Sticky Notes of Thoughts

…because some thoughts are worth remembering

On Literal Words in Danish

Ebeltoft

Despite the fact that Danish is a very difficult language to learn, and it has frustrated me to no end, it keeps me engaged because you discover these intriguing nuggets in their language right when you have had enough. Besides the archeological linguistics aspects and unexpected benefits of learning Danish, I find joy in their literal vocabulary, and that their core vocabulary is significantly smaller than that of English (i.e., many words are combinations of existing words, and that the English-> Danish side of the dictionary is significantly thicker than the Danish -> English side).

My Italian friend living in Denmark would passionately speak about how Italians have completely different words for different kinds of pasta because they are completely different (I haven’t mastered which pasta would go better with what sauce, and I’m not sure if I could pass a blind test to differentiate between a torn piece of tagliatelle and fettucini, but yes, I appreciate the distinct names). Then he goaded his Danish girl friend, “You know, because in Danish, it’s all existing words combined…. What is the name for lizard again?” even though it was obvious he already knew the answer. “…Firben,” (literally, 4 legs) she said sheepishly. Yup. 4 legs. Not sure why lizard got the honor of representing all the 4 legged creatures (why not cows? frogs? dogs?), but whomp there it is.

A few days after, I was with a group of Danes talking about animals. Still unable to comprehend the whole conversation, I tend to hang onto the few words I recognize and extrapolate from there. I thought they were talking about horses because I heard “hest” but really, they were talking about a hippopotamus, “flodhest” (literally river horse). I laughed and said, “So, would rhinoceros be a horned horse?” and I was close: “næsehorn” (literally nose horn).

This pattern of combining existing words is not limited to the animal kingdom. Støvsuger (dust sucker) is indeed a vacuum cleaner. Køleskab (cool cabinet) is a refrigerator. Guess what an airplane is: flyvemaskine (flying machine). Dyr is animal and læge is doctor, so dyrlæge is a vet. If you knew the word for tooth is tand, then you’ll know that dentist is tandlæge.

With all this combining, Germans don’t have the monopoly on extremely long words: sporvognsskinneskidtskraber (person who maintains the tram rail, literally, tram wagon track dirt scraper).

It’s fun to guess what the word means by knowing where to delineate the core words, but trying to guess a Danish vocabulary by combining simpler Danish words you know is probably not going to work…except for maybe a bra: yup, it’s really breast holder (brystholder).

Photo: Ebeltoft, Denmark

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This entry was posted on July 31, 2015 by in Denmark, language and tagged , , , , .
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