Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Elias Bredsdorff :"Ærkedansk" - 2


In former times, when people in so-called "well-bred circles" turned up their noses at the Copenhagen dialect, their indignation was provoked both by the dialect of the socially inferior classes with the flat a, which became æ in words like gæde and Dænmark, and by the opposite tendency, i.e. the use of open a in words like traor instead of træer (trees). I still remember a song that Lisa Weel sang in the review "On the bottom" in 1932.

This song, which was written by Poul Henningsen, contains the following lyrics:

The embankments, the old streets, the green trees,
Let others see the beauty in all that.
The city, to me, is the people with the open a's.
And what do I care that there are green trees there.

Yet the theatre once spoke
The Danish language
Like a book.
Say hello to Herr Neindam from me.

We speak short and sweet.
Forcefully, tersely and fast,
Smart-assed,
Kiss the Copenhagen lingo from me!

They speak Fynsk and Lollands on the radio,
Speak Copenhagen, and then you'll get somewhere.

The broad, open clang
Of Copenhagen slang,
Just listen, man -
Give them all a kiss from me!

I got to know Poul Henningsen himself at the beginning of the thirties when, as a cultural commentator on Politiken, he was very involved with language problems in his determined struggle in favour of natural speech-forms and against the tendency to allow the pronunciation of words to be influenced by the spelling. In this context he attacked, in particular, radio-announcers.

He claimed the fact that more and more people were saying God dag instead of goda, which is the natural pronunciation, was due to radio-announcers' habit of constantly saying god aften instead of goaften. He raged against the growing tendency to think it was refined to pronounce the silent letters in words, so that more and more people were beginning to say købmand (grocer) instead of kømand and snedkermester (master carpenter) instead of snekermester. It's the semi-educated people who say Bredgade (Broad Street) and Købmagergade (Meat-Seller Street) instead of Bregade and Kømagergade, he maintained. Poul Henningsen won the support of many fellow-writers, who took his criticisms to their logical conclusion by introducing written forms which more accurately reflected pronunciation: simply omitting any misleading letters, so that for example they wrote osse in order to avoid the frightful pronunciation ouså (i.e. også, 'also').

It was osse a step in the right direction when the Language Reform made it officially acceptable to dispense with the silent d in the words ville (wished), kunne (could) and skulle (should).

I myself have suffered from someone, in their eagerness to speak correctly, inserting redundant silent letters into their pronunciation. In the word sølv (silver) the v is silent, and in the word guld (gold) the d is silent, but I have known people talk about sølv and guld. A maid, trying desperately to emulate her employers' bad habits, answered a phone-call for her mistress with the words: Ja, nu skal jeg kalve (Yes, I'll call her now).

I spent many years teaching Danish to English students and I would tell them that words like bliver, blev and blevet (stay, stayed and (has) stayed) should not be pronounced as they are spelt, but as blir, ble and bleet. My English students had learned that a d is normally silent after an n, and therefore they didn't find it hard to pronounce the word Handelsbanken properly. But when they saw the name of another bank, which was called Andelsbanken, they were inclined to make it rhyme with Handelsbanken and call it Annelsbanken.

I also had to teach them that the letter f is never pronounced in the little word which is spelt a-f, but this was complicated by the fact that the word is very different in contexts such as én af dem (one of them) and han faldt af (he fell off). In everyday speech the t in at is simply not pronounced. But in the sentence det er let at se (it's easy to see) it is pronounced å, and in the sentence han siger, at han kommer (he says he's coming), as a.

I have heard older people, while reading aloud, employing the pronunciation dig, sig and mig (you, one-/himself, me) with a sharp i sound: a pronunciation which some psalm-verses demand for the sake of the rhyme. While the authentic pronunciation of the word we spell h-a-v-d-e (had) is hade and the word l-a-g-d-e (laid) is la (with a long a), the same elderly individuals generally used the forms haude and laugde.

I taught my English students that the plural of noget (some) should be pronounced noen - Har du noen penge? (Do you have any money?), but when they were in Denmark they found that many Danes nevertheless pronounced the word as it is written: nogle (noule. It is confusing to foreigners that the word which is pronounced vær is spelt v-e-j-r (weather) - det er dejligt vejr (it's nice weather). Nor does the numeral seksten (sixteen) rhyme - as foreigners might think - with teksten (the text), but with gejsten (the ghost) - though without the stød (roughly, glottal stop).

(to be continued)

translated from Danish by Harry D. Watson

Elias Bredsdorff:"Ærkedansk" - 1

1 comment:

  1. No wonder I've never been able to understand spoken Danish. There are so many sound-shifts and exceptions, plus the dreaded stød, that I don't think I'll ever get a grasp of it.

    Even in Swedish they have a few things that are not pronounced. It is said, for instance, that "äro" probably dropped out of speech a good century before they scrapped the written form as well. And in the past tense in Finland-Swedish, "-ade" and "-at" tend to become "-a", as it it is in many dialects in Sweden itself, plus nynorsk.

    Spelling reforms are a hit-and-miss affair. I suppose that turning "afven", "bäfva", etc., into "även" and "bäva" has, over a century or so, saved a few gallons of ink. It depends whether you want to cosy up to tradition or reform. But I read Swedish books from 1890 with no problems.

    Whatever happened to that peculiar project to introduce "skandinaviske" a language with some sort of unified Nordic vocabulary? When I was at university it was still alive.

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