages from the same language family or neighbouring local dialects. Being able to talk their first language or their own dialect makes both interlocutors in a conversation feel equally at ease. Intercomprehension is one form of receptive multilingualism.

In the series The Bridge, when differences in the two languages may lead to misunderstanding, the characters sometimes repeat the word in the other language to make sure they have understood correctly, or they ask a clarification question. This is a clear example, from Episode 3 of Series 4.

A Danish man says, ‘Og den ene af dem havde sådan et … et modermærke her’ and points in between his eyebrows. [‘And one of them had one of those … a birthmark here.’]

A Swedish man says, ‘Ett födelsemärke?’ [‘A birthmark?’]

The Danish man nods.

See how the underlined part of the repeated word is different in the two languages? Moder means ‘mother’ and födelse means ‘birth’. Because this difference may cause misunderstanding, the listener repeats the word to make sure he has understood and the speaker confirms he has.

Another form of receptive multilingualism is using a skill called lingua receptiva. This happens when languages aren’t as closely related and interlocutors can’t rely on a ‘natural’ ability to understand each other’s language but have to have learnt some of the other’s language, for example, if a German speaker and a Dutch speaker were to talk to each other in their first language. Learning to understand another language takes less effort than learning to speak another language comfortably, so lingua receptiva is a great skill to learn.

pons asinorum

man and donkey on bridge

Part of Man and donkey on bridge (1813­–33) by Andreas Schelfhout. Print held in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Public domain.

WordPress has introduced a monthly word prompt that bloggers may use as a starting block for a new blog post. I’ve been lacking the time to get inspired to write, so I thought I’d give it a go. This month’s word prompt is ‘bridge’.

While I was looking at old paintings of bridges for inspiration, the Dutch word ezelsbrug, literally ‘bridge of donkeys’, sprang to mind. It means ‘mnemonic’, so Dutch speakers learn both the word and the concept from a young age at school, but I suddenly realised that I didn’t know anything about its etymology. A quick search taught me that it was a loan translation from the Latin phrase pons asinorum, also literally ‘bridge of donkeys’. According to a Dutch online etymological dictionary, the phrase originates from Pliny the Elder (Natural History, Book 8, Chapter 68), who describes female donkeys refusing to cross a bridge if they can see the water below it shimmering through the planks.

I didn’t know that English had borrowed the Latin phrase and its translation, ‘bridge of asses’, because it is so little used in English. The reason for this is probably that the meaning is different in English. Apart from specific meanings relating to logic and geometry, the Oxford English Dictionary gives a more common figurative meaning of the phrase as ‘an obstacle or problem which will defeat an unskilled or foolish person’. Lexico explains it as ‘the point at which many learners fail, especially a theory or formula that is difficult to grasp’.

What interests me about both the Latin phrase and its translations into other languages is that, although the original bridge is a problem that the donkeys have to be led across, the Latin phrase and its translations are used for either a problem (for example, in English) or a solution to a problem (for example, in Dutch).

A very timely ezelsbrug, or mnemonic, is ‘Spring forward, fall back’.