Doing “number” on you

Not just the handling of numbers themselves, but also translation between English and Danish of the very word Number can do a number on any unsuspecting bi-linguist.

In English, the word Number has at least three distinct possible meanings. Since it remains the same word, this is not always apparent to an English-speaker. In Danish, each of those three meanings must be addressed by its own DIFFERENT word: nummer, antal or tal. And there are further complications (and an English-language idiom mystery explained)… But more about those later.

In Danish, “nummer” must be used when English number is approximately synonymous to “a number/label displayed on something” or “a ranking achieved“, “antal” is used when English a number (of) is approximately synonymous to “a count of“, and lastly “tal” is used when number is approximately synonymous to digit.

English ==> Danish:

The number of solutions to this equation is three ==> Antallet af løsninger til denne ligning er tre

The number 2 is one of the solutions ==> Tallet 2 er en af løsningerne

Replace batteries with the same number and type of batteries as originally installed in the equipment ==> WRONG!: Udskift batterier med batterier af samme nummer og type som de oprindeligt installerede i udstyret (this is correct Danish, but the wrong meaning “use batteries with the same number printed on them”) CORRECT!: Udskift batterier med samme antal og type af batterier som de oprindeligt installerede i udstyret (this is the correct meaning: “use the same number of batteries”)

He lives on Baker Street, in number 221B ==> Han bor på Baker Street i nummer 221B.

He finished the triathlon bike race in second place ==> Han kom ind i triathlon cykelløbet som nummer 2

You could not see his number on his bike racing shirt ==> Man kunne ikke se hans nummer på hans cykeltrøje

Paint by numbers ==> Paint-by-numbers, mal med tal

Strength in numbers ==> Styrke i tal

There’s a fourth possible translation for number: When English number refers to an unknown amount of (somethings), Danish often prefers to use the Danish word for a row: række instead:

English ==> Danish:

This equation has a number of solutions ==> Denne ligning har en række løsninger

That happened a number of years ago ==> Det skete for en række år siden

It should also be noted that the abbreviation of “number” is DIFFERENT in Danish and in English:
Danish: nr.
English: no.

But wait, there’s more very interesting “number theory”:  the word nummer has two further meanings in Danish that it does not in (current) English. Et nummer is also an act that a performer performs. Typically a short second-rate act, like a magician’s trick or a circus act. Or an encore at a concert is “an extra number”: et ekstranummer.

English ==> Danish:

And then he did this stupid thing ==> Og så lavede han det her dumme nummer

So, in Danish the expression “do a number on someone” makes perfect sense! You’ve been exposed to a cheap magical trick, you’ve been duped, cheated. This is interesting because, a simple Google search for “origins of “did a number on me”” reveals that English-speakers and language specialists are generally very puzzled by the origins of this expression and can’t offer a logical explanation. In (current) English it makes no sense. Could it be that the expression has been actually adopted from Danish? I would venture to postulate that. 🙂

The other Danish meaning of nummer is not what you’d expect: the cute name for the behind that we sit on is en numse. This often gets made further cute by referring to it as et nummer. So, visiting ladies: when a Danish man on the street tells you in passing that you have an excellent number, “sikke et fint nummer!”, he is most likely NOT referring to your height or your bank account… 🙂

My baby just sent me a letter. And the letter is an S?

A letter (i.e. correspondence)  that I write to you is of course made out of single letters (i.e. characters). English has the funny duality of calling these two somewhat different things the same: a Letter.

