The collapse of Danish

by Translation Guy on April 19, 2010

Certain countries are just better for ugly Americans than others. Whenever I don my touring togs (Hawaiian shirt, Bermuda shorts and sandals over socks), I like the natives to speak my lingo, savvy? That’s what makes Legoland in Billund a must-see on my Euro-itinerary, since all Danes speak English.

But at what price to the Danes? I recently saw a documentary on YouTube, a shocking exposé on the Disappearance of Danish in Denmark. The report reveals that the “Danish language has collapsed into meaningless guttural sounds.”

Since my Danish is hardly any better than that of the Danes, I asked my favorite Danish translator, Jane Kjems, to take a look at it. Years ago, she translated a biker movie script into Danish for us, which posed lots of interesting terminology problems, but that’s another post.

I was saddened to learn that my scoop had melted, and that this documentary was just some Norwegian comics making fun of Danes. Making fun of the way others speak is always a great joke, as Jane so wisely observed. Works for me.

Anyway, after a visit to the home country for a few weeks last fall, Jane reported on lots of linguistic changes. “[While] the language [has] absorb[ed] the usual share of words from English (British as often as American, by the way), German, Swedish, to some extent Norwegian (but less so), it ALSO has adopted several words and concepts of Arabic origin.”

“What I noticed, though, when listening to people on public transportation, is that more and more people are communicating in ‘English.’ Some do a good job (and are usually of ‘foreign’ extraction) and then there is the Danish brand of English. Danes are often quite fluent, except the problem is that what THEY believe they are saying, is more often than not a totally different thing from what YOU (as a native speaker of English) actually hear them say. Thus you have a wonderful basis for total confusion, and this is the reason why you still need competent translators who actually live and work in an American environment (PLUG for the American brand of Danish Translators over the ones based in Denmark!)”

So, according to my top Danish translator, Danes can’t speak English either. Double scoop!

Special thanks to Jane for her research and analysis with this linguistic exposé.

Venlig hilsen!
-Translation Guy


  1. Mcelvin says:

    Very interesting piece and it validates what I was told a while back. I was told that Danish phonology has been mutating so rapidly over the last 50 years that it is often possible to tell by the accent of an emigre returning to Denmark what decade they left in.

  2. Sean says:

    The overall picture I got from your post was of a language in an extreme stage of phonological degeneration, extremely divergent from its written form, and functionally unnecessary to many of its younger speakers.

  3. Idka says:

    Actually, linguists are fairly aware of the language death phenomenon. Read “Language Death”, by the way.

  4. It is just a really tough language. I was visiting a friend a few months back and he remarked that, having absorbed spoken Danish as a child, he found learning written English easier than learning written Danish.

  5. Maureen says:

    This reminds me that I found an article somewhere saying that danish is one of the most complicated language to learn from toddlers because of its mumbled character.

  6. Lauran E. says:

    Lived in Denmar (and other EU countries) for 4 years. I was always so surprised that at least half the advertising signs in Denmark – and a not inconsiderable percentage of street signs – are in English. Danes usually speak passable English; many routinely code-switch to English even when there are no foreigners involved, in particular for technical discussions.

  7. Nina Modi says:

    Within this milennia, “pure” Danish will only be preserved as an ethno-tribal museum artifact and common Danish increasingly blending with English until its identity is essentially lost except as a source of picturesque dialect words. For a look at a late stage in this sort of process, consider Lallans, the lowland Scots fusion of Scots Gaelic and English…

  8. Serg says:

    Exactly. Modern Danish is not spoken so much as it is mumbled. Norwegians and Swedes say that Danes talk like they’ve constantly got potatoes in their mouths, and it’s true. Most of the phonemic distinctions you’d think ought to be there from looking at the orthography of written Danish (and which actually are there in Norwegian and Swedish) collapse into a sort of glottalized mud in contemporary spoken Danish.

