Thursday 21 May 2009

Elias Bredsdorff: "Ærkedansk": 3

Some of Elias Bredsdorff's comments and strictures on modern Danish could apply equally well to English.

Is Danish a beautiful language, or is it, as some foreigners claim, a disease of the throat? Sometime last century, according to the Danish linguist Otto Jespersen, a little Dutch boy was sitting practising his Danish. His father interrupted him with the words: "Don't hiccup like that, boy, it's not good for your throat", to which the boy replied: "I'm not hiccuping, father, I'm speaking Danish".

But the question of beauty or ugliness is meaningless. Anyone who has heard Bodil Kjer or Erik Mørk reciting a Danish text will be in no doubt that Danish can be a very beautiful language. On the other hand, most Danes feel that Dutch is an unattractive language. But here, of course, the Dutch disagree!

Like most other living languages, Danish is a language in constant flux. Year after year Dansk Sprognævn (the Danish Language Commission) explains new words that have come into the language, either as neologisms or as loan-words.

Here are some examples of words which have entered the language in the course of the last 35 years: lommeregner (pocket-calculator), alternativkultur (alternative culture), nærbutik (local shop), bistandslov (social security law), ecu (common unit of monetary value in the EU), edb (electronic data capture), forbrugerklagenævn (consumer complaints commission), flyvebåd (hydrofoil), ellert (a small three-wheeled electric car), afrohår (Afro hair) and rotteræs (rat-race).

The Danish Language Commission explains when each individual word was first used. And I myself have the honour of having been the first to use the word kulturradikalisme (cultural radicalism). To quote from "Information" in the report of the Danish Language Commission: "It was Elias Bredsdorff who defined the concept in a heated debate in the summer of 1955, when he pointed to the unbroken line of descent from Georg Brandes' time to the Kulturkampf of the 30s".

Some of the new words are taken directly from English: "callgirl" (for luder, "cash" (for rede penge, "booke" (for bestille på forhand, "computer" (for datamaskine and "blender" (for a kitchen utensil [NB Danish word not given!]. We adopted English words in earlier times too, but not always in the meaning they had in English. What we in Danish call a speaker is an "announcer" in English, and in English a kasket (cap) has never been called a "sixpence".

Another loan from English is the increasing tendency nowadays - especially among the young - to use the word du in the sense of "one", i.e. where du in no way refers to the person one is talking to. That this is the case emerges clearly from this example which Jørn Lund quotes in one of his books:

"An elderly undersecretary asked his granddaughter to describe the internal design of the girls' changing-rooms at the Øbro swimming-pool, and received the following reply: "First you go in through a door, yeah? And then you come to a room with little lockers. You get changed there, yeah? And then you can go and have yourself a shower"."

Over the years there have been zealous guardians of the language, the so-called "purists", who have seen foreign loan-words as a threat to the purity of the Danish language. Personally speaking I do not share this point of view. But when it is a question of linguistic disagreements, people often become fanatical.

We saw this to a lesser degree in Denmark in the summer of 1985 during the so-called "mayonnaise war", when people reacted violently to a suggested change in the written language whereby certain foreign words, e.g. mayonnaise, would acquire a more Danish form.

More violent still was the war that raged after the Occupation over the issue of scrapping the initial capital letter of nouns. For many people it was almost a matter of life or death to preserve the capitals. Nowadays, however, only a very few people still use them.

One of the genuine threats to the Danish language is the linguistic laziness that leads to linguistic poverty. It is meaningless to say ik (no?), after every other sentence, and it is a rank bad habit to say lissom (for ligesom, "like") about everything (han er lissom lidt gammel, "he's, like, quite old").

In newspapers one sees journalists, who ought to know better, writing a sentence like this: Han hører til en af de største kunstnere "he belongs among one of the greatest artists", where the meaning is that he is one of the greatest artists, or that he belongs among the greatest artists.

The expression indtil flere "more" is a meaningless cliché. Flere is sufficient by itself. The combination både-og, unfortunately, is being gradually edged out both in the written and spoken language by både - men også (both - but also), e.g. han var både klog, men også forudseende (he was both intelligent but also far-sighted).

On the radio and TV one constantly hears the word premierminister (prime minister) pronounced as premiereminister, and the word vurdere (estimate) as vudere. Some people have a tendency to emphasize laudatory or derogatory expressions with the help of words like utrolig (unbelievable) or fantastisk (fantastic). It is not enough to say of someone that he is nice, or that he is very nice; this has to be beefed up forcefully and powerfully into "he's unbelievably nice" or "he's fantastically nice".

To me, "it's an unbelievably good book" is no more convincing than "it's a good book". For if everything is emphasized with the help of the word "unbelievable", the word itself is going to be devalued.

(to be continued)

translated from Danish by Harry D. Watson

Elias Bredsdorff:"Ærkedansk" - 1
Elias Bredsdorff:"Ærkedansk" - 2

1 comment:

Eric Dickens said...

The Dutch, the ones living in the two provinces North & South Holland, have their own brand of throat disease: the very throaty-gutteral "g"-sound.

Language is always in tension between reform of an active kind, and new phrases which come about through carelessness. So there has to be some resistance to careless renewal.

Renewal also affects pronunciation. In English I see no reason to get rid of the "thee-apple" glide as a way of tackling "the" before a vowel, but instead substituting a glottal stop "thö'-apple". But I hear this more and more on the BBC. They'll be saying "a apple" (ö'-apple) next!

The Swedes go in for more phonetic renderings than the Danes, I feel, e.g. "majonnäs". For a while, often in Finland, people wrote "sej" and "dej", but that proved a passing fad.