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The Bookroom Feature

February 1998

The Glamorous life

Melbourne author Jane Routley shares her experiences while living in Denmark with her husband.

So here I am leading the glamorous life living in Europe. Unfortunately unlike most people who get to say that, I'm not living in London. I'm living in Denmark. While its pretty glamorous here there's one drawback. They speak a foreign language.

Actually you don't need to learn Danish to live happily here. The teenage girls in the bread shop speak better English than I do. They've been watching things like Flying Doctor and Steve and Terri the Crocodile Hunters on TV in English with subtitles since they were all knee-high to grasshoppers. But when Danes chill out and have a few beers they'll all be speaking Danish to each other. If you want to really get to know the natives anywhere, the hard truth is there's no substitute for learning the language.

So thinks I, this'll be a snap or at least snappish. I've learned languages before. After about a year of classes in German I was able to have quite interesting conversations with German 8 year olds. A year's Danish classes and I'll be drinking beer with the natives no problemo. After all German and Danish look alike. Wrong!

Learning languages is never a snap. Its bloody hard yakka. And all languages have got their cute little pitfalls for foreigners. It not the grammar. Danish has even simpler verbs than English. In fact as my teacher said "We have no future in Danish" (I hope she was talking about the future tense and not making some Igmar Bergmanesque remark about the Danish psyche) The problem with Danish is pronunciation. The idea here is to drop as many sounds from a word as possible with out making it sound like some other word. Thus Hjem (home) is pronounced Jam and Gade (street) is pronounced Gel. Don't ask me why. There are no rules for this sound dumping. Every Danish class we do a little exercise where we cross out all the unused letters in Danish words. You should see those little pencils flash. No wonder Danes are such notoriously bad spellers. And even though I am dutifully watching the Danish version of Playschool everyday, I can't get the sounds right. Its always useful to be able to spell your name in a foreign country. R-O-U-T-L-E-Y. At the moment however I'm completely stonkered by the difference between the oo sound you make for U and the oo sound you make for the Danish y.

The only difference seems to be that you look more like a chimpanzee pronouncing u.

And while most languages will cope with a few variations in pronunciation, in Danish you've got to be precisely correct otherwise all you get are blank looks. (and weird sandwiches. The word for chicken here is very like the word for kitten) At first I thought this was something to do with the fact that Danes almost never talk to foreigners in Danish. There are only five million of them and being a considerate folk, they don't see why you should have to learn such a minor language to talk to them. They learn yours instead. But now I discover that I've stumbled into the middle of a centuries old language war.

The weird thing about Europeans is that while they hate racism and usually polite to foreigners, they really hate the appalling oinks in the next village. Its a kind of Sydney - Melbourne thing on a much smaller scale.

So in Denmark the rural Jutlanders and the urban Copenhageners make a big show of not being able to understand each others version of Danish even to the extent of subtitling each other on TV. The implication here is that each speaks Danish too brutally for civilised ears to understand.

I ask you in this sort of environment want short of hope does someone who speaks Danish with a Strine accent have.

One solution was suggested to me by a some genius of a Yugoslav in class. He said that you could only really pronounce Danish properly if you were drinking beer while talking it. See if you have any word with a t or a d at the end, you're supposed to make this gargling choking sound as in Head Hovdet+ hov gargle gargle. My observations of Danes who are keen beer drinkers, (5 million bottles of Carlsberg a day in a country of five million people and that's only one brewery) support this theory. I plan to examine the method more closely. Who knows, learning Danish may have its consolations even if I never manage to master it.


Jane Routley

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