Danish as She is Spoke
As witches go, Fru Kjøller was better-looking than average—sandy blonde, late thirties, Viking cheekbones, a fetching black skirt. The clever disguise made it all the harder for us to hate her.
Her lips parted and the incantation began.
"Reuhhdl greuhhdl meh fleuhhdl," she murmured, rounding it off with a smile. "It's easy," she announced to the silent room. "Now repeat."
I shot a look at my neighbor—a plump woman with short hair and rabbit eyes. We'd taken the back row, but there were only six of us in the class, so it was hard to hide. Nobody wanted to respond, but the hag had tilted her head, and her smile was starting to thin at the edges, so we began our moos and groans, chanting like a chorus of stroke victims.
"Very good," she beamed, though we knew what was coming next. Whenever she failed to humiliate us as a group, she made us imitate that most famous of Danes—and soliloquize. "Now," she said, "one at a time."
By the time she got to me, I was ready. The trick was to pretend you'd just been shot and had to name your killer before the blood finished pulsing out of your chest.
"Euhhh-kreuuuud-meuddd-fleuuuuuh," I moaned.
Fru Kjøller eyed me as though watching a dog chase its own tail. "That's all right," she said, rocking back on her high heels, those handsome calves flexing. "Nobody really expects you to learn Danish anyway."
That was my introduction to the local tongue. In the course of an hour, we'd gone from simple greetings and survival phrases to less practical parlor tricks. Rødgrød med fløde meant "red gruel with double cream," a delicacy I never spotted on any restaurant menu. The phrase is a kind of tongue-twister, the gruel-and-cream test serving to impress foreigners with the unprounceability of the Danish language—and to provide Danes with mirth whenever you try. Maybe that's why Denmark ranks as the happiest of nations.
I'd come to Denmark for reasons I didn't fully understand, the first time for a meeting, then a couple days at a workshop, a seminar the following year… When an institute invited me to come and teach a class, I surprised myself by considering it.
"Why not?" I thought, though perhaps I should have asked a more useful question. Like: Why? Or: What would I actually do there? Of course, one could always visit the Little Mermaid. In Hans Christian Andersen's version of the tale, the fish-girl couldn't even speak—which meant that she and I had the same command of Danish.
"Come on," the director wheedled while I dithered. "It'll be hyggelig"—one of many words I'd never be able to pronounce.
Soon it was settled.
Not everyone has such a flexible job, my wife reminded me pointedly. She'd visit at the end of the semester.
"You're going away again?" my lawyer brother said. "Didn't you just have a vacation?"
"That was a sabbatical."
He gave a pinched smile. "Of course."
I arrived on the hottest day Copenhagen had seen in over three decades—the temperature spiking into the low nineties, most of the heat collecting in the fourth-floor walkup I was moving into. The front door of the building was propped open, and a paper sign had been taped to its glass: Hold døren lukket.
That, it occurred to me, was how to teach a language. Instead of training us with inside jokes, the Danes should simply label their world, the way my mom used to sew tags into my clothing for summer camp. Heck, they already did it with streets and avenues, the metal signs embedded in the brick and stucco corners of the buildings. Why not everything else? I wanted Copenhagen with captions—each house marked as a hus, every train as a tog, stores as buttiker. Even cats and dogs could wear little nountags on their collars. After all, it's by matching words with the world that you understand language. There it was—Hold døren lukket posted on a door held open: what more could you ask for?
A bit of this labeled world existed at the supermarket, where eggs and pasta boldly proclaimed their identities, and where I liked to practice my language skills. On one of my first trips to the Netto shop, I got the attention of a dark-haired stock girl by pantomiming helplessness as I uttered the word "Mælk?" The truth is, I had a pretty fair idea of where the milk was kept. It was a fake question, designed to see if I could manufacture other questions later. My plan was to practice like mad before asking in what aisle they stocked red gruel with cream.
"Over there," she replied in English. "Behind the column."
That's the other problem if you want to learn Danish: the locals master English so early that even kids in elementary school make you feel like a dolt. In some countries it's sink or swim: if you don't pick up the language, you simply explode from never finding the bathroom. But in Denmark, people are always throwing you a lifeline. Or rather, a whole lifeboat. And then they climb over the gunnels to join you and make sure you're comfortable there. And to keep you off the oceanliner.
The students I was teaching—all Americans—surrendered early to the ubiquity of English. When I asked about their Danish, they looked down and coughed into their fists.
I complained to Helle, a colleague at the school where I taught. "Why do Danes always answer me in English?" I asked.
She leveled those icy baby blues on me. "When you speak Danish," she announced, "people feel embarrassed for you."
That put an end to speaking Danish with Helle.
By the way, I've changed all the names here so you don't sprain your tongue trying to say them.
So, I kept doing my homework, and after a couple of months I'd turned myself into a walking phrasebook—unfortunately, one modeled after English as She is Spoke, the nineteenth-century classic by a man who couldn't speak the language he taught, resulting in helpful dialogues like this:
How is that gentilman who you did speak by and by.
Is a German.
Tongh he is German, he speaks so much well italyan, french, spanish, and
english, that among the Italyans, they believe him Italyan, he speak the
frenche as the Frenches himselves. The Spanishesmen believe him Spanishing,
and the Englishes, Englishman.
It is difficult to enjoy well so much several langages!
I, too, enjoyed so much my langage, and so I goed Danishing by and by.
One day when I came home from work, two kids wearing rubber boots charged out of the building. They were roughhousing and let the door swing closed behind them in blatant violation of the Hold døren lukket sign. I'd been finding the door closed a lot lately. A tall man with a leather satchel was retrieving mail from his box as I entered, so I made a show of propping the door open, giving him a little wink that meant, Yep, those kids did it again. Bobbing my head like the helpful immigrant I was, I showed how I'd remedied the problem. He grunted a string of complex syllables. "Selv tak," I offered—"you're welcome" being one of the few expressions I could manage. I was happy to be of service. He shook his head started up the stairwell.
Open doors are uncommon in Copenhagen. When I visited Danes, the doors to all the rooms were closed. Hallways looked like intimate insane asylums, presumably holding lunatic relatives or characters from Lars von Trier movies. Inside my own apartment, even when the doors gaped, they felt closed: traditional raised thresholds separated each room from the hallway, and they sent me into acrobatic tumbles in the middle of the night.
Figurative doors were equally tricky. It's easy to get into Denmark for a brief visit, but if you plan to stay a while, you might find parts of the culture locked and bolted. Immigration laws there are the most restrictive in Europe. Greg, an American who'd worked in Copenhagen for ten years, had just seen his request for permanent residency turned down—again. Although he'd married a Dane, fathered two Danish children, worked for three Danish companies, paid Danish taxes and, yes, even voted in Danish elections, he wasn't quite Danish enough. Not yet.
Did I mention that he also learned the language?
Picking up the local idiom is actually required, and anyone hankering for residency needs to pass a state language exam with an oral interview. So you can speak Danish with Danes—but only on the day they test you. After the exam, most Americans report that their colleagues keep addressing them in English.
Although no one wants you to practice it, Danish is oddly necessary. Sure, the tourist information is all in English—but good luck reading the application for the monthly train passes. Administrative paperwork—a local specialty—is typically not rendered in the language of Shakespeare. During my online banking sessions, I always worried I was wiring my salary to Nigeria. Danishing like the Danishesmen wasn't so easy.
On the other hand, people express surprise when you tell them you're trying to learn their tongue. Why would you bother? they ask (in English). We're such a small country.
It was a fair question. Why did I bother? I thought about that a lot while quizzing myself with flashcards or studying the shape of my tongue in the mirror. It was pointless. Almost. But I've always hated coming from a monoglot nation that expects everyone else in the world to sidle up and drawl things like, "Whoa, what's up, Jack?" It's healthy for Americans—especially middle-class white guys—to experience life as an outsider. It's important to meet other people on their terms, do things their way, in their language.
When I told that to my wife over the phone, I could hear the roll of her eyes.
In any case, motives are moot, because Danes don't really want you to learn. They're proud of Danish's difficulty. It's a secret code, a shibboleth for figuring out who's part of the tribe. Sometimes I'd see colleagues chatting at the lunch table, and when I approached they'd exchange a glance and swerve into English. I recognized the pattern: it was how my parents used to shift gears when I walked into the room: Okay—now it's time for kid talk!
The crazy thing is that it shouldn't be so hard. In writing, Danish can be a lot like English. Remember hold for "hold"? Or dør for "door"? Sure, you have to get used to some perversities—saying "gruel the" instead of "the gruel," or figuring out how to avoid being rude when there's no word for "please." But with a decent dictionary (or the chicken's method of Google Translate) you can usually pick through it. The problem is pronunciation—the red gruel with cream thing. That's what makes you feel like you've just stumbled into a scene from Beowulf and you're taking language lessons from Grendel.
Pronouncing a new word for the first time was like going on a blind date, filled with terror and humiliation. A word like lagekagehuset is pronounced "la-oh-kay-hoos-uh." The lagekagehuset ("layer-cake-house-the") was my local bakery, where the sales clerk sniggered every time I ordered a snegl—a word that should rhyme with "smile" but always came out sounding like an Orc's nickname from Middle Earth.
There was the time I went to buy open-faced sandwiches, known as smørrebrød. It was a tiny shop, and smørrebrød was the only thing they sold. The display case was overflowing with the stuff, and the signs on the wall cried out Smørrebrød! Smørrebrød!
"I'd like some smørrebrød, please," I said.
