16 May 2010

at snakke dansk

i really enjoy speaking danish. the gurgles and glottal stops fill a space in my mouth that english has never touched. i like the efficiency and directness of the language: the compound nouns, the point-blank names for concepts and descriptions, the way articles are attached to the ends of the nouns. i like expressions that we don't have equivalents of in english, even if i don't always get them and more often than not can't later remember them. visually the language appeals to me, too. i like the three "extra" vowels, the fact that there is no "x" ("ks" is used instead), and all the g's and k's. the discrepancy between orthography and pronounciation, for example the multitude of silent letters - only about half of the letters in "selvfølgelig" (which means "of course" or "obviously" but transliterates to "self following") are pronounced - is a challenge which makes both speaking and spelling difficult, but it keeps things interesting, at least, and adds to the feeling i have that danish is a secret language and it's just a matter of cracking the code. the difficult thing is that there doesn't really seem to be a code. i'm sure there are lots of linguistic rules than can be explained by morphological weakenings or whatever but most of the time it's a trip just to figure out the patterns of this language, let alone what the exceptions are. are g's always silent? no. when do you pronounce an "l"? good question. what about a word-final "n"? most of the time, just use your intuition. what about d's? don't even ask.

i really hated phonology, but i am starting to see how it is useful. i just wish i could remember some of the stuff i learned in that class.

with all these linguistic idiosyncracies aside, the single thing that makes danish "difficult" to learn (as anyone will tell you it is, even though i'd argue that it's really not that complicated of a language - you don't even have to conjugate verbs according to person, let alone gender!) is the social climate. i'll explain. the danish population doesn't expect foreigners to learn danish. they just don't. danish is "only" spoken by five and a half (maybe six) million people, including people in greenland and the faroe islands. denmark's a homogenous country populated mostly by ethnic danes, whose families have spoken danish since before my country was even an idea. immigration on the scale that it's on now is a recent phenomenon in danish history and, simply put, most danes don't expect people who didn't grow up speaking danish (whether "proper" copenhagen danish or provincial southern jutlandic is a different story) to even try to wrap their tongues around these combinations of sounds. and herein lies the challenge. as a foreigner, if you want to be understood by the danes, you have to convince them that they can understand you. your pronunciation has to be spot-on. danish relies heavily on intonation and inflection and if you pronounce a word with the stress in the wrong place, people won't understand you because they're not used to hearing it spoken that way. not because it is wrong, per se, but that is simply Not How It Is Done. there have been attempts by the danish government to revise the danish spelling system to make it, in fact, more systematic and thus easier to learn - even schoolchildren have a hard time learning to spell danish - but these attempts have been met with resistence. i think a deep-seated traditionalism in the "danish national character" (if that even exists) is responsible for keeping people not only hanging on to the quirks of "their" language but also for keeping immigrants out, danes in, and everything, more or less, in its right place.

8 comments:

geneviève said...

I SO COMPLETELY AGREE.

we are doing the unexpected and unplanned-for when we learn their language - and often danes just do not know what to do with that.

and also about the argument that danish is in fact ridiculously simple - grammatically at least, because pronunciation can be a bit of a bitch, just nonsensical seeming sometimes. no wonder even adult danes often have trouble spelling their own language. i always felt that written and spoken danish were two wholly different languages, and what i would write down on a paper in class just did not give me much of a clue about how to say the same thing aloud.

everything in its place, everything in its place. ja.

Barbara said...

What an interesting post. I especially appreciated the observation that the Danes are not used to hearing their language spoken by non-native speakers. That is so different on the other side of the bridge where the Swedes send all new immigrants through Swedish classes, and one is unable to avoid hearing Swedish spoken by brown skinned bus drivers or other immigrants in ordinary daily life. I figure the Swedes have these people to thank that their language has not died out. (The Swedish population is only slightly larger than the Danish.) But I do have to admit that it is easier to understand Swedish spoken by native Swedes (except in Skåne) than by people who speak it as a second language.

maya said...

thank you, both of you.

geneviève - so glad you agree. written and spoken danish are so different! it makes me curious about norwegian...

barbara - i agree, it's a lot harder to speak swedish with people who have it as a second language. but i think that's true with any language because you end up just feeding off of each others' mistakes, ugh...

becky said...

i think just about everything you wrote can be said about any slavic language. why would anyone learn polish?

um...because it's adorable and satisfying?

maya said...

and sounds like kitty-speak!

Simon said...

Norwegian is close to the danish language, you just spell everything the same way as it's pronounced. speaking of weird pronunciation; the word "language" doesn't make any sense at all (to us danes at least).

Party on party dog!
/art bum Simon

maya said...

simon, you're so cool.

Ida Nielsen said...

This is such an interesting post for a native Danish speaker. You're right about Danes not understanding foreigners who speak their language, my boyfriend (American) often try to read something to me in Danish and I have such a hard time understanding him because he doesn't say use the stress or intonation of the words right. It just doesn't like Danish unless it's Said The Right Way -and there really is only one way of saying it ;-)