English ==> Danish
A letter, a character => et bogstav
A letter (correspondence) ==> et brev
A letter (one who rents out an apartment) ==> en udlejer

According to this duality between the first two meanings of “Letter” is another remnant of the old Norman/Saxon intermixing of French and Saxon (and Latin and Greek and other…) words, which through perturbation of centuries have become the same in modern English. So, in old French a single character of the alphabet was Lettre and in Latin it was Littera. (A large collection of letters is of course Literature in Latin – an expression well known in English and most other languages today). There is a verb in French pertaining to a person combining multiple characters: lettré (~to spell out, transliterate). That is probably the origin of the other meaning of the English “Letter”, as when writing correspondence. Because one is indeed combining letters when writing a letter (“On lettré” in French)…

But that was not the intended topic of this blog-post… Funny things happen when a single letter sneaks its way into or out of a sentence:

English ==> Danish
0% interest (banking term) ==> rentefrit
0 interest (i.e. “zero interest”, “I am not interested”)   ==> ingen interesse

Danish ==> English
Hr. Jensens kridtholder ==> Mr. (teacher) Jensen’s chalk holder
Hr. Jensens skridtholder ==> Mr. (teacher) Jensen’s jock strap

Positionspil ==> An arrow showing your position (on a map)
Positionsspil ==> A game based on position (like chess)

Klik på flisen ==> Click on a tile (like in Windows 8)
Klik på fissen ==> Click on female genitalia….

Motivational-poster  Anal tvthe-box-tops-the-letter-ricordi-internationalerrorists

English is a Scandinavian language!

Interesting news swept the linguistic newswires at the end of 2012.
This is a direct copy from :
Linguist Makes Sensational Claim: English Is a Scandinavian Language

Nov. 27, 2012 — “Have you considered how easy it is for us Norwegians to learn English?” asks Jan Terje Faarlund, professor of linguistics at the University of Oslo. “Obviously there are many English words that resemble ours. But there is something more: its fundamental structure is strikingly similar to Norwegian. We avoid many of the usual mistakes because the grammar is more or less the same.

Faarlund and his colleague Joseph Emmonds, visiting professor from Palacký University in the Czech Republic, now believe they can prove that English is in reality a Scandinavian language, in other words it belongs to the Northern Germanic language group, just like Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, Icelandic and Faroese. This is totally new and breaks with what other language researchers and the rest of the world believe, namely that English descends directly from Old English. Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, is a West Germanic language, which the Angles and Saxons brought with them from Northern Germany and Southern Jylland when they settled in the British Isles in the fifth century.

Old English died out
“Modern English is a direct descendant of the language of Scandinavians who settled in the British Isles in the course of many centuries, before the French-speaking Normans conquered the country in 1066,” says Faarlund. He points out that Old English and Modern English are two very different languages. Why?
“We believe it is because Old English quite simply died out while Scandinavian survived, albeit strongly influenced of course by Old English,” he says.
The ‘cohabitation’ between the British and the Scandinavians was largely hostile. Both fought for political hegemony. The descendants of the Vikings gained control of the eastern and northern parts of the country. The Danelaw was under the control of Scandinavian chiefs for half a century.
Like most colonists, the Scandinavian-speaking inhabitants found no reason to switch to the language of the country they had arrived in. “One especially important, geographic point in our study is that the East Midlands region, where the spoken language later developed into Modern English, coincides almost exactly with the densely populated, southern part of the Danelaw,” says the professor.
The language changed a great deal in the period after the Normans arrived. The miserable conditions people lived in at the time resulted in a complete merger of the two previously separate groups of people — the Old English speakers and the Scandinavian speakers — and out of this came Middle English — the predecessor of Modern English.

Adopted words they already had
The language adopted many words from the Danelaw’s inhabitants who were of Norwegian and Danish descent. For example, all the lexical words in this sentence are Scandinavian: He took the knife and cut the steak. Only he, the and and come from Old English.
“What is particularly interesting is that Old English adopted words for day-to-day things that were already in the language. Usually one borrows words and concepts for new things. In English almost the reverse is true — the day-to-day words are Scandinavian, and there are many of them,” says Faarlund.
Here are some examples: anger, awe, bag, band, big, birth, both, bull, cake, call, cast, cosy, cross, die, dirt, dream, egg, fellow, flat, gain, get, gift, give, guess, guest, hug, husband, ill, kid, law, leg, lift, likely, link, loan, loose, low, mistake, odd, race, raise, root, rotten, same, seat, seem, sister, skill, skin, skirt, sky, steak, though, thrive, Thursday, tight, till, trust, ugly, want, weak, window, wing, wrong.
The researchers believe that Old English already had 90 per cent of these concepts in its own vocabulary.

Took over the grammar
But the Scandinavian element was not limited to the vocabulary, which is normal when languages come into contact with each other. Even though a massive number of new words are on their way into a language, it nevertheless retains its own grammar. This is almost a universal law.
“But in England grammatical words and morphemes — in other words the smallest abstract, meaningful linguistic unit — were also adopted from Scandinavian and survive in English to this day.”

Scandinavian syntax
The two researchers show that the sentence structure in Middle English — and thus also Modern English — is Scandinavian and not Western Germanic. “It is highly irregular to borrow the syntax and structure from one language and use it in another language. In our days the Norwegians are borrowing words from English, and many people are concerned about this. However, the Norwegian word structure is totally unaffected by English. It remains the same. The same goes for the structure in English: it is virtually unaffected by Old English.”

“How can you illustrate this?”
“We can show that wherever English differs syntactically from the other Western Germanic languages — German, Dutch, Frisian — it has the same structure as the Scandinavian languages.” Here are some examples:
* Word order: In English and Scandinavian the object is placed after the verb:
I have read the book.
Eg har lese boka.
German and Dutch (and Old English) put the verb at the end.
Ich habe das Buch gelesen.
* English and Scandinavian can have a preposition at the end of the sentence.
This we have talked about.
Dette har vi snakka om.
* English and Scandinavian can have a split infinitive, i.e. we can insert a word between the infinitive marker and the verb.
I promise to never do it again.
Eg lovar å ikkje gjera det igjen.
* Group genitive:
The Queen of England’s hat.
Dronninga av Englands hatt.
“All of this is impossible in German or Dutch, and these kinds of structures are very unlikely to change within a language. The only reasonable explanation then is that English is in fact a Scandinavian language, and a continuation of the Norwegian-Danish language which was used in England during the Middle Ages.”
“But why the inhabitants of the British Isles chose the Scandinavian grammar is something we can only speculate on,” says Jan Terje Faarlund.

The above story is reprinted from materials provided by University of Oslo. The original article was written by Trine Nickelsen, APOLLON Research Magazine.

I suspected this all along!… This would then make USA also part of Scandinavia? it kind of makes sense given that formerly Danish Greenland straddles the no-man’s land between Europe and North America 🙂
And apparently the new discovery would also make this graphic depiction of language-evolution from slightly wrong:


Have you heard of the Viking Sheikh?

Here are two words that really could be listed as each other’s proper translation in any English-Danish dictionary, but aren’t: (English) Ship <-> (Danish) Skab . “Skab” in Danish normally means”a closet” or “a cabinet”. i.e. a piece of furniture, -so nothing at all like a seafaring ship… What’s the connection?
As we all, and particularly linguists, know: “context is everything”, so, yes indeed a “ship” becomes equivalent to “a closet” when these two words appear not as standalone words, but as last syllables, or suffixes, of compound words indicating “something official”:

English ==> Danish:

Mayorship ==> Borgmesterskab
World Championship ==> Verdensmesterskab
Citizenship ==> Borgerskab
Leadership ==> Lederskab
Marriage ==> Ægteskab

I have an interesting theory about how this came about that a “Ship” became a “Closet”: I think the two words actually point back to a common Saxon ancestor-word from some 1300 years ago (say, around 700 AC), when the Viking Juts, Angles and Saxons came from what is today’s Denmark and occupied what is today England.

Whatever was spoken then must for a while have been the same language spoken on both sides of North Sea and then it gradually evolved differently into English on the left side of North Sea and Danish on the right side of that body of water:

It’s easy to imagine that both “-ship”  and “-skab” as suffixes have not much to do with their same-sounding stand-alone cousin words in both English and Danish, but rather both point back to a common ancestor-word signifying something official and authoritative. Something rather guttural in sound, as Danish still is today, where “h” and “k” sounded similar and so did “p” and “b”, and “a” and “e” were so flat, they could easily be mistaken for each other. So, probably something like “Skhaipb“, which then evolved into “-Ship” in  modern English and “-Skab” in modern Danish. And the old root-word signifying authority remains alive in the same word still present the same in both English and Danish: “Skipper“, i.e. the Man in Charge.

