Thursday, 21 July 2011

Language and Tucholsky

"What about the language problem?" asked the princess when we were sitting in the train to Helsingör. "You've been there before. Is your Swedish good?"
"I get by like this," I said, "First I speak German, and if they don't understand that, English, and if they don't understand that, Platt, and if that doesn't work either, then I stick an "as" ending onto German words, and I find they understand that quite well." This was all we needed. She thought it absolutely wonderful, and immediately incorporated it into her lingusitic paraphenalia.
"So it's Sweden next. What do you think will happenas to us now in Sweden?"
Whatever happens on a holiday ... You, I hope."
"What shall we do now?" I asked, when we'd washed. All we could see of Stockholm from our hotel window was four chimneys agaisnt a blue sky.
"I think," the Princess said "we should first get an interpreter - your Swedish is excellent, quite excellent ... but it must be ancient Swedish, and the people here are so uneducated. So we should take an itnerpreter out into the countryside and find a very cheap little cottage, and we'll stay there very quietly."
From Michael Hofmann's translation of Schloss Gripsholm by Kurt Tucholsky

Any book, any writing, is always about language to some extent, and Gripsholm is full of linguistic play - Tucholsky was after all a satirist. There are some wonderful bits where Lydia, the princess, speaks in her native Platt as they set off on holiday from Berlin. Friends who speak this northern German dialect assure me that they can get by with it quite well in Denmark. Well these days in Scandanavia things are rather different to in the early 1930s and people take one look at us and start speaking English. I have to admit to struggling rather - it seems wrong to rely on English and I find myself suddenly quite fluently speaking the 5 and a half phrases of Dutch I have internalised over the years.
What I am enjoying though is the sliding spelling and pronunciation of words on street signs, in written form I understand more than I expected to. Of course it's also quite fun making up completely wrong translations, just to pass the time of day. Swedes, Danes and Norwegians seem to be able to speak to one another and understand each other fine - perhaps it's just like different dialects of English.