Is Danish Dying?

Some years ago I did a speaking tour in Scandinavia that involved staying in Denmark for a couple of days. Denmark, like the other Scandinavian nations I’ve visited, is a tidy little country full of intelligent, civilized, and agreeable people. As long as you can get along with gray sub-arctic weather and gray, characterless food these are interesting places to be – well, at least for someone with my strong interest in history and archeology. Historical museums, here I come!

But while I was in Denmark I kept tripping over odd facts that pointed to a possibly disturbing conclusion: though the Danes don’t seem to notice it themselves, their native language appears to me to be dying. Here are some of the facts that disturbed me:

  1. 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. The Dane with whom I was staying remarked that, having absorbed spoken Danish as a child, he found learning written English easier than learning written Danish.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

The overall picture I got of Danish 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.

I contemplated all this and thought of Maltese.

Maltese originated as a creole fusing Arabic grammar and structure with loanwords from French and Italian. I have read that since 1800 (and especially since WWII) Maltese has been so heavily influenced by bilingual English and Maltese speakers that much of what is now called “Maltese” is actually “Maltenglish”, rather more like a Maltese-English fusion, with “pure” Maltese only spoken by a dwindling cohort of the very old and very rural. Analysis of this phenomenon is complicated by the fact that the Maltese themselves tend to deny it, insisting for reasons of ethno-tribal identity that they speak more Maltese and less Maltenglish than they actually do.

Based on what I saw and heard in Denmark, I think Danish may be headed down a similar diglossic road, with “pure” Danish 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.

I’m blogging about this because I don’t know who to ask for an expert opinion about my suspicions. 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.

So, um, is there a fearless Danish linguist in my audience? If Danish isn’t in terminal collapse, what the heck is actually going on instead?

154 thoughts on “Is Danish Dying?

  1. Most linguists think it’s Just Not Done to say that a speaker population is evolving its own language out of existence…

    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.

  2. I am, I like to think, a relatively fearless linguist; but not, sad to say, one with any expertise in Danish, so I can offer little more than you already know. Your analysis of the evidence as you present it seems plausible enough, and I think I know what you mean when it comes to the difficulties in seeking expert assistance.

    Perhaps, though, you could phrase the question in a manner that makes the identity politics work for you? The key term here is ‘endangered language’ — if you present your observations to a relevantly-qualified linguist and ask “do you think this makes Danish endangered?” they’ll probably do what they’re trained to do: ignore the fact that the so-called “endangerment” arises entirely out of the choices of language learners (one of those value judgments they avoid) and give serious thought to the idea that Danish might be another virtuous and tragic victim of the imperial spread of running-dog capitalist English.

    Let’s hope I haven’t just apostasized myself out of the nice little career I’m building towards. Pardon my hyperbole.

  3. >As a counterexample, I recommend Nicholas Ostler’s book Empires of the Word.

    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.

    However, Ostler had little or nothing to say about the actual patterns of language decline in cases like Maltese or Danish (or, to consider another contemporary case, Irish Gaelic) beyond noting that languages can be displaced by interlopers that are more easily acquired by adult speakers. English is at an extreme on this scale.

  4. > Germanic languages have shown little to no ability to spread
    > beyond their crib populations

    I blame the Americans, it’s their fault (as always). German would be the dominant language between Brest and Vladivostok if the Americans hadn’t interfered. *sigh*

  5. 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.

  6. 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 next? I would like to meet you in person.

  7. >I cannot speak Danish as we did 50 years ago in Denmark – just as I cannot read the stars or saddle a horse.

    Jacob, you are neatly illustrating the attitude I observed among Danish Linux hackers; thanks for the confirmation.

    I’m not making a judgment on either Danish or you when I observe that this attitude is highly unusual among speakers of languages with a large native-speaker community, a flag, and an army. Normally you only see it in speakers of minority languages or dialects collapsing under pressure from a prestigious national language.

  8. >I blame the Americans, it’s their fault (as always). German would be the dominant language between Brest and Vladivostok if the Americans hadn’t interfered. *sigh*

    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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

    Your theory about this? I am assuming it has something to do with the Romans.

  11. >Listen to a Swedish radio broadcast from the 20s or 30s, it sounds a bit antiquated.

    English from fifty years ago, on the other hand, usually still sounds quite contemporary. I think television and movies have been a strong stabilizing influence – in effect (especially through movies), English speakers have been constantly re-exposed to the speech norms of the 1930s and 1940s, and these continue to influence current usage.

    Another effect of mass media is that prestige dialects of English have tended to converge on a few media-defined standards. As someone who lived in Great Britain in the 1960s, the extent to which British English got Americanized in the following thirty years was vividly clear to me when I revisited in the 1990s. Today’s street accents in London would have been considered transatlantic (blended British-American) accents when I first lived there.

    >OBTW, when are you coming to Scandinavia next? I would like to meet you in person.

    These things usually start with an invitation from some LUG or university in the host country, and I don’t presently have any from Scandinavia.

  12. You should try contacting Lund University perhaps? Biggest uni in Sweden by some counts. Copenhagen uni has a big IT department as well. How much money do you require for these things?

  13. >Your theory about this? I am assuming it has something to do with the Romans.

    I don’t have a personal theory about this, but I’m inclined to credit Nicholas Ostler’s thesis that (absent exceptional factors like conquest and population displacement, or high religious prestige) languages spread effectively only to the degree that their morphology is simple enough to make them readily acquired by adult speakers of languages that aren’t closely related.

    Ostler says English, Malay, and Chinese rate very high on this scale, while (other) Germanic languages and Arabic are notably low on it. Ostler notes that English/Malay/Chinese are all SVO languages with mostly isolational grammar and suggests that this pattern is a good predictor of spread. Conversely, languages with complex inflectional or agglutinative grammars are less infectious.

  14. >You should try contacting Lund University perhaps?

    I don’t normally solicit invitations.

    >How much money do you require for these things?

    I’ve never charged a fee, but I do require that all my expenses and incidentals be covered without fuss or any requirement that I do paperwork.

  15. > 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.

    That’s an interesting observation, which raises the question: “can this be accounted for entirely by the activities of the Roman Empire, or is Latin as viral as Unix?”

    > The 1999 UNESCO Red Book on Endangered Languages lists Danish as non-endangered.

    By the textbook definition, that classification is accurate. My suggestion was that you approach an appropriate expert with the hypothesis that Danish might constitute a non-standard case of endangerment so as to get that expert thinking about the problem without raising the counter-productive political issues you alluded to.

  16. Two uneducated comments: 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?

  17. >That’s an interesting observation, which raises the question: “can this be accounted for entirely by the activities of the Roman Empire, or is Latin as viral as Unix?”

    IIRC Ostler notes this particular displacement without analyzing it in great detail. However, generalizing from cases I remember him analyzing in more detail, I can predict what his argument would be, and largely agree with it myself. He’d say the expansion of Latin was partly a result of conquest, partly of religious prestige, and crucially enabled by the fact that Romance languages have relatively simple morphologies that are easily acquired by adult speakers.

    I think I could go a bit further and suggest that the progressive loss of the inflectional system in vulgar Latin (as compared to old literary Latin) made it easier to acquire. A thousand years later the decay of the Anglo-Saxon inflectional system had a similar effect on English.

    (Ostler also reported recent scholarship indicating that continental Celtic and Latin were quite similar to each other, enough so that Latin-speakers regarded Gaulish rather more respectfully than they did other “barbarian” languages. This may help explain why Latin took hold early and deep in what is now France.)

    >My suggestion was that you approach an appropriate expert with the hypothesis that Danish might constitute a non-standard case of endangerment so as to get that expert thinking about the problem without raising the counter-productive political issues you alluded to.

    Indeed, I would like to do exactly that.

  18. Your 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!

  19. To sum up, why do you think Danish is more than a vulnerable language (just like French or Romanian for instance)?

    PS Arabs an Spaniards have been more successful than the English or French in pushing their language down the throats of other peoples by placing them in immediate and daily contact with their very different civilisation.

  20. >To sum up, why do you think Danish is more than a vulnerable language

    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.

  21. >Rather than being a sign that the language is dying out I’ve always thought of it as the evolution of different dialects

    Fair point, but Danish appears to me to be in a situation where phonemic distinctions are being lost fast enough to actually damage the ability of the language to carry information.

    When I tell my Denmark story face to face I pronounce the place name “Roskilde” in Modern Danish as an example; it’s the location of the Viking Ship Museum and was thus a standout on my itinerary. I listened carefully to the way it was pronounced and believe I can reproduce it accurately (I was a crib bilingual, which left me with an exceptional knack for mimicking the phonology of languages I don’t actually speak).

    In modern spoken Danish the initial /r/ and the /d/ have been lost and the /k/ is voiced and softened. The effect is something like mumbling “ozgiluh” in the back of the mouth, where the final “uh” is my rendering of a weak schwa sound. My guess is that medial /k/ and /g/ are no longer distinct, and even stressed vowels are collapsing into a pretty crude high/medial/low distinction. Er, and as near as I can tell spoken Danish no longer has any front consonants at all.

    Maybe I’m just a dumb nonlinguist over-interpreting what I heard there, but this struck me as an alarming loss of phonemic bandwdith.

  22. > I can predict what his argument would be, and largely agree with it myself. He’d say the expansion of Latin was partly a result of conquest, partly of religious prestige, and crucially enabled by the fact that Romance languages have relatively simple morphologies that are easily acquired by adult speakers.

    > I think I could go a bit further and suggest that the progressive loss of the inflectional system in vulgar Latin (as compared to old literary Latin) made it easier to acquire. A thousand years later the decay of the Anglo-Saxon inflectional system had a similar effect on English.

    Yes, that all sounds very reasonable. Incidentally, it’s instructive to compare the causes of the morphological changes affecting Latin and English. In English, of course, the inflectional system was quite comprehensively done in by what was essentially a double creolisation of the language — first with Scandinavian, then with Norman French. Romance, in contrast, has remained considerably “purer” in terms of where its vocabulary comes from, but the changes that have affected its morphology are nonetheless partly due to foreign influence.

    For example, the evidence (particularly from comparisons between late texts like the Peregrinatio Aetheriae and pre-Classical ones like the work of Plautus and Terence) suggests that the system of using prepositions in place of case-endings (one of the most striking differences between the modern Romance languages and Classical Latin) had its genesis in the need to inflect foreign proper nouns that couldn’t be fitted into the Latin declensions. Sound changes that made most of the case-endings indistinct from one another impelled the migration from one system to the other, but language contact was partly responsible for creating the new system in the first place.

  23. Of course I made a joke … but … these “exceptional factors” were in fact the main driving factors. English wouldn’t have spread even to Cardiff without some kind of force, let alone anywhere else.

  24. >the system of using prepositions in place of case-endings had its genesis in the need to inflect foreign proper nouns that couldn’t be fitted into the Latin declensions.

    Very interesting. I knew about the phonetic shifts tending to obliterate Classical Latin case endings, but I didn’t know anything about the genesis of the prepositional system that replaced it.

    Somewhere recently I read that there’s some evidence from prosodic analysis that terminal “m” in classical Latin may have been pronounced fairly weakly, or even just as nasalization of the preceding vowel. If so, that suggests spoken case endings were quite fragile to begin with.

  25. >English wouldn’t have spread even to Cardiff without some kind of force, let alone anywhere else.

    Ostler’s point, on the other hand, is that force isn’t sufficient. Germanic-speaking barbarians conquered the Roman Empire, but often ended up speaking diverging dialects of Vulgar Latin. QED.

  26. This post should have been already posted, before my previous one.

    Two uneducated comments:

    I have always imagined that the actual disappearance of a language occurs when it is no longer able to express the speakers’ civilisation and people find easier to use a different language than to import the new daily concepts in their traditional language. 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 Arabic, Spanish or English were they succeeded. On the other hand, 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 French concepts of in the “national language” used 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 in the official discourse, evolving slowly over many 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 (although it is less of a problem for English because of the many scattered people using it to communicate with one another). The inability of an “official” language to keep up its dialects may announce a linguistic change, but unless other conditions are met, only the current official dialect should eventually die rather than the whole language. I also think most people are rather reluctant to speak a foreign language (unless the new one is the actually jargon of their profession, such as English for IT people).

    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.

