Sticky Notes of Thoughts

…because some thoughts are worth remembering

On Unexpected Benefits of Learning Danish

OldStavanger

We will be leaving Denmark in less than 2 months. It could look like a waste of time to have attended an intensive language class in Danish for a year, when I will not have use for this language after our departure. I did at some point wish that it was French I was learning, because I have some French-speaking friends, I would probably go back to France again, and it is a good foundation for learning other Romance languages. But I don’t regret my choice to (try to) learn Danish.

Although Denmark is no longer a great empire, Danish, the language of the Vikings, did have quite an influence on other languages as they conquered their lands. I knew Norway was part of Denmark years ago, and Norwegian is very close to Danish. I was surprised that I could speak Danish in Norway and have them understand me and respond back to me in either Norwegian or English. (I was also surprised that when I returned to Denmark from my short trip to Norway that I seem to understand the Danes less than the Norwegians. Norwegians actually pronounce everything, unlike the Danes, so it’s perhaps a friendlier language for foreigners learning Danish).  Other people’s conversations in foreign lands are usually filtered out, but I was surprised to have a few phrases slip through that I recognized without first translating it in my head: a clerk yelling to the cashier that something was “3 for 4 Euros” in Dutch when we were in Rotterdam, which my brain processed as Danish. I had an easier time decoding Dutch instructions and food labels as well as ones in German as a result.

Another unexpected benefit has to do with uncovering English. I say uncovering because I was able to travel back in time by learning Danish. Fire in Danish is “brand”. English also has that word, except it means something completely different, to the point I brushed it off as a coincidental homonym. I was wrong. Nike, Apple, Chanel are brands today, but in the old days branding was for cattle. One branded their livestock with a red hot iron from the fire to mark them as theirs. It did come from the same word, and the usage has diverged in time after the original word was disseminated.

This anthropological linguistic study extends to idioms, too. In English, we say “the cat is out of the bag” to mean the secret got revealed before its time. It comes from the practice when bartering in markets when some dishonest merchants would place cats in the bag instead of a more pricey item their customers purchased. So if a cat got out of the bag, your secret is out as well. In Danish, there is a phrase that uses similar combination of words but don’t mean the same thing: “katten i sækken” (cat in the bag), to mean you got cheated. So they are related expressions, where the English version evolved out of the Danish.

In a world when it seems so easy to focus on what’s different, I found comfort in a common heritage of a tongue and culture once shared by now distinct countries. Whether I will speak Danish ever again, it was well worth my time.

Photo: Old Town in Stavanger, Norway, where my Danish did come in handy.

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This entry was posted on July 1, 2015 by in Denmark, language and tagged , , , , , .
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