Danish Language Loss.

Joel of Far Outliers has posted an excerpt about Danish from Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages, by Gaston Dorren; it starts like this:

Two centuries ago, Danish was spoken on four continents in an area twelve times the size of Great Britain. Now, the language is contained in scarcely more than a single country that’s just over half the size of Scotland. Read on for a chronicle of ruin.

And ends like this:

And so all that remained of Denmark’s colonies was the largest and most sparsely populated of them all: Greenland. Until 1979, that is, when the island was granted limited autonomy and permission to govern in its own language, Kalaallisut, otherwise known as Greenlandic. This decision came as no great surprise. Although Danish was a mandatory school subject, many Greenlanders struggled to speak the language, which was poles apart from their own. In autonomous Greenland, Danish initially retained more official functions than in the autonomous Faroe Islands. But that has since changed as well: in 2009, Kalaallisut became the one and only official administrative language. With this move, Greenland achieved a unique position: the only country of the Americas (yes, Greenland is part of the Americas), from Canada all the way down to Chile, where the indigenous language doesn’t play second fiddle to that of its colonial master. The poor Danes. Rejected by the Norwegians, betrayed in the warm-water colonies, defeated in Slesvig, then dumped by the cold-water colonies as well. But the Danes do have one consolation: their ancestors were among those who occupied England in the fifth century and thus laid the foundations for English – a language that has conquered the world like no other.

In-between details at the link, obviously. I don’t think I’ve read reviews of the book; I’m guessing it’s enjoyable but one would want to check the facts against more authoritative sources.

Comments

  1. Yes, particularly the “fact” about the Danes’ ancestors occupying England in the fifth century. Though some of the Anglo-Saxons may have come from areas that (much) later became part of Denmark.

  2. J.W. Brewer says:

    Didn’t the Jutes come from Jutland? Unless they left Jutland abandoned and depopulated in the wake of their departing ships, presumably the descendants of those who stayed behind are now echt-Danish.

  3. Bill W. says:

    It’s no wonder Danish has receded: no one, probably not even the Danes, can understand spoken Danish, and those numbers . . . You need algebra to make sense of Danish numerals.

    But the Norwegians didn’t completely reject Danish. Formal written Norwegian is still very close to Danish, and the Norwegians at least pronounce it intelligibly.

  4. J.W. Brewer says:

    FWIW I was given the book in question as a Christmas or perhaps birthday gift a year or two back and found it an enjoyable quick read, better than what one might expect on average of a book chosen by some relative who thinks of you as “the one interested in language stuff.” A bit on the fluffy side, but not so full of obviously wrong statements that I have a recollection of reacting to it that way.

  5. J.W. Brewer says:

    BTW, in terms of the linguistic legacy of the Danish West Indies (transformed in 1917 to the U.S. Virgin Islands), I can’t swear that this is still the case but I was told third-hand as of a quarter-century ago that a small subset of the otherwise-Anglophone lawyers practicing down there still possessed, if not actual reading fluency in Danish, at least enough knowledge of the relevant Danish technical words and the standard formats of highly-conventionalized documents to be able to make sense of pre-1917 deeds and other such archival documents with potential ongoing relevance to who had what present-day rights to which parcel of real estate.

  6. A bit on the fluffy side, but not so full of obviously wrong statements that I have a recollection of reacting to it that way.

    Thanks! I’ve come to appreciate that sort of book a lot better now that I’ve gotten past my self-righteous “Someone is WRONG about language!” phase. As long as a book isn’t full of obviously wrong statements, it can serve as a good springboard for people to delve further.

  7. Bill W. says:

    “Unless they left Jutland abandoned and depopulated in the wake of their departing ships, . . . ”

    Apparently, this may actually have happened, according to Bede, confirmed by archeological evidence. My source: John Blair, The Anglo-Saxon Age: A Very Short Introduction, p. 3.

    But today Jutland is populated mostly by bikers who periodically slaughter one another, just like their ancestors.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Nordic_Biker_War

    I hope the Danes won’t take my flippant and irreverent remarks seriously. By the way, I’m slightly Danish myself: my great-grandfather’s name was Jens Jensen.

  8. Bill W. says:

    “Didn’t the Jutes come from Jutland? Unless they left Jutland abandoned and depopulated in the wake of their departing ships, . . . ”

    Apparently, Bede (1.15) says that the area from which the Angles settling in Britain came (the area between the Jutes and the Saxons) was in fact depopulated as a result of the migrations, and there is some archeological support for this. My source: Blair, The Anglo-Saxon Age: A Very Short Introduction, p. 3. Perhaps Jutland too was depopulated by the migrations.