The woman behind the counter scrunched her nose. "What?"
Was it my fault Danish has more vowel sounds than there are herring in the North Sea? Even the Swedes and Norwegians complain about the way Danes pronounce things: at some point in Scandinavian history Danish pronunciation went out to pick up a pack of cigarettes and it never came back. It was abducted. Portraits of the old language should be placed on mælk cartons everywhere. Come back, come back! we'd cry. We'll hold døren lukket for you!
Nevertheless, I continued with my Danish lessons, working hard on the sounds. I didn't have the Viking witch anymore. I'd burned through two instructors, and now was in a "special" class with a jovial fellow named Mogens. He refused to crack down when I trotted out mutant pronunciations. "Very good," he'd say, like an uncle encouraging a toddler. It was only a problem if I strayed too far, if the words began to sound like gastric eruptions. Then an uncomfortable smile would spread across Mogen's face and he'd start examining his fingernails, buffing them on the front of his shirt.
I figured the problem was me. Then I met a long-term transplant from the US. He, too, still felt like an outsider because of the language. Jonathan had been in Denmark since the seventies, and he lived up in Elsinore, Hamlet's neighborhood. "After forty years," he said, "I guess it's no longer a love/hate relationship with Denmark. It's just sort of OK/not-so-bad." You'd never really be welcomed into the castle, he was saying, but you could get used to splashing around in the moat.
Jonathan was married to a Dane, and he introduced me to special family words like mormor ("mother's mother") and farmor ("father's mother"). Even these were tricky. Mor, a gentle, bosomy word, means "mother," but if you stretch out the pronunciation with a gulp, it turns to "murder"—the difference between maternity and matricide marked by the presence or absence of a death-rattly glottal stop.
I've cheated in that last example, because "murder" is written m-o-r-d. But the last letter is silent. Overall, d's are an enigma in Danish: some disappear, some are clipped, some go spongy, and some masquerade as other letters altogether. Most commonly you find it in a special soft variation. To produce it, imagine you're sitting in a dentist's chair with your tongue soaked with Novocain and your mouth full of clamps, and the hygienist has just asked you about your summer vacation. That's the sound.
The need to practice Danish changed my lifestyle. The fellow who cut my hair, a fourth-generation barber named Jesper, would chat a bit in the local idiom, so I found myself going in for regular groomings. As he snipped away the week's growth, I rolled out rehearsed sentences and strained to make out his replies. It was a bit like paying to have a friend. But it was cheaper than language teachers. And I felt good about how I looked.
In fact, I engaged in lots of purchases I wouldn't ordinarily make, just to practice. If you have that northern European look, there's an uncomfortable silence every time you enter a shop and they have to guess: Is he one of them or one of us? Sometimes I could bluff for a word or two before blowing my cover, and sometimes salespeople would play along.
Toward the end of my semester, I stopped at a chocolate shop to pick up a hostess gift. The shopkeeper was a blonde woman, old enough to be the mother of my former teacher, Fru Kjøller. But she was gentler—more of a Glinda than a Wicked Witch. After my first syllables, she clasped her hands in indulgence and addressed me as though speaking to a Munchkin. Would I like to continue in English or Danish, she inquired. There was no one else in the shop, so I seized the opportunity, and we began the tortured process of choosing an assortment of morsels. On one tray sat rows of reddish blobs topped with a dot of white. The sight reminded me of something. "Red gruel with cream," I hazarded in Danish. She blinked at me, turned to the tray, then looked at me again. Suddenly her eyebrows rose and her teeth flashed. I had produced a joke, and she'd gotten it. For an instant, I kind of belonged.
I left the shop with chocolates in hand and a bounce in my step, stopping to check the store hours in case I wanted to return for another comedy routine. The sign announced: "Åben mandag—lørdag." Something nagged at me. The words for Monday and Saturday I knew. But Åben? I mulled that one over as I biked home. That A with the full moon overhead, it made an O sound, didn't it? And B's were often P's. A seismic tremor rumbled through my world.
Soon I found myself at the foot of my building, staring at the entrance. There were the old instructions, taped to the glass. Just then one of the neighbor kids came bursting out, letting the door swing closed, not even glancing at me to see if he'd get away with it.
That's when I realized my error. (Yes, any Danish reader has been scarlet with embarrassment for me since page one.) I'd misunderstood the hold døren lukket thing from the get-go. The door had been propped open that first day in the heat of August, despite the posted order to keep it closed. I'd wanted the city labeled, but this door had been miscaptioned, like a poorly subtitled film.
And yet, it also somehow made sense, in a Danish sort of way. Come in, it beckoned with one hand, while with the other it brought you to a halt. It was just the thing to throw you off-balance, to make you stumble over the raised threshold. Both OK and not-so-bad.
It was like a door slightly ajar, one that Denmark was trying to close, but into which I had finally managed to stick my foot.