Monocle’s Copenhagen correspondent Michael Booth on why Danes are importing – and distorting – English.
Take a walk through central Copenhagen these days and it isn’t just the tourists speaking English. The Danes are increasingly incorporating English words and phrases into their everyday conversation. This is particularly the case with the young, much to the chagrin of older Danes – not to mention immigrants to the country who haven’t spent bloody years learning to speak bloody Danish only for the Danes to start speaking bloody English!
Sorry, got a bit carried away there.
But Danish is a hellishly difficult language to master. And I’m not just saying that because I have clawed my way up the north face of that particular Everest, enduring years of public humiliation along the way. Experts agree; a group of cognitive and language scientists from Aarhus and Cornell universities in New York recently concluded that Danish children take two years longer to learn the past tense than their Norwegian contemporaries, though the two languages are closely related. The Danish kids’ vocabulary is significantly smaller too.
The problem lies with Danish vowel sounds. In written Danish there are eight of them (the usuals, plus å, ø and æ) but these somehow multiply to about 40 in spoken Danish, every one virtually indistinguishable to the unacclimatised human ear. Indeed, spoken Danish can sometimes sound as though it is entirely made up of vowels, as the consonants are either replaced by glottal stops or cut entirely, presumably to save time. This is frustrating because in its written form there are what non-Danes would consider to be normal levels of consonants. It’s only when spoken that Danish sounds like something that an angry Norfolk farmer fresh from the dentist with a mouthful of anaesthetic would shout across a field. While vomiting.
These days even their Swedish and Norwegian neighbours, with whom they have conversed relatively easily for centuries, seem to find the Danes borderline incomprehensible. It’s no wonder that young Danes are turning to English. But for a native English speaker there is no small measure of cognitive dissonance to hearing a Dane in full guttural, glottal-filled flow suddenly refer to their “roomie” or describe someone as “cringe” or “super nice”.
University of Copenhagen researcher Henrik Gottlieb describes the English influence on Danish as “a snowball that’s not going to stop”. Among his compatriots English has, he says, moved from efl (English as a foreign language) to esl (English as a second language). He often meets young Danes who find it easier to use English words than their Danish equivalents. Soon, he says, it won’t just be the odd word, it will be entire sentences in English. When I heard this, I was really, really cross.
“Danish is a hellishly difficult language to master. And I’m not just saying that because I have clawed my way up the north face of that particular Everest”
What is to be done? Denmark does have a Danish Language Council (Dansk Sprognævn) but unlike its French equivalent, the Académie Française, which dreams up new words for Anglophone inventions such as email (“courriel”) and drive-through (“point de retrait automobile”), the Danish body merely monitors what’s happening in the language.
Yet more vexing is the Danes’ misappropriation of English. Their indiscriminate overuse of one word in particular has weakened it to the point of meaninglessness. I’m talking about the F-word. I do not hesitate to deploy the F-bomb when required. But I do lament its dilution.
Here “fuck” appears – as a filler – in adverts and newspaper headlines; it is spoken on television and radio at all times of the day. At Danish music award shows popstars seemingly compete to see how much of their acceptance speeches can be replaced by the word. Teachers accept it; indeed, they use it themselves in classes. I still remember my confusion when my eldest son came home from school when he was about seven with his first English-language textbook and the F-word appeared in the very first line.
I suppose there is one thing for which I should be grateful in all of this. For now at least, the youth of Denmark don’t seem to have learned about the C-word.
Illustrator: Alec Doherty