  9. I’m in the indusrty and I can say that most linguists think it’s Just Not Done to say that a speaker population is evolving its own language out of existence, if for no reason than that doing so might embroil them in identity-politics issues of which they want no part and value judgments they’ve been trained to avoid.

  10. As a counterexample, I recommend Nicholas Ostler’s book Empires of the Word. It’s about the development, growth, and evolution of languages, and more often than not the evolutionary path of a language has led to its extinction.

  11. Heather says:

    Superb book; I learned much from it and enjoyed it greatly. Ostler did note that, with the singular exception of English, Germanic languages have shown little to no ability to spread beyond their crib populations. Through much of their original range they were replaced by dialects of Latin.

  12. Jeniferous says:

    Germanic languages have shown little to no ability to spread beyond their crib populations I blame the Americans, it’s their fault (you Ken). German would be the dominant language between Brest and Vladivostok if the Americans hadn’t interfered… *sigh*

  13. Kooba says:

    Interesting conversation, but the 1999 UNESCO Red Book on Endangered Languages lists Danish as non-endangered. Has it moved down hill so quickly?

  14. MizFine says:

    well… I am a Dane living in Copenhagen (the capital). I am probably a part of that new youth culture who speaks half Danish and half everything else. Part of a young movement that doesn’t care much about preserving Danish, and I assume many Danish conservatives wouldn’t think well about me. But to be honest I don’t think it’s a bad that our language is changing and that we are not preserving the traditional. I cannot speak Danish as we did 50 years ago in Denmark – just as I cannot read the stars or saddle a horse.

    My Danish may be lacking but that’s because I am using my resources to satisfy more valuable needs. For sure I cannot speak Danish as my parents and grand parents but I speak more foreign languages (English, German, Spanish) than any of them… not to mention “computer languages”, “chat languages” “sms languages” they never even have heard off. In order to do this I have to accept that I only have limited resources and time – and I need to focus and learn the languages that is most useful to me.

    It’s not that I am saying that we shouldn’t learn from the history of Danish and all the information embedded in my language – But I will just leave that task to the museums and professionals. Basically in order to learn something new we often have to let go of something else, I think this process is very good and frees up resources.

  15. Wilber says:

    I’m one-quarter Danish myself and learned a little years ago, not out of “ethnic heritage” sentiments but just because I was (and am) a language nut. I also had some association with Danish speakers. I agree that the sound system, compared to Swedish for example, is tough to mimic and understand, partly because of that dang “stod,” which is easy enough to make but impossible to predict in written form, and mainly because of those elided and swallowed consonants (but French presents many of the same difficulties to learners doesn’t it).

    Its usefulness in a globalized world? Less and less I imagine, the same as with so many other languages that are “of limited diffusion” but not really endangered. I faintly recall reading years ago, in The Economist I think, that the Dutch were discussing whether to drop college and university instruction in Dutch.

    In academic publishing during the last few decades of the Soviet era, articles and books in non-Russian languages were pretty much relegated and confined to literature and the humanities. Almost all hard science and engineering came out in Russian. To a serious scientist it made sense, for the sake of reaching a broader audience. But many non-Russian authors (Georgians for example) still felt conflicted.

  16. I’m not a linguist but I am fluent in Danish (and Swedish). I don’t think Danish is dying out, luckily :)

    About the mutation thing: yes, there is some truth to that. But I think that is the case for a lot of languages. Listen to a Swedish radio broadcast from the 20s or 30s, it sounds a bit antiquated.

    About the mumbling: I find that it’s more a case of Danes cutting off big chunks of the words in the spoken language. I’ve heard that certain dialects of Spanish are similar in this regard.

    OBTW, when are you coming to Scandinavia Ken? I would like to meet you in person – love your posts, you’re a character!

    • Ken says:

      Colleen, fair warning… A friendly gesture on your part could easily end with me sitting in a towel on your sofa, toothbrush hanging out of my mouth, politely asking if you would mind doing a load of my laundry. Others have learned the hard way. On the other hand, I never come without a pack of biscuits from the nearest train station.

