You Read Norwegian Too!: On the Danish Language

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 in Danish. 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 learn to speak Danish, but you’ll learn to read it.