Doing the Danglish

In her webinar on editing non-native English Joy Burrough-Boenisch highlighted the problem of “going native” – she even felt herself going Dutch and wrote a book to stop it (sample).  Turns out there’s even a Dunglish blog. This is interesting, as like in Denmark it’s often assumed that in the Netherlands  “everyone speaks English” faultlessly. But it is still a foreign language, and it’s all to easy to fall into more familiar patterns.

Further issues are the concept of international English or globish (see the globish text scanner), other Englishes (see Flavours of English, including EU English), and the confusions that can arise when two non-native speakers try to communicate in their own particular versions of English. At my Danish language school everyone bar the most committed switched to English in the breaks, leading to much miscommunication between students from around the world. I’ve also witnessed a number of perplexing encounters in tourist locations, where I’m often tempted to leap in to ease communication between two parties who only share English as a common language. For more, see Robert McCrum‘s Globish: how the English language became the world’s language (Amazon | article | review).

Danglish is definitely a thing:

It’s pretty easy to spot an English text which has been translated by a Dane rather than a native speaker, and while in most cases it may be “good enough”, it’s frequently jarring for native speakers and can easily lead to issues somewhere along the line, in a global game of Chinese whispers.

From here it’s not such a leap to the idea that the language you speak affects the way you behave and express yourself. For example:

  • the fact that Danish has no word for please means they only do ‘negative politeness’ and can come over as passive aggressive
  • English has a large vocabulary, with lots of ‘redundant’ words, but at the same time prefers to imply and understate
  • Denmark’s smaller vocabulary limits expression; can be repetitive and feel exaggerated/’black and white’

The Economist even held a debate on the question (78% agreed that the language we speak shapes how we think) and regularly posts articles on its Johnson or Prospero blogs on the issue (You think what you talkDo different languages confer different personalities?). The TED blog has 5 examples of how the languages we speak can affect the way we think.

This view is traced back to the early 20th century linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf and has become known as Whorfianism (or linguistic relativity) in certain circles. We now have two camps:

There probably is some horse/cart confusion going on, however the prevalence of the need for native translations plus everyday exposure to Danish discourse puts me in the Deutscher camp (great names both, mind).

I borrowed the Deutscher from the library so I could look “Danish” up in the index. There’s not much, but this is worth the effort:

the industrious Protestant Danes have dropped more consonants onto their icy windswept soil than any indolent tropical tribe

Charles the V, born in Ghent, spoke “Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men and German to my horse”.

In a similar vein, Using the foreign to grasp the familiar, looks at the issue of bilingual writers and emigres. You can do that even when writing in your ‘own’ language. And untranslatable words? Wishful thinking.

More: How the language you speak changes your view of the world, Lost in translation (obv), Multilinguals have multiple personalities and Ilan Stavans on translating The little prince into Spanglish.

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