The Moron's Daily Briefing

Apr. 28 - It's got to be a bummer of a birthday for Saddam Hussein, who, if he's still alive, would be celebrating his 66th today. It's also the birthday of Jay Leno (1950), Ann-Margret (1941), and James Monroe (1758).

It's Flag Day in the Åland Islands, an "autonomous, demilitarized, and unilingually Swedish province of Finland." The Å in Åland is a letter one also finds in Danish.

It's pronounced more or less like a hard O in English, and was not so long ago represented by two As. The Danish skål ("cheers"), for example, pronounced (almost) to rhyme with bowl or coal, would have once been written skaal. The change occurred in the 1940s, and caused enormous political upheaval. (Enormous political upheaval was not unusual in Nazi-occupied nations.) Some cities, like Aalborg, refused to play along with the trendy new letter and kept their old spelling. (Aalborg is best known outside Denmark for their Aqvavit.) Others, like Århus, embraced it in their mad rush toward a better future.

Even today, Danes in America will sometimes use aa for å when they're writing on American rather than Danish keyboards. Americans in Denmark will sometimes use å for any variety of letters or symbols because their American fingers can't adapt to the freakish Danish keyboard layout.

Å is just one of three letters, all vowels, that appear in the Danish alphabet but not our superior American one. The other two are ø and æ, the former of which is pronounced "eu," with the hint of an r at the end, and the latter of which is prounounced almost like "eh."

The Ø is especially important because it's the first letter in øl ("beer"), a word that appears in virtually every Danish sentence. (For example, "Hello, would you like a beer?") It's also a word in itself, meaning "island." It's not surprising that a nation of drunken vikings would have wanted a short, simple word for island--and something not much longer for beer.

In addition to these three Nordic vowels, the Danish language is further designed to frustrate the American vocal system by switching all the other vowels around, so that A is most often pronounced like a soft E, I is most often pronounced as a hard E, Y is pronounced as a sharp U, E is pronounced like either a soft A or a soft I, and so on. The end result is that one quickly learns how to pantomime.

Even the art of miming isn't always enough to prevent embarrassment. I was drinking beer on our patio one recent evening when a child of about eight popped her head above the fence next door and said, "Hi." (She would have spelled it hej, but she's just a child.)

"Hi," I said, with the traditional American spelling.

At that point the waif unleashed a spastic torrent of language that triggered my ignorance reflex. "I don't speak Danish," I said in Danish.

This works well with adults, who will understand that what you actually mean is, "I only speak enough Danish to say that I don't speak any Danish." To a child, however, this is preposterous. If you can say you can't speak Danish in Danish, then you're clearly lying.

The girl continued to babble at me, but my vacuous expression eventually succeeded in persuading her that, even if I spoke a little Danish, I was obviously far too stupid to hear it. She asked me in Swedish if I spoke Swedish, in German if I spoke German, and in Norwegian if I spoke Norwegian. This struck me as a little showoffy, so I told her in French that I spoke a little French. She was unimpressed.

A friend now appeared beside her, a boy of about the same age. She seemed to be telling him about our language difficulties. After a few moments, the boy pointed to the narrow patio of the neighbor that lived between us. He began instructing me in Danish. He tried to explain the difference between "here" and "there," between "this and that," and between "over and under." He was pointing and gesticulating madly.

I grappled mightily with his prepositional instruction. I tried to hone my pronunciation. But as well as I pronounced the words, he continued to strike his own forehead with the palm of his hand, laugh, and roll his eyes at the girl beside him. Apparently I wasn't making much progress. I redoubled my efforts. "This," I said in something that might have passed for Danish among people who didn't speak it, and I pointed at my beer. "That. Herefrom. Thereto. Over. Under." I tried to pantomime each word as I spoke it. The children stared back at me wide-eyed and bewildered.

By now my conversation had penetrated into the depths of our apartment. The DMB came out and hurled a little Danish right back at the little snobs. The girl spoke a short, simple sentence of Danish, and they all three began laughing hysterically. The DMB crossed to the patio between us, picked up a little rubber ball, and tossed it over to them. They thanked her, offered the customary Danish farewell of "Hi! Hi!" and disappeared behind the fence.

"Your Danish is really coming along," the DMB said, and she went back into the apartment.

© 2002, The Moron's Almanac™

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