It’s an experience familiar to many newcomers in Denmark. You’re overwhelmed by a language that at the outset appears to be nothing more than mushmouthed gurgles when suddenly you overhear a conversation something like this:
“Jeg sagde til min manager, gurgle gurg gurgle teamwork. Han er gurgle gurg old school. Gurg gurgle out of this world.”
“Yes, gurg gurgle. Men gurgle gurgle better safe than sorry. Gurgle, gurgle, gurgle, eller whatever, gurgle gurg. Gurg gurg you name it.”
That Danes blend so many English words into their day-to-day conversations not only catches the ear of non-Danes desperate to understand what’s being said around them, it also catches the ire of Danish language purists like Jørn Lund.
As a member of the Danish Language Council, the director of the Danish Language and Literature Society, and the author of several books on the language, Lund has seen Danish change considerably over the course of his thirty-plus year career as a professor and researcher of the language.
“Danes’ articulation of the language has changed dramatically,” Lund told me. “In just four generations, Danish has gone from where most people spoke a dialect to where only five percent do today. Each generation has taken part in this transformation process, and standard dialect-free Danish is similarly in constant development. It is possible to determine the age of a Dane within ten years’ precision based on their pronunciation.”
Although a recent analysis by language experts stated that the encroachment of English poses no real threat to the future of Danish, there is no doubt that the language’s heavy borrowing from English will continue to shape its development.
“It is first and foremost the US dominance in economics, entertainment, technology, etc, that has supplied the Danish language with so many English loans,” Lund said. “English had been banned and persecuted in Denmark as part of the country’s forced Germanisation, [but] just after World War II Danes became very English-friendly. Everything English was good – but back then you said ‘all right’ instead of ‘okay’.”
Given Danes’ warm embrace of English and the Anglo-friendly blending they use in daily conversation, a non-Dane may be tempted to strike up a conversation in English only to find that, despite the fact that most Danes can speak English, their communication skills vary wildly.
“It can lead to embarrassing incidents when non-Danes or the English-savvy listen to [Danes using English words],” said Lund. “Danes believe they are better at English than they really are [and] over the past 50 years have become accustomed to bad English! But there is still a snob value to it; you see that when Kurt Jørgensen suddenly changes the name of his barber shop to ‘Kurt’s Haircut’.”
One only has to hear a seven-year-old native drop an F-bomb for the first time to notice that one area in which Danes borrow heavily from English is swear words.
“'Shit' and 'fuck' are frequently used by adolescents and young adults who don’t realise how crude these words are to Anglophones,” said Lund. “I was once playing tennis with an English colleague when we kept hearing both words from the court next to us. My guest stopped and asked me what kind of ‘simple and rude people’ we were playing next to. I had to answer that they were two young academics.”
The Danes’ fondness for English, however, extends beyond the interspersing of English words and phrases. Just ask any expat who has steeled their nerves to say something in Danish only to have their spirit crushed by a response in English.
“It is a sign of helpfulness,” said Lund. “And perhaps also an indication that they perceive English as a better language. The Danes have great linguistic inferiority complexes.”
Indeed, a study by the University of Copenhagen’s LANCHART Centre (Center for Sociolingvistiske Sprogforandringsstudier) earlier this year revealed that Danes think their language is ugly and can’t understand why anyone would want to learn it.
“We distinguish ourselves in an international context with our linguistic self-hatred,” LANCHART professor Frans Gregersen, who took part in the study, said to Kristeligt Dagblad newspaper. “Danes don’t think Danish is beautiful; we are ashamed of it.”
Perhaps it’s no wonder then, that Danes are so wild over English words and phrases. Or, to put it another way:
“Engelsk er bare totally nice!”
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