The British are coming! The English is coming! Are you with?

“The British are coming!” is of course the famous line attributed to Paul Revere, one of the founding fathers of USA, best known for his “Midnight Ride” from Boston to Lexington on April 18, 1775. He was supposedly shouting “The British are coming!” to warn the rebel colonist forces of an impending attack by the British Redcoats. The line was immortalized, and apparently also made up, in a famous poem by Longfellow: “Paul Revere’s Ride“. “Made up” because historians are of the conviction that while the ride really occurred, the actual warning was most likely delivered in silence…

The “English is coming!” is my word-play on Paul Revere’s (or Longfellow’s) famous line. The English language and English words are of course sneaking their way into contemporary Danish vocabulary, both openly and silently. It’s no wonder in a country like Denmark, where upwards of 80% of Danes do, or think they do :-), speak fluent English. So, the English is coming inside Danish. Are you with?

“Are you with”: In Danish we often use the expression “Er du med?”, which correctly translated means “Do you follow me?”. Incorrect, verbatim translation is, however, “Are you with”. Yes, it is OK in Danish to end a sentence with a preposition. The trap, which many a Danish English-speaker has fallen into, is of course that the preposition rules are different in English and also that some times English has different words, when Danish has just one. In this case translating “med” with “along” rather than “with” would yield maybe not a 100% correct English, but at least something much closer to it. Are you along?

Any English-speaking visitor visiting Denmark today will be shocked by the prevalence of the fine English curse-word “F**ck”. It has sneaked its way in and it’s everywhere. Maybe you won’t see it written, but you’ll hear it used on TV, radio and pretty much everywhere interspersed into otherwise faultless Danish. This always reminds me of that general cultural observation that a curse in a foreign language is not really a curse. Even though most Danes speak and write English, it is NOT their primary language and therefore throwing in what just seems to be a funny-sounding foreign word, even though that word is not so nice in its original language, seems totally OK. I remember how in my youth in Denmark we used the funny sounding (to us) German word “gewesen” (=”has been”) to refer to anything we didn’t know the exact name of, sort of equivalent to the modern English slang words “do-hickey” and “whatchamacallit”…

So, some English words, like “f**ck”, silently sneak their way into Danish. Eventually some get accepted and become “official” Danish:

In my previous posting I mentioned the English word “to spend”, which does not have a direct equivalent in Danish. Well, a correction is needed and one that shows how it can be tricky when English words start appearing in Danish. “To spend” USED to NOT have a direct equivalent in Danish. Now it does have one. The official Danish vocabulary and spelling dictionary, Retskrivningsordbogen, now includes the word “spendere”, which is the “danish-ized” direct adaptation of “to spend”. Clearly, if we Danes know it exists in English and it covers an exact, useful concept, we want it too :-). The trickiness of “spendere” is that its meaning is ever so slightly, slightly different in Danish!:

  • “At bruge penge” means “to spend money” (in a serious way).
  • “At spendere penge”, however, has more of a wasteful connotation, closer to “to blow the money”.

Why? Here I have a theory: I think it’s because “at spendere” ends up sounding very close to the Danish verb “at spilde”, which means “to waste”. We store things in our brain by similarities, so that’s probably what colors the meaning of “at spendere” in Danish.

And of course one has to be careful with word-combinations and abstractization. Take the previously mentioned  “Spending Power”: the direct translation “Spenderingskraft” would still be meaningless in Danish. “Købekraft” is still correct.





5 thoughts on “The British are coming! The English is coming! Are you with?

  1. Interesting blog you’ve got here. Haven’t seen it all yet, but planning to.
    I did, however, start to wonder a bit, when you wrote “if we Danes know it exists in English and it covers an exact, useful concept, we want it too”.
    Like most languages of German ancestory, both Danish and English have adapted the word spend/spendere from Latin “expendere”. A quick reference to an earlier Danish use is the Christmas song “Højt fra træets grønne top” from 1848. And it’s probably much older than that. I hope you will be a bit more keen on the etymology before assuming Danish has lent something from English.
    BTW, I think you put a * too many in f*ck.
    Keep up the good work.

    • Good points, thanks. I agree that I would have been more correct in stating that “Spendere” in Danish was new to ME, rather than to the Danish language. And also that it is re-emerging, rather than appearing from nowhere. It definitely seems that it has been around for a while (thanks for the Christmas song reference” – proof “sine dubito”). And yeah, I f***ed up with the # of “*”s in “f*ck” – love the humor in the comment! 🙂

      • Thanks. In a way, I think it’s excellent evidence: I think words, like hit songs, can peak and dive in popularity. What we seem to have here is evidence that while the word “spendere” may have been available in Danish in the 30s, it was used differently. I can subjectively say that it wasn’t used much in Danish during my upbringing in 70-80s. So its place in Retskrivningsordbogen today may be due to actual historic presence of it as a Danish word. It’s an old (obsoleted?) Danish word, rather than new English influence. So, I was wrong in saying that it was a new entry into Retskrivningsordbogen, but I was still correct in saying that we still don’t have a direct translation of “spending”, as “spendere” isn’t it (in modern Danish).

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