Why Danish is impossible to understand (now with science)

I’ve mentioned here before the fearsome reputation that Danish has for other Scandinavians, namely by linking to the classic Uti vår Hage sketch purporting that even the Danes no longer understand each other.

I didn’t know that this lack of comprehension has been studied scientifically until I came across Take Danish – for instance ed. Henrik Galberg Jacobsen et al. (University Press of Southern Denmark, 2003), a collection of papers in honour of Hans Basbøll on his 60th birthday. Nina Grønnum contributes a paper titled “Why are the Danes so hard to understand?” that takes a theoretically rigorous look at the language, with lots of tables and charts. A comparison of the intonation of a given sentence in Danish and Swedish

She arrives at the following conclusion:

An abundance of vowels, weak syllable codas, unstressed syllables without any vowel sound, and fairly inexpressive prosody makes Danish a harder nut to crack perceptually than most languages which it otherwise is reasonable to compare it to.

Any trained linguist who has studied Norwegian or Swedish and finds that Danish is impossible to understand would profit greatly from this paper. Kamelåså!

Danish as a complete barrier to communication

While my understanding of spoken Danish has now surpassed my understanding of spoken Swedish (it’s the Swedes who speak as if they have potatoes in their mouths!), I still love jokes about how Danish is completely unintelligible. I got a lot of laughs out of this bit (Parts One and Two) from the Norwegian comedy programme Uti Vår Hage, which begins with a supposed Dane complaining:

The Danish language has always been impossible to understand for most Scandinavians, but in recent years it has been impossible to understand for us in Denmark too. So, for me the Danish language has just collapsed into meaningless guttural sounds.

I wonder if the comedians needed much practice before they could comfortably generate pseudo-Danish at length. And I love the jab at Norwegian language politics:

There’s one worse than Norwegian we don’t understand, that’s New Norwegian [Nynorsk]. What the fuck?

Pia Tafdrup

LanguageHat often posts about poetry, and I should get to do so once in a while as well. After all, along with what languages are (grammar and lexicon), and who uses them (their population of speakers), there’s also the matter of what they are good for. Sure, that most often means conversation, but towards a more eternal edifice it means literature, and within it poetry is the very exploitation of a language’s possibilities. That’s why I’m very passionate about the verse of Pia Tafdrup, which showed me that Danish is much more than the seemingly random succession of schwa, /y/, and glottal stop that I first heard it to be.

I was introduced to Tafdrup through Per Nørgård’s choral settings of her poem Mytisk morgen (‘Mythic Morning’). Only a limited number of her poems have been translated into English and made available in book form, outside of obscure journal issues. Dronningeporten, her Nordic Council Literature Prize-winning collection, is available in translation by David McDuff as Queen’s Gate. I haven’t seen it, but Amazon shows it as even available in the United States, rare for a Bloodaxe Books publication.

Though it’s not my favourite of her poems, one in particular is suitable for exposition here, as it is given on her website in both the original Danish and in McDuff’s English translation, and there’s a documentary excerpt of her reciting it.

Min mors hand

Bader mig i en dråbes stille lys
og husker hvordan jeg blev til:
En blyant stukket i hånden,
min mors kølige hånd om min, der var varm.
— Og så skrev vi
ind og ud mellem koralrev,
et undersøisk alfabet af buer og spidser,
af sneglespiral, af søstjernetakker,
af fægtende blækspruttearme,
af grottehvælvinger og klippeformationer.
Bogstaver der fimrede og fandt vej,
svimmelt hen over det hvide.
Ord som flade fisk der flaprede
og gravede sig ned i sandet
eller svajende søanemoner med hundreder af tråde
i stille bevægelse på én gang.
Sætninger som strømme af fisk,
der fik finner og løftede sig,
fik vinger og bevægede sig rytmisk,
dunkende som mit blod, der blindt
slog stjerner mod hjertets nattehimmel,
da jeg så, at hendes hånd havde sluppet min,
at jeg for længst havde skrevet mig ud af hendes greb.

My Mother’s Hand

Bathing in a drop’s quiet light
I remember how I came into being:
A pencil stuck in my hand,
my mother’s cool hand around mine, it was warm.
— And then we wrote
in and out between coral reefs,
an undersea alphabet of arches and apexes
of snail-shell spirals, of starfish points,
of gesticulating octopus arms,
of cave vaults and rock formations.
Letters that vibrated and found their way,
dizzy over the white.
Words like flat fish that flapped
and dug themselves into the sand
or swaying sea anemones with hundreds of threads
in quiet motion at the same time.
Sentences like streams of fish
that grew fins and rose,
grew wings and moved in a rhythm,
throbbing like my blood, that blindly
beat stars against the heart’s night sky,
when I saw that her hand had let mine go,
that I had long ago written myself out of her grasp.

Wonderfully, so much of her poetry is accessible to someone with still just a fairly low level of Swedish and some general experience of historical Nordic grammar; while the march towards a command of Danish goes on, her work is already enjoyable. Well, on paper, that is, obviously the sound is quite different. Luckily, CD recordings of her recitation are available, and she travels extensively giving readings, one of which I hope to one day attend.

In a rather nice turn of events, David McDuff has a weblog, dedicated to the lasting effects of Cold War politics but which occasionally exhibits some of his translations. He’s written several entries on Tafdrup: