That Danish Sucking Sound

Oct. 6 - Danes suck. I mean that in the most literal way, but without any pornographic innuendo. In conversation, many Danes will frequently preface an empathetic ja with a sharp, sudden intake of air—a physiological phenomenon that those of us who aren't trying to impress anyone like to refer to as "sucking." Some Danes will even express agreement by making this inverted little gasp without appending an audible ja.

Most Danes I've asked about it—even those who do it the most often—have no idea what I'm talking about.

"We suck?" they ask, bewildered. "How?"

And I suck a little air in, like a stoner taking that last little hit before passing the joint, and go "ja." And they look at me as if I've lost my mind. (Assuming they weren't looking at me that way to begin with.) Trine herself thought I was crazy when I mentioned it.

Once while we were in the hospital this summer a nurse came in and did the sucking-sound-yes about fifteen times in half as many minutes. I could barely keep a straight face. Surely Trine couldn't have missed that performance!

"Did you catch that?" I asked when the nurse had left the room.

"Catch what?" Trine asked.

"All those sucky little yeses."

"You're out of your mind," she said.

We left it at that. It was, after all, how most of our conversations end anyway. I began telling myself I was observing something that wasn't actually there; I was obviously exaggerating some slight feature of Danish pronunciation. I had probably blown the whole sucking thing out of proportion.

But imagine you move to a new country. You're struggling to understand the culture. You notice people sticking their tongues out whenever they say "maybe."

"Feel like seeing a movie tonight?" you ask one of them.

"Maybe," they say—their tongue darting abruptly out of their mouth and just as suddenly retreating.

"What was that?" you ask.

"What was what?"

"The thing with your tongue?"

"What thing with my tongue?"

"The thing where you stuck it out after you said maybe."

"Why would I do that?"

"That's what I'm asking."

"But I didn't do it!"

This situation repeats itself over and over, until at last you begin to believe them. It's like the Emperor's New Clothes in reverse. "You're naked!" shout the peasants. "I'm clothed in royal garb!" declares the king—over and over and over, until eventually the peasants get tired of the whole thing and get back to their back-breaking lives of monotonous toil. "Your king's naked," visitors point out. "He's dressed in royal garb," the peasants reply automatically.

So I not only gave up the whole line of inquiry: I began the never-too-difficult task of persuading myself to believe something that flew in the face of empirical observation. And I was actually getting pretty close to succeeding.

Then, just a few days ago, one of my Studieskolen classmates spoke up during a break while the teacher was out of the room.

"What's up with that little breath she's always taking before she says yes?" asked my Polish classmate.

"The Danish suck!" I exclaimed.

Poland lit up at once. "You've noticed it, too?"

"They all do it!" I said.

"It's true! But if you ask about it they look at you like..."

"I know, I know!"

It was a great moment of personal vindication. Our other classmates said they, too, had noticed the Danish suck. And all of us, when asking our Danish loved ones about it, had been completely shut down.

I don't know if Swedes do it. I don't know if Norwegians do it. I don't know if Lithuanians or Letts do it—but Danes do it.

* * *

I've been trying to think of an American parallel, and the only thing I can think of is the way people of my generation and younger tend to preface remarks in certain situations with the absolutely meaningless phrase, "No, yeah, I mean..."

For example:

"Algebra sucks. I hate that class."

"No, yeah, I mean, algebra totally blows."

My theory on this particular usage is that it's an incoherently abbreviated way of saying "I know, yes, let me elaborate upon my agreement with you..."

"I know" became "know," which eventually became "no."

"Yes" became "yeah," as it almost always does.

The remainder was scrapped for the much easier "I mean," which means nothing. I mean, it doesn't mean anything.

So we run around saying, "no, yeah, I mean..." when we could just as well strike the whole awkward phrase. In fact, it's so meaningless that it doesn't communicate anything except a desire to buy a little time in which to formulate actual thoughts. That may not sound like much, but it's certainly better than going, "umm..." or "er..."

But I have no theory on the mysterious Danish suck. Any Danes or resident udlændinge who can (or think they can) offer an explanation are candidly implored to do so.

Great Moments in Lit Crit

October 6 is the anniversary of one of the greatest moments in the history of literary criticism. It was on that date in 1536 that William Tyndale was recognized for his important contribution to world literature—the first translation of the New Testament into English—by being strangled and burned at the stake.

Ah, when men were men, women were women, and critics were murderous, torch-wielding fanatics!

* * *

Today is Armed Forces Day in Egypt and Ivy Day in Ireland. (Ivy Day is not a horticultural celebration. The date marks the anniversary of the 1891 death of Irish nationalist Charles Stewart Parnell; Irish favoring home rule traditionally pin a bit of ivy to their lapels in his honor. Ivy Day should not be confused with I.V. Day, celebrated only by drips.)

Elisabeth Shue turns 41 today. She shares her birthday with Britt Ekland (1942), Thor Heyerdahl (1914), Carole Lombard (1908), Le Corbusier (1887), and George Westinghouse (1846).

Happy Hump Day!

© 2004, The Moron's Almanac™

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