Sund and Sound

Two words, one entangled relationship

Haugesund Sound

Photo: Anders Fagerjord /Wikimedia
The city of Haugesund on the Smedasundet.

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

The modern Norwegian word sund comes directly from the Old Norse word for a narrow fairway (smalt farvann). It’s seldom used alone but is a frequent suffix in place names, such as Haugesund and Øresund. The modern English word sound designating a body of water also comes from the Old Norse sund, and is found in suffix words in compound place names, such as Balta Sound in the Shetlands and more than 50 other sounds in Scotland, as well as Puget Sound and more than 30 other sounds in the USA.

The prevalence of the word in English reflects an etymological entanglement that may be likened to the eternal triangle of love affairs, of which there may be many interpretations, depending on who (or what) comes in when. Most of the sounds of geographic names in English hardly meet the original Old Norse definition; Plymouth Sound in the English Channel geographically classifies as a bay through which Naval vessels, ferries, and other commercial ships regularly pass.

Strait of Gibraltar

Photo: Public domain
The Strait of Gibraltar between Spain and Morocco.

English met that challenge in medieval times, with another word, strait, from the Old French estreit, meaning “narrow,” a word now much used in geographic names in English, perhaps most famously in the Strait of Gibraltar. Likewise, around the same time, Norwegian took up the word strede, from the Old Norwegian stræti, meaning “street,” as the designation of a wide sund. There’s now some linguistic speculation that stræti might actually have been the source word for strait in English. But that’s altogether another story.

The English word sound became the root word for sounding, which designates the act of measuring depth of a body of water. The equivalent Norwegian term did not evolve from sund, but with greater clarity from the early practice of hanging a lead plummet on a thin rope and tossing it into water to measure depth when the plummet struck bottom, a practice appropriately called lodding.

Puget Sound

Photo: Public domain
Puget Sound in Washington State.

That distinction reflects a cause of misunderstanding that persists in modern English but does not exist in modern Norwegian. The English word sound has a homophone of the same spelling and pronunciation, meaning the sensation perceived by the organs of hearing in humans and animals. It has a different etymology, from the Old French son, from the Latin sonum, that also led to the Old English són and the Old Norsk sónn. A sound (a body of water) is not related to a sound, meaning the sense of tones or noise. That said, in English, modern technology has coupled the two dissimilar sound words. SONAR, an acronym for SOund NAvigation and Ranging, measures distances under water in terms of the times taken for sound signals to travel through it.

We might soon be hearing that word more often, as echo sounding (Ekkolodd), a form of SONAR, is the principal technology employed in compiling the General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans (GEBCO), an international undertaking that aims to completely map the seabed of the world by the year 2030. It’s a gigantic task; GEBCO, based in Monaco, has existed since 1903, yet 85 percent of the ocean floor is still not mapped with modern techniques.

Originally published in Norwegian on the Clue dictionaries blog at

M. Michael Brady was educated as a scientist and, with time, turned to writing and translating.

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 26, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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M. Michael Brady

M. Michael Brady was born, raised, and educated as a scientist in the United States. After relocating to the Oslo area, he turned to writing and translating. In Norway, he is now classified as a bilingual dual national.