Life On Frederiksberg

May 18 - In the April 27 bloggish, I spoke about the underrated importance of prepositions. An American woman with a Danish boyfriend wrote me to share a similar (and better) tale of prepositions gone wrong. She was kind enough to allow me to share her story with you.

My DBF [Danish boyfriend] and I had gone to the Fourth of July festival at Rebild Bakken (since we were already visiting his folks in Vejle, and it seemed to be a sort of cool Danish/American thing to do). A lot of beer was involved and, as I am the Kidney Queen, this translated into many, many trips to the porto-john. On one trip, I found myself on line behind a woman with a small child. As they went in I thought, "Terrific. This is gonna take a while." A few moments later, an elderly Danish woman got on line behind me.

[nb: the fact that half of the Anglophonic world waits "on line" while the rest of us wait "in line" suggests just how capricious prepositional usage can be. -ed.]

Centuries passed. I crossed my legs. The woman behind me crossed her legs. After a few more minutes, she glanced at me with a questioning look toward the occupied facility. I smiled and helpfully explained, "Hun har et barn derind [she has a child in there]." She looked confused and a little alarmed—by my terrible accent, I assumed—so I tried again: "Kvinden har et barn derind [the woman has a child in there]." She was still looking at me strangely when, mercifully, the woman and child emerged, and I left her with a cheery "hej hej!"

Later, feeling rather pleased with myself for having made contact in Danish (in spite of numerous but diplomatic suggestions to hold off on doing so) I told the story to the DBF, mentioning in passing the strange look my accent had gleaned. He laughed and shook his head. Then he explained that I'd left out the "med" (with)—which, in this case, makes a big difference in the meaning of the sentence. A brief mental review of my limited Danish grammar brought the embarrassing realization that I'd just casually informed an unsuspecting Danish pensioner that a woman was having a child in a porto-potty. (And, to make it even stupider, it seems I hadn't even said that correctly, since it's apparently a different turn of phrase in Danish.) My only consolation was that my horrifying (uhyggelig?) American accent must surely have marked me as a foreigner rather than a lunatic.

In rereading this story as I pasted it in and added my editorial notes it strikes me that this is not merely a problem of prepositions: it's a problem with Danish verb conjugation.

The one magnificent thing about learning Danish is that the verbs conjugate quite simply. Take, for example, at spise, or "to eat." As in English, the imperative (spis!) and infinitive (at spise) are unchanging, regardless of their usage. But the Danes have only one present tense, and the verb is conjugated the same no matter what the subject. In other words, spiser, spelled just like that, is the verb you'd use in all of the following sentences:

I eat. (Jeg spiser.)
She eats. (Hun spiser.)
They are eating. (De spiser.)
He is eating. (Han spiser.)

Similarly, the past tense (spiste) can mean either "ate" or "was eating." Lastly there's just one form for all the "perfect" tenses: spist is used (with either havde or har), for phrases such as "have eaten," "had eaten," "have been eating," "had been eating," and so on.

This is, on the one hand, extremely helpful. The conjugation of a Danish verb requires no knowledge at all of the subject for whom it's being conjugated, and there are only five variants of every verb, even the most irregular.

On the other hand, it's incredibly vague to the native speaker of American English. It almost certainly contributed to my American correspondent's problem. Hun har et barn derind doesn't just mean, "She has a child in there." It also means, "She is having a child in there."

* * *

But it's still the prepositions that cause the most trouble. In terms of living, for example, one typically says (in Danish) that one lives in a given city or town. "I live in Chicago," "I live in L.A.," "I live in Kalamazoo." But if the name of the city or town happens to include certain nouns—hill, for example—you must say you live on () your town. That is why I must always say I live on Frederiksberg, rather than in (i) it—because berg means hill. That may sound reasonable, but it's not entirely consistent. Copenhageners live in Copenhagen, but consider: København literally means "Merchants' Harbor," so although one lives on a hill, one apparently is supposed to live in a harbor.

Which suggests that perhaps Copenhageners are all wet.

* * *

Incidentally, we've had a few additions to our Studieskolen class this session: we've been joined by Russia, Israel, and one other nation I didn't catch. The geopolitics of the classroom get more interesting all the time—which is probably why the one thing we never, ever talk about is politics.

Dagens Ord

There are two words of the day today: niece, meaning niece (go figure), and svigerfar, meaning father-in-law. That's because today is the birthday of my lovely niece, Hannah, who's turning seven, and my father-in-law Gert—who's somewhat older.

Frank & Jimmy

Frank Capra was born on this date in 1897. Almost born on the same date in 1908, but born on May 20 instead, was Jimmy Stewart. Without them we would not have had such American classics as "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "Mr. Smith Goes Back to Washington," "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington Again," "Mr. Smith Remains in Washington," "Mr. Smith Feels Your Pain," "Mr. Smith is Really Very Serious about Term Limits," and, "Mr. Smith Drops Dead in Senate Chamber."

The duo also gave us "It's a Wonderful Life" with its own magnificent sequels: "It's a Really Wonderful Life," "It Just Doesn't Get Any Better Than Life," and "Life Is Just So Damn Good I Don't Know Whether to Shit or Go Blind."

Birthdays and Holidays

Frank Capra, Hannah, and Gert share their birthday with Chow Yun-Fat (1955), Reggie Jackson (1946), Pope John Paul II (1920), Perry Como (1912), and Walter Gropius (1883).

It's Flag and University Day in Haiti, Social Development Day in Niger, St. Erik's Day in Sweden, Las Piedras Day in Uruguay, and the Pope's Birthday in Vatican City. (As to his age, if you have to ask to don't wanna know.)

Happy Tuesday!

© 2004, The Moron's Almanac™

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