    Do you think is there any particular reason why Danes would start using English in their daily lives more than the Indians do, or more than the 19th century Europeans used French?

  27. > Somewhere recently I read that there’s some evidence from prosodic analysis that terminal “m” in classical Latin may have been pronounced fairly weakly, or even just as nasalization of the preceding vowel. If so, that suggests spoken case endings were quite fragile to begin with.

    Yes, absolutely. In fact, I’d argue that similar things happened to word-medial /m/ when in a syllable coda: I think the pronunciation of the past participle emptus ‘bought’ was something like [ẽptus], with the nasal feature shifted onto the vowel, but the labial feature retained in that position, giving the [p]. This explains a couple of niggling things like the unexpected 〈p〉 of the orthographic form and the fact that some epigraphic evidence suggests that the e vowel is long.

    This is, however, the insane and tentative rambling of an early-career grad student.

  28. >I have always imagined that the actual disappearance of a language occurs when it is no longer able to express the speakers’ civilisation and people find easier to use a different language than to import the new daily concepts in their traditional language.

    And we have one commenter from Denmark (Jacob) who implies this is already happening there.

    >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.

    Correct. Norwegian Bokmal is very close to written literary Danish. I understand the historical root of this is that the urban population of Norway was essentially wiped out by plague in late medieval times and replaced by Danish immigrants.

    >Do you think is there any particular reason why Danes would start using English in their daily lives more than the Indians do, or more than the 19th century Europeans used French?

    I’m not at all clear on the reasons, but it seems undeniable that the Danes are shifting towards a strongly diglossic usage pattern with English as the “outside” language. .And, unlike 19th-century francophile Europeans, this is not merely an elite phenomenon. Modern India may be a better parallel.

  29. First comment – Lalands/Scotts English is supposedly a bona fide dialect of Old English. That is to say, it is a language that is derived from a common root, but not a “modern” dialect. In fact, some modern English Grammar originates in the same Northern OE Dialects (plural, for example, was not originally “s/es”, but most commonly “n/en”, hence the isolates Oxen, Children, Brethren.)

    Secondly, most languages travel through a fluid continuum. That is to say, what is current now may change over time. We would still be speaking Proto-Indo-European right now otherwise. At the moment, in the UK we are seeing a big shift in spoken patterns. The language used by the youth is nothing like that I used when I was their age. I’d say a very similar thing is happening, just maybe not on such a large scale as you witnessed in Danish. There’s a strong tendency for “text speak” to take over written English. There are many odd things happening to pronunciation and phrasings.

    Thirdly, spelling: English spelling is completely inconsistent and full of rules that are bent, embellished and disregarded from one word to another. It is usually impossible to predict the spelling of a single word by someone uttering it to you without context (e.g. “Blew”, “blue”.) So, spoken and written forms of words do not need to match for a language dialect to survive. Welsh is a good example that some one pointed out, but even that is not as crazy as Cantonese and Mandarin Chinese. Neither use a traditional alphabet, but Cantonese tends to be written formally using Mandarin grammar and phrasings, even though the two languages are only distantly related (as mutually intelligible as Romanian, French and Italian are to each other.)

    Fourthly, there are dialects of English in England that do the exact same kinds of tricks as Danish. Glottal stops, softening and altering letters, leaving out entire syllables, etc. Classic example, my local dialect is that of “Portsmouth”, but if you listen to a native say that place name, it becomes “paw sm@f” (paw – to rhyme with paw as in dog’s foot, sm@f is “sm” with a slight schwa then “f”.)

    Finally, one mans language is another mans dialect. The Chinese language is not a single coherent body, the dialects are barely intelligible to each other, whereas for the most part the continental Scandinavian languages ARE mutually intelligible (insomuch as they share enough of a common base to be intelligible.)

  30. To also counter the radio broadcast comment by esr; British English has changed so much that broadcasts from the 1920′s sound really antiquated and “quaint” to the British populous. I would therefore disagree with you on that one.

  31. “where phonemic distinctions are being lost fast enough to actually damage the ability of the language to carry information”

    Interesting analysis. Are you, by any chance, familiar with West Mindlands English? (Wolverhampton / Dudley, Black Country) It often happened to me there that I asked for a ticked to Stafford and got one to Stockport, because in WMish Stafford is something like “SHTA-pfo” and Stockport is something like “SHTAO-pfo”… However, I was told that that WMish survived pretty much this way for centuries – perhaps one should never underestimate the ability of native speakers to convey information with the smallest bits of phonetic data.

  32. I also think most people are rather reluctant to speak a foreign language (unless the new one is the actually jargon of their profession, such as English for IT people).

    Counterexample: English is the official language of aviation. Every pilot flying internationally, and every air traffic controller worldwide, is supposed to be sufficiently proficient in English to communicate with every other. Pilot certificates carry an endorsement, “English proficient”, and pilots who don’t have that endorsement aren’t supposed to fly outside their home countries. (The US carries it further: English proficiency is required to obtain a US pilot’s license.)

    This makes English the lingua franca of aviation, and the jargon words are therefore, by definition, English. Even so, discussions of aviation outside the English-speaking world are usually held in the local language, and it’s usual for local pilots and ATC to talk to each other in the local language (which reduces safety, since non-local speakers thereby don’t know what’s going on with other aircraft).

    Eric, I’ve heard lots of complaints from people who claim that English has too many irregularities and edge cases for native speakers of other languages, especially Romance languages, to learn easily. Why do you say it’s easy to learn, comparatively? How much of the rate of English uptake by speakers of other languages is due to that, and how much is due to other factors such as needing to use it to participate in commerce and computing and aviation and so on?

  33. >In modern spoken Danish the initial /r/ and the /d/ have been lost and the /k/ is voiced and softened. [etc]

    Being a native Norwegian I’ve always been puzzled by the fact that written Norwegian and ditto Danish are some 80 % the same. This has historical reasons that I won’t dig into now. Nevertheless, the oral representation of the two are so different that most natives of one country don’t understand the other when speaking. Reading Danish (for a Norwegian) is a breeze, it’s more like reading an ancient dialect. Ancient because Danish has held on to a structure and many words that have been phazed out of colloquial Norwegian.

    Norwegian suffered the same loss of inflection and disuse of cases (still present in Icelandic), due to the use of written Danish as a bureaucratic “must” for some 400 years of Danish rule. However, Norwegian stuck to being quite “spoken as written”, meaning that most sounds have been kept intact. The greatest change during the last 50 years has been a loss of excessive formality, both in writing and orally. Though this has more to do with cultural changes across the western world, I guess.

    This leads me to believe that your article is touching something that should be looked into by scholars, both in linguistics and anthropology. Is Danish mutating itself into a state of unsustainability?

  34. > Correct. Norwegian Bokmal is very close to written literary Danish. I understand the historical root of this is that the urban population of Norway was essentially wiped out by plague in late medieval times and replaced by Danish immigrants.

    Danish didn’t become a common spoken language in Norway until hundreds of years after the plague, as far as I know. Old Norwegian was still widely used as a written language for at least a couple of hundred years as well. However in the late 1300′s Norway entered a union with Denmark, and gradually the Norwegian political institutions were being replaced by their Danish equivalents. As a result written Danish became the language of government, and gradually it also became spoken by the elite.

    When the choice was made to formalize a Norwegian written language, Danish was chosen as the basis rather than developing a new written language based on what Norwegians largely spoke. This has been a cause of contention ever since – first with the creation of Nynorsk (“new Norwegian”) from Norwegian dialects, and then through successive language reforms that have gradually brought Bokmaal closer to spoken Norwegian, while including more words from urban spoken dialects into Nynorsk, making the two language significantly closer today than they were even a couple of decades ago.

    As late as when I went to school in the 80′s and 90′s kids regularly commented on how I spoke so “posh” because my oral Norwegian is very close to written Bokmaal, which is unusual outside of certain small expensive areas on Oslo’s western side – a holdover from the Danish-speaking elite. Even in Oslo and the rest of the eastern part of Norway where a lot of people like to *think* they are mostly speaking Bokmaal, they are still in many ways closer to speaking Nynorsk even with the Bokmaal reforms. I was probably one of only two kids in my class that spoke almost exclusively Bokmaal (and a “conservative” version at that).

    I got to experience just how different spoken Bokmaal and Norwegian dialects actually are when we had a German exchange student one year. She picked up Norwegian very quickly, and after a few months she had no problems understanding everyone else and spoke Norwegian with an amazing fluency. But she had real problems understanding me. A bit ironic considering that my conservative spoken Bokmaal is far closer to German both in terms of vocabulary and grammar than what everyone else in my class spoke.

    As for German influence on Danish, I remember at school I was struggling to get the grade I wanted in German class, and decided on an approach to fix it: I’d read Faust in German. Since that was well above the level of my German, I armed myself with a dictionary and an *old* Danish translation. I’m Norwegian and speak very conservative bokmaal, which is very helpful for me in understanding Danish, and the old Danish translation was sufficiently “in the middle” between my Norwegian and Goethe’s German that it was *far* easier to use as a “parallel” text than a Norwegian or modern Danish translation. It got me up a grade.

  35. Although your post didn’t really indicate to the contrary, let me ask the pregnant question: assuming your hypothesis is correct, does it really matter that the Danish language is dying?

    It might even be argued that the death of small languages like Danish, and having them replaced by English is a good thing, since it increases the ability of Danish people to communicate in commerce, which is more and more international in nature. Especially so if it is replaced by “Danish English”, which is to say an English that retains some of the cultural tones and terminology unique to Danes. Of course, northern Europeans have long recognized this reality, and generally speaking, northern Europeans all learn English, and most can speak it very well.

    What is the advantage to maintaining these small languages? Perhaps Sapir-Whorf would suggest that they broaden the human race’s range of cognition, but usually these languages are not all that much different in their degree of expressiveness than similar, larger languages. Perhaps it might be argued that they preserve the culture of that people. Assuming that this necessarily a good thing, the culture can surely be retained in many other institutions that are much less costly than distinct language. Perhaps it might be argued that the language is a rallying cry for the people, a banner on the field of battle. But I would argue that that is a reason against and not for.

    Anyways, I don’t have a dog in this hunt, but it seems that this is the pregnant question, that your comments have not yet addressed.

    BTW, by small/large in reference to a language, I am referring to number of speakers, not the intrinsic complexity of the language.

  36. Interesting article. I myself am Danish but living in Miami. I left about 20 years ago but was back in Copenhagen for a couple of years recently. I did see a big change in Danish, in particularly with the use of English.

    In the 80′s it was not all that cool to talk English all the time. It was only a few of us in the hip hop community and programmers who got a way with it. This has changed, but not in the way you might think. I think even on the street someone would be thought of as a poser if he used nothing but English.

    What Danes do, do is import English words and make them their own. A lot of this I think comes from the hip hop community which has gone mainstream in Denmark in the period I was away. My 2 favorite examples of English words that have become Danish is Slice and F*ck. Slice was new to me when I returned to Denmark. It means a slice of pizza. In Danish you can leave of Pizza and you can’t use “slice” for anything else unless you’re talking about servers.

    F*ck has become such a common use in Denmark, that I don’t think people even realize that it isn’t Danish. It is used by just about everyone younger than 40 all the time, to such extent that Danes travelling to the English speaking countries routinely and unwittingly cause offence.

    So my point about these words is that while they both come from English, they have now become absorbed with changed meaning into Danish. So when I’m in a 7/11 in Copenhagen saying “give mig et slajs” I’m not actually talking English, just modern street Danish.

    This absorption of new words reminds me of when I lived in Panama, where words have been imported whole sale from Jamaican and American English to the local Spanish language. The word “Man” for example means “Person” and not “Male”, which caused me never ending confusion when I heard people talking about “la man” and I thought they were talking about some guy.

    My theory about what has happened in Denmark is that it is an extremely egalitarian society. Elitist language snobs are frowned upon. There was also a period (say the 80s) where very few decent TV or movies where made in Denmark. So my generation who grew up then absorbed everything we could from American and English culture. The growth of Hip Hop in Denmark has I’m certain also had a huge influence. In the 80s though there were lots of Danish groups singing in English, now I think the majority sing/rap in Danish.

