Sunday, May 6, 2007

Jeg kan tale dansk. Ikke!

(Reading Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Far easier than learning Danish.)

I Can Speak Danish. Not!

Few languages in the world are as difficult in the area of pronunciation as danish. Its complexity, in my (unreliable) opinion, beats Dutch, Hungarian, Mandarin Chinese and Klingon. It poses certain tonal challenges similar to the first 3 languages, and its guttural flatness parallels the shrill, yell-like nature of Klingon.

It’s easy to observe a danish conversation and think a fight will soon break out. “Oh boy…she cheated on him, the way he’s bellowing those øø-sounding words at her,” I frequently catch myself thinking.

When the couple start to make out passionately — in front of dozens of other subway passengers (unfazed by the display, mind you) — you realize quickly you misheard.

Have I mentioned this country loves PDA (or
public displays of affection)? Nearly as much as they love pronouncing D’s like L’s, and never admitting to this fact. They call it a soft “D”, but it is really a hard-as-hell “L”. To say a word like "hvad" properly, your lips must sound out a "v" immediately followed by the fetching of a light "e" from the back of the throat. You must wiggle your tonsils first, followed by a note that resembles an "l" or a "th" that leaves your tongue hanging outside of your mouth. It's easy to get out of breath speaking danish. Hvad sige du? is one of the most commonly heard expressions in the language and it means what did you say? Apparently even danes struggle to hear each other correctly. (Hvad sige du is pronounced val-sier-doo?).

As an expatriate, it’s tempting to be in awe of the language capacity of the citizens that surround you. The ease with which danes can articulate the difficult words I can barely mutter(mis)leads me into thinking they’re the most intelligent people on Earth.

Take my friend Anne-Mette for instance, who has two of the smartest shih-tzus around. These dogs know more danish than I do.

She tells them to ‘dæk’ ‘bliv’ ‘kom’ and ‘plads.’ Through their response to her commands, I learn words like ‘down’ ‘stay’ 'heel’ and ‘take a shit.’ These bitches don’t mess around when they hear the flatlining orders of their ‘mor’ (mom). And their squeaking woofs back are always in English. Brilliant. Even the pups in Denmark are bilingual. (In case anyone needs reminding, a bitch is a female dog, in the classical sense).

My Swedish friend Sara told me that the sound and intonation of the different Nordic languages resemble the landscapes of its given nation. Denmark is a very flat country, likewise the sound of the language is flat as well. As you move north, you get to the mountains of Sweden. Though hardly jagged, alpine terrain, Sweden features altitude changes and a ‘rise and fall’ language similar to the Swedish spoken by the Chef on the Muppets. Traveling further north to Norway, where their mountain peaks dwarf those of their neighbors to the south (as do their ginormous bank accounts), you find a language that sounds like a parody of itself. It is beautiful, in its uniqueness, but it resembles sing-songs, on crack (at Disneyland). Nearly all sentences uttered in Norwegian are sung, strung together, bouncing up and down at high and low pitches; often cueing the listener to wait for a punchline… that never comes.

So in short, Danish is flat, Norwegian is sing-song and Swedish splits the difference. It doesn’t really matter what the Swedes say anyways, because you barely listen to them in the first place. (And I don’t say that like the annoyed little brother Denmark, taking jabs at big brother Sweden—the acid-reflux habit of 95% of all Danes).

Rather for me, the bewitching attractiveness of most Swedes is too distracting to cobble any meaning out of the words that pass their lips.

Last month, when I was in Skåne at a friend’s summer house we went into a pottery shop whose owner had a pet parrot in his workshop. He was the smartest parrot I had ever met; he spoke Swedish! Though I did detect a faint accent, the bird deserves credit for trying.

If all these animals can conquer such exotic tongues, maybe I’m not the hopeless case I once thought I was. They set the bar pretty low, but I hope to one day ‘fetch and heel’ my way through a conversation in Danish, with a hot Swedish man. Or a parrot.

Did I mention that Danes, Swedes, and Norwegians can understand each other perfectly? Reason #296 that living in Denmark rocks.

Children can be helpful & honest language teachers.

They will tell you how dumb you sound.