The language game
The language game can be addictive, maddening and tons of fun. And since we’re in Denmark, here’s a small selection of some of my own and others’, borrowed inane ramblings:
Why in the devil, do Danes swear by referring to Satan? Why say hundekoldt ‘dog cold’ when it’s freezing? But why do Brits say cats and dogs when it’s raining? Why is it, when I quit smoking suddenly, I’m going cold turkey, but in Danish it’s a cold Turk? How come a fireman is also a jellyfish (brandmand)? And anyway, does a jellyfish look like a fish look like a fireman?
Why is it, lime, ‘a juicy round fruit which is sour like a lemon but smaller and green’ – as Cambridge puts it, is pronounced and spelled exactly the same in Danish and English, but the Danish verb lime (pronounced ['li•me]) means ‘to glue’? Down the years there have been many confused Danes when I’ve asked them to pass me the glue from the fruit bowl.
Danish pronunciation is famously difficult and for a Scotsman who rolls his Rs like he’s starting a motorboat in muddy water, it’s been a decade-long battle. And there have been occasions, usually over the phone, when it felt like I was a cold Turk.
One time, I had a skin infection on my legs that flared up overnight. It was a Sunday morning when I phoned the emergency doctor at the local hospital. My wife told me I should just speak English but I insisted on talking in Danish. To make sure the doctor understood, I repeated my carefully prepared sentences several times over the phone. My wife sat down on the couch and covered her face with her hands, because I’d told the doctor I had a rash that was very pinlig.
Pine in Danish, means ‘pain’, ‘agony’, or ‘to be tormented by something’, e.g. languages are a pain. But pinlig means ‘awkward’, ‘embarrassing’. The word I should have used was smertefuld, which means ‘painful’. Pinlig and smertfuld might describe how my wife felt about the situation at the time.
The doctor asked me to repeat what was wrong and to make sure he understood. I put a lot of emphasis into what I said next. I grinned triumphantly at my wife, phone to my ear, and gave it my most eloquent Danish:
“Dear Doctor, I have a rash, and it is extremely embarrassing.”
Category: LANGUAGE WE LIVE BY