I never fail to be grateful for the fact that the Danes speak such good English. Of course I was less grateful when I was trying to learn the language. My first faltering attempts in a shop were always greeted with a condescending smile and an immediate response: “What is it you actually want?” I used to cook spare ribs for my husband’s dinner almost every night because it was the only name I could understand on the packet.
But now, 30 years later, when I earn my living from pointing out how Danish language and culture differs compared to other nationalities in my stand-up comedy performances, I couldn’t be more thankful for the Danes’ linguistic skills and, even more, their self-irony. Sometimes I can be quite merciless about their inability to be instantly friendly to newcomers, their rudeness when they drive cars and their impossibly difficult language – but they always laugh good-naturedly at my often exaggerated comments.
In my annual Crazy Christmas Cabaret show at Tivoli, I took it one step further when I created a character called Dr van Helsingør from Elsinore back in 1986. He is a Danish doctor (played by me) who dresses in a check suit, deerstalker hat, horn-rimmed glasses and has a full red beard. Not at all like a real Dane you may think, but actually he was modelled on the first Dane I ever met! A very nice red-bearded man who organised our first theatre tour around Denmark back in the ‘80s and who always wore – yes – you guessed it. He also spoke very precise English, which amused us a lot.
The doctor’s command of English is much worse than his real life counterpart. He makes dreadful mistakes and has the annoying habit of translating everything he says literally. “Hvordan har du det?” becomes “How are you having it? Are you having it good?” Followed by the shocked reply: “If you must know doctor, I haven’t had it at all lately: good or bad.” When the doctor, whose first name is Bent, found out his name is also a slang term in English for homosexual, he said: “Det kommer helt bag på mig. Errr … This is coming completely behind me!”
But of course, he is fictitious and bears little resemblance to real Danes who never make such mistakes, unless of course they are politicians. Villy Søvndal, the foreign minister, famously said: “Zeh ice is smelting at zeh pøwlz” … followed by “We have the possibility to make high girls (goals).” The Danes were quick to mock him for his hopeless English, which was more of a question of accent than grammar.
But why are the Danes such excellent linguists? I think one reason is because they don’t dub any of their imported movies or TV programmes. Unlike the French or the Germans, they’re not afraid to read subtitles. The first time I saw ‘Jurassic Park’ was in France. They all spoke French! Sam Neill sounded like Sarkozy stumbling along on his platform shoes. I expected T-rex and his dinosaur buddies to burst out of the jungle and roar: “Oooh la la! Les Americains! Tres bien! Bon Appetit!”
French is one thing, but James Bond in Danish? “Jeg hedder Bond, Yames Bond.” It doesn’t work for me. Or even worse, Clint Eastwood shouting: “LAV MIN DAG!” Even the Republicans wouldn’t cheer him for that!
No – let’s be happy the Danes speak terrific English (and French and German and Swedish) and not smile condescendingly if they make small mistakes once in a while or, for that matter, be too shocked when they pepper their conversation with our English swear words. I once tried to turn the tables on them and use their swear words. I said: “Satan! This is cancer-eating shit! For hell!” They looked horrified! But they happily use our F-word to their heart’s content.
But I shall not complain as long as they continue to appreciate my silly Danglish jokes. We all know Denmark is home to the best chefs in the world. And as the Danish word for a chef is a kok, it means the Danes are understandably proud of the fact that Danmark har de største kokker i hele verden. No wonder they appreciate my Danglish so much!