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

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.

A file photo of Danish school students.
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

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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‘Don’t take it personally’: Word ‘Anglophobia’ added to Denmark’s dictionary

‘Anglophobia’ was one of 252 new words added to the Danish Dictionary on Friday.

'Don’t take it personally': Word 'Anglophobia' added to Denmark's dictionary

The Danish Dictionary (Den Danske Ordbog) received an update on Friday with ‘Anglophobia’ – anglofobi, as it’s written in Danish – one of a number of notable new entries to the national lexicon.

A total of 252 new words, 12 new meanings and 5 idioms have been added to the Danish Dictionary, along with revisions to 194 existing entries.

The headline entry is arguably anglofobi, which has the dictionary definition “disgust for or hostility towards England or English language and culture”.

That may sound alarming to English people or other Anglophones in Denmark, but it does not signal a change in Danish sentiment towards the UK nation according to Henrik Lorentzen, senior editor with the Society for Danish Language and Literature (Det Danske Sprog- og Litteraturselskab).

“You mustn’t take it personally,” Lorentzen told The Local’s English reporter in a telephone call.

“It’s not included because there’s a particular hostility towards English people, or towards American or Anglo-Saxon culture,” he said.

“Some would say ‘there’s Brexit, there’s Boris Johnson’ – but it’s not because of that,” he said.

The large quantity of new entries into the dictionary can primarily be credited to space created by the dictionary’s move from physical to online form, he explained.

Around two decades ago, the Danish Dictionary was produced as a six-volume physical book which naturally limited the space available for entries.

“But now we make dictionaries for the Internet, and have done so for the last 13 years,” Lorentzen said.

“Now we also have space for foreign words, loan words or whatever we choose to call them,” he said.

The digital age has also improved language researchers’ ability to detect use of new or loan words by broadening the volume of text that can be encompassed in its work, he explained.

A large proportion of loan words – including anglofobi – can be found among the new entries. Other examples include firmware, piece, maceration, FOMO and nativisme.

On a similar theme to anglofobi, a cluster of words prefaced by anti-, including antiamerikansk, antimuslimsk and antiisraelsk among several others, were added to the dictionary on Friday.

“Some of these words are not so new but they are unfortunately relevant because there are conflicts in the Middle East, in Europe, so there are some words that are relevant to mention,” Lorentzen said.

Last summer’s UEFA European Championship semi-final, in which England defeated Denmark after a disputed penalty decision, does not appear to have permanently damaged relations between the nations, though.

The inclusion of anglofobi does not reflect increased anti-English sentiment related to football “as far as I can tell,” Lorentzen said.

READ ALSO: ‘We’re coming home’: How Denmark views the Euro 2020 semi-final clash with England

During the recent election campaign a satirical Twitter account posted a spoof picture of the leader of the national conservative Danish People’s Party, Morten Messerschmidt, claiming he wanted Danes to drop the use of the term “fast food” and instead call convenience meals hurtigmums.

Messerschmidt did not in fact make any such statement, but his party has in the past spoken against the use of English loan words in Danish.

“Some people think the English spillover into Danish overwhelming, awkward or even damaging for the Danish language,” Lorentzen said in a press statement which accompanied the announcement of the dictionary update.

“For others, English is woven into everyday life and working life, they perceive multilingualism as more of an opportunity than a threat, and the use of English words and expressions can in certain circles even be an important identity marker,” he said.

The Danish Dictionary is descriptive and therefore obliged to account for the most broadly used vocabulary in the national language, the statement notes. This applies regardless of the linguistic origins of the words.

The dictionary is a free online resource and is used by around 130,000 people daily, according to the statement. It is updated twice a year, based on a body of texts comprising over a billion words.

The Society for Danish Language and Literature (Det Danske Sprog- og Litteraturselskab, DSL) publishes and documents the Danish language from its historical origins to the present day.