Ming the Mechanic:
The Danish Language

The NewsLog of Flemming Funch
 The Danish Language2007-01-28 18:00
picture by Flemming Funch

The Danish language is in danger says an article (which is in Danish). English is rapidly making inroads in the Danish society. Almost half of all university educations are available in English. An increasing number of Danish companies switch to English as their official internal language. And more and more English terms sneak into the everyday language. I've certainly noticed that. It is hard for Danish people to have a conversation without some English words sneaking in every couple of sentences. Usually because pretty much everybody speaks English, and certain things are just easier to say in English.

Although Danes are fond of their own language, it is not exactly pride, and nothing that particularly translates into wanting to protect it from foreign invasions. Unlike, for example, the French, who have institutions to battle against Englishification of French, complaining loudly every time a new English word slips in. Their suggested French terms often don't catch on, even though many French people on the street might agree with their motivation. Most people say "le web", not "la toile", and they don't say "couriel", they say "e-mail" or "mél". But, still, it is much worse in Denmark, if we assume the viewpoint that it is something that is bad. There isn't particularly any agency that battles against foreign influences, and the general population doesn't care much either way. Well, there is a Danish Language Council (Dansk Sprognævn), which is interested in the issue. The news the article was based on is basically that these guys would like to at least be able to do a yearly study to examine the trends. And at the same time there are political parties who're trying to propose laws that would ensure that Danish remains the main language for certain things, like correspondence with universities.

If I lived in Denmark, I probably wouldn't care much either way. You can can't really stop trends that want to happen. But being an expat Dane, I somehow feel a bit protective of my mother tongue. Even if I myself probably mix in even more English when I speak Danish than the typical Danish person does.

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28 Jan 2007 @ 20:28 by Hanae @ : Languistic Diversity

Biodiversity has been described as "a measure of the health of biological systems to indicate the degree to which the aggregate of historical species are viable versus extinct." In some ways, a similar definition can and probably should apply to languages and linguistic systems. Although it is commonly held as a desirable thing that a common dominant language emerges, such as English, or as speculative fiction writer would have it, some form of Sino-English, so as to facilitate global communication, such a phenomenon also present the same downside as invasive weeds pause to the foreign ecosystems upon which they encroach. Especially when it result in the death of a species – biological or cultural.

I would rather universal communication were facilitated by the ability of each person in the world to speak thousand of languages, if it were possible, instead of the whole world speaking only one or two languages.

It is estimated that there are presently over six thousand known languages used on Earth. Half of which are threaten with extinction.

Chinese is considered the most spoken for now because of sheer population size.
Next come English, Spanish, Hindi/Urdu, Arabic, Russian, Portuguese, Bengali, and French but not necessarily in that order. The order may vary depending on what one’s definition of “speaker” is, and whether one looks at population distribution or geographical distribution (Saint Ignatius High School has an interesting {link:http://www2.ignatius.edu/faculty/turner/languages.htm |page} on the topic.)
According to {link:http://www.nvtc.gov/lotw/months/november/worldlanguages.htm|nvtc}, "Danish, Sweedish, and Norwegian are mutually intelligible (linguistic criteria) but since they are spoken in different countries (political criteria), they are considered to be three separate languages," while “on the other hand, many dialects of Chinese are mutually unintelligible, but are considered to be varieties of the same language because they are spoken in the same country and because they share the same writing system."

In {link:http://www.cyberartsweb.org/cpace/scifi/ns/snowcrashov.html|Snow Crash}, Neal Stephenson, playing along with the {link:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sapir-Whorf_hypothesis|Sapir/Whorf hypothesis} wrote a piece of fiction in which the Sumerian Language turns out to be a Programming Language for the human brain. The goddess Asherah is portrayed as the personification of a linguistic virus. And {link:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enki#Enki.2C_Confuses_Earth.27s_Languages|Enki} is the god who created a counter program or nam-shub that caused all of humanity to speak different tongues (this one part is actually conform to the actual Sumerian mythology) as a protection against Asherah. I find the story interesting in that it has the merit of presenting a refreshing and amusing upside-down take on the myth of Babel.