    I’m very interested in these kinds of changes to culture all over the world. I wrote this article about how globalization doesn’t homogenize music and food, but rather create lots of interesting new micro fusions. It’s kind of related to this debate and uses Denmark, the Philippines and others as examples.

    http://stakeventures.com/articles/2007/09/18/why-globalization-wont-make-everything-the-same

  37. Here’s a sketch that ran on norwegian TV (I think) a year or two ago, making your case almost exactly:

  38. Hello,
    I am a native Danish speaker. I also study linguistics at university.

    > 1. 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.

    - Danish has changed very rapidly as have many other languages in the last fifty years. Mainly because of mass media. I do doubt the accuracy of your statement though. Do you have a source for that? I would not be able to tell by the phonology whether one had left Denmark in the eighties or in the nineties. I might be able to tell by the words they were using though. I would like to see some one actually do that.

    > 2. The Dane with whom I was staying remarked that, having absorbed spoken Danish as a child, he found learning written English easier than learning written Danish.

    - Written Danish is about as hard as written English. Nothing is written the way it is pronounced. At what age did this Dane learn to write in Danish?

    3. 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.

    - They have said that for longer than the last fifty years. You could find people speaking like that in older times too.

    4. At least half the advertising signs in Denmark – and a not inconsiderable percentage of street signs – are in English.

    - How does this translate to Danish language being under threat?

    In my opinion Danish is not under threat. It is, as all other languages, morphing. There are no signs of language death at all. In fact, Danish is one of the larger languages of the world.

  39. “Today’s street accents in London would have been considered transatlantic (blended British-American) accents when I first lived there.”

    Today’s street accents in east London sound like nothing on Earth I’d ever heard before I moved here. Certainly not “transatlantic.” The only example I can think of in popular culture is Micky in the 2005/2006 series of Doctor Who. That accent he talks in is what the kids round here grow up speaking.

    If anyone knows what this accent is called and where it comes from, I’d love to know …

  40. “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!”

    My girlfriends’ kids lived in Wales for a few years (Carmarthenshire, sorta northish). The kids are taught Welsh in school, so they speak Welsh amongst themselves so their parents won’t understand them. Thus, Welsh is something they learn well because they have a strong interest in learning it well. The parents then brush up their Welsh to compensate.

    It also helps that Welsh grammar is quite unlike English – so it won’t go the way of Scots (which was more or less assimilated).

  41. “It might even be argued that the death of small languages like Danish, and having them replaced by English is a good thing, since it increases the ability of Danish people to communicate in commerce, which is more and more international in nature.”

    The usual argument for linguistic preservation is loss of culture.

    Imagine the loss of Russian culture if Stalin had actually gone ahead with plans to switch Russian to a Latin alphabet, eventually turning Cyrillic into something decoded by specialist. Useful for Year Zeroing and forgetting history, but I suggest that those who find that useful are likely to do less well in dealing with those who do try to remember history.

  42. Are you serious?

    Danish is evolving just like so many other languages. English is evolving too. I don’t think the recent evolution of Danish is much different from that of English. If you look at the American dialect, many people speak a “watered down” English. For instance some people don’t use adverbs. People say “innernet” instead of “internet”. People don’t say “whom”, and if they do they don’t stress the h. And ohmygawd have you like heard how they, like, talk in Los Angeles?

    The reason for Bokmål being so similar to Danish is that Norway was essentially a province of Denmark. The alphabets are also the same. If you go back some hundred years Scandinavia was ruled from Copenhagen. Oslo was used to be called Christiania after the Danish king.

    The Danish Kingdom is the oldest kingdom in the world still in place. No one has conquered Denmark and replaced the language. Trading internationally is nothing new. Vikings did that too. And the language evolved and survived. England was also part of Denmark once, and the English language was influenced by Danish. An influence still present in the English spoken today.

    The thing about a potato in the mouth is just something Norwegians and Swedes say to make fun of the Danish language :-)

    Regarding saying “Roskilde”, everyone pronounces the R. It might not sound like it if you expect and R to sound like it’s pronouced in English. Depending on how quickly you are speaking you might not stress the final “e” so much and it will become a two syllable word: Ros-kild. If you tell a Dane to pronounce Roskilde slowly he or she will probably pronounce it with all the three syllables “Ros-kild-e”. You should also note that there are a bunch of different Danish dialects and it is spoken differently in different places.

    I don’t think that people will stop speaking Danish any time soon.

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

    heh! nice inversion of an american meme.

    Alun: >Your 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.

    strikingly similar pattern in German, actually. north germans cleave close to hochdeutsch; the further south you go, the more the accent/dialect diverges in common use. swabians speak german with a much “softer” sound (“ish” not “ick” for “i”); and “schweitzerdeutsch” is sufficiently far from hochdeutsch for prussians/pomeranians to exclaim “that’s NOT german!” (interesting exception: austria).
    come to think of it, French has the same pattern too. what we call “french” is actually langue d’oeil; further south they speak langue d’oc. the “wee” pronunciation of “yes” is “oc”. interestingly interestingly, this movement from hard to soft is social-status-ly inverted in french from german: low to high, vs high to low, respectively.

    Eric: >Roskilde… In modern spoken Danish the initial /r/ and the /d/ have been lost and the /k/ is voiced and softened. The effect is something like mumbling “ozgiluh” in the back of the mouth

    yeah, danes pronounce “sverige” (sweden) exactly as you’d say “swearier” in english. i joke to my danish mates that sweden is danish for australian :)

    Phil R: >the system of using prepositions in place of case-endings had its genesis in the need to inflect foreign proper nouns that couldn’t be fitted into the Latin declensions.

    this is a common error made arising from the 19thC attempts to declare that sentences ending with prepositions were bad grammar. actually, english follows the germanic (eg norwegian, danish, saxon, friesian (the closest extant language to english)) pattern of separable verb parts. in english, uniquely(?), those verb parts do double duty as prepositions. the closest grammatical term for these “words” is probably clitics. when used as prepositions, they are prepositions; when used as verb modifiers, they are verb parts. it is literally impossible (at least, i’ve never found an example) to end an english sentence with a preposition — when a preposition-capable word appears at the end of a sentence it is uniformly acting as a verb part.

  44. Jay Maynard: >English the lingua franca of aviation

    (i find it droll that today “lingua franca” is a latin term for french meaning english)

    you remind me of one of my favourite jokes:


    Those German controllers at Frankfurt Airport tend to be a short-tempered
    lot. They not only expect pilots to know their parking location but how to
    get there without any assistance from them. So it was with some amusement
    that we (PanAm 747) listened to the following exchange between Frankfurt
    ground and a British Airways 747 (radio call Speedbird 206) after landing.

    Speedbird 206: “Good morning Frankfurt, Speedbird 206 clear to active.”

    Ground: “Good Morning, taxi to your gate.”

    The British Airways 747 pulls onto the main taxiway and stops.

    Ground: “Speedbird, do you know where you are going?”

    Speedbird 206: “Stand by, ground, I’m looking up the gate location now.”

    Ground (impatiently): “Speedbird 206, have you never flown to Frankfurt before?”

    Speedbird 206 (coolly): “Yes, in 1944. But I didn’t stop.”

  45. Eric: talking to your original post:

    an interesting feature of all the scandi languages for all of recorded history:- the language slides around a lot faster than most. eg, what we regard as “norwegian” today is in fact a fairly recently manufactured language re-gathering the relatively wide local divergences of language that had arisen in norway.

    also: just as most of the levantine “languages” are just accents of arabic, so the (germanic) scandi languages are all basically accents/dialects of each other. speakers of any one can (with a little difficulty) understand the others.
    (finnish/estonian, of course, are not related to any other western european languages and are quite, quite, different.)

    an interesting feature of norwegian: when driving thru it (with NO knowledge of norwegian), most road signs etc can be immediately grokked by just glancing at signs without trying to “read” them — you just immediately understand them. similarly, short&simple passages in any known context can be “read” if you “take your hands off the wheel” and just LOOK at it as a whole.
    probably this is contaminated by knowing what they “should” say (cf, “context”). but it’s still a rather unsettling feeling. and, in reverse, possibly an influence on the willingness of locals to “give up” their language — it’s just not that different.

    in related news: norwegian cows SAY “moo”. i don’t mean that facetiously. i nearly fell over the first time i heard one. i thought it was someone hiding in a bush taking the piss out of the aussie hiker. nope.
    english cows “mawwwr” might therefore be regarded as “an accent” ;)

  46. @Lau T.: If you tell a Dane to pronounce Roskilde slowly he or she will probably pronounce it with all the three syllables “Ros-kild-e”

    Ah, now that’s interesting. It suggests that Danes are retaining more phonemic distinctions than they actually speak in normal usage.

    @fimp: About Roskilde, “r” is not lost when spoken.

    I didn’t hear it, and I was listening for it. And yes, I knew to listen for an uvular or back r, not alveolar front r.

  47. Eric: >@Lau T.: If you tell a Dane to pronounce Roskilde slowly he or she will probably pronounce it with all the three syllables “Ros-kild-e”
    >Ah, now that’s interesting. It suggests that Danes are retaining more phonemic distinctions than they actually speak in normal usage.

    interestingly, other “verbally lossy” languages show the same pattern. french, chinese, and japanese speakers (to my knowledge) will all pronounce words quite differently when “sounding them out slowly” for foreigners, reinserting/making explicit the sounds which are “swallowed” in normal pronunciation.

    there’s a thought. english speakers in some accents will do the same. “bu”ie” will be carefully sounded as “bu-tie”

  48. >(i find it droll that today “lingua franca” is a latin term for french meaning english)

    Um, “lingua franca” never meant French. It’s an Italian translation of a phrase in Arabic meaning “language of the Franks” (e.g. Roman Christians). The original lingua franca was a trade pidgin spoken from about the 11th century around the Mediterranean; the base structure was Italian, Provencal, and Portuguese with substantial inclusions from Spanish, Arabic, and Greek. (I did a bit of checking and Wikipedia claims it survived into the 19th century, which I hadn’t heard before.)

    Later, “lingua franca” became a generic for trade pidgins and creoles. Still later it widened to include trade languages that were not pidgins or creoles, hence the application to English.

  49. well, i never knew that. i’d only ever taken it at face value. just liked the amusement factor, never dug into it.

  50. Saltation,

    “it is literally impossible (at least, i’ve never found an example) to end an english sentence with a preposition” does that mean that f.e. “Look there, that’s the house I’ve been living in!” is wrong, or I misunderstood something?

  51. > The usual argument for linguistic preservation is loss of culture.
    >
    > Imagine the loss of Russian culture if Stalin had actually gone ahead with
    > plans to switch Russian to a Latin alphabet, eventually turning Cyrillic into
    > something decoded by specialist.

    But surely anything of significant value would be translated into the new language? I can still read “War and Peace”, or listen to “Peter and the Wolf”, even though I do not speak the language of Tolstoy or Prokofiev. I can still understand enough Dostoevsky to want to blow my brains out, without resorting to babelfish. Of course, the subtitles might be lost, but subtitles are the domain of the aforementioned experts anyway.

    The reason I bring this up is that it reminds me of the myth of the noble savage. (Not that Danes are noble savages — though one has to question the sanity of any culture that eats pickled fish :-) Oftentimes, in the honorable desire to maintain a culture, groups of people can become ghetto-ized. That is to say the needs of the individual are buried under the needs of the putative group.

    For example, consider the plight of many American Indian tribes. Due to both the mendacity of the US Government, and the foolish decisions of their tribal leaders, these people live in amongst the worst states of any group in the rich United States. This is true on almost every measure, life expectancy, unemployment, average income level, child mortality and so forth. Why is this? I would suggest that there are many reasons, but one is the desire to preserve their culture, and language. Doing so isolates them from the greater world where they would greatly benefit. In a desire for separation for cultural purity they also separate themselves from the benefits of the broader society and culture. This leads to the families who are so tasked with maintaining the culture suffering greatly from the cost of doing so.

    Let me offer one more example, which I think represents this phenomenon in the extreme. The deaf community in the USA has developed complex culture which is rooted in many ways in their language ASL. This is a fascinating language from a linguistic point of view because the “phonology” if it can be so called, uses completely different “phonemes” that other human languages. The grammar is also fascinating because it is often uses physical representions beyond the “phonemes” themselves. (For example, the referrant of a sign can be indicated by *where* the sign is made in physical space.)

