DAILY BRIEFINGBig Må
May 25 - Disclaimer: I am neither a linguist nor philologist, neither professionally nor as an amateur hobbyist. My mastery of English grammar is negligible and my grasp of Danish grammar is routinely questioned by toddlers. Readers are strongly advised to ignore anything I say about any language beyond Ubbi-Dubbi, which I still speak pretty well.
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Today's bloggish is also today's dagens ord, or word of the day. That word is må.
All right, you're probably thinking (unless you speak Danish), how about a definition? That's the problem. It means "may." It also means "must." This, in a language whose etiquette is already hobbled by the absence of a word for "please."
Deployed incorrectly, an innocuous offer such as "May I help you?" can suddenly become a sneering "Must I help you?" A polite nothingness such as, "You may finish the cake," becomes a weirdly imperial command.
This is problematic. The entire Danish language is problematic, but this is problematic with steel-toed boots. (Mark Twain once observed that once the German language gets hold of a cat, it's goodbye cat. The Danish language could kill a cat by remote control.)
I expressed my frustrations to our Studieskolen teacher last week. She told me—correctly if unhelpfully—to stop trying to map Danish to English.
"The words don't line up," she explained. And it's not just må. There are three other modal (or "helping") verbs with ambiguous edges:
Skal can mean "shall" or "should" but it can also mean "must." It's also frequently used to connote movement, even without the presence of other verbs. Jeg skal til..., for example, means "I'm going to" or "I'm on my way to." Movement can also be expressed with tager, or "to take." Ask me where I'm going, and I can tell you "I shall to school" or "I take to the doctor." Want to come along? Merely ask, "Shall I with?"
Kan can mean "can" or "could" or or even (not translating to literally) "do." Danes will probably deny that, but a sentence such as "Kan du godt lide sild?" is best translated not literally ("Can you well suffer herring?") but qualitatively ("Do you like herring?"). In these "qualitative" translations I find myself using "do" for kan very often.
Vil can mean "want" or "will" or "would." Vil du have en kop kaffe? could mean "Will you have a cup of coffee?", but it could also mean "You want a cup of coffee?" As my teacher made clear, there's simply no difference between the two ideas in Danish. You're being asked simultaneously if you want a cup and if you will have a cup. But that's inaccurate, also, because there isn't any difference in the Danish mind. You can't translate a response like "I want to, but I won't" directly into Danish, because "det vil jeg, men det vil jeg ikke" makes no sense to anyone outside a lunatic asylum. To say that you want something is to say you wish to have it—is quite literally to say you will it. (Which is why they have gerne, a funny little word that means almost nothing by itself but is tossed around with vil to indicate a preference or desire. So maybe you could say, Jeg vil gerne have en kop kaffe, men det vil jeg ikke. —I would like to have a cup of coffee, but I won't. Even then, you'd probably just get a bug-eyed stare in return.)
Now think how often you use the words can, could, may, must, should, shall, want, would, and will. Imagine none of those words existed. Instead, you have to choose from one of four words, each of which partially overlaps at least some of the others and none of which corresponds exactly to the word you would have used in the past. Ask yourself how long you could sustain the effort without taking recourse to whiskey, opiates, or blunt instruments.
Factor in a little light-induced insomnia (it's dark less than five hours a day now), a pregnant wife, and congenital incompatibility with the metric system—and there I stand.
So cut me some slack.
Hairy Red Asses
On May 25, 1925, John Scopes was indicted for teaching evolution in school. Evolution was a theory put forth by Charles Darwin, whose boat was named "the Beagle." People objected to this theory, which put forth the proposition that mankind had evolved from life forms with hairy red asses. This resulted in the famous Scopes Monkey Trial, in which Spencer Tracy gave a long monologue that changed everyone's minds even though it was so darn hot in the courtroom.
It is now commonly accepted as fact that mankind evolved from life forms with hairy red asses, a proposition that anyone who's been to the beach lately shouldn't find too hard to accept.
Anne Heche turns 35 today and shares her birthday with Frank Oz (1944), Miles Davis (1926), Claude Akins (1918), and Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803).
It's Africa Day in Africa, Revolution Day in Argentina, and Independence Day in Jordan.
© 2004, The Moron's Almanac