  9. Didn’t the Jutes come from Jutland?

    Nobody really knows.

  10. Lars (the original one) says:

    From the viewpoint of a twenty first century Dane, it’s not really like most of those areas are ‘lost’ — there was never a project to impose Danish as the popular language, or if there was we’ve forgotten about it(*). Even in Norway I think Danish was mostly an administrative language, the very strong superstratal influence was due more to the fact that to get a good job you had to travel to Denmark for school.

    Schleswig is a sort of exception, since before 1864 the northern part was mostly Danish and had been for ages, though with a strong German minority, and not all of that area was reallotted to Denmark in 1920 — but the disappointment and resentment has essentially died out with my grandparents’ generation. But for a while there really was a feeling that Denmark had failed at expansionism and had to retrench at home, hvad udad tabes må indad vindes, which some argue has led to a very strong undercurrent of solidarity in the Danish ‘character’.

    (*) The article mentions that the school instruction language in the Danish West Indies ‘became’ English in 1839 — but as far as I can see that was when the schools were first established, so there was no popular schooling in Danish before that.

  11. “Yes, particularly the “fact” about the Danes’ ancestors occupying England in the fifth century.”

    Agree with JW Brewer; that doesn’t seem obviously wrong. There’s good archaeological evidence linking the Germanic migration into England back to origins all round the North Sea coast from the Netherlands to southern Sweden. It seems perverse to assert that the Danes’ ancestors didn’t form part of that migration.

  12. What caught my attention was this:
    “the only country of the Americas (yes, Greenland is part of the Americas), from Canada all the way down to Chile, where the indigenous language doesn’t play second fiddle to that of its colonial master.”

    Because there must be some countries – there’s at least one, Ecuador – where an indigenous language has official status alongside the colonial language.
    Quick check: there are several; Quechua is an official language in Ecudor, Peru and Bolivia, and the same is true of various other indigenous languages.

  13. Trond Engen says:

    Still second fiddle. There’s no Latin American country where public administration is conducted chiefly in the official indigenous language and where you can climb to a high position in public service (or for that matter, private companies) without mastering the language of the former colonial power.

  14. Well, you can’t have a string quartet without a second fiddle, but first violinist is definitely the prestige position. It’s easy to make a subaltern language an official language, harder to make it truly equal, and hardest to make it the only official language.

  15. Trond Engen says:

    Lars: Even in Norway I think Danish was mostly an administrative language, the very strong superstratal influence was due more to the fact that to get a good job you had to travel to Denmark for school.

    That, and the Danish element among merchants and larger landowners. Even if an even larger element were diverse foreigners (Low Saxon, Dutch, Holsteiner, English, Scottish), the dominant language of the class they came into was Danish.

  16. Alex M. says:

    What about Paraguay? The 2015 census showed 95% claiming fluency in Guaraní but only 87% in Spanish even though the population is almost completely mestizo. Spanish certainly dominates as the international lingua franca of business but culturally Guaraní doesn’t appear to be in retreat.

  17. Spanish is quite a bit more dominant than that. According to a NYTimes article from last January, “Spanish is the dominant language in government ministries, the courts, the news media, literature, schools and professions.” While citizens have the right to communicate with the government in either language, 99% of all such communications are in Spanish. The schools remain mostly monolingually Spanish, especially in the rural Guaraní-only areas where parents want their kids to learn the language of power that they don’t learn at home. (One-third of all families speak only Guaraní at home, two-thirds in rural areas.) In addition, the variety of Guaraní that is taught is formal in register and avoids Spanish loanwords, thus quite remote from either city or country Guaraní. About the only group that are now in trouble if they don’t know Guaraní are the politicians.

  18. Agreed that there’s nothing provably wrong with saying that Danes were “among those” who settled England in the fifth century, the rest of the sentence just seems off. How did these presumed Danes lay the foundations for English? Were there enough of them that their proto-Old Norse could easily prevail over the largely non-proto-Norse dialects that went into the formation of Old English, without leaving obvious traces of itself? A half millenium later ON was different enough from OE, and the Danes in England numerous enough, that it did indeed leave a very noticeable one. This is the usual story; I’m not sure what’s the point of clouding it with speculation concerning mostly unknowable events from 500 years earlier.

    The Jutes, I assume, came from Jutland. To regard modern-day Jutlanders as largely their direct descendants, even absent ethnic cleansing, seems, fifteen hundred years on, a little shaky.