    Some children who are congenitally deaf, and are born to deaf parents can have their deafness cured by the use of a device called a cochlear implant. However, although for non deaf people this would be a miracle cure, it is quite a controversial operation in some deaf communities. Why? The child goes from the deaf community into the hearing community, and consequently is removed from the whole cultural life and identity of the deaf community. They can become isolated from family and friends. Is this cultural home worth the disadvantage of deafness? Some judge it is.

    A question that one might ask then is this: should we be in favor of the extinction of American Sign Language (due to the fact that medicine had cured all deafness), or would doing so be such a cultural loss that we should leave some people deaf despite our ability to cure them?

    Of course it is not quite the same thing as the loss of the Danish language, and I am not advocating the extinction of either, but it is surely an interesting parallel.

  52. >Do you have a source for that?

    Um, some random Linux hacker, face to face in Copenhagen.

    >At what age did this Dane learn to write in Danish?

    He didn’t say, but since he was born and raised in Copehagen I presume he had normal Danish primary education.

    >They have said that for longer than the last fifty years.

    You missed my point. I’m an unbiased observer with a good ear and enough experience of spoken Swedish, Norwegian, and Icelandic that I can tell them apart pretty reliably. My point is, they’re right – spoken Danish really does sound that mushy and choked. I can hear the difference even though I don’t speak any of these languages.

    >How does this translate to Danish language being under threat?

    Languages that aren’t functionally necessary to their native speaker population, which is routinely code-switching to another language with high prestige, are under threat by definition.

    >In fact, Danish is one of the larger languages of the world.

    Don’t be silly. 5.6 million speakers is is way down the league tables; Ethnologue ranks Danish only the 103rd most spoken language – Mongolian, Afrikaans, and Armenian have more. Heck, there are low-status regional dialects of American English with more than six million speakers.

  53. Umm, Saltation, you need to go back and re-read my comment. When I said “The system of using prepositions in place of case-endings had its genesis in the need to inflect foreign proper nouns that couldn’t be fitted into the Latin declensions.” I was talking about the development of Romance nominal morphology from Latin.

  54. >Eric, I’ve heard lots of complaints from people who claim that English has too many irregularities and edge cases for native speakers of other languages, especially Romance languages, to learn easily. Why do you say it’s easy to learn, comparatively?

    Well, for one thing, the “irregularity” of English is largely an urban legend. Even our spelling is pretty regular; according to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Language it’s about 75% consistent, with the exceptions concentrated in the 400 most common words. This is a normal pattern in natural languages; French verbs are said to be notoriously difficult to master, yet they mostly fit into only three simple declensions with the irregularities concentrated in two dozen or so very common verbs.

    Compared to the heavily inflectional and agglutinative languages common worldwide, English grammar (mainly isolational SVO with some legacies of inflectional) is almost absurdly easy to acquire (many fewer rules, even including the exceptions). So is our phonology – 25 to 27 phonemes is not a large inventory by world standards. The only thing even moderately tricky about pronouncing English is that like other Germanic languages it makes more subtle vowel distinctions than are present in most language groups.

    Overall, English is so simple that it almost reads as though it were designed to be acquired by adult speakers. And, arguably, it was! A previous commenter noted correctly that it underwent a double creolization with Danish and Norman French in early medieval times; the effect was to strip it to the grammatical running gears. In many ways the modern result actually resembles a trade creole like Mediterranean lingua franca, Swahili or Malay. Such languages are exceptionally easy for adult speakers to learn, it’s their defining functional requirement.

  55. >(Not that Danes are noble savages — though one has to question the sanity of any culture that eats pickled fish :-)

    Hey. Hey. I like pickled herring. There’s a Scandinavian style seasoned with anise and mustard that I particularly enjoy and can’t find in the U.S., dammit – the only way we get it here is in brine or a sort of cream sauce.

    Of course the Norman French half of my ancestors were Danish vikings if you look far enough back., so perhaps I’m genetically predisposed. :-) Can’t say I thought much of most other Scandinavian food, though – my tastes run to spicy hot-climate cuisines, in general.

  56. @esr – You do also realize that you were speaking with a Linux *hacker*? Do you remember writing this?

    > “Hackers, as a rule, love wordplay and are very conscious and inventive in their use of language. These traits seem to be common in
    > young children, but the conformity-enforcing machine we are pleased to call an educational system bludgeons them out of most of us
    > before adolescence. Thus, linguistic invention in most subcultures of the modern West is a halting and largely unconscious process.
    > Hackers, by contrast, regard slang formation and use as a game to be played for conscious pleasure. Their inventions thus display an
    > almost unique combination of the neotenous enjoyment of language-play with the discrimination of educated and powerful intelligence.
    > Further, the electronic media which knit them together are fluid, ‘hot’ connections, well adapted to both the dissemination of new slang
    > and the ruthless culling of weak and superannuated specimens. The results of this process give us perhaps a uniquely intense and
    > accelerated view of linguistic evolution in action”

    Also, ISTR you saying something along the lines of hackers being ahead of the curve of language evolution.

    IOW, what you’re seeing with speech and writing styles from Danish Linux hackers is not unlike what you’d be seeing from American Linux hackers speaking and writing English.

    In addition, I don’t think the Danes’ watering down their own language is any different from the way most Americans water down English. Y’know what I’m sayin’?

    English is the lingua franca of IT. Most often even if an open source program is primarily authored by a non-native English speaker, the comments and variable names are in English. Ever see any Finnish or Swedish comments or variable names in the early Linux sources? Isn’t Linus a Fin who is ethnically a Swede? As a result, I just think you’re going to see Linux hackers, Danish or not, using more English than the general Danish populace.

    I really don’t think there’s any cause for alarm, but what do I know? I’m no linguist. :)

  57. >You do also realize that you were speaking with a Linux *hacker*?

    Yes, but the hackers I spoke with appeared to be reporting on general modern Danish rather than hacker dialect. Because hackers are conscious and inventive, they tend to be well aware of their own dialect quirks and not confuse them with general speech. Indeed, as a group they’re exceptionally aware of what linguists call register distinctions.

    This is my experience with English-speaking hackers, anyway; it predisposes me to consider reports from Danish hackers accurate about general Danish.

  58. >(Not that Danes are noble savages — though one has to question the sanity of any culture that eats pickled fish :-)

    Hey. Hey. I like pickled herring. There’s a Scandinavian style seasoned with anise and mustard that I particularly enjoy and can’t find in the U.S., dammit – the only way we get it here is in brine or a sort of cream sauce.
    I knew there was something weird about you, Eric. Any fish that has to be pickled to make it edible is a fish better left uncaught.

  59. Phil R: i re-read your comment to make sure. and i can see how you meant to imply your point was re Romance languages, although in my defence that wasn’t terribly obvious without your later assertion. but still, my points stand. english’s separable (end-of-sentence) verb parts were part of the language long before the romance influence came geographically across via the the late norwegian/danish invaders who’d latterly adopted french as a high-status language, and their (the separable verb parts’) usage did not change across that event. the grammar stems from german(ic).
    a similar false 19thC justifiction is the “rule” that you can not split an infinitive in english (aping “high status” latin). actually, in english it’s impossible, because the “to” is merely an unambiguous indicator that what comes next is an infinitive. “to boldly go” is good english. “go” is infinitive (and other tenses besides).

  60. Shenpen: >“Look there, that’s the house I’ve been living in!” is wrong, or I misunderstood something?
    GOOD example for exploring the argument (in “argument”‘s original sense)!
    “living” has much blurrier/irregular grammatical boundaries/rules than most, as do most “physically primary” words.

    bear in mind that “living” is quite a different concept from “residing”. in modern german: “leben” vs “wohnen”. “living in” carries the meaning of “residing”, “living” is multivalent until a later grammatical part either modifies the verb or defines its scope. “ich lebe” und “ich wohne in köln am [an dem] strand” = “i am alive” and “i live in cologne on the riverbank” — “ich lebe am strand” = “i am alive on the riverbank” auf deutsch, but has quite a different meaning if simplistically transliterated into english. “i live!” does not imply that i have a house to live in. one can “live in sin”, but “residing in sin” would lean towards suggesting that there was a physical place called sin (or that i was so innured to the howwor that i regarded sin as quotidian), yet could in english poetically imply that you are describing sin as a physical place. “i live in sin. its name is Reeperbahn. my house is #22″. you have hit on a lovely example of extreme ambiguity as a result of overlapping blurry usages/grammar. albeit not one that actually helps define the topic at hand. ;)

    for example, it is valid to describe someone’s face as “lived in”.
    or: “this house has been lived in.” the faux-grammarian would spritely riposte: “in what?”
    “this house has been lived in the country”, eg, you will agree, is somewhere between nonsensical and surreal, and in neither case reflects anywhere near the core semantic meaning of the clause “this house has been lived in”

    having said that, the sheer degree of semantic overlap in your “living in” example is extreme. “in the house” is a clear modifier of “living”, and you could validly argue that the more correct version is “that is the house in which i have been living”. 400 years ago, that was not an uncommon construction (and note my careful usage of “which” (relative pronoun) rather than “that” (adjective and relative pro-verb) (fowler’s attempted distinction of “which” vs “that” was ungrammatical) ). modern constructions tend not to be so unwieldy, and ambiguity rears its punny head.

    for more obvious example, consider “put up”.
    “up the shelf” is clearly a (near nonsensical) prepositional phrase, but to “put up” has 2 quite different meanings from “put” (ie, “tolerate”, and “install/place, off the ground”). (you could also argue it (nowadays only sometimes) can mean “show”. if you don’t agree: put up or shut up.) you can put up shelves (put shelves up), but this is not the same as the prepositional usage of to put something up on a shelf (not the doubled preposition, in some usages formally conjoined as “upon”: put something upon a shelf). consider (variably) also “put over” (trick), “put about” (rumour), “put aside” (marginalise), etc. i can put a rumour about just as i can put about a rumour. but although i could put a collar about a neck (not the different treatment of dative and accusative parts), but i could not put a collar a neck about (unstiltedly).

    “off the ground” is a neat prepositional phrase, and i can put something up that will be off the ground even as i can put something up ON the ground. again. note the difference b/w dative and accusative parts and word order

    and is a “put down” only half a phrase? i can put someone down, and i can put something down. note the difference in, and the overlap of (if i happen to be carrying someone), implicit verbs. my bag won’t hate me if i put it down, neither will my mate if i’m carrying him. my girlfriend will hate me if i put her down, though. and when i put the dog down… well..

    note the subtle meaning difference in “putting down the dog” and “putting the dog down”.

    if i turn up a cuff, have i actually personally physically changed direction and travelled up a cuff? or have i modified a trouser/sleeve end?

    the ambiguity is endemic, and not all multipart verbs are that cut&dried. but the grammar holds true.

    english puns often make use of grammatical ambiguity. “when is a door not a door?” “when it’s a jar.”

    the “a” prefix, OBVIOUSLY, being hearable as an inflection as well as a narticle.

  61. eric: >Hey. Hey. I like pickled herring.

    i was quite surprised to read you say “gray, characterless food”. scandi food is different, quite different, but i’ve always thought it quite flavourfull and characterfull. the initially off-putting “pickled herring” (which is NOTHING like what we westerners have received typically as pickled fish in our home countries), actually makes a startlingly energising breakfast, let alone starter to a main meal.

    reindeer and cloudberries… mmmmmm

  62. >I was quite surprised to read you say “gray, characterless food”. scandi food is different, quite different, but i’ve always thought it quite flavourfull and characterfull.

    Let me guess…your standard of comparison is British cooking? Because that’s the only European cuisine I find even less appealing…

  63. next you’ll be telling me wood-grade dried icelandic fish doesn’t ring your bells.

    and don’t get me started on rotting shark.

  64. This evidence for the death of Danish seems pretty anecdotal to me. You mention phonological changes, but the speakers seem to retain linguistic competence, inasmuch as they are capable of producing grammatically correct expressions. You might be confusing normal language change for language death.

  65. “the effect was to strip it to the grammatical running gears”

    English as a foreign language is extremely easy to learn on beginner and intermediate levels, the price to pay for it is that it’s extremely hard to really master on the highest levels. For a foreign speaker, to get it not only grammatically right but also stylistically right, to get it really eloquent, is really hard.