Although comparing language to a virus, can just be seen as a piece of idle fantasy, the idea is attention grabbing nonetheless because it does capture something of the processes that contributed to shape both language and the human brain. Biological Anthropologist and Linguistics Professors like Terrence Deacon (author of “The Symbolic Species”) see in the co-evolution of language and the brain a constant back and forth - brain and language evolving together and constantly shaping each other:
“The remarkable expansion of the brain that took place in human evolution, and indirectly produced prefrontal expansion, was not the CAUSE of symbolic language but a CONSEQUENCE of it.”

But there is no need to hold a Ph.D. from Harvard to realize how the ability to speak helped change Man’s consciousness in many ways. It still does. So does the number of languages one can speak.

There is a Czech proverb that says:
“You live a new life for every new language you speak.
If you know only one language, you live only once.”

Research has shown that early exposure to more than one language increases divergent thinking strategies, helping not only in language-related tasks, but also in other areas as well (such as Math): "Children early on have different ways of expressing themselves, such that they better understand there is more than one way to look at a problem and that there is more than one solution."  

29 Jan 2007 @ 05:13 by ming : Scandinavian
Danish, Swedish and Norwegian are mutually intelligible, not so much because they're dialects of the same language. They're really not much closer to each other than are French, Spanish and Italian. They have drastically different rules for grammar and pronounciation, such as using sounds that don't exist in the other languages, or a different order of the words, and at least 30 percent of the words are completely different, without common roots. But, rather, there's a shared culture of assuming that of course they should be able to understand each other. So one makes a point of trying to keep a bit track of the words and grammar and pronounciation that are different.  

29 Jan 2007 @ 05:22 by ming : Expression
What makes the potential disappearance of any language sad is in part that there usually are things you can say in it that you can't say in others. I speak English, French and Danish, and it is quite clear that one thinks differently with each language. There are things that I can say in Danish that just can't be translated into the others. Nothing very technical, but more which kind of atmosphere is created with the way one says it. Like, there's a certain warmness to Danish, and more ways of expressing friendly and cozy relations. And I can't even properly describe what I mean in English, because the words don't mean the same, and there aren't good substitutes. It is a bit like the eskimoes and snow.  

29 Jan 2007 @ 15:35 by Hanae @ : Dimensions of Comprehension

There is a connection to be made here with one of Ming's earlier post about {link:http://ming.tv/flemming2.php/__show_article/_a000010-001743.htm|Dimensions of Comprehension}.

"The limits of my language indicate the limits of my world."
----Ludwig Wittgenstein

Or as someone else (Karl Kerenyi) put it:

"The diversity [of languages] is a diversity not of sounds and signs but of ways of looking at the world."

What's more:

"The interdependence of thought and speech makes it clear that languages are not so much a means of expressing truth that has already been established, but are a means of discovering truth that was previously unknown."

Perspective is the result of a multiplication or juxtaposition of viewpoints.

The mechanics of visual perception is maybe a simplistic but fitting analogy, each eye captures its own view and the two separate images are sent on to the brain for processing. The combined image is more than the sum of its parts, it creates the ability to apprehend the world three-dimensionally (depth perception.)

Whenever a language dies, it is a way of looking at the world which dies. An expression or a form of expression of human thought has vanished.

There is also an analogy to be made with programming languages and how programmers who know different languages do come up with different ways of "looking" at a problem. There are, of course, significant differences between spoken languages (such as Danish) which main dimension is essentially cultural, and artificial languages such as computer programming languages, but there too the principle of linguistic relativity is a relevant one.  

28 Apr 2016 @ 13:39 by Charlotte @ : ZEOuYcYajvvlMok
It's like you're on a misison to save me time and money!  

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2009-06-16 00:39: Baseline technology
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2008-10-14 19:56: Money and the Crisis of Civilization
2008-05-08 23:01: Why Denmark is the world's happiest country

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