Danish linguists have warned the government that the increasing use of English in the country, especially in education, could wear away at the very foundation of Danish. Similar concerns are shared by others in Europe.
Danish linguists fear new additions to the language will only be in English
In a classroom at the University of Copenhagen, political science professor Morten Rasmussen is kicking off a course on the history of the European Court of Justice. Although he is teaching the course in the Danish capital to mostly Danish students, the language of instruction here is English.
"English here in Europe is becoming the major academic language," he said. "Most European universities are offering courses in English to attract students within Europe, also from beyond, and to improve internationalization."
More university courses are only being offered in English
Increasingly, school administrators see economic and educational benefits in teaching in the language of Shakespeare and Milton, or at least a version of it, instead of the national tongue. The trend is particularly pronounced in science and business courses. Currently, almost a third of education programs in Denmark are taught in English, and that number is likely to rise.
But for linguists and others who work with the Danish language, there are concerns that in the race to become a global player in a world where English is the lingua franca, Danish could be left in the dust.
"Okay, we have these intentions, we want to be a global nation," said Sabine Kirchmeier-Andersen, a director at the Danish Language Council. "Do we want to lose the Danish language? Is this a price we would like to pay?"
Warning: language in decline
Last month, the council sent a statement to the government expressing concerns that Danish risks being undermined on its own turf from the onslaught of English. While many Danes are bilingual, and English is widespread in the media and in advertising, she and others fear that as education institutions move away from Danish, the language, which has around five million speakers, could lose some of its functionality.
Words for innovations, especially in the realm of information technology, or for ideas born in the university classroom or research lab, could only find expression in English. Since there would be no Danish words for these developments, the English expressions would be, by necessity, adopted by the general population.
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It has already begun, Kirchmeier-Andersen said, in several areas, and one only has to flip through a newspaper to see concrete examples. Advertisements and want ads often feature English words and expressions, not unusual today in Europe. But what she finds disturbing is that some Danish companies, even when recruiting employees in Denmark, often choose to advertise only in English. She worries that it could lead to a fragmentation of Danish society.
"There will be an elite where people in senior business positions will be speaking English and send their children to schools where they only speak English," she said. "Then you have the rest of the people who will not be able to understand what is actually going on."
Bill under consideration
The Danish government has begun to take notice and is now debating a bill put forward by the Danish People's Party, a controversial right-wing populist party, which would secure Danish's position as the language of Denmark. It would ensure that all correspondence, public speeches and meetings are held only in Danish. It would also regulate signage on public buildings, even down to the font size used in Danish or English words.
"It's a very defensive position, which we have a problem with," said Mogens Jansen, a spokesman for culture and media for the Danish Social Democrats. But his group has joined the discussion around creating a formal language policy, something not considered necessary in the past.
"We need to secure the Danish language but also improve Danes' foreign language skills, since the reality is that we do live in a globalized world," he said.
That strategy makes sense to Johan Van Hoorde, general secretary of the European Federation of National Institutes of Language and a senior project manager at the Dutch Language Union.
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His country, also the home of a "smaller" European language, shares some of Denmark's concerns, and also thinks a strategy of increased multilingualism is the answer, instead of conducting a vain battle against English. He points to the French, who have been more "alarmist" in their objections to English, having passed the Toubon Law in 1994 mandating the use of French in government publications, advertising and some other areas. It is considered overly strict and reactionary by some.
According to him, if the Dutch and Scandinavians were to focus on their seemingly inborn polyglot talents, it could bring benefits even on the economic front, especially when it comes to the countries' biggest trading partner, Germany.
"If we can speak German to the Germans, we can have an advantage over, say, American business which tries to approach this market in English," he said.
But in Denmark, increased business opportunities do little to ease the fears of some about the shaky outlook for the language of Kierkegaard. English-language publishers are already doing a booming trade in Denmark, where one in six books sold are in English.
"Language is a very essential part of your identity. Your history, literature and your culture is affected by the language you use," said Ib Tune Olsen, head of the Danish Publishers Association. He becomes pensive when asked if Danish will be spoken in 100 years.
"A good question," he said. "I could doubt it."