    The reason for the simplicity on lower levels is from my point of view an almost complete lack of grammar f.e. “about the books of my friends”, in many other languages one must really think about the grammar, what’s the gender of “friend”, what’s the plural possessive of that gender, what declination belongs to “about”, what’s the gender of book, how’s that declination in plural and in the gender of the word “book” etc. To be able to just throw words together with an occassional “s” and some prepositions and still get it mostly understandable, is what made English into the “Globish” language. This is the language learner’s dream – just read the dictionary and you can almost instantly speak mostly understandably, even if not well, but understandably.

    (I’m moving to Vienna soon and thus learning German, and I found that I have to stop caring about grammar if I want – I need – to get fluent in 4 months, I simply have to bastardize German into a pseudo-English lacking grammer, or otherwise I’d have to spent years on it, which isn’t an option now. I suppose the same would happen with French or Italian.)

    However, the price to pay for it is that all the lost expressivenes in the lack of grammar manifests itself in a large number of “just so” expression on higher levels, not really in the form of grammatical rules, but rather in stylistical habits, which are extremely hard to master for foreign speakers. One can get fluent but to really acquire an eloquent “taste” to one’s prose, f.e. to be able to write acceptable novels with some literary and stylistic value in English as a foreign language is way harder than to do so in Latin or German.

    Simplicity on low levels begets an almost infinite flexibility and variety on higher levels. This is largely the reason behind why Shakespeare’s prose is really great – English provides less restrictions for a genius than other languages. The downside is, it’s really hard for a foreign speaker to really learn how to use this sort of grammatical freedom properly and eloquently.

  66. >next you’ll be telling me wood-grade dried icelandic fish doesn’t ring your bells.

    You know, I almost mentioned that stuff earlier. Bletch. Shredded cardboard would taste better. Even many Icelanders don’t like it, though they know they’re expected to.

  67. BTW from a Shapir-Whorf point of view it’s almost obvious why the idea of personal liberty married to personal responsibility and a strong respect for personal achievements is generally more popular amongst English-speaking people than amongst most others: English as a tool, as a medium largely offers this sort of deal to its users:

    “Here’s a bunch of words and expressions, with very few rules. You can do whatever you want with them. However, this anarchy of grammar means you cannot be truly eloquent just by following some rules from a book: you have to grok deep in your bones what the best literary genii have did in this language, if you want to compete for the title “eloquent”.

  68. >The downside is, it’s really hard for a foreign speaker to really learn how to use this sort of grammatical freedom properly and eloquently.

    It’s a straightforward implication of your argument that English is harder to attain high-level mastery of even for native speakers than a corresponding level of mastery would be in French or German for native speakers of those languages. Interesting….I think I buy this, actually.

    Another implication is that, at literary-mastery levels, English has more room for divergent styles than do more grammatically constrained languages.

  69. eric: Another implication is that, at literary-mastery levels, English has more room for divergent styles than do more grammatically constrained languages.

    spot on.

    shenpen: (I’m moving to Vienna soon

    you lucky swine. i’ve spent some of the happpest times of my life working in that city. absolutely gorgeous. recommendations: the strip of riverside outdoor “bars” at the underlevel beside the river. barging into the “back rooms” of the palaces, by just walking in. the glassware. the “cafe” in the old-opera “palace”, with the brilliant markets out the back of it. the biergartens and icecreameries in the sun in the stadtpark where Strauss was first danced to. the casual constant explosions of amazing Design in the shops everywhere. excreciatingly good coffee in the “square”, watching the people walk by. Do & Co, in the corner of the pedestrianised area, toplevel looking out through 30ft glass windows over the slightly-lower city-top, overlooking Der Dom, munching on fresh bright orange girondelles and sipping blue cocktails as the beautiful people flock in behind you.

  70. Welsh growth is due to it being mandated for schoolchildren and that all government and agency jobs now require bilingualism by statutory declaration. The only reason for this is that the Welsh nationalists think “English Language” is bad because it bears the name of English. The result – an ostensibly dead language brought back from the brink and inflicted by legal machinations on a population that can little afford to hobble it’s young with poor ability to communicate with the wider world population.

    Having Welsh Language first on road signs and for announcements (eg in rail stations) when English Language is the majority language of both the indigenous and immigrating populations seems bizarre in the extreme. Do those here know of any other population that mandates a minority language (c.20% can speak it at all, few are really fluent) on it’s population at the expense of a majority language spoken by practically 100% of it’s indigenous people?

  71. >BTW from a Shapir-Whorf point of view it’s almost obvious why the idea of personal liberty married to personal responsibility and a strong respect for personal achievements is generally more popular amongst English-speaking people than amongst most others:

    Here’s another: in English, the future tense is nigh-indistinguishable from modals of intention.

  72. Simplicity on low levels begets an almost infinite flexibility and variety on higher levels. This is largely the reason behind why Shakespeare’s prose is really great – English provides less restrictions for a genius than other languages. The downside is, it’s really hard for a foreign speaker to really learn how to use this sort of grammatical freedom properly and eloquently.

    English as Lisp. I like it. Not sure if I buy it.

    A friend of mine who was raised bilingually (English and German) has a different theory, or rather a different take on your theory, to wit: English has a much smaller working vocabulary by far that most continental languages including German and the Romance family, which makes it easier for beginners to pick up. The downside is that it lacks precision, requiring extra effort to express oneself clearly in. In terms of worldwide adoption, this is an advantage as it is a phenomenally easy language to lie or be vague in, making it ideal for business, trade, or negotiation. For coordinating tasks which require precision, it fails miserably, hence the superior output of German engineers and craftsmen who always know exactly what to do and can tell others exactly what to do. The language itself facilitates crystal-clear expression.

    Hence, English as Windows. :)

    (This is also his theory on why the Germans were such successful conquerors in both World Wars. I’m not sure I buy that though, as it doesn’t explain Japanese success, as to Japanese ears an American sounds extremely, almost crudely blunt and to the point.)

  73. My son K (age 11) is being taught various Danish phrases by the kid down the street. (I think his father has some sort of position with U of Michigan; in any case, they are from Denmark and speak Danish at home.) Danish is not that far from English at all, being another bastard child of German crossed with Latin crossed with Old Saxon crossed with every army that wandered through, which was most of them. When J argues with his mother about going home, I pick up two words out of three, and I have no training in Danish at all.

    From working out translations of easy phrases, it appears that Danish word declination makes English seem simple and straight-forward. I can’t pull up an example right now, but the sort of thing where “Went” is the past tense of “Go” seems common.

    I have given up trying to get J to teach *me* any Danish. I just get a headache. :-)

  74. >English has a much smaller working vocabulary by far that most continental languages including German and the Romance family

    This is nonsense on stilts. In fact, the production vocabulary of average English speakers is quite large compared to the world average. I think I recall from the Oxford Encyclopedia of Languages that the average is about 18K for English, and by comparison the low end in major languages is 7K for French. I don’t remember what the figure for German was, but was definitely lower than for English.

    The historical reasons that English has an exceptionally large word inventory are clear. The double creolization episode left English with an unusually large inventory of etymological doublets (shirt/skirt, cow/ox, bishop/episcopal) which then diverged in meaning. Later (Middle to Early Modern English), scholars grafted in an entire vocabulary from Latin and Old French. Still later, English developed the habit of adopting foreign words at a historically unprecedented rate. It is rightly said that English does not merely borrow from other languages, it mugs them in dark alleys and rifles their pockets for loose vocabulary.

    In fact, the range and precision advantage of English vocabulary over continental European languages is so large that it actually stunts the market for translations of technical books – you often can’t translate technical English well because the corresponding lexical items you’d need simply don’t exist in the target language. (I have personal experience with this.)

  75. If Denmark were to willingly join the US or UK now, Danish would arguably disappear (or require bureaucratic life-support to survive). As it is, I find more likely that once the dust settles down (in a few decades), Danish will still be alive and kicking, although with a huge number of English words, perhaps a somewhat simplified grammar, and possibly with a pronunciation even further away from its written form. English is not only the current language of global civilisation, it is also close enough to Danish, to allow the latter to import words and phrases without a lot of pronunciation/spelling or grammatical effort. This is an argument for both a very heavy influence of English on Danish and for the survival of Danish.

    For instance, Romanian (with French) underwent a similar process in the 19th century. Romanian had been a “peasant’s language” (with Greek or Hungarian and German as the languages of education) suddenly required to convey all the new and original concepts of modern civilisation. Several attempts to cope were tried at about the same time: to return to the “ancestral” Latin, to deal with Romanian as if it were a dialect of Italian, to use as such the words and turns of phrases learned in French universities. The latter was eventually successful. Language changed at a dramatic pace. Texts written at the beginning of the century were archaic by its end, you can tell appart – sometimes for the same writer – texts written in the 40′s and 50′s form those written later, until the 80s when the language stabilised and started to resemble current standard Romanian (more or less frozen by the Academy and the public education in the 1920s-1930s). In the process, rules to adapt pronunciation and/or spelling to Romanian were developed, and French syntax was mimicked to provide sentence complexity. This was possible because French and Romanian were quite similar, very much like Danish and English. With Romanian and English things have been more difficult for the last four decades; even simple, frequent words such as (web)site are a problem: should an older word be used (e.g. the French-derived “sit” only used by architects or historians), should it be written phonetically (“sait”), shuld it be preserved as such (against the traditional, established word-formation rules)?

    Secondly, when it comes to mumbling, things are relative: sometimes foreign students of English are advised to hold a pen between their teeth when they to learn English pronunciation. Compared to German or French, English vowels are terribly blurred and learning them compensates for the relative ease of the grammar. Pronunciation is even more “economic” in some dialects including some very educated British ones. In any language there is a tension between redundancy and ease of pronunciaton/grammar. In the written or formally spoken language redundancy holds out for the sake of clarity and form, but in everyday communication and among those with less formal education a less redundant language is preferred.

    @ JessicaBoxer:
    Except for (some) very non-ambiguous technical texts a translation is not fully equivalent to the original. It’s usually worse for fiction as often it’s virtually impossible to convey both the information and the emotions, but most texts have some inherent ambiguity a translator cannot translate as such and therefore has to make choices that alter message. It’s not only that some subtext is lost, the problem is that the entire subtext is changed; the translator’s skill consist only in minimising this change. Think of the cases a translator makes the wrong choice in selecting the equivalent word for a software menu command, it happens, and now imagine the same thing happening to a libretto where the translator must also arrive at the same rhythm and number of syllables as the original text.

    On the other hand I can see no problem with the simplification of the traditional characters conducted in both Japan and mainland China or with the switch from the cyrillic to the Latin alphabet. Actually the Russian alphabet did incur some (minor) changes after the Bolshevik revolution. Switching from characters to alphabet is indeed an issue and so can sometimes be a major spelling reform, but they are an altogether different problem.

  76. Im a dane, and i couldn’t agree more, i myself has come to the point that i even hate the danish language, i prefere english over it. English is allready taken over danish, as we import more and more of their words.

    So in my oppinion, yes Danish is dying

  77. > So, um, is there a fearless Danish linguist in my audience?

    Surely, it is a “cunning” linguist which you are looking for…

  78. > Except for (some) very non-ambiguous technical texts a translation is not fully equivalent to the
    > original. It’s usually worse for fiction as often it’s virtually impossible to convey both the
    > information and the emotions, but most texts have some inherent ambiguity a translator cannot
    > translate as such and therefore has to make choices that alter message.

    That is a pretty broad criticism of the noble art of translation. However, I don’t agree that it is fair at all. For sure, some translation is terrible, but many translators are very skilled at conveying the underlying meaning. For example, consider the amazingly high quality of translations of the various “Asterix the Gaul” and comic boo series from French into English, and just about every other language. (If you don’t know, they are a series of comic books bristling with puns and subtle subtexts.) The translations are hilarious.

    However, there is a broader point to be made. A translation does not need to be accurate in every point, especially so when it is a novel. The types of work that you correctly indicate are easier to translate precisely are the very ones that can be translated more precisely, and vice versa. The only exception I know to that would be the Bible, and other religious texts where people (for various reasons) really care about what the precise meaning of the original language version means and so the precision of a narrative translation becomes quite significant.

    (The other exception where the precise meaning of words really count is in the law: witness the debates over the meaning of the Bill of Rights. However, generally this is not so much a matter of translation as interpretation. It also illustrates a broader point, namely that the issue you mention above, the inability to convey the precise meaning of the author is a problem of language per se, rather than just translated language.)