  19. Trond Engen says:

    I expect the Germanic settlement of England to become much clearer in a few years. I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out to be a much more complex process than told, with different areas being settled, or overrun by new waves, coming from different regions of Germania, at different times, from the initial paid troops in Roman Britain and until the Great Heathen Army — and beyond.

  20. It’s easy to make a subaltern language an official language, harder to make it truly equal, and hardest to make it the only official language.

    Not the Americas, but sometimes I wonder if the ongoing co-official status of Swedish in Finland is really due to synchronic facts like the existence of monolingually Swedish parishes in the countryside (a fact that is nearly uniformly cited in its defense) … or if it would be actually better considered a vestige held over from the days when Swedish was the sole language of administration and higher education? And how low does the proportion of Swedish speakers have to drop before anything about the system changes? Under 5% (projected to happen in a few decades)? Under 1% (Åland aside)? Under whatever percentage Russian or Estonian have? I’m not placing specific bets, but I think we will see over the course of this century.

  21. How was King Haakon VII’s Norwegian? Was is slurred in the Danish way? Which of the many Norwegians does the royal household cleave to in current times?

  22. Trond Engen says:

    King Haakon was thoroughly Danish his whole life. The current generations are unremarkable Western Oslo. Well-bred but not overly posh, and code-switching seamlessly into a broader register when situation demands.

  23. The Danelaw, established by the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum in 886 (not called that until the 11th century), still exists as a very clear dialect boundary in modern England.

    https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/oct/16/uk-north-south-divide-vikings-watford-gap

    There was a BBC documentary a while back where the reporter went along the line documenting word usage between villages just a few miles apart on either side. Unfortunately I couldn’t find it online.

  24. SFReader says:

    I think it was claimed somewhere that the Danes are actually Swedes and the Swedes are actually Danes.

    Similarly, the Japanese are actually Korean and Koreans are actually Japanese.

  25. @maidhc: According to the OED, the Dane law is only attested prior to the nineteenth century in reference to the actual law of the Viking-settled region, although there are several subtleties.

    1. The Danish law anciently in force over that part of England which was occupied or held by the Danes.

    2. Hence, The part of England over which this law prevailed, being the district north-east of Watling Street, ceded by the Treaty of Wedmore, 878, or perhaps the Northumbrian territory in Danish occupation.
    This use appears explicitly only in modern historians (chiefly under the barbarous forms Dane-lage, Dane-lagh, which are neither Old nor modern English), though founded on ancient passages, such as those of quots. c1050 at sense 1, a1300 at sense 1. [In Icelandic lög ‘law’ had, according to Vigfusson, the sense ‘law-district’, ‘almost as a local name’ in Gulaþings-lög, þrænda-lög, etc.]

    Note the bracketed statement though, indicating that there is known to be metonymic uses of law-words, indicating the region where that law held. And in modern English, the relationship between a law code and the region it governs is conventionally expressed by a spatial metaphor (in which the law is over, and the region or population that it governs are under).

    The first citation for sense 1 is from ca. 1050. The first citation for sense 2 is 1837 (although the citation is actually to a claim that the name is older):

    1837 Penny Cycl. VIII. 299/2 The eastern part of England retained long after the name of Danelagh, or Danish law.

  26. Lars (the original one) says:

    Danes are actually Swedes — I was about to comment on that in relation to the danicity of the 5th century Jutes. Some other thread here referred to a theory that the ethnos called Dani was located in Uppland at that point, and were dislodged (by non-Germanics?) and in turn pushed out other peoples from present day Denmark.

    Among them could be an ethnos of Iutar, possibly Ingvaeonic speaking? I should keep notes.

    (And then, made numerous and strong on the rich soil of Zealand, some of the Dani went back and became Sviar? I don’t remember that part).

  27. Similarly, the Japanese are actually Korean and Koreans are actually Japanese.

    I’m stumped how that would work, specifically the part where Koreans are actually Japanese. Are we talking about a back-migration into the peninsula from the archipelago? Some obscure confusion of names?

  28. SFReader says:

    According to new theories, the proto-Koreans were an invading warrior elite (and possibly nomadic to boot) who took over and assimilated aboriginal rice-growing population of the proto-Japanese.

    So in this sense, the Koreans are actually Japanese who changed their language to language of the invaders.

  29. SFReader says:

    And the Japanese are descendants of that part of the aboriginal population of the Korean peninsula who managed to flee to Japanese islands from proto-Korean nomadic invaders.

