LINGUISTIC BRIEFING
Holding Up, And So Further

Jan. 19 - Molli's teething is taking its toll on us—the way a hammer takes its toll on nails. I'm so tired right now I don't even know if "taking one's toll on" is a legitimate expression. The inside of my head is a wreck (and it's no picnic on a good day). But Molli just nodded off so I'm going to take a stab at this...

We were at a name-giving party on Sunday when Trine introduced me to a young woman who looked vaguely familiar and had a name out of a Shakespearean comedy. (I don't mean it was a funny name, I mean I think the only place I've ever seen the name before was literally in a Shakespearean comedy.) They'd been speaking in rapid-fire Danish, but slowed down to accommodate me.

The young woman was Romanian. We had last met at a party at her house not long after Trine and I were married in 2003. At that time, Trine recalled, the woman hadn't spoken any Danish. She was now fluent. Trine emphasized the point strongly: in the 16 months since we last spoke to her, she's mastered the language.

We asked her how she'd done it. She explained that she'd gone to classes for six months—enough to become sort of haltingly conversational, as I am now—but had then become bored with the language school.

"So I decided to hell with it," she explained (in seamless Danish). "I knew enough Danish to learn the rest on my own. So I just started talking in Danish. And I'd be in conversations where I had no idea what was being said, or hardly any idea. So what? As long as I listened, I learned. And I'd say the stupidest things, pronounce things all wrong, but so what? People would correct me. Or maybe they wouldn't. Who cares? The only way I was going to learn how to say it right was to say it wrong until I finally got it right anyway. If you make mistakes, you make mistakes. The important thing is just to talk, just talk and talk and talk."

This aroused my competitive dander.

"I could do that," I said. "I could try just talking and talking and talking in Danish."

"You should," Trine said.

"It's easy," the young woman said. "Just don't let yourself get frustrated, even if the people you're talking to get a little irritated. It's not about them. It's about you."

"We have to speak more Danish at home," Trine said.

"I could do that," I said. And, inspired by the young Romanian's example, I decided I would henceforth speak only Danish among Danes. (It's probably worth adding that she was a very pretty young Romanian, and prettiness and shining youth are two things that may have helped her solicit the indulgence of her interlocutors but probably won't help me much.)

For the rest of the afternoon at the party I spoke only Danish with Danes, even when I could tell they wanted to reach down my throat and pull complete sentences out of me while I stammered over rudimentary nouns.

I kept it up with Trine and her sister as we walked home afterwards. I kept it up the rest of that day, and most of Monday, and some of Tuesday. It does seem to be helping my Danish, but it's wreaking havoc on my thought process—a thought process which, as I've mentioned, is already a little scrambled thanks to Molli-induced sleep deprivation.

I find the strangest sentences wandering through my head, and sometimes I actually say them.

For example, as yesterday's rains began to subside, I observed that it looked as though "the rain is finally holding up."

"It's what?" asked Trine, to whom I was speaking on the telephone. (She'd been kind enough to allow me some English language conversation.)

"Holding up," I said. On repetition, it sounded suddenly suspicious. "That's English, isn't it?"

I could hear Trine thinking on the other end of the line. "I don't think so," she finally said.

Eventually we realized that I'd mixed up "letting up," as in "the rain is finally letting up," with the Danish expression "at holde op," or to stop.

"Regnet holder op," a Dane might say: the rain is stopping.

When I related the story to a British classmate in Studieskolen Tuesday night, I anticipated a little sympathy. I got none. She had never heard the expression "letting up" and assured me that most Brits would just say, "It's stopped pissing." (I've tried to imagine Queen Elizabeth saying this, which has been very entertaining.)

That's just one thin example of the rampant cross-fertilization of language popping off in my head right now. It's strange to me that I seem to be able to write fairly smooth English despite the fact that my spoken English is deteriorating so badly. It makes me wonder if any research has been done on the different cognitive faculties required for spoken and written language.

Is my writing voice not the same as my speaking voice? I've always assumed they were the same. That is, I've always struggled to keep them the same, since, as a playwright and colloquialist in general, my aim has been to reflect spoken language in my writing. (There's nothing worse than watching a play where all the characters are speaking like English majors. Or worse: philosophy majors.) The fact that one has to struggle to make written sense of things that one could rattle out of one's mouth without hesitation probably tells the story.

But I don't worry too much about the deterioration of my spoken English, because I suspect that as my Danish gets better and I begin speaking either pure Danish or pure English as the occassion requires, rather than hopping back and forth as my limitations dictate, it'll return. And it doesn't really matter over here anyway, since English in continental Europe is a mishmash language whose usage varies from soul to soul. It's a shock to the system when you first begin to live here and encounter shoddy grammar and awkward usage in quarters where you expect to see something slick and professional (in advertising, for example, or locally-published English-language newspapers); but once you get used to it, you only notice the most egregious errors.

("Egregious" is a word I actually do sometimes use in conversation, which is just one of the things that makes me such an annoying bastard to talk to. It's the kind of word I doubt I'll ever learn in Danish. And I don't know if I could actually delineate the difference between an "error" and a "mistake." So in Danish I would just say "alvorlige fejl," which means "serious mistakes." Unless the plural of fejl is fejle or fejler, which it may well be, in which case it would be "alvorlige fejle" or "alvorlige fejler.")

The whole point of this is that, as you've probably noticed, I'm aswim in language right now and just burned half an hour grinding this nonsense out while I could have been sleeping. And Molli's waking up, so now my opportunity is lost.

* * *

[The "And So Further" part of this post's headline come from the Danish expression og så videre, literally "and so further," typically abbreviated to o.s.v. and used the way we use the Latinate etc, for "et cetera," meaning "and so forth." Danes tend to use Danish abbreviations where we would use Latin, which is just one more source of confusion. As another example, they use "d.v.s." (det vil sige, or, literally, "that wants to say") instead of the Latinate i.e., or "id est," meaning "that (or it) is." Isn't this fun? We could do this all day. I bet you're glad Molli's waking up...]

* * *

January 19 is the birthday of Junior Seau (1969), Desi Arnaz, Jr. (1953), Dolly Parton (1946), Shelley Fabares (1944), Janis Joplin (1943), Tippi Hedren (1931), Jean Stapleton (1923), Paul Cezanne (1839), Edgar Allan Poe (1809), and Robert E. Lee (1807).

Happy Hump Day!

© 2005, The Moron's Almanac™

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