  79. I just reread my previous post, I should clarify — the translation of Asterix is hilarious because it is so good, and conveys the humor so well. I mention this in case you think I was laughing *at* the translation rather than *with* it.

  80. “Danish is not that far from English at all, being another bastard child of German crossed with Latin crossed with Old Saxon crossed with every army that wandered through, which was most of them. ”

    Are you talking about Danish? What armies wandered through what country?

  81. >For example, consider the amazingly high quality of translations of the various “Asterix the Gaul” and comic boo series from French into English, and just about every other language. (If you don’t know, they are a series of comic books bristling with puns and subtle subtexts.) The translations are hilarious.

    Eh? They must have improved a lot, then, because when I first encountered the English translations of Asterix back around 1969 they were so clunky that I could do better myself – and did. (They were rendered into a really stiff schoolboy British English; colloquial American matched the spirit of the French text far better.)

    I think I still have some 40-year-old original-French-language Asterixes with my translations and notes penciled in.

  82. Saltation: your points stand, and indeed I agree with all of them (including the one about how my original comment was ambiguously worded), but they don’t rebut or refute anything I said. I said “the [Romance] system of using prepositions in place of case-endings had its genesis in the need to inflect foreign proper nouns that couldn’t be fitted into the Latin declensions.”, and you said that was “a common error” because you thought I was talking about the similar English system. I’m just letting you know that I wasn’t, that’s all.

  83. fair enough. and fair play.

    but i’m still not clear as to how you see that the 2 observations relate; re the separable verb parts of long-standing usage vs to the much-later-introduced-into-english Romance system? it seems to me that whether or not Romance languages had adopted a similar style, doesn’t really imply that english’s pre-existing patterns can be retro-fitted into this later drop-on-top influence. [the preceding not intended to be read aggressively, just bemusedly/confusedly/hoping-for-expatiation]

  84. Interesting. I guess nothing extraordinary is hapening to the Danish language. Absorbing vocabulary form a language with great cultural influence is a rule rather than exception. The only place where it is not hapening is probably the countriy/countries where the cultural influence comes from. The same natural process has been going on in my country – Bulgaria, which I visit rearly enough to notice the striking difference.
    There has been a massive inclusion of english words in the common vocabulary in the last 20 years, progressing from English as a langage being generally taboo to english words displacing every day words. Travel back in time (or open a book written before the nineties) and you see russian vocabulary all over the place to the point of awkwardness. And even before that, we have been borrowing even more intensely from Turkish. What happened? The language was heavily ‘influenced’ by russian but it turns out the process was not irrevercible and it sounds awkward today.
    To my ear, the russianized language of 50 ears ago does sound extremely archaic. To my parents, the language of 50 years before the russianization would sound archaic. Did the language die? Did my parents destroy it or did my (americanized) generation destroy it?

    Certainly a lot much more than 50% of advertising signs in my country are in English. This might sound odd, because we don’t even learn the latin alphabet in school. Well, on the other hand under communism the word advertising didn’t even exist. I have heard teachers complain that young children sometimes write in latin letters by mistake. Or even use numerals (like in 1337). That is of course due to the fact that children nowadays do most of their wrighting on mobile phones and instant messengers where everything is in English by default.

    So, is there anything wrong with this process? I belive the language is simply evolving naturally. And the majority of speakers are making it evolve voluntarily. English vocabulary do has its advantages other than being familiar to a wider range of speakers. English words are generally shorter. It just makes sense for shorter words like ‘fix’ to outcompete their russian and bulgarian equivalents. They improve tha language. The good thing about cultural influence (in contrast to, say, conquest) is that you can take the best of it.

  85. I’ve clearly expressed myself poorly: they don’t relate at all. What I’m talking about is the way that in modern English one would say eg. “He gave the rock to Carl” and in, say, French, one says “Il a donné la pierre à Charles“, using prepositional phrases to express what traditional grammar calls the indirect object, whereas in Old English you’d say “He gaf þone stan Cearle” and in Latin you’d say “saxum Carolo dedit”, using case-endings to express the indirect object.

    The other point I probably didn’t make clearly enough was that these changes occurred completely independently of one another. The Old English case endings were lost when the language turned into a creole twice, amalgamating first with the language of the Vikings and then with that of the Normans. As has been mentioned previously in this thread, it’s well known that inflectional morphology is usually lost in creolisation, and I imagine that prepositional phrases like “to Carl” moved in to fill the gaps because Old English, Scandinavian and Norman French all use prepositions, and in many cases, thanks to the languages’ common Indo-European (or Germanic, in the case of Scandinavian and OE) heritage, the prepositions themselves will have sounded similar.

    Latin, in contrast, lost its case endings entirely on its own, as it were. The need for a new system was created by sound changes, which made the endings hard to tell apart. The new system was found in the way Latin, going right back to Plautus, has handled foreign nouns that don’t obviously fit in any declension, ie. with prepositions. This is why eg. French, Italian and so forth retain only vestiges of the rich system of noun inflection you can see in Classical or pre-Classical Latin.

    What I was originally trying to say was that it’s instructive to compare these two processes because they are very different in cause and in mechanism, but the effects that they produce are remarkably similar.

  86. >Eh? They must have improved a lot, then,

    There were a small number of very bad original translations (according to wikipedia anyway, I never saw them) in the 1969 timeframe. The translations published since then are excellent, especially when you consider that humor, word play especially, is extremely hard to translate.

  87. > Here’s a bunch of words and expressions, with very few rules. You can do whatever you want with them.

    That is a curious assessment of English. Many languages which have more expressive declensions and conjugations have much more flexibility in word order than you would find in English (since order often defines function.) For example, you can drop nomative pronouns in many languages due to their being implied by the verb form. Additionally, you can rearrange the substantives into different orders since oftentimes their function is defined by their case ending rather than their position. The truth is that the rules or word order in English are quite strict relative to many languages.

    However, I will grant you that English is a whore when it comes to vocabulary. As someone once said to me: “The great thing about English nouns is that they verb so easily.”

    I could go on to say that I love verbing. And that verbing sentences can be quite entertaining, perhaps because verb words are so interesting.

    (I couldn’t manage to wrangle it into an adverb — an exercise for the reader.)

  88. In a way, we’re just returning the favor. The distinguishing features of Middle English, insofar as it differed from Anglo-Saxon, resulted from interaction between Danes and Saxons under the Danelaw. In the eastern and southern parts of England (and the Scottish lowlands), Anglo-Saxon followed the normal progress of pidginization. Root forms, many of which Anglo-Saxon and Danish had in common as Germanic languages, were mostly kept. But case and tense endings, which differed heavily, were dropped or streamlined in order to make English more easily understandable as a lingua franca by both invaders and natives. The -s suffix for the present third person singular, which replaced the Anglo-Saxon -eth, is Danish. And spoken English probably sounded like “asks” and “goes” even when the written language in the time of Shakespeare and the Authorized Version still said “asketh” and “goeth.”

  89. “The historical reasons that English has an exceptionally large word inventory are clear. ”

    Another reason you didn’t mention is that when some other language just throw a verb and a preposition together, English usually has a whole word for it. Example: in German, to open is often said as to make up, to reproach or blame is to throw forth, to imagine is to stand it forth, if something seems to be something is to come forth, to implement is to drive it in, to connect (a phone call) is to stand it through, to leave is to go off or drive off, to surprise is something along the lines of “to go quickly/rashly over” (überraschen, perhaps, “over-rushing”) etc.

  90. I’m a bit surprised that people in some countries are not giving importance to their own language. I live in India and here we have over 400 languages spoken in different parts of the country with 23 official languages. Most of the states were formed on the basis of linguism. Every state tries to give more importance to their language. For example, I live in Chennai, which is the capital of Tamil Nadu. Tamil is spoken in Tamil Nadu (even the name is Tamil). Here the government supports Tamil in almost every aspect. Most of the public transport signs and boards are in Tamil, Tamil is to be compulsorily learned by every child upto 4th standard (i.e., around the age of 10), and only students who opt for Tamil as their second language get state ranks (even if students of other languages score more, they don’t get the rank). Technological terms are also being translated into Tamil. And this is just one state.

    Steps to make the native language more spoken and used in communication should be taken by the Government of that state.

  91. > the loss of Russian culture if Stalin had actually gone ahead with plans to switch Russian to a Latin alphabet,

    In fact Russians do use Latin alphabet to write Russian when they don’t have Russian keyboard at hand and it doesn’t seem to hurt.

    I’ll go a bit further and say that Russian is an exception from general rule and stands quite well under overwhelming influence of English compared to other languages. Even programming communities in Russia, Ukraine and some other ex-USSR states tend to speak Russian instead of English (with very few exceptions :) . Google is still only #2 search engine in the Russian part of the world, after Russian-only Yandex.

    > I can still understand enough Dostoevsky to want to blow my brains out.

    I must say that real Dostoevsky is way too depressive to be consumable by modern reader, the only author I know of who might be more readable in foreign translation then originally written.

  92. English usually has a whole word for it.

    Probably largely due to greater leakage from Latin by way of old French.

    Being Germanic, English has no lack of the sorts of phrases you describe: put up with for tolerate; see it through for persevere, make-up for cosmetics, etc.

    Ever since England was conquered (or taken over) by the Normans, Latin has borne more influence over the vocabulary and structure of English than it did that of German. Especially if a speaker wants to come across as smart and sophisticated, they will choose the latinate form of an expression (often a single word) over the Germanic form, even if it makes them harder to understand.

  93. >the only author I know of who might be more readable in foreign translation then originally written.

    I believe Gabriel Garcia Marquez has said that he likes the English translation of “100 Years of Solitude” better than his Spanish original.

    This doesn’t surprise me as much as it might most people, because I’ve noticed that parts of “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” read better in French than they do in English. I think it’s because French grammar and usage are better adapted to the sorts of long compound sentences I like to use than English is.

  94. >I’ll go a bit further and say that Russian is an exception from general rule and stands quite well under overwhelming influence of English compared to other languages. Even programming communities in Russia, Ukraine and some other ex-USSR states tend to speak Russian instead of English

    I agree, this does seem to be the case. Do you have any theory about why Russian is more adhesive in this way?

  95. >I agree, this does seem to be the case. Do you have any theory about why Russian is more adhesive in this way?

    Is it Russian, or Russians?

  96. Is it Russian, or Russians?

    Russian, as a language

    Do you have any theory about why Russian is more adhesive in this way?

    No theories,

  97. > Do you have any theory about why Russian is more adhesive in this way?

    The point I was making Ivan is that this situation need not arise because of some property of the language, it is just as likely to arise because of some property of the language’s users, or the context or culture in which it is used. For example, Chinese programmers also tend to communicate in Chinese. This is not due to any feature of the Chinese language, but because many Chinese professionals do not speak any English.

    This is probably not the case in Russia, but correspondence does not imply causality.

  98. “Do you have any theory about why Russian is more adhesive in this way?” – because they have a Cyrillic keyboard? Or at least one where it’s generally easier to type Cyrillic than Latin letters?

  99. “I think it’s because French grammar and usage are better adapted to the sorts of long compound sentences I like to use than English is.”

    BTW – I’ve noticed that for some reason unknown to me educated Americans tend to use more Latin-derived words than educated Britons, f.e. “regal” instead of “royal” or “kingly”, but your English is I think even more Latinized than the educated-American average. Your prose almost feels like a translation from Latin.

    Actually, I’m personally kinda thankful for that – it was around 1995 when a copy of The Jargon File somehow turned up on a Hungarian CD-diskmag. I was 17, I still spoke English kinda “schoolishly”, and it helped me to become more fluent, and I suspect that the coincidence of you using a strongly Latinized English and I’m being taught a lot of Latin in high school (even participating in some competitions, it was good fun to figure out “male carinae” and 5 words further, “fide”, is supposed to mean unreliable ships) probably helped me a bit in understanding it.

  100. “Do you have any theory about why Russian is more adhesive in this way?”

    Another theory. In countries with a Latin alphabet, until the translation of often-used software became widespread in the late nineties, people just used English-speaking software. It’s not really hard to figure out the basic terms, by trial and error, just as you too could figure out that if you see two buttons, “Ja” and “Abbrechnen”, probably the second one is the Cancel button. But only as long as you understand the alphabet itself. (And of course it was the same kids who grew up to be programmers, hackers, who, at childhood, wrestled with English-speaking games and applications as users.)

