MacCarthy’s World | Getting the accent right

What’s wrong with a Dane having a Danish accent? Nothing whatsoever is the sensible response. It’s a rather silly question and one that wouldn’t be worth the paper it’s printed on were it not for the tizzy that politicians, commentators and the hoi polloi have worked themselves into these past several weeks over Villy Søvndal’s English language skills.

One cannot help but have a certain sympathy for the beleaguered foreign minister. They’ve really had him in the stocks. The Twittersphere has been buzzing; he’s been satirised on YouTube and ridiculed on newspaper chatboards for his perceived shortcomings in speaking the queen of languages. Opposition politicians have pitched in with caustic little sideswipes and patronising suggestions that he should sharpen up his English act – pronto.

In public, at least, Søvndal is laughing the whole thing off, saying that the mocking videos are quite funny. But he must have taken the flak to heart at some level because he has signed himself up for lessons at the Folketing’s language lab.

So – just another skirmish in a teacup then? Just another wave of harmless flap that we will all have forgotten about by this time next week? Well, no actually. This little ballyhoo is important for two reasons.

First, it’s obscuring the real political issues that should be focusing the minds of politicians and public alike. While everybody is busily sniggering at the foreign minister for his halting delivery and arcane vocabulary, serious political issues are popping up like mushrooms and going un-noticed.

Or if not entirely un-noticed, at least given short shrift on the front pages before making room for yet another dig at the foreign minister.

Across the Danish mediascape at the moment, the persistent recurrence of Villy-engelsk stories is matched only by Helle Thorning-Schmidt tax tales. Just like her foreign minister, the prime minister is being put through the blender with an unremitting stream of innuendo about her tax status – despite the fact that the tax authorities have long since cleared both herself and her husband of any misbehaviour. What’s even more surprising is the scant attention (aside from the initial media frenzy as the news broke) being paid to the forthcoming judicial tribunal that is investigating at least one former minister and his spin doctor over the suspected leaking of Thorning-Schmidt’s file to the tabloids.

Should this suspicion be confirmed, the eventual upshot could be an impeachment of the former Venstre minister. And this, says political commentator Hans Engell, would be the biggest political scandal to hit Denmark in decades, as it could reach the very heart of power.

Meanwhile, new evidence has emerged that Danish troops in Iraq might have acted illegally by handing over captured Iraqis to their own national authorities, thereby exposing them to the risk of torture – something that is explicitly forbidden under Danish law.

Then there’s the old case of the possibility that the former defence minister (also Venstre) carelessly leaked operational military secrets to the press. This, too, is being probed.

These are all serious matters. Deadly serious in some cases, and they deserve our attention. For the Danish press and the hordes of ‘civilian journalists’ blogging away in cyberspace, it’s all about getting the news ‘accent’ right. Here, I’m not referring to enunciation or idiom but to news priorities and emphasis. How we set the news accent. This must be solid and we must get it right.

Which brings us neatly back to the hoo-ha over Villy Søvndal’s English skills and the second reason why it is important: because it’s fake. It’s a trailer-load of filibuster about nothing – pure and simple.

Because I don’t give a hoot about how well or otherwise the foreign minister speaks my language. If I understand what he’s trying to convey, I’m more than happy. It’s the message not the medium that is important.

There are around 400 million native speakers of English in the world and the variations in accent and vocabulary between various countries and even between internal regions can be extreme.
But I’ve yet to meet an educated native English speaker of any nationality using a non-native’s beginner-level English as a weapon with which to beat him.

And yes, Søvndal’s English is halting and could use a dollop of polish, but this is no barrier to communication. In the 26 years I’ve been in Denmark, I have heard numerous politicians and public speakers mangle my language in a multitude of ways. But this doesn’t matter a jot as long as I grasp their purpose.

So for any Danish politicians out there who might be reading this, here’s a message: take my language and abuse it. Crunch it and mulch it and do new things with it. Invent new words if you will – I really won’t be bothered. But if you don’t drop the nonsense about pronunciation and get down to real politics, I shall be very cross indeed. And so will your voters.

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