Danish · Dialect · History · Language

Sønderjysk: The Danish dialect that got away

An awkward dialect

I grew up in a small Danish town called Haderslev, some 50 km’s from the German border. This region, known as Sønderjylland, or Southern Jutland is known for its dialect which, for most other Danes, is quite difficult to understand. The region was the scene for several wars with Germany throughout history, or Prussia, as it was called back in the day, and the proximity with the border along with periodical Prussian dominance, meant that the region was strongly influenced from both sides. To this date, there is a Danish minority in northern Germany as well as a German one in Southern Jutland, and along with the local dialect, a certain level of the German language is quite common.

This linguistic landscape is changing, however. An important part of my generation, born in the 80’s, speak neither dialect, nor German. English is the new Lingua Franca, and we feel like the rest of the country laughs behind our back whenever we let a word of dialect slip through. Sønderjysk is perceived as a peasant language, with specialized words for mostly farming equipment (or perhaps this is mostly in our own eyes.) It might be true. When I think of the dialect of my native region, I just cannot seem to imagine how it would fare in an intellectual debate, a sincere declaration of love, a poem or in philosophical reflection. This might all be prejudice, and I acknowledge that, but I challenge anyone to prove the opposite to be true. It is true that now and then, you do see a few cultural manifestations of the dialect in use in the public sphere. But it is always in agreement with already established prejudice, like the 1990’s rapper “L:Ron:Harald” who is 50% Gangster, 50% Trash and 100% vulgar. (no, I won’t be posting a YouTube link). Whenever my generation speaks Sønderjysk, it seems to be for the sake of satire or anecdote. You just can’t say anything serious in this dialect.

How has it become so?

Before nation-wide television and frequent travels across regions, one could imagine that the dialect would function fully to communicate in, in the context of Sønderjyder of that epoch. At this point in time, you could class it as a language in itself. Everyday life was lived through the tongue, never-mind one’s day-to-day occupation.

With generalized schooling and education, mainstream media, and so forth, the standard “Danish” began becoming a factor. Intellectuals, teachers and politicians of the region would push forward the standardized language, and prejudice and stereotypes started to develop around the Sønderjyske dialect as the tongue of the uneducated and the simple. As more and more educated people and those of influence started to master the standardized tongue, the dialect grew into the periphery of the local society, and it remains so to this day. Whereas it being the engine of most communication in an epoch, if we exclude German and French, Sønderjysk gradually transformed from being a language with an adequate vocabulary for most situations, to becoming the dialect of everyday life. Today it has gone as far, in some areas, to be a minority dialect with words and terms for situations that, for the most part, only describe the everyday life of its specific speakers. For my generation, Sønderjysk has become a wacky accent that one can mimic while joking. A kind of filter that you pass your standardized Danish through, to make it sound rural.

So what’s wrong with the dialect being perceived as “rural” or as a medium for satire?

Nothing in itself, but the problem is that the dialect, in the eyes of the people, or at least my generation, seems limited to just that. How can we expect young people to live through a dialect that only seems to work at expressing the way of life that they, due to the evolution of the region, have surpassed?

I understand the dialect to a reasonable extend. I grew up hearing it around me, but it never made sense to speak in it, because nothing in the dialect was ever directly addressed to me. That’s why I don’t speak Sønderjysk today. If I did, I’d try and use it to turn the tides, because it’s a shame that such an important part of my region’s identity is about to die because of cosmopolitanism and globalism.

So if anyone sees this, anyone from Sønderjylland who has something to say to my generation and those younger than me; please do. Express it in Sønderjysk. Do it in films, music, newspapers, poetry and books. Don’t buy into the stereotypes and make it sound stupid. Be sincere, and express yourself from your heart, so that others might make a real connection. Save the dialect of the region while you still can.

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