    But if you don’t even understand the alphabet – I mean the users, of course – as is the case in Russia, then it just doesn’t work, therefore, I suspect everything must have been translated early, even when it wasn’t common yet in other countries. Or if translation wasn’t feasible, because it was closed source, then a replacement had to be written, f.e. AFAIK FAR Manager, which is the No. 1 software that can make life on Windows something close to being bearable, started as such copy of Norton Commander.

    This is just a wild guess though, deductions from the alphabet problem.

  101. > one where it’s generally easier to type Cyrillic than Latin letters?

    There’s no such thing. You have to switch to Cyrillic anyway (usually by pressing Alt-Shift). And, as I wrote, folks tend to write Russian even when they don’t have any Cyrillic support: if they can’t type “Игрок” they wouldn’t type “the Gambler”, they would type “Igrok”.

  102. >Your prose almost feels like a translation from Latin.

    Hm, OK, you’re not a native speaker so I guess it’s reasonable you don’t know. In general, that tends to be more true as an English-speaker’s education and fluency level rises. It’s what I’d expect from somebody with a postgraduate degree, especially somebody with a postgraduate degree and superior language skills.

    I do not in fact have a postgraduate degree, but my language skills are top-1%-of-the-top-1% exceptional. (Reality check: you probably don’t know anyone else who has made it into the New York Times bestseller lists with a book about computer programming, of all things.) What you’re seeing is what that level of skill normally looks like in English, rather than an individual stylistic quirk of mine.

  103. Question: what’s the reason most American dialects/accents are closer to the official “received pronounciation” than dialects/accents in England? I.e. most American dialects/accents tend to be “e-heavy”, just like the official RP, while most English ones (in the Midlands and the North, that’s what I’m familiar with) tend to be “ay-heavy” or “oy-heavy”, f.e. train is often pronounced as “trine” or “troyn”.

    Related story: while most Scottish dialects/accents are quite strange (remember the movie Trainspotting: “hazshd zshou gozsh da bizsh in zshour zshoytzsh?”), one particular dialect/accent, around Edinburgh is extremely close to mainstream American (and thus fairly close to standard RP too): soft, rolling “r” sounds, e-heavy etc. It was a bit surprising. Same thing with first names: while English people are often called something like “Alison” or “Brian”, Scots are rather “Jill” or “Jack”, that too sounds a little bit similar to Americans.

  104. >Question: what’s the reason most American dialects/accents are closer to the official “received pronounciation” than dialects/accents in England?

    That’s an interesting question, because most Americans and Brits don’t perceive the distance the way you do. To us, an American accent sounds more like a north- or especially west-country British accent than it does like RP. To native speakers, the difference between a rhotic accent like Middle American or the Devon/Cornwall accent and a non-rhotic accent like RP is much more salient than the vowel shifts you’re describing.

    Historically, the general American accent is derived more from the British west-country accent of Devon and Somerset (as it was 300 years ago) than from any other single source. I believe American diction is also more strongly influenced by Scottish and Irish accents than RP has been historically, though it’s difficult to find well-sourced analysis of this.

  105. > But if you don’t even understand the alphabet

    Greek, Cyrillic and Latin are very close cousins and, in a world where domain names are in Latin alphabet, people usually know it by heart.

  106. “Many languages which have more expressive declensions and conjugations have much more flexibility in word order than you would find in English”

    The interesting thing about English is that it’s not really possible to form really bad, but still perfectly understandable sentences. I know because I tried it when I was in my early teens and didn’t speak it very well, and it never worked :-) If something is understandable, that’s automatically 80% correct.

    In comparison, a few days ago I didn’t know how square meter is in German, so I said “Viereckemeters”, where Vierecke means literally “square” (four corners). It’s wrong, the correct term is Quadratmeters, yet perfectly understandable.

  107. “most Americans and Brits don’t perceive the distance the way you do” – because English tends to encode most information in consonants and the vowels have a lesser importance, “th__ _r_ j_st th_ st_ff_ng _n th_ p_rk”? :)

  108. Damn! It just dawned on me why was it so hard for me to understand the dialects spoken in Middle and Northern England: I was listening for the vowels (natural thing for a Hungarian): I should have listened for the consonants!

  109. >because English tends to encode most information in consonants and the vowels have a lesser importance

    I would think this was true, except for the fact that English actually has more and subtler vowel distinctions than most other languages (especially compared to any language outside the Germanic group). That probably would not have remained true if they were not important information carriers.

  110. Well, yes, but almost by definition, it’s the less important group of sounds that tends to change the most in local accents, as that’s the cheapest kind of change. You said an average American, Canadian or f.e. Londoner doesn’t freak out much when he’s greated as “o’royt moyt” (“are you all right, mate?”) in Wolverhampton: the reason must be that he tends to listen mostly for the consonants.

  111. >You said an average American, Canadian or f.e. Londoner doesn’t freak out much when he’s greated as “o’royt moyt”

    Some Londoners might, but for class-signaling reasons rather than phonological ones :-)

    I think you’re generally correct that English carries most of its recognition information in consonents, I’m just not sure how to reconcile that with the fact that vowel distinctions are more subtle in English and neighboring languages than elsewhere.

  112. It is rightly said that English does not merely borrow from other languages, it mugs them in dark alleys and rifles their pockets for loose vocabulary.

    Oh goodness. I think I just peed myself laughing at the truth of that.

  113. Don’t worry. Danish has been moving this way for at least a couple of hundred years.

    Also remember that English grew out of a pigdin language based on Western Norse, Frankish and Latin.
    That Western Norse became Danish. So, getting some English influence back is in a sense just a back payment. What is called Old English is just a dialect of Norse. People from the other end of the language zone (like Ottar, ca 850) could talk directly to the Ango-Saxons (like the King of the time). English developed a little later, and was a “proletarian language” until the 1360s, when it finally had recognition.

    Modern Scandinavian languages are around 500 years old, i.e. a quarter millennium younger than English. They took a lot of initial influence from English and Low German; plus there are some amazing Greek influences.. Danish has always been the odd one out in terms of pronounciation. Swedes and Norwegians have been complaining about this for at least 400 years.. Note also that the “worst” cases from south-western Jutland are in fact pretty close to frisian dialects.

    You may also be amused by the fact that Denmark keeps official definitions of the English language that is in use in a lot of the world. So, at least they are prepared.

  114. Phil R.: >The other point I probably didn’t make clearly enough was that these changes occurred completely independently of one another. The Old English case endings were lost when the language turned into a creole twice, amalgamating first with the language of the Vikings and then with that of the Normans. As has been mentioned previously in this thread, it’s well known that inflectional morphology is usually lost in creolisation, and I imagine that prepositional phrases like “to Carl” moved in to fill the gaps because Old English, Scandinavian and Norman French all use prepositions, and in many cases, thanks to the languages’ common Indo-European (or Germanic, in the case of Scandinavian and OE) heritage, the prepositions themselves will have sounded similar.

    ah!!
    ok, i now understood fully, what you meant and also now the link to the preceding discussion.

    thank you.

    and: i think you may have something there.

  115. Cheers. Incidentally, if you’re wondering why the people in my examples are going around giving specifically rocks to a bunch of Charlies, it’s because “stan” is one of the very few Old English nouns I could remember off-hand when I was making the examples up :)

  116. BTW, something just as interesting:

    English: Lisa has broken her leg.
    Danish : Lisa har brækket sit ben. (Google Translate)
    Dutch : Lisa heeft haar been gebroken. (Google Translate)
    German/Austrian Dialect: D’Lisa/’s-Liasl hÃ¥d se an Hàxn brochn/brocha. (Wikipedia)
    German/Bavarian Dialect: As Liasal håd se an Hàxn/Hàx brocha. (Wikipedia)
    German/official Hochdeutch: Lisa hat sich das Bein gebrochen. (Wikpedia)

    Not only English wandered further away from the Old Germanic languages than Danish, Dutch or the Southern dialects of German, Hochdeutch did it too.

    Does anyone know why? I’ve heard a wild theory that it was originally just the commanding language of the Prussian army, evolved/designed to be something suitable to shout commands over long distances in noisy battlefields, hence its “crackling” hardness, but doesn’t this theory look a bit far-fetched? (Sad note to self: when I’ll move to Vienna, I’ll be just as fucked with my Hochdeutch than I was with my standard-ish English in West Midlands, UK.)

  117. >Not only English wandered further away from the Old Germanic languages than Danish, Dutch or the Southern dialects of German, Hochdeutch did it too.

    Yes. Here’s another thing you’re not in a position to know, not being a native English speaker: Modern Standard German or Hochdeutsch (=High German) is the least intelligible of the Germanic and Nordic languages to a native English speaker.

    Norwegian, Swedish, and written Danish are substantially more intelligible to English speakers than German for reasons your sample well illustrates, in spite of the fact that they diverged from English farther back than German did. The key difference they kept SVO word order and recognizable prepositions.

    Plattdeutsch (Low German) is much easier; I’ve read entire Old Low German folktales without difficulty (they’re actually easier than Anglo-Saxon, which was more inflectional). Dutch, though related to Old Low German, is more difficult because of both changes in pronunciation and influence from High German.

    Icelandic, being as heavily inflected as it is, is near as bad a headache as High German.

  118. “Here’s another thing you’re not in a position to know, not being a native English speaker: ” thanks, but it isn’t really news to me: having a non-Indo-European native language places me into a very similar position as native English speakers: I relate all other Indo-European languages to English. I had to learn to think in English in order to speak/write it acceptably, as translating through language _families_ is just painfully slow, I cannot afford to think in Hungarian and then translate it, it would be like thinking in Java and translating to Haskell, that doesn’t work. This is very different from speaking multiple Indo-European languages, where one can easily think in one of them and then translate. It’s rather like having a second mind which is native English, and all mistakes and stylistic errors and limited vocabulary can be seen as rather the too low level of education of this second mind than as the result of a translation from the first one.

    Fun fact: currently I’m learning German, and often I place English mnemonics on hard-to-remember terms. For example “female” is “weiblich”, I stored it as “wifely”. It’s a bit of a stretch, as it’s not really an existing word in Modern English, but I’ll eat my hat if “weib” (pronounced: vibe) doesn’t share a common ancestor with “wife”.

  119. I’d like to ask a question. Is my assumption true that languages evolved from imitating natural sounds? Does it follow that listening to a lot of speech in a given language helps you learning it even if you don’t understand much of it, because it helps you grok subconsciously how that given language attempts to imitate natural sounds?

    Examples: “to break” clearly imitates the sound of wood or bone breaking. In Hungarian, “tör” is a different attempt to do the same thing, to imitate the same sound. “Hard” probably comes from the crunchy sound of trying to break or crush hard objects, like nuts. “To crush” probably comes from doing the same and succeding, first a hard, crunchy sound, then a softer, squishy sound when you actually managed to crush them. In Hungarian, it’s “présel”, which comes from “prés”, again, a hard sound and then soft squishy sound. “Dog” and “Hund” (German) probably imitates the bark of a dog. Similarly, “kutya” in Hungarian attempts to imitate just that. And so on. Perhaps not each language, but each language family might mean a certain way of hearing interpreting natural sounds and attempting to imitate them.

    Grokking the general sound or music of a given language might help understanding how it imitates natural sounds and thus may help a lot in learning it – what do you think?

    Predictions to test this theory: do you know of any language where “to break” or “hard” or “dog” is some sort of a very soft sound, like, “susse” or “cylce” or something like that?

  120. onomatopaeia is a genuine part of some words, but a dodgy basis for ex-ante causation rather than ex-post observation.

    eg: “run” rather “huffhuffthudthudhuff”, “drink” rather than “grk”, “punch” rather than “mf”, “wind” or “blow” rather than “shhh”, “butcher” rather than “shlkkk”, “cook” rather than “sszzzzzll”, etc etc etc

  121. “eg: “run” rather “huffhuffthudthudhuff”, “drink” rather than “grk”” – ROTFLMAO :DD OK I think I’m convinced. I just can’t stop laughing – you should be an electronic musician or something :DDD

  122. I like to think that in Denmark, two divergent language branches are simply recombining.

    From what little research I’ve done, English is more similar to Danish then it is to any other Germanic language. This should not be surprising when you consider that Old English is the language of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes who originally came from the part of Europe where Denmark joins Germany and who may have spoken the same language (or at least a very similar one) as the Danes. Furthermore, Danish Vikings colonized and ruled half of England (sometimes more) during the late dark ages/early middle ages. Consequently, English (and Englishmen) are more Danish (in their roots) than anything else.

