Danish is spoken everywhere in Denmark, but it is not the same Danish that is spoken throughout the country. Even in particular geographical locations one can hear differences in the speech of the local people. If a phonetician with the same skill in identifying people’s geographical origins that Professor Higgins had when, with a fair degree of accuracy, he was able to say what Eliza the flower-girl’s speech betrayed about her background .. if such a phonetician were to talk to all the inhabitants of Glænø he would soon discover that a certain proportion of the population speak an unadulterated South-West Zealand dialect, another group speak Standard Danish with distinct traces of the original Zealand dialect, another lot again speak a North Zealandic which betrays possible origins in the Gundsømagle area, and that there are some whose speech bears unmistakable signs of their having spent their childhood or youth on Funen or in Jutland. And finally, there would also be people with distinct reminders of Copenhagen in their speech. But Zealandic would of course be the dominant trait.
There is nothing remarkable about this. One would really have to go to remote country areas in Jutland or Funen to find a whole population without exception speaking the unadulterated regional dialect.
Language changes, partly because people move from one area to another and take their language with them; partly because of the influence of the electronic media, even if radio and TV now deserve some credit for giving the Danish dialects equal billing with the so-called “standard language”, which people in earlier times were inclined to perceive as “the language of educated Danes”. Now, the definition of “standard language” is a negative one: it is language which bears no trace of any form of local dialect.
I remember from my childhood that there were people who had a tendency to judge others’ character traits from the dialect they spoke.
People who spoke a pronounced Jutlandic dialect, especially West Jutlandic, were “solid Jutes”, genuine and reliable; but this in no way prevented a degree of scepticism about Jutland horse-dealers, about whom one knew that if they sold you a cow in Jesus’ name, you could be sure that it would have three teats!
Dwellers on Funen got the designation “unworried and jolly”, but the Zealanders were “slow and over-cautious”. The Copenhagen dialect, the speech of Grønnegade, was a “street-urchins’ language” which was looked on with disdain by cultivated people.
The idea of a connection between local dialects and character traits corresponded to some extent to the clichés in my geography books, that “the Finns are quick to reach for their knives”, the Spaniards are “warm-blooded” and the French “frivolous”.
Johannes V. Jensen, a Jutlander himself, once carried out an amusing literary experiment. Having first interpreted Hans Christian Andersen’s story “What Father does is always right” as a true story from Funen which could not have happened anywhere else in Denmark, he tried the experiment of telling the story as it would have sounded if it had instead taken place in Jutland.
Andersen’s story is about a farmer who takes a horse to market. On the way he exchanges the horse for a cow, which he exchanges for a sheep, a goat, a hen, until finally he returns with a sack of rotten apples. A couple of rich Englishmen he meets in a pub have a bet with him that when he returns home his wife will give him a thrashing, but the farmer maintains that he will be met with kisses rather than blows, and that his wife will say: “What Father does is always right”. And the story ends with the farmer winning the bet.
In his Jutlandic version of the story, Johannes V. Jensen had the farmer going to the market with a sack of rotten apples and returning with a horse. But the ending is quite different too, for the Jutlandic wife is sour and irritable and had been expecting that her husband would have done better all along the line. When at last he tells her that he palmed off a cow on a man and got a horse in its place, she says: “I thought you had come home with a team”. And with that she turned and went into the house. And what she had not found a way of expressing in words, her back said for her." Country folk will take for granted that et spand means a team.
But the inherent difficulty of the Danish language, even for an academic like Professor Hans Brix, was demonstrated by the latter in 1947 in a reference to Poul Reumert’s reading of the story of the Jutlandic farmer’s wife, when he wrote in Berlingske Tidende: “When she was shown the horse, she would have greatly preferred a bucket…”
Hans Brix, in other words, had not understood the difference between et spand (a team) and en spand (a bucket)!
(to be continued)
translated from Danish by Harry D. Watson