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:
- Coping with the dominance of English: a view from Denmark
- Top 10 mistakes Danes make in English (The Local) | ditto by Kay Xander Mellish
- Top 10 false friends (The Local) | more
- False cognates among Scandi languages
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 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 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:
- Guy Deutscher – Through the language glass: why the world looks different in other languages (2011; see NYT article and review)
- John McWhorter – The language hoax: why the world looks the same in any language (2014; THES article | Slate podcast)
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.
Update, Jan 2017: Lauren Collins’ When in French (2016; Gdn | New York Times | extract | podcast) comes over a bit US-En from the reviews etc, with over-use of words such as ‘charming’ and ‘disarming’, but eulogising is a problem for writing about Paris in general. More interesting is her take on Whorfianism, making two interesting points: your use of a language depends on time and place (she was a mother in French), and that ‘language’ in a relationship has to be learned, even if you share a native language; factors in play include culture, class etc.
No Francophile from the start, she hated life in Geneva, with the lack of a dominant Swiss culture an issue (nothing to belong to, or conversely to be outside). She spoke French there, but not the French “we love”, ie of France, where she enjoys a dinner table dispute, the lofty, abstract nouns, the courtesy of greetings and salutations, the culture of argument, rhetoric and logic. This is compared with the flexibility and egalitarian nature of English. Having lived in London she compares the UK attitude to first languages (often maintained by immigrants) with that in the US (stigmatised), and the preference in both for second languages which have been studied.
Anna-Louise Milne, developing the Paris Centre for Migrant Writing and Expression and MA in Urban History and Culture at the University of London Institute in Paris, is exploring issues around expat or migrant and writes in French. Her ‘novel without fiction’ 75 explores a single street in the La Chapelle quarter (19th arrondissement), where “the stories and anecdotes of the inhabitants disappear under the layers of painting” (75 is the number of years spent in the district by one of the protagonists).
See also Ilan Stavans on translating The little prince into Spanglish.