Sometimes it is the everyday that prompts thought most of all. One such experience in the recent past seemed the right way to begin this blog. I found myself getting on a train to Copenhagen …
… where, counting the numbers under the luggage racks, I arrived at a seat occupied by a certain young man who seemed unable to grasp the fact that somebody else might have reserved it. Eventually I gave up and sat down next to him, thinking that was the end of it, before he turned to me with words along the lines of there’s too much English being spoken around here recently. By the time I had asked myself did he just say what I think he said and realised that yes he did, the moment for a suitably acerbic response had been and gone.
The irony is that I am, in fact, learning the language of the country to which I’ve moved. However: while Danish for the Labour Market Module 1 has enabled me to tell random strangers that I brush my teeth after getting up in the morning, train travel has not yet been covered. I am not sure whether it will be. For some reason it didn’t seem worthwhile trying to explain this, and I instead curiously had a look on Google to see what other expat experiences in Denmark are like. I discovered some quite heated discussions in the blogosphere, such as this one.
That is not, directly, an argument in which I’ll get involved, beyond recalling somebody I met on the very same stretch of of railway a week or so after I arrived in September: a wonderfully open, welcoming Dane from Jylland who talked to me about his country and its openness to new things. But it made me think. My research project is, after all, about contact and exchange in the Middle Ages between Germany and Scandinavia in this very area – and I realised how little, in some ways, has changed. People still move, languages still mix, ideas still circulate – and that not as some kind of abstract or idealised past but in the here and now of my own life. Almost as if there were an order of things in which that continuum between present and past was meant to be revealed, the young man got off at the next stop, and I shuffled over to the window and spent the rest of the run to Copenhagen reading …
One of the articles I had with me was a study by Tiina Kala of language in medieval Tallinn in Estonia – a part of the Baltic that is not without its own historical and national tensