Experiencing my country through foreign eyes: Language

Anyone who has ever tried to learn Danish will say that it’s not an easy language. Not so much due to grammar, which in certain ways is fairly easy to learn if your mother tongue has roots in Latin, but due to pronunciation.

Difficult Danish

It has only recently been brought to my attention that Danish words often are not pronounced the way they are written, which in some obvious cases I knew all too well with words like pludselig (suddenly) where the D is silent, or selvfølgelig (of course/naturally/obviously) with it’s sneaky silent V. I suppose native speakers never truly realise the nature of their own language before being confronted with a confused foreigner. When reading out loud people often read the words as they are supposed to sound, but when speaking a word like spændende (exciting) becomes almost unrecognisable when you hear it pronounced as spen-nă.

The Danish language has 9 official vowels: A, E, I, O, U, Y, Æ, Ø and Å, the last 3 unique and only used in Danish and Norwegian. Right now you may be thinking “9 vowels is manageable,” however, when speaking these 9 vowels will transform into approximately 40 vowel sounds which, I’ve come to learn, is unusually high. Of course there are numerous reasons as to why Danish might be a tough language to learn (and you can learn more about it here and here).

In my, I’ll admit, limited experience with what can be a real struggle for foreigners, words ending on -e (because the sound resembles the Danish Ø which is rare to find out there in the big ocean of world languages) has really ever been the thing I’ve heard people struggle with. So I was amazed when my very English boyfriend was able to pronounce my name, Pernille, without difficulty (but of course still with a slight hint of that charming English twang that I secretly hope he’ll never lose completely). However, what he and I quickly discovered was the horror of the soft D’s. The man is simply unable to pronounce them and all of the soft D’s will instead be played by some weird sounding L, thinking it’s the star of the show. I have an ear for language, I can hear when something sounds right or wrong, and I just know that that pretentious L masquerading as a soft D will haunt me for years to come.

Language liberties

Since English is not my mother tongue I’m not sorry to say that I take certain liberties such as mixing UK and US English. For instance, I will most often write flat instead of apartment only because it is a shorter word to write, but I strongly prefer the word apartment to flat while speaking though I still use flat from time to time. It simply sounds better, or tastes better if you will. I’ve also found that I prefer the English spelling for words like colour, liquorice and humour simply because it looks beautiful, but that I contradict myself by preferring the American spelling to words like center and liter because they are exactly the same in Danish; then why not humor? That’s right, that’s the Danish spelling, the same as the American. I find that interesting and peculiar.

Because my boyfriend is British he tends to know, and use, a lot of funny swear words. I particularly like words such as wank(er), bloody hell, bellend, twat and cunt. Mostly because they are said in a British accent which definitely makes them sound more funny and less offensive.
English swear words Danes in general tend to use frequently is
fuck and shit. Especially fuck and fucking are so common they were adopted into our dictionary in 2012. What foreigners need to understand is that swear words aren’t as offensive in a foreign language as they are in your mother tongue. It’s as simple as that, which is why you need to not get offended if you come across people in Denmark who says fuck all the time (and I can guarantee that half of them will be kids).
Personally, I have a tendency to mix the swear words so that I in mild frustration frequently will utter “fuck shit!,” not meaning anything by it other than to voice my annoyance for something gone wrong. Honestly, I don’t care what they mean to native English speakers because it doesn’t matter; that’s not the purpose. It’s a liberty foreigners have without fearing repercussions and in the future I am sure I’ll start hearing Mr English do the same with the Danish language.

End note

Once in a while I assume we all tend to have a love hate relationship with our native language. I, for instance, really hate the Danish number system. Not because it is based on the number 20 (like French) instead of 10, but the fact that we say the last number first: e.g. the number 42 is toogfyrre (two-and-forty). My brain might be stupid – I can’t rule that out – but every time I have to record a number like that on paper I want to write 24, simply because the number two is the first number spoken.

What I love about Danish is that we have words not found in the English language and I find myself feeling sorry for native English speakers when they have to resort to explaining themselves out of something when we Danes only have to use a single word. It could be words like overmorgen (the day after tomorrow) and forgårs (the day before yesterday), though my favourites so far are formiddag (before midday/noon – which officially is the time from 9 am to 12 am) and the fact that we have words to describe paternal grandparents – farmor/farfar – and maternal grandparents – mormor/morfar – and that a female cousin is your kusine and your male cousin is your fætter. Not having to further explain yourself is a bliss, and for that I am grateful.


Experiencing (2)

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8 thoughts on “Experiencing my country through foreign eyes: Language

  1. Nice observations, Pernille 🙂
    I’m an English speaking expat in Germany. The thing about swearing is spot on! 😀
    You mentioned that Danish has words that English doesn’t. I find the same to be the case with German. So many words only exist in German vocabulary. At times I have problems explaining somethings to my German boyfriend in English so I just switch to German.

    Like

    1. Thank you!
      Really, in Germany too? That’s funny.
      Danish an German is very alike on that point, and I do like that about our languages. It must be annoying having to explain your way out of certain feelings but I suppose that’s why native English speakers have adopted words, especially from German, in the first place.
      Thanks for stopping by!

      Like

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