But wait then, what about the other word also present the same way in both modern English and modern Danish: “to Skip“? It seems paradoxical that “a Skipper” is someone in charge, who cares about details and deals with things, while “skipping” signifies the exactly opposite: to not care too much, to “touch and go”? I think this actually gives us another piece of the interesting historical puzzle of how Danish/English evolved from being the same into being different:

According to Wikipedia, the word “Skip” in old Norse actually meant what we today call a Ship. Knowing the shape of the Viking vessels suddenly it all makes perfect sense: the Vikings invent the shallow-bottomed vessels which sit so high in the water that they don’t cut through it, but rather “bump” or SKIP from wave top to wave top. So, SKIP was probably the first word. It meant “to avoid sinking to deep”, to  skip from plop to plop. Then the verb SKIP evolved into the noun SHIP as the art of skipping became signified by the vessels which moved forward in a SKIPPING way. Then Ships became very important as the Viking civilization evolved around the art of navigating the ships, so the words “Skhaipb” and “Skipper“, were derived from the word for Ship of yore to signify something official and important.
-And maybe, just maybe, the Arabs borrowed the word for an important man and made it into “Sheikh” – a Wise Man. As both archaeological finds and the great Hollywood movie “The 13th Warrior” with Antonio Banderas prove (OK, the latter may not be an entirely trustworthy historical source, but it sure is entertaining 🙂 ) there were widespread connections between the Arab and the Viking traders.

I am totally making this up, but it would be funny if some of this were true. We’ll never know 100%. It sure is fun to play Sherlock Homes, though, just by deducing how one word may lead to another….


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.





The meaning of life?… no deal. But a great deal of Saxons and Normans. Deal with it.

“Are you looking for a great deal?”, (i.e. “Are you looking for a bargain”), was translated as “Leder du efter en hel del?” which means “are you looking for a lot (of things)?”, which turns a simple sentence about a possible bargain to an almost profound-sounding quest for the meaning of a life.  [Should have been translated as: Leder du efter et godt tilbud?].
In this context it is interesting how “deal” in English can both mean “an amount” and “a bargain” leaving “a great deal” utterly ambigous, unless put in context. I have a theory about how this came about!
Most of us have seen Robin Hood in one incarnation or another on a TV or a movie screen. What is not clear from pretty much all adaption of the tale is that the Normans and the Saxons, the two parties to the pivotal 13th century conflict at the center of Robin Hood’s saga, did NOT both speak the same language, English, as the movies will have us believe. The conquering Normans, in fact, spoke French!
England remained a bi-lingual place for centuries thereafter with the commoners speaking Anglo-Saxon and the ruling classes Norman-French. The great impact of this, which we still carry with us in English to this day, is that in legal English we have the tradition of carrying both the Saxon and and the Norman words. Things like “Cease and desist”, “Null and void”, “Devise and bequeath”, “Last will and testament” are actually nothing else than repetitions of the same meaning, two synonyms, with two different words: one Saxon word (closest to German today), and one Norman word (closest to French today).
“And how does this relate to the two meanings of  the word “deal”, then?”, you might ask. Well, here’s my theory: another effect of the Saxon-Norman duality is that two entirely different-meaning, but similar-sounding, words from the two origins have become the same word (with dual meanings) in modern English. I think that “deal”, when meaning “amount, part”, is the English-spelled version of the modern German word “Teil”, meaning “Part, divide”. This meaning of “Deal” is also present in the verb “to deal” when it refers to cards in  a poker game. On the other hand, “deal”, when it means “trade, commerce”, comes from the French “commerce de détail”, which also has been twisted into “retail” in English. This meaning of deal is present in the verb “to deal (with it)” when it refers to a setback in life, i.e. try to make commerce out of something bad.
Now, wasn’t that interesting? Suddenly lingustics is like historical detective work…. 🙂