  17. Curtis says:

    >”I cannot speak Danish as we did 50 years ago in Denmark – just as I cannot read the stars or saddle a horse.” Sir, you are neatly illustrating the attitude I observed among Danish Linux hackers; thanks for the confirmation.

  18. Paula says:

    I assume you’re making a mordant joke – but in case you aren’t, the consistent failure of Germanic languages other than English to spread beyond their crib populations is a pattern predating the existence of America by about 1500 years.

    • Ken says:

      A linguistically mordant joke is right, Paula. Interesting point about the spread of Germanic languages. The Germanic diaspora to the East, spread by sword and plow, over the centuries was abruptly rolled back by Stalin’s tanks in 1945, has left almost no linguistic legacy outside the borders of Germany. And that other great linguistic diaspora of Yiddish, also a Germanic language, was extinguished in the same conflict by the same Germans in the ovens of the Holocaust.

  19. Erica says:

    I’m a Danish emigré in Sweden, so I’m probably a wee bit more conservative when it comes to language than natives. So I think the sms’ification of the Danish language is a pity. Take that as you will

  20. Gwen T says:

    I have always imagined that the actual disappearance of a language occurs when it is no longer able to express the speakers’ civilisation. For instance, in a new Roman province (in Gaul or in the Iberian Peninsula) there would be active soldiers, retired soldiers turned farmers, taxmen and merchants daily interacting with the local communities and exposing them to new technologies, social relations, religious rituals and philosophy for which there are no words/concepts in the traditional language. So was the case for French or English were they succeeded. I think languages die when people find easier to use a different language than to import the new daily concepts in their traditional language. French seemed to be the new Latin in the 18th-19th century. But because it only penetrated the educated classes (like ancient Greek) eventually those classes transposed the concepts of French in the “common language” to “educate the masses”.

    It also seems to me the divergence between the spoken and the standard or written language is a matter of cultural or educational problems that needs not endanger the entire language. E.g official French is frozen in written texts and official discourses, slowly evolving over decades, while spoken French, uncoupled from spelling and from the official styles is evolving at a much faster pace toward simplification, regularisation and tends to be less nuanced but more vivid. This has been a problem for any language with a “standard dialect” and a public education system, from Latin to English. The inability of the official language to keep up with the common dialects may announce a linguistic overhaul, but unless other conditions are met, only the current official dialect has eventually to die rather than the whole language. I think most people are rather reluctant to speak a foreign language (unless the new one is the actually jargon of their profession, e.g. English for IT specialists).

    I know too little about Danish. I think in its written form it is quite similar to one of the Norwegian dialects, so that students will use books published in Norway when Danish translations are not available. Also, they are linguistically and culturally close enough to the Germans to have been threatened in the 19th century by incorporation and assimilation during the German unification process. Only nationalism and full sovereignty (the oldest monarchy still in existence!) prevented their dissolution in a larger German or Scandinavian nation.

    Is there any reason in your opinion why Danes would start using English in their daily lives more than the Indians; or more than the 19th century Europeans used French?

  21. Leclair says:

    The point about spoken Danish being mumbled struck a chord with me about my own native language – Welsh. In South Wales particularly there appears to be little relation between the spoken word and the written word and people often assume that we’re mumbling when we speak Welsh. Welsh speakers in North Wales tend to adhere more closely to the written word.

    Rather than being a sign that the language is dying out I’ve always thought of it as the evolution of different dialects – a night out in Newcastle (England) will leave you often wondering what someone has just said, but there’s little doubt they’re speaking English.

    Welsh seems to be growing in popularity especially since Wales was granted a greater degree of self-rule – an interesting twist on the growth of a bureaucracy in Wales is that it also requires a growth in the number of Welsh speakers!

  22. Denise says:

    I think the alarm bells really started to go off in my head when a native speaker told me he’d found it easier to learn written English than written Danish!

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