Disease in Common

Those keen on Scotland becoming a normal country often cite other countries as examples for such a situation. Many serve well in this role—including affluent Norway who “separated” peacefully from Sweden just over a century ago and has been a shining example of neighbourly democratic success ever since.

But one equally cited because it is almost the same size and latitude is Denmark. Problem is that few Scots know much about Denmark, with even fewer ever having been there. However, some distance was made up recently by the Beeb screening two hugely popular and excellent Danish TV series: Borgen and The Bridge. Not only did they engage and thrill but they gave us insight into Danish life and a rare chance to hear their language.

Danish belongs to a Scandinavian common family of teutonic languages that are mutually intelligible, similar to the latin-based Iberian group (Spanish, Portuguese and Catalan)—they are distinct languages but with a great deal in common. It’s a bit like Scots and English. Just as the English will gripe about the unintelligibility of a broad Scots accent, so the Swedes have a phrase that claims “Danish is not a language: it’s a throat disease“.

This week’s Economist, amongst its usual eclectic mix, has dug up an amusing video trying to help visitors to Copenhagen even manage to pronounce street names with any hope of locals knowing what they mean. As the author of the article says:

“Two non-Danes living in Copenhagen bang together some electronics to create talking street signs, telling confused foreigners how to pronounce things like Kvæsthusgade and Rådhusstræde. If you don’t know Danish, your best guess will probably not even be close.

“Strøget is the most famous street in Copenhagen—the pedestrian shopping street right through the heart of town. It may also be the hardest to say in the city. It combines:

  • a strongly uvular r—not that hard if you know French or German, but still not easy for non-natives
  • the ø—which is not so different from German ö, but still difficult for those who don’t know it
  • a g that is not pronounced at all, and worst:
  • the definite article -et (“the”), which in Danish always comes at the end of words.

“The combination, “Strøget” as Danes say it in running conversation, is one long, slightly strangled-sounding syllable.”

Scots may laugh at this difficulty. But before we do, think whether we appreciate the confusion we cause to our English visitors—let alone foreign ones—when we talk about “Mulgai” “The Broch” “Hoik” or my own local home of the saltire, “Ailshenfur”. And this is without even starting on any of our islands.

So, the problem seems to be that we and the Danes have similar troubles communicating even with our nearest neighbours. Is it a wonder that, example or no, we have so little contact between each other?

About davidsberry

Local ex-councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Retired in 2017.
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