Monday, 18 May 2009

Elias Bredsdorff: "Ærkedansk". Twelve Essays from Glænø

Elias Bredsdorff (1912-2002) was a Danish scholar best known in the English-speaking world for his work on Hans Christian Andersen, whom he strove to portray not just as an amiable author of children's tales, but as a creative and poetic philosopher. He had a long-standing connection with the United Kingdom, having been a lecturer in Danish at University College London and at Cambridge, where he was made a fellow of Peterhouse. His association with this famously right-wing and traditionalist college, the nursery of many Conservative politicians, was particularly ironic, given Bredsdorff's life-long involvement in left-wing politics, which for a time led him to be a member of the Communist Party.

In about 1960 Bredsdorff and his wife bought a former smithy and attached dwelling-house on the island of Glænø, off Zealand, as their summer home. So when the head of the regional radio station asked Bredsdorff to give a series of talks, these were given the general title of Ærkedansk. Tolv essays fra Glænø (Arch-Danish. Twelve Essays from Glænø). The essays were published in book form in 1992.

In the introduction to the book, Bredsdorff explains that Ideen var at gå fra det lokale til det alment danske og - så vidt muligt - også at sætte emnet ind i det europæisk perspektiv (The idea was to go from the local to the generally Danish and - as far as possible - also to set the subject in its European perspective).

The concept is suitable Grundtvigian - the Danish bishop-educator advocated starting children off with local studies of their immediate environment, progressing to the surrounding county, the country, and then the wider world.

The individual essays cover such subjects as The Vikings, Folk Ballads, School, Language, H.C. Andersen, The Village, and Humour. They are very much the product of a Dane talking to fellow-Danes, and I do not believe they have ever been translated before.

What follows is the first part of Sproget (Language), a quirky reflection on the Danish language by one who knew it inside-out.

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


David McDuff said...

Of Fynsk I remember things like "ei kat", and the definite form was "katti". But how many people actually speak it nowadays, I wonder?

Eric Dickens said...

Harry brings up an interesting point with regard to Elias Bredsdorff's left- and right-wing affiliations.

While nowadays, I am more on the right in economic and social-cohesion terms, I still read the former Communist weekly Ny Tid, partly out of nostalgia, partly because of its good cultural coverage, and partly because it is always useful to read opposite views. When I was at UEA and in Åbo, the Communists I knew were almost painfully middle-class offspring. They'd never been within an armsbreath of a worker. But I admired their idealism. And I hope that we people that kick against the cultural pricks of bestsellerdom and xeno-ignorance in the UK can adopt an even-handed approach in political terms.

As we have seen during the past week, neither the Left nor the Right come out untarnished from the comedy of expenses.

The whole discussion about pure regional and mixed goes on in every country where the population is allowed to have a regional patois. I have never yet encountered a country where regions do not play a part, or people don't blend and compromise in language terms.

But a national "Esperanto" is very handy for inter-regional and national communication. I do think that a foreigner learning a language can best plump for something unobtrusive and middle-class, if he or she wants to be acceptable in all social layers.

And Harry's comments about teams of horses and buckets demonstrate something people that speak English cannot always fathom: the difference between the same word, with a different gender meaning something different.

Eric Dickens said...

Re-reading David's comment on "ei kat", and then thinking of the indefinate article for feminine nouns in nynorsk being "ei" as well, it suddenly struck me that that is a different spelling of the same phonemic sound that we in English have in "a" when used as the stressed indefinite article. i.e. "a[y] cat".

David McDuff said...

The Fynsk "ei" probably derives from German, while the nynorsk "ei" may have something to do with Icelandic, as far as it's possible even to speculate about the features of nynorsk.

Harry said...

The very first (semi-)academic articles I ever wrote and got published, back in the early 1980s, were about Scots and Nynorsk, contrasts and comparisons. I discovered that the Scandinavian languages were being taught to some extent in schools in the far north of Scotland, on the initiative of individual teachers, and that sparked off my interest. I received material from Norway about the status of the two official languages, and was interested to see that more school boards opted for Bokmål as the language of instruction and examination than for Nynorsk, which was only really the language of choice in areas where it (or some form of it) was the natural vernacular of the people. In other words, there wasn't a discernible wave of linguistic patriotism making urban Norwegians opt for Nynorsk over Dano-Norwegian Bokmål.

However, one thing that makes Norway rather unique linguistically is the series of reforms overtly designed to bring the two language forms together, e.g. the spelling reform which added the feminine gender to the already existing common gender and neuter gender, on the basis that the feminine was found in all Norwegian dialects (except the Bergen one).

David, you say that Nynorsk "ei" may have something to do with Icelandic. Surely it's the other way round, given that Icelandic is derived from the old Norwegian of the first settlers, many of whom would have come from western Norway?


David McDuff said...

Harry, I don't get your point - how does it make any difference which way round one posits a non-derivative connection? Sure, there's a connection - that's what I was arguing. Icelandic "ein(n)" and Norwegian "ei" are closely related, though of course Icelandic has no indefinite article. As you say, Icelandic was the language of the Norwegian settlers...

I'm afraid I don't really see Nynorsk as "the natural vernacular of the people". Many Norwegians themselves are of the opinion that it's an artificial, ideologically-inspired construct that has little to do with the real living language that people actually speak.

In Scotland, Lallans comes to mind.

Harry said...

The Fynsk "ei" probably derives from German, while the nynorsk "ei" may have something to do with Icelandic, as far as it's possible even to speculate about the features of nynorsk.


I suppose the words "derives from" re Fynsk < German were still reverberating in my head when I read your "may have something to do with", and I thought you were saying that Nynorsk "ei" derived from Icelandic. I did think that was rather odd. The fault was mine, not yours.

I agree about Lallans and Nynorsk being ideologically driven constructs. In my neck of the woods in east Fife there are noticeable differences in the dialect of neighbouring villages, so you are never going to get people to agree on a standard "Lallans" (I loathe that word!). I'm sure the same is true of Nynorsk.