  30. Oh, that would make more sense, though I feel it’s anachronistic to label these populations as proto-Japanese when they and their descendants never left the peninsula (granted, at least some of them probably spoke Japonic). It’s almost like calling continental Gauls proto-Welsh or proto-Irish. Edit: Maybe calling Viking era Norwegians proto-Icelanders would be a better analogy.

    In any case, we can’t really say that the labels of Koreans and Japanese are inverted.

  31. SFReader says:

    How about the English are actually Welsh who switched to language of continental invaders.

  32. That’s a closer parallel in some ways, but it somehow doesn’t sound as wrong to me than the other formulations, even if it is also a bit anachronistic to call the historical Britons Welsh.

  33. Most of the reviews of the book were published back in 2014 and 2015. You can find the ones in English here and here.

  34. Trond Engen says:

    maidhc: The Danelaw, established by the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum in 886 (not called that until the 11th century), still exists as a very clear dialect boundary in modern England.

    https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/oct/16/uk-north-south-divide-vikings-watford-gap

    You should all read that article — if nothing else because it contains one of the worst maps I’ve ever seen.

  35. You can find the ones in English here and here.

    Thanks!

  36. @Ajay:
    You’re absolutely right, and I knew these facts. That’s why I chose the words ‘play second fiddle’: no matter what the law says, in all other countries on the American continent, a European language is dominant in practice. Even in Paraguay, where many people are bilingual in Spanish and Guaraní.

  37. I think it was claimed somewhere that the Danes are actually Swedes and the Swedes are actually Danes.
    Similarly, the Japanese are actually Korean and Koreans are actually Japanese.

    “The Scots (originally Irish, but by now Scotch) were at this time inhabiting Ireland, having driven the Irish (Picts) out of Scotland; while the Picts (originally Scots) were now Irish (living in brackets) and vice versa. It is essential to keep these distinctions clearly in mind (and verce visa)…

  38. Gaston, I enjoyed the book a lot. It was recommended to me by a friend, and I was sceptical going into it and especially when I saw a discussion of Lithuanian and Proto-Indo-European, but the book steered clear of the most obvious canards like Lithuanian being one of the oldest languages.

  39. Nobody doubts Danish influenced English, or that parts of now-Denmark were among the sources of Fifth Century migration to parts of now-England. It’s just that the first doesn’t follow from the second. It’s a narrative made of unconnected events.

  40. Thanks, that is all I was trying to say.

  41. J.W. Brewer says:

    Quoth wikipedia (explaining the background to the First Schleswig War of 1848-52): “Pan-German ideology had become highly influential in the decades prior to the wars, and writers such as Jacob Grimm (1785–1863) and the Norwegian Peter Andreas Munch (1810–1863) argued that the entire peninsula of Jutland had been populated by Germans before the arrival of the Danes and that therefore Germans could justifiably reclaim it.” During the second war in 1864 Prussian troops did get all the way to the very northern tip of Jutland, but did not stay there after the war ended.

  42. Kind of takes the pan- out of the pan-German, doesn’t it?

  43. Trond Engen says:

    J.W. Brewer: Quoth wikipedia (explaining the background to the First Schleswig War of 1848-52): “Pan-German ideology had become highly influential in the decades prior to the wars, and writers such as Jacob Grimm (1785–1863) and the Norwegian Peter Andreas Munch (1810–1863) argued that the entire peninsula of Jutland had been populated by Germans before the arrival of the Danes and that therefore Germans could justifiably reclaim it.”

    Citation needed. I can’t claim to have read everything Munch wrote, but from what I know and have read I find it hard to believe that he said such a thing. He did have the opinion that pre-Migration Era Jutland was politically and culturally closer to (Low) Saxony than to Peninsular Scandinavia, due to what he believed to be different migration trajectories from a Germanic Urheimat in the Volga-Ural region, but it’s a long way from there to supporting a German annexation of half of Denmark in 1848. And especially since his sympathy was clearly on the “democratic” Scandinavian side.

    Alan Shaw; Kind of takes the pan- out of the pan-German, doesn’t it?

    Losing Jutland took the handle out of pan-German.

  44. Trond Engen says:

    Norwegian Wikipedia helps where Norsk biografisk leksikon is silent. Munch’s fanciful migration theory was seen as insulting by both Swedish and Danish historians, and politically he was more of a pan-Germanist than a pan-Scandinavianist. The combination made him very unpopular in Denmark, where he was accused of providing justification for the German aggression, even if he himself agitated for Norwegian and Swedish intervention on the Danish side in the war.

