Doing the Danglish: an introduction to linguistic relativism

Last updated: 4 Jan 2018

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 too easy to fall into more familiar patterns.

A further issue is the web of World English/es and Global Englishes, and the confusions that can arise when two parties try to communicate in their own particular versions of English.

Looking at (mainly) non-natives, at my Danish language school everyone bar the most committed switched to English in the breaks, leading to much mis- and non-communication. It’s increasingly hard for the native – as witness to a number of perplexing encounters in tourist locations I’m often tempted to leap in to ease communication between two parties who share only English as a common language.

For more, see Robert McCrum’s Globish: how the English language became the world’s language (Amazon | article | review); English as a lingua franca is going to need more than the 1500 word Globish.

While Danish is in no danger of being ousted by English, protectionist efforts are largely in vain, with (mis)usage spreading virally and Danglish definitely a thing – see Kay Xander Mellish (in K Forum) and The Local for starters.

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 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:

  • 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 the issue (You think what you talk | Do 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 has become known as Whorfianism (or linguistic relativism), after early 20th century linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf. 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”.

More: How the language you speak changes your view of the world, Lost in translation (obv), Multilinguals have multiple personalities


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