March 27, 2005

Stranger in a strange land

It's taken some time to learn Swedish and Danish, and I have a lot left to learn. I've reached the point where I can take care of most routine business in these languages, by phone or in person. But it's one thing to make yourself understood and another not to stick out. You know, maybe my accent will be off, or I'll say something in a slightly strange way, or a word from another language will slip through the filters. It annoys me if I am talking to a sales clerk and they figure out I'm a native speaker of English and decide to switch languages-- it means I've failed the test. I wonder, what gave me away? Some words are especially challenging-- for example, I just can't say 'Happy Meal med Chicken McNuggets', 'Mexican Wrap' or 'Coca-cola' with the accent of a Swede speaking English.

It is also amusing/annoying to keep track of which words belong to which language. Danish and Swedish resemble each other quite a bit, but even so, 'black' is 'svart' in the one language but 'sort' in the other, a window is a foenster in Swedish but a vindue in Danish, and a 'week' is a Swedish vecka but a Danish uge (but note that the Danes have a 'weekend' but the Swedes a 'helg'!). Not only do they have different words in the two languages, but there are also a lot of words that are the same but have different meanings. 'Roligt' means peaceful or quiet in Danish but fun in Swedish-- there is a joke about the Swede who went to Copenhagen and asked the taxi driver to take him to a fun place and ended up at the cemetary. No, there is no sense to language.

A couple of Danes have told me that English is nothing more than a dialect of Danish. England was colonised by the vikings, most of them from the west coast of Denmark, and they left their imprint on the language. One example is our word for window, which is based on the Danish word meaning literally 'wind eye.' Another is that the Danes would say that the sheep are out in the pasture 'grassing' (eating grass), or in modern English, 'grazing.' (The Swedish word for a window, foenster, is a relative of the English word for thowing someone out the window-- defenestrate. They have a common Latin root.)

There are a fair number of Americans in Lund, most of them exchange students at the University. Two of the supermarkets in town now have a special American section. They are the same: three shelves stocked with French's mustard, Oreos, Reese's Pieces, Log Cabin syrup, Paul Newman salad dressing, root beer and marshmallows. This is the essence of my country?


At March 28, 2005 9:02 PM , Blogger Tim said...

Defenestrate in English means "throw a person or thing out a window"

At March 29, 2005 8:29 PM , Blogger Matt_J said...

OK OK, throw someone or something out the window. But fun with the common root.

At March 30, 2005 10:01 AM , Blogger Tim said...

whoops. I posted that before I noticed you had defined the word in your post. I wasn't correcting you.

What I wish I had said instead was that the Danes are right in that people from southern Denmark settled England and brought their language, but English has broadened its codebase quite a bit since then, partly because the Norman rulers of England spoke French. There is a great PBS Documentary about the history of English. The history on this page: seems to match what the documentary said.


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