About a year ago, a man named Andrew said to me, ‘You just like to be different, don’t you?’ Driving home that evening, I finally landed on the perfect response: ‘No, Andrew, I just don’t like to be the same.’
Yet another killer comeback, lost to the ages.
He was talking about the number of atypical things I (typically) tend to get up to. I don’t do it on purpose. It just happens. And it’s really not unusual. It’s a shame, don’t you think, to have something you are enthused about to be dismissed as being merely ‘different’?
What a killjoy.
It’s with this in mind that I’ve been wanting to preempt such an exchange by working up a cheery and constructive response about my latest enthusiasm: I’m learning Swedish.
I’ll admit it’s a hard sell, because even I start to think ‘Typical me…’.
Why? Why Swedish? Varför svenska?
Andrew’s reasoning would doubtless be the blandly utilitarian, ‘Why learn Swedish? Are you going to Sweden? You should learn Chinese or something – they’re the ones who are going to take over the world.’
NO. I will not have my enthusiasm dampened on the basis of its usefulness. I don’t want to, if you’ll forgive me, die with the knowledge of how to conduct business in Mandarin. I want to die at some ripe old age with advanced knowledge of how to speak and listen to a language packed full of dancing vowels, bouncing energy, long, longgg consonants, and precise sibilants that can turn on a sixpence and reverse and send you off in unexpected directions.
So far I’ve come up with this opener: ‘I’m learning Swedish for several reasons, none of which are any good.’ Ho ho. That gives anyone an ‘out’ if they want to take it.
If they’re interested or bored enough to get as far as the second reason, I say: ‘Because I watch a lot of Swedish films’. This is shorthand. I watch the films of Ingmar Bergman, and I haven’t watched many other Swedish films. But people generally don’t know who Ingmar Bergman is, so I say ‘Swedish films’.
If you’re English, you’ve probably spotted the problem. An Englishman’s response to ‘I watch a lot of Swedish films’ is always: ‘Ohhh yeahhh?’ — by which he means ‘All the pornos?’.
I haven’t figured out what the connection between Swedish films and pornography is. Maybe there’s a concrete historical fact that a lot of skin flicks emerged from Sweden back in more innocent times. I don’t know. My suspicion is that it’s some vague mashing of ‘foreign’ films with Swedish liberalism, massage, saunas, and a general sense of Nordic phwoar.
Anyway, it doesn’t matter: I have a killer comeback prepared for exactly this situation: ‘Yes, but I’ve pretty much learnt all the vocabulary needed for those films: “Ja, ja, ja…”.’
So, moving on. The really serious people will graduate onto a whole nother level of the conversational telescope. The real reasons. The reasons, I maintain, that aren’t very good. But they’re good enough for me. I think really it boils down to two or three things:
I really like the sound of the language. It has the passion, expressiveness and lightness of Cymraeg, with the precision and cleanliness of Deutsch, and also enough of the English structure for it to be less intimidating than some languages. The fact that it is not in the Premier League of trading languages makes it all the more appealing to me: I can approach it somehow as a pure language without any of the baggage of past learning failures. Does this make sense? No?
One other major reason is: I never thought I would learn another language. If you know me, I will have told you at some point that, despite it being compulsory to take at least one language at my school, I was permitted not to take any, because I was so bad at them. Truly, truly disinterested.
Even to this day, I am fundamentally disinterested in learning how languages function. It’s just too much like hard work. Verbs and nouns and adjectives and— oh all that.
I will go out of my way to not learn what an adverb is (just as I go out of my way to not learn what the chords are on a guitar) because I find that whole direction of approach to learning so— tiring. It’s unnatural. Like writing wrong-handed. Frankly, I’ve got more fun things to do.
A lot of people don’t understand this attitude. Maybe they’re right.
But, after ‘Bergman’ and ‘liking the language’ had got me to enrol in the first place, my Swedish tutor was able to confide something marvellous: ‘I was like that too!’ There are, she explained, people who are good at learning language, and people who are good at using language – and the two can be quite separate.
I already know, in my cart-before-horse sort of way, the subtle but absolute difference between English verbs like walk (walked) and seal (sealed) —i.e. voiced and unvoiced endings. The thing is, I just didn’t know that I knew it. I was enchanted. Delighted. Enriched. And it didn’t hurt a bit.
So, I suppose this presents my main answer to the question ‘varför svenska?’ And it’s quite a good one, I think. In my Swedish class I can learn about myself, and discover what I didn’t know I knew. The subject tells me all sorts of things about myself that I hadn’t realised, and it sheds new light on things that I already know about.
Take the title of this letter: ‘Varför svenska?’ Swedish for ‘why’ is ‘varför’. This is, you are doubtless already thinking, much like ‘wherefore’.
Therefore: ‘wherefore’ was once English for ‘why’.
Therefore, pausing briefly to blow the dust off my degree in English Literature, ‘Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?’ means ‘Romeo, why are you Romeo?’. It’s more in the spirit of ‘Romeo, why are you from the family I am supposed to hate?’
Another brick for the wall of pedantry I’m building between myself and the rest of humanity.
So my killer comeback to ‘You just want to be different’ should in fact have been: ‘No, I just am different. And look at all these lovely people who are equally different to me.’
Ah, that feels so much better.
And it’s less a question of varför svenska? and more one of varför inte svenska?
And screw you, Andrew!