“We are not French, you know?”—the sharp rebuke of a Danish colleague on whether to use sauce or sovs to indicate a universally-loved saline gloop. Both are established words in Danish, but using the former French spelling apparently suggests something rather unpalatable and ‘un-Danish’. And yet, the speaker mouthed the dismissal while completely indifferent to his daily usage of Anglicisms (and the fact that English uses the exact same French spelling).
Anglicisms are by no means a new phenomenon, but over the last few decades they have transformed themselves from being a damp patch on the ceiling of the Danish language, to a glaring ominous stain, growing apace, with intent to engulf the native language’s slidt og hvidt Scandi beauty entirely. Or so some would have you think.
Using Danish as an example, this article hopes to highlight how new linguistic inventions like Anglicisms are ubiquitous, inevitable, and often transient: rather than corrupting a language, they serve to enrich it, allowing it to constantly develop as an optimal communicative tool.
Anglicisms in Denmark
When we speak of Anglicisms, we are mainly focused with the use of loan words and linguistic borrowings: English words which are adopted or transformed, or have a systemic and semantic impact on the domestic words and phrases of a non-English language. Within the Danish context, Anglicisms mainly fall into the following categories identified by linguist Henrik Gottlieb:
Active Anglicisms – these include borrowing English words to give new meaning (e.g. the morpheme super-), direct translations of English phrases (være ned med – ‘to be down with’ or hænge ud – ‘hang out’), using English to form hybrid words (computerskærn – ‘computer screen’), incorrect adoptions (fit for fight instead of ‘fighting fit’), or creating pseudo-Anglicisms (such as the constantly-used hooking in hit Norwegian TV show SKAM to indicate kissing someone).
Reactive Anglicisms – this can be seen where existing Danish words gain a new meaning (overhøre – originally ‘fail to hear’), in the adoption of English punctuation and anglicised spelling or formation (nedtone changing to tone ned for ‘tone down’), and anglicising the pronunciation of Danish words.
Code Shifting / Switching – one of the most interesting to overhear, this sees the fluttering between Danish and English within single sentences, usually in the adoption of popular English phrases, bilingual wordplay and, of course, expletives.
However light-hearted such Anglicisms seem, some linguists believe that they pose a serious threat to domestic languages, and that by failing to intervene with measures to protect linguistic purity, many societies are set to lose an important part of their cultural heritage.
The purity myth
Firstly, we need to recognise that the call for linguistic protection fundamentally misunderstands language as a form, since it assumes that a static, essential version of a language can ever exist. By nature, languages are fluid social constructions, which bend and adapt to accommodate the needs of different users over time. They constantly respond to contact with other societies and the need to communicate new phenomena, as well as to define existing concepts more precisely.
Let’s ignore a protracted history of borrowing from the English language for a moment. If we follow the purist mentality to its logical end, in the case of Danish, we would need to start by cutting out elements of Low and High German—which together make up nearly 25% of Danish—and revert to a language form spoken before the 15th century.
Arrogant and regressive, the approach fails to acknowledge that language formation is an on-going process and not something that happens at one definite point in time. As products of diverse and entangled social interactions, it is misguided to think that languages can ever symbolise pure, fixed cultural identities. In its truest sense, it must be recognised that “a pure language is a fossilised one” (Gottlieb, 2005).
An exercise in cultural oppression
The pursuit of linguist purisms is also latent with dangerous socio-political implications, since it necessarily positions a single variety of a culture’s expression as owning greater quality or value than others. It lends itself to the promotion of homogenised culture above diversity by discrediting the legitimacy of vernaculars and the languages of sub-cultures.
It is particularly interesting to see how modern Danes retain a certain animosity towards the German language but are relatively accommodating of English, which some linguists link to the fact that many German loans entered into the Danish language against a background of German conquest. The use of violence and oppression, it seems, does not endear people to adopt certain cultural practices, including language.
By contrast, the ‘anglification’ of the Danish language that we are currently witnessing seems to be something that is actively chosen and is associated with positive cultural interaction. Whilst it could be argued that the context in which this is taking place is one of ‘soft imperialism’, of Anglo-American culture, it must be noted that Anglicisms are also the product of a voluntary interaction with the English language. People are picking and choosing what appeals to them to reach more nuanced and personalised self-expression, and deciding if they accept that culture’s values.
And it is the grassroots nature of the modern adoption of Anglicisms that flags the sheer inappropriateness of any top-down calls for linguistic purism. As Gottlieb notes “only fortress-like isolation and severe anti-English sanctions” could enable any such idea of a protected Danish language. The ridiculousness of such a policy is no better exemplified than in the attempt of the French government in 2013 to replace the word ‘hashtag’ with the Gallic substitute ‘mot-dièse’. Predictably, people have continued to use the established and preferred Anglicism in spite of the authorities’ wishes.
Democratic by design
The French ‘hashtag’ case reveals an important feature of language which purism actively works against—at its core, language is a tool for expression and should be as user-friendly and relevant as possible to meet the adapting communicative needs of a society. In an attempt to rationalise the adoption of Anglicisms, Pia Jarvad (1995) has categorised the main functions of Anglicisms in Danish as follows: to verbalise new phenomena, specialise, express emotions, creatively play with language, and promote values.
She also found that Anglicisms are used to signal membership or rejection of different social groups and attitudes— just as using the French spelling of sauce would seemingly align you with an unbearable level of pretence. There is certainly an important self-curating element to the use of Anglicisms, and many Danes adopt them to project a sophisticated, well-travelled, and cultured persona. In many instances, Anglicisms are used as mere stylistic devices to decorate speech, rather than as prime vessels of informational value. Purists will be interested to learn that, according to Gottlieb’s research, the average Danish speaker ‘still often prefers using words that sound “native” rather than foreign’ in everyday communication, opting for translations of loanwords over direct borrowings.
Acknowledging the functional purpose of language, purists can also breathe a sigh of relief in learning that many Anglicisms have extremely short lifespans. If we adopt the view that Anglicisms are “exotic pictures on the walls of the world’s national language galleries” (Gottlieb, 2005), we must also recognise that trends and tastes are subject to change. The Danish use of slacks in the 1960s in reference to ladies’ trousers, for example, has all but died out. Since language adapts to capture and reflect a particular cultural zeitgeist (a German word borrowed by English!), many Anglicisms used today will also outlive their use—the ubiquitous English world selfie is perhaps no larger a threat to Danish as hygge is to the English language.
Instead of trying to artificially capture the sense of a ‘pure’ language, we should instead recognise the intrinsic value linguistic inventions like Anglicisms bring to the table. Whether you choose to lay them on thick or opt for a light drizzle, in the interests of language development, don’t skimp on the sauce entirely.
Hietaranta, Pertti, ‘Domestication and Foreignisation’, in Fischer, Roswitha and Hanna Pulaczewska (eds.), Anglicisms in Europe: Linguistic Diversity in a Global Context, Cambridge Schollars Publishing, 2008
Johansson, Stig and Graedler, Anne-Line, ‘Anglicisms in Nowegian: When and Where?’, in Anderman, Gunilla and Margaret Rogers, In and Out of English: For Better, For Worse?, Multilingual Matters Ltd., 2005
Gottlieb, Henrik, ‘Anglicisms and Translation’, in Anderman, Gunilla and Margaret Rogers, In and Out of English: For Better, For Worse?, Multilingual Matters Ltd., 2005
Gottlieb, Henrik, ‘Echoes of English’, in Nordic Journal of English Studies, Special Issue, Vol. 3, No.2, 2004
Jarvad, Pia, Nye ord — hvorfor og hvordan?, København: Gyldendal, 1995