  123. I’m still waiting for someone to tell me what the heck the proper name for the London accent that Micky from Dr Who speaks in is …

  124. On losses to languages (e.g. if Stalin had converted Russian to Cyrillic by decree rather than an organic process) – at Wikimedia, we’re pretty big on encouraging languages and their preservation, as you can imagine. Possibly too big, to the point of creating the language by standardising a spelling … which may be good for the language, but is still just a bit much observer effect.

  125. Shenpen, you may enjoy reading the Course in General Linguistics, from linguistics’ founder Ferdinand de Saussure. One of the key principles of linguistics is that signs are arbitrary. I.e., there is absolutely no motivation for the string of phonemes /ˈsɪstə/ to be related to the notion of “female other child of one’s parents”, nor for /sœʁ/ (French) or anything else. Onomatopoeia is a marginal part of language, and studies that try e.g. to relate the short phoneme “i” and the semantic feature of shortness are, let’s say, brittle (they find tiny, petit, little, all right, but what do they make of big?). At best, some phonemes might be proved originating from sounds’ imitation (I heard a theory relating /m/ found in mother, Mutter, mère, mamma to the sound of suckling), but they should be a scarce number.

    Regarding your inquiry about break, French does not help your theory: to break would be casser /ka.se/, which contains the common phoneme /k/ and the soft /s/. You can try for the more specific / literary briser /bʁi.ze/ or rompre /ʁɔ̃pʁ/; I have no panel of native speakers at hand to test whether the /ʁ/ feel correlated to the notion of breaking to them. To me it’s just a common phoneme in French, but as a student linguist I’m biased.

    Regarding English’s ease of learning advocated by our guest, I‘d like to say that morphology is not the whole of learning a language. For instance, why do French people speak such a bad English? It is so that the phonological system of French and that of English are so different that French-speaking people have to produce distinctions they have learned not to make in their first language. My point is that an easy to grasp morphology does not make English the most easily learned second language.

    Kind regards

  126. >My point is that an easy to grasp morphology does not make English the most easily learned second language.

    Do you know of any easier one? On the evidence available to me, the only languages more readily acquired by an adult speaker than English are English-based trade pidgins.

    Possibly interesting datum: several different lines of evidence have convinced me that the easiest other language for a native English speaker to acquire is Italian, very closely followed by Spanish. Both are markedly easier than French, which is in turn markedly easier than German.

  127. I don’t really know about (second) language acquisition, sorry, only personal recollections of learning languages too uncertain and unpondered to be worth sharing.

    I just wanted to point the fact that English can have an easy morphology, yet be really difficult in another aspect.

  128. Shenpen,
    using just one word to test your theory is tough.

    Anyway, in Danish the word would be brække, but that word is not used for that anymore – except for breaking something into two pieces (or throwing up, “brække sig”)

    The words used for break are:
    Ødelægge (literally “lay barren”)
    Smadre (destroy)

    Both of which have the soft d – practically impossible for non-natives to get right.

    To the main article, I’d like to add an observation of my own:
    1. Danes are fantastically peculiar with pronunciation. If you get the slightest vowel (I believe that we have around 18 of them) wrong or get your open/closed verb wrong or don’t know how to twist your tongue to make a soft d, be sure that people will either look at you with suspicion or (if they can spot your English accent) smile at you and switch to English. I take this as a sign of protectionism for the language/nation, which presumably is coupled with pride of the nation. Some of the Danish posters above seem to possess it too. As long as that sentiment is strong (and the current political landscape in Denmark seems to indicate that it is) I think that the language is far from endangered. After all, the literacy is ~100% so everyone in Denmark is very well aware of the differences between what they say and what they read/write (and would therefore switch to say “ROSS-KILL-AE” in case their initial “ozgiluh” wasn’t picked up).
    2. Most English loan words are technical or “cool” expressions (picked up from American movies) (F*ck, D*amn, “Make my day”). Technical loan words exist in all languages. (E.g. Serbo-Croat has auspuh from the Austro-Hungarians and Trotoar from Napoleon’s 3-year-visit). The other words are already adapted into Danish grammar. “Jeg f*ckede med ham”, once again pronounced with the soft d would mean “I fooled him” (or to be gangster – “I fucked with him” if it must be).
    These examples should give some evidence against the initial hypothesis.

    Personally, I am far from impressed with the decline of the Danish language, but I am just getting old, I guess. But I am not alone. Someone joked a while ago that the Danish government’s pledge to ensure that the pupils’ abilities in English should be as good as their Danish had been achieved: By completely tearing apart the Danish language/dumbing the pupils’ Danish down to that of their English :-)

  129. ChrisGreen: >From what little research I’ve done, English is more similar to Danish then it is to any other Germanic language.

    most linguists regard Friesian as the closest extant european language to English. IAMNALinguist but would incline to agree based what i’ve seen and heard so far. but bear in mind what i posted here earlier re ALL the scandic languages and the “brain-out” ease of understanding what was meant in context.

  130. >most linguists regard Friesian as the closest extant european language to English.

    Correct, with Dutch running second. However, written Danish is often easier to puzzle out than Dutch; the word order and orthography are more familiar.

  131. speaking of cows ;) :
    >in related news: norwegian cows [Friesian or otherwise] SAY “moo”. i don’t mean that facetiously. i nearly fell over the first time i heard one. i thought it was someone hiding in a bush taking the piss out of the aussie hiker. nope.

    “moo”

    “feckin norwegian cows, coming over here and stealing our jobs in childrens’ upbringing and books.
    “Uhh… I mean…
    “*cough*
    “mawwwwwwwwwrr”

  132. come to think of it: dutch has very similar patterns spoken-vs-written to the danish ones you posted about here. differently from danish: carried over into their typical english pronunciations.

    hmm

  133. couldn’t it be just a “gravitational” thing?
    like so: a language with few, culturally broad-minded speakers (as opposed to language- and pronunciation nazis) tends to drift/evolve much faster than one of many speakers (who are, on top, broadcastically coupled – don’t thank me for the linguistic innovation, it’s my pleasure).
    where sections of such a small language drift too close to a big language, they are captured in it’s “gravity well”, and start to merge.

  134. ‘several different lines of evidence have convinced me that the easiest other language for a native English speaker to acquire is Italian, very closely followed by Spanish. Both are markedly easier than French, which is in turn markedly easier than German’

    Why do you consider Italian slightly easier to learn than Spanish? Having learnt Spanish and Italian concurrently I would say that Spanish is easier. Spanish is easier to spell because it is perfectly phonetic and easier to pronounce that Italian. Their grammars are too similar in difficulty, perhaps Italian grammar only very slightly more difficult with its plurals, contraction of prepositions, pronouns and verbs. I always felt that Spanish was overall more logical and easier to learn.

  135. >Spanish is easier to spell because it is perfectly phonetic and easier to pronounce that Italian.

    Eh? How does Italian orthography fail in this respect? And I found Italian easier despite having learned Spanish first. But really, the difference in acquirability is so small that it’s probably not worth arguing about – the real point is that both are substantially easier than French or German.

  136. ‘Eh? How does Italian orthography fail in this respect?’

    I agree that Italian orthography is still simple and fairly easy to learn but when compared to Spanish it is not as phonetic. In Italian and Spanish you can easily figure out how to pronounce a written word but unlike Spanish you cannot confidently figure out the reverse in Italian without having seen the word in written form beforehand. It makes learning a word and writing it a whole lot easier.

    ‘And I found Italian easier despite having learned Spanish first.’

    I cannot really comment on the acquirability of another Romance language after already knowing one as I was only an English speaker initially but I expect one would indeed find Italian easier having learned Spanish first.

    ‘the real point is that both are substantially easier than French or German.’

    Yes that’s for sure. Interesting how German orthography would be even harder now if it had not experienced several reforms!

  137. ‘It makes learning a word and writing it a whole lot easier.’
    I meant to write ‘It makes learning a word and writing it a whole lot easier in Spanish’

  138. “Germanic languages have shown little to no ability to spread beyond their crib populations.”

    Pardon me for being so pedantic, but English (which I think we can safely say is the most portable language the world has ever known) IS a Germanic language.

    In fact, not only is English a Germanic language; but the very word ‘English’ comes from the Old English word Englisc, which in turn comes from the word Anglisc .. the language of the Angles – Germanic-speaking people who settled in post-Roman Britain and brought their language with them from the Angeln peninsula (in what was until as recently as WWII a part of Denmark). The very same Angles who give us the Anglo in Anglo-Saxon.

    The English language as we know it today is the direct result of over 600 years of Danish migration and invasion by Angles, Jutes and Danish Vikings .. and modified by the subsequent invasion of the French-speaking Norwegians (Normans).

    Dialectal English in many parts of northern England was, until as recently as the advent of television (i.e. the 20th century) largely old Danish and was mutually intelligible with the dialectal forms of Danish spoken in parts of Jutland.

    Is Danish dying out? Not at all … as a Dane who has spent most of his adult life in England, I can safely says that a different dialect of Danish is simply becoming more prominent.

    What is happening is happening to Danish is no different to what American-English is doing to English-English, or Commonwealth English.

  139. >Pardon me for being so pedantic, but English (which I think we can safely say is the most portable language the world has ever known) IS a Germanic language.

    Yes. Ostler doesn’t miss this exception. A significant portion of Empires of the Word is devoted to analying it.

  140. “as a Dane who has spent most of his adult life in England, I can safely says that a different dialect of Danish is simply becoming more prominent. ”

    Absolutely! As a Dane who has spent most of her adult life In Canada, I am in total agreement. And no, we only speak, don’t write English any differently, unless you are talking about ‘canadianisms’, of which, funny enough, many have an almost…Danish flavor to them:

    http://members.shaw.ca/kcic1/canisms.html

  141. “1) 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.”

    This isn’t necessarily very different from other languages. Native speakers of many languages from English to Dutch to Cantonese listening to 50-year old recordings or émigrés from decades before may reach similar conclusions. Anecdotally, as a late twentysomething American I’ve met friends of my parents who left the US in the 1970s and they sound like it. Missing out on 40 years of gradual phonological and lexical changes inherent to any living language will tend to make any such émigré stand out at some point.

    “2) The Dane with whom I was staying remarked that, having absorbed spoken Danish as a child, he found learning written English easier than learning written Danish.”

    I really don’t intend to be flippant, but I’ll give an analogous example. I absorbed spoken English (my only native language) as a child, and found learning written Spanish easier than learning written English. Like many a Dane is in English, I am actually fluent in Spanish now, though just as most Danish people are not native English speakers I am not a native Spanish speaker. Comparing ease of written systems really has no bearing on whether or not a language is dying/falling out of use/”degenerating.”

    “3) 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.”

    Modern Danish developed its so-called “mumbled” character long before the 20th century. Sure, Danish has some pretty complex assimilation rules whereby underlying phonemic forms become quite different on the phonetic surface, but that’s hardly unique to Danish (and they’re not new in Danish, either). Korean has also historically developed quite complex phonemic -> phonetic assimilation rules and continues to experience the development of new ones. It also continues to experience mergers, as do many other languages. But Koreans and Danes seem to be doing fine in terms of communicating with other native speakers of their respective languages.

    “4) 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.”

    Lots of signs and advertising in the Netherlands, where I lived for a year, are also in English. But don’t let that fool you into thinking Dutch people don’t speak Dutch to their family, friends and kids. They most certainly do. I haven’t lived in Denmark but I’ve visited and Danish people everywhere spoke to their kids in Danish. A language is moribund if the younger generations aren’t speaking it. And younger Danes are absolutely speaking Danish, so Danish is not in any risk of endangerment. Will it change in certain ways with each new generation? Sure. Just like every other living language. :)

  142. Lau T., sweet reading:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/March_across_the_Belts

    On topic, Norwegian bokmål is proper Danish with some new Norwegian additions. Fully understandable by anyone that has basic training in the nordic languages. Danish as spoken today is just mumbling. Not like having potatoes in the mouth as stated earlier but more like having the mouth full of porridge.

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