M.G. Piety

You Read Norwegian Too!: On the Danish Language

In Resources for Kierkegaard Scholarship on March 10, 2011 at 9:39 pm

A reader wrote in response to the post from Feb. 2, where I quoted the Norwegian paper Morgenbladet. “You read Norwegian as well as Danish!” Unfortunately, I had to explain that I was not quite the polyglot I might appear to be. Modern Norwegian, or Bokmål as it is known in Norway, is essentially koine Danish. The Danes ruled Norway for something like 400 hundred years. With the Danes came the Danish language, eventually supplanting, at least in the more urban areas, the various indigenous dialects. “Bokmål” translates literally as “book language/tongue. “Mål,” I was informed by Ebba Mørkeberg, a member of the Danish Modersmåls-Selskabet (Society of the Mother Tongue), is an old Danish word for “tongue”  (though strangely, this is not among the definitions of “mål/Maal” in the otherwise comprehensive online edition of the Ordbog Over Det Danske Sprog [Dictionary of the Danish Language]. I had to go to the first edition of Molbech’s Danish-English dictionary from 1833 to find it.

Bokmål, is simply regularized Danish with a few spelling changes (e.g., the Danish b often appears in Norwegian as p and the Danish d as t, etc.), in contrast to Nynorsk, which is essentially a reconstruction of the older indigenous Norwegian dialects. Bokmål is easy for anyone fluent. The pronunciation of Danish words is as strange and irregular as is the pronunciation of English words. Bokmål is different though. It’s Danish pronounced the way it looks like it ought to be pronounced. That means, if you know Danish, you will be able to read Norwegian, and even understand it spoken with very little difficulty.

Of course you may fear that you will never master Danish and that the point is thus moot. I’m here to tell you otherwise. The problem with learning Danish does not relate to its inherent difficulty but to the fact that, outside Denmark, it’s hard to find competent instruction in Danish. Danish, while it looks like German, is actually much simpler and can be mastered much more quickly.

One of the biggest problems in Kierkegaard scholarship is how few scholars have even an elementary knowledge of Danish. One doesn’t have to be fluent in Danish. Enormous use can be made even of only rudimentary knowledge, so long as the scholar in question remains conscious of the fact that his knowledge is only rudimentary. Take the subject, for example, of Kierkegaard’s epistemology. Danish, like German, has several words for knowledge: “viden,” “kendskab,” and “erkendelsen” (I’m using the modern spellings here) are the main ones, but there are several other expressions, as I explain in the introduction to Ways of Knowing, that are also sometimes translated as “knowledge.” You don’t have to be able to read an entire passage in Danish to identify which of these words is being used and then to look up its meaning. It can make a great deal of difference in a philosophical sense, which word Kierkegaard uses, so even a little knowledge of Danish can get you on your way to doing some very good scholarship.

The first thing you should know if you would like to learn Danish is that the Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf College offers a course every summer specifically designed to teach Danish to Kierkegaard scholars. The second thing is that if you can’t make it to Northfield, Rosetta Stone has a Danish language program. I have no first-hand experience with the program. I have used two different computer programs for German, though, and found them both really outstanding. Most top-of-the-line computer language instruction programs have all the bells and whistles of a standard university-level foreign language course, including the equivalent of a language lab where you can record and play back your own speech. If you can’t find an ordinary Danish class in your area, try a computer course. Finally, don’t rule out Norwegian. You won’t be able to speak Danish, but you’ll be able to read it.

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  1. I love your blog site! At this point most of my knowledge of Kierkegaard is indirect, i.e. based on other thinkers reacting to him. I need to read him directly, obviously. Up to now, the two Danes I have read and studied the most are N. F. S. Grundtvig and K. E. Løgstrup, both of whom can be said to represent an approach to life opposed to Kierkegaard’s. But I have also studied Lev Shestov closely, who found in Kierkegaard a natural ally.

    I’ve been slowly improving my ability to read Danish for several years now. If I had consistently applied myself to the task, I am sure I would have been fluent by now, at least in terms of reading. Speaking Danish is another matter entirely, and I haven’t even attempted that (maybe someday). Relative novice though I am, I second your comment about the ease of learning to read Danish as compared to German. Danish, to my mind, is much easier than German. It’s therefore surprising to me that a lot of scholars resist the idea of learning Danish almost out of hand.

    For dictionaries, I have two: a tenth edition (1995) of Gyldendals Røde Ordbøger, titled Dansk-Engelsk Ordbog, by Jens Axelsen, that is now falling apart from use; a two-volume 1954/6 Dansk-Engelsk Ordbog by Hermann Vinterberg and C. A. Bodelsen. I like my older dictionary better, for completeness, but I like the newer one’s handier size. I recall now that in an earlier post you had some dictionary recommendations. I will go back and find that post, because I really need to replace my newer dictionary. And if you have any additional tips for me otherwise, please let me know. Oh, for a Danish grammar book (in English), I’m using Danish: A Comprehensive Grammar by Robin Allan, Philip Holmes and Tom Lundskær-Nielsen.

    I too blog, by the way, at http://extravagantcreation.wordpress.com/

    • Thanks for saying those nice things about my blog. I have to say that it is really unusual for someone who is not Danish to have read Grundtvig and Løgstrup, but not Kierkegaard! How did you end up doing that? I know the dictionaries you are using. Both are good. I don’t know the grammar, but I’m sure it’s good too. I will check out your blog. We bloggers have to stick together! Thanks again.-Marilyn

  2. I think I got interested in Løgstrup via the Swedish theologian Gustaf Wingren (1910-2000). It could have been the other way round, but I don’t think so. From Løgstrup and Wingren, I worked back to Grundtvig. I’ve come to understand (though I didn’t initially) that all these people who interest me can be classed as broadly belonging to something that has been referred to as Scandinavian creation theology. Regin Prenter belongs here too, although I’m only just beginning to learn about him. I think it would be safe to say that Kierkegaard’s thought is generally antithetical to all these thinkers, but perhaps not quite to the degree that, for example, Løgstrup, who devoted a whole book to his polemic with Kierkegaard, believed. In any case, I need to read K, and thanks to my reading of Shestov, I think can approach K with an open mind and without bias.

  3. Hi, I am using Rosetta Stone to study Danish. It is pretty good but it does not have but one level while I know German and French for example has at least 4 levels. Perhaps Danish does not need but one!?
    Don

    • Well, of course there should be more than one level. I’m sure the problem is a lack of demand for higher level courses. I remember seeing audio Danish language courses at fairly advanced levels in Danish bookstores though. They’re designed mostly for immigrants, so I don’t think there is any English at all in them (most immigrants to Denmark don’t come from English-speaking countries). I think Rosetta Stone is like that as well–i.e., only the language you are trying to learn, no English. If you exhaust what you can do with Rosetta Stone, try contacting one of the Danish publishers such as GAD or Gyldendahl to see if they have upper-level audio courses in Danish. In the meantime, I will check on that myself and if I find anything, I’ll do a post on it. -Marilyn

  4. Anyone who happens upon this post and looks at the comments should be informed: since the time of its writing, a new, *free*, and fun way to study Danish has arrived: Duolingo. To complete the Duolingo Danish course (or “tree”) will certainly provide the elementary knowledge this post rightly calls for.

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