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.


Alikona said...

So do you have the other 295 reasons written down? Your writing never ceases to amaze me. And the thought and efforts you have put into studying these Scandinavian languages amazes me more. I think I would probably just stare blankly at everyone and mutter stupidly like a dumb blonde American, "En anglais, s'il vous plait."

Anonymous said...

Well, in The Netherlands we have many Scandinavian movies and I noticed some are bilingual. You can see one or two of those movies practically every week over here.
Scandinavia, particulary Denmark resembles The Netherlands very much. But the language...written: yes! Spoken....within in seconds I can hear whether someone speaks Danish or Swedish. I never had a lesson in any of these languages, but Swedish has a lot of familiar words, also when spoken. Danish does not (spoken). My point: are you sure Sweeds understand Danes easily? Danes understanding Swedish, ok, but the Danes seem to talk at twice the speed and eat the words rather than pronounce them. At least to me, they are very difficult to understand. So for Sweeds they are not? Puzzling...Not to debunk any language, it is just how they sound to me.
BTW: did you know that Danes learn fluent Dutch within a few months? Also so strange...Within a year, you cannot here the difference between them and a native Dutch speaker, they make no mistakes. Almost eary!

Camryn said...

Hello there, Netherlands. When I wrote this entry I was still a bit green in Denmark. So I take back the part in the piece where I say that the Swedes (or Norwegians for that matter) can understand the Danes perfectly. Often times, they really struggle to understand Danes when they speak fast, casual Danish. Swedish and Norwegian is fairly easy for Danes to understand, but not the other way around, as you write. I think also, as you point out, that it's the way Danes swallow words and leave many (most?) letters unpronounced or un-enunciated that trips up their Nordic cousins. As an American who has been in Denmark for 3 years, I still find it VERY difficult to understand fast-talking Danish. Maybe 1 day. How do Americans fare in the Netherlands? Are they ever successful at learning fluent Dutch?