    Trivia: P.A. Munch was son of a priest and grew up in Gjerpen prestegård, 3 km from my home. Another son of a priest, growing up in the same vicarage 80 years later, was Vidkun Quisling.

  45. Trond Engen says:

    @Gaston: I’ve put your book on my wishlist. I also followed through to your blog and read your opinion piece on Norwegian language policy from Klassekampen. Let me say that I heartily agree with your advice but disagree with your premise. The attempt at linguistic unification left unfinished against dedicated resistance is what gave us the unique span of stylistic choices and makes your Frinorsk possible. It’s brilliant, and I hope it stays like this. Or rather, I hope convergence can be reverted and variation restored, but I doubt it.

  46. Finländare says:

    Swedish could also be thought of as being a “loser” language, or then maybe not!

    On the one hand it lost nearly half of its territory when it had to cede what is modern Finland to the Russians in 1809, and before that it lost the areas around St. Petersburg, vast tracts of land in the Baltics, and several smaller territories in northern Germany.

    On the other hand, out of all the territories Sweden has ever held, Swedish only really made an impact in Finland* where it’s alive and well even today. Actually, now that Finland is independent, the proportion of native Finnish speakers who know Swedish either fluently or at least at a lower intermediate level is much larger than at any point during the 700 odd years of Swedish dominion over those lands.

    *Not least because modern southwestern Finland was actually part of the core of the Swedish realm since at least the late 13th century – in the 1500s Turku/Åbo was only second to Stockholm when it came to population size.

  47. J.W. Brewer says:
  48. Trond Engen says:

    Thanks. I read about it in Scandinavian news a couple of weeks ago. It’s just a couple of km from Illerup Ådal, where the destroyed equipment from the losing armies in approximately four battles over a period of a couple of hundred years (roughly 200-400 AD) was deposited in a lake. No bodies have been found. The finds of Aiken Enge, OTOH, are all bodies and no gear, but the problem is that it’s one or two centuries too early. One possibility is that conquered gear from later battles was brought to the sacred former battleground and ritually deposited. But where is the equipment from the first battle?

  49. marie-lucie says:

    Does anyone know the name (or word) Ranelagh ? Years ago I spent time in a student residence in Paris, near rue du Ranelagh (in a rather posh area, although the students – all girls – were not so).

    I think that true Parisians did not pronounce a [g] at the end, but us provincial girls did, at least when we arrived.

  50. Named for a Lord Ranelagh, presumably this guy; Jacques Hillairet writes:

    Un pair d’Angleterre, lord Ranelagh, grand amateur de musique, avait fait installer, en 1750, dans le parc de sa propriété de Chelsea, voisine de Londres, une rotonde à jour où un orchestre donnait quotidiennement des concerts publics. Une société acheta son parc après sa mort, y continua les concerts, y installa un bal, y donna des fêtes et perçut un droit d’entrée. En 1772, deux artificiers du roi qui avaient vu le Ranelagh anglais, obtinrent du maréchal de Soubise, alors gouverneur du château de la Muette, l’autorisation de fonder un pareil établissement sur une pelouse de la Muette où on avait parfois dansé en plein air. Ils établirent, en 1774, une salle de bal avec café, restaurant, concert et spectacle ; son ouverture eut lieu le 25 juillet 1774, l’entrée coûtait 24 sous. Ce fut le Petit-Ranelagh qu’ils agrandirent en 1779. La Cour adopta cet endroit qui devint vite à la mode après que Marie-Antoinette, le comte d’Artois et les dames de la Cour y furent venus danser le 21 avril 1780 ; il en résulta la pose d’une couverture au-dessus de l’aire du bal, la reine, qui y revint, appréhendant la fraîcheur des soirées.

  51. Ranelagh /ˈrænəlæ/ is an area in Dublin, close to Lenin’s Rathmines. Wikipedia tells me, and it seems plausible, that the title of the peerage was named for the area, rather than the other way around.

  52. Ranelagh [ˈrænələ] is a residential area in Dublin, formerly a separate village; its Irish name is Raghnallach. The 1st Earl of Ranelagh (as explained above) built a townhouse in Chelsea, then just outside London, with associated pleasure gardens. Neither the earldom nor the house still exist, but the gardens are now attached to the adjacent Chelsea Hospital and are still known as Ranelagh Gardens. Similar gardens were built (by different people) in New York City (in what is now TriBeCa) and in the 16th arrondissement. The latter gardens no longer exist, having been eliminated when the Bois du Boulogne was constructed, but the name is preserved in the rue de Ranelagh and the Ranelagh métro stop.

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