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Why you shouldn't be surprised to hear Danish children say the F word

Elizabeth Anne Brown
Elizabeth Anne Brown - [email protected]
Why you shouldn't be surprised to hear Danish children say the F word
The language used by Danish schoolgoers might make your eyes water, but swear words loaned from English can sound less harsh in other languages. File photo: Mads Claus Rasmussen/Ritzau Scanpix

Newcomers to Denmark are often struck by how often they hear what we fondly call the “F-word” on the street—particularly from young children.


So what the f*ck is going on? To find out, the Local Denmark spoke to Henrik Gottlieb, a linguist at the University of Copenhagen who studies the influence of English on other languages.

“Taboo words that are imported in any language tend to lose their edges,” Gottlieb explained—and that applies to taboos on both ends of the spectrum.

“The Danes are very, let’s say, shy about showing their feelings too much,” he added. “We don’t usually say ‘jeg elsker dig’ (‘I love you’) very much. Whereas we hear people saying ‘I love you’ all the time in American films—very often just meaning ‘goodbye.’ So we have a feeling that these words are already devalued.”

Similarly, the f-word is omnipresent in American music, tv and movies, so while it’s considered cool by association it doesn’t have the same bite as Danish curses. Another advantage is that f*ck is simply an incredibly versatile curse, Gottlieb says. It can be used as virtually every part of speech—noun (you stupid f*ck), verb (f*ck you), adjective (this f*cking guy), etc.

A recent scholarly article examined the use of the word ‘f*cking’ in “Ex on the Beach,” a Danish reality tv show spun off from a UK title of the same name in which singles looking for love are confronted by (you guessed it) their exes on a beach.

This latest article is of part a surprisingly thorough body of linguistic scholarship on “Ex on The Beach” after the Danish Language Board, or Dansk Sprognævn, compiled transcripts of all words spoken in seasons 1-3 for study—it’s clearly a rich text.


Researcher Thrine Victoria Jarnot Meline found that 82 percent of the uses of f*cking in “Ex on The Beach” were as adverbs—as in “I’m f*cking looking forward to it”—to emphasise excitement, annoyance or anger.

Meline concludes that compared to studies on Danish youth in 2010, “something has changed in the last 10 years or so: young people in Ex on The Beach use English swear words more, including f*cking.”

Subs or dubs

But why don’t English speakers hear the f-word sprinkled quite so liberally on the streets of other European capitals?

A big factor is how English-language media is presented to Danish audiences, Gottlieb explained. Production houses for internationally-released movies generally produce dubbed versions—or versions in which the audio is re-recorded in a different language—for large language cohorts like Spanish-speaking audiences. In a dubbed version, curse words like the f-word are translated to a local equivalent or softened to a “lesser” word to accommodate cultural differences. So while a Spanish teen would hear Samuel L. Jackson say “hijo de puta,” a Danish teen would see a Danish translation but hear Jackson’s original “motherf*cker.”

This phenomenon isn’t unique to Denmark. “All the minor speech communities—that is, countries with less than 25 million people—tend to subtitle foreign productions,” Gottlieb explained.


Gottlieb is a contributor to the Global Anglicism Database Network, which compiles the English loan words used in various languages (but not Spanish). While the Danish language boasts many colourful entries in the F-U-C section, a printed Spanish language dictionary that Gottlieb had on hand listed none, jumping straight from “frost” to “fuel.”

“I know the guy who wrote that dictionary,” Gottlieb said. “He’s not afraid of swear words.”

The future of f*ck

Gottlieb isn’t worried that f*ck will drive the Danish home-grown equivalents to extinction.

Danish’s many colourful curses are alive and well, including some that have no equivalent in English—like kraftedeme, or “may cancer eat me.”


“Maybe f*ck and all the other f*ck-friends—you know, f*ck off and all these expressions—will die out when they have lost their bite,” Gottlieb said. “They may become slightly irrelevant in 10 or 20 years.”

“Youth will use these very spicy expressions more than older people, which has always been the case,” Gottlieb said. And while Danish kids and teens may play fast and loose with f*ck, there are limits to what they’re allowed to say. Gottlieb pointed to incidents in which children called their teachers a pejorative term meaning sexworker—those kids faced consequences.

READ ALSO: How did the Danish language end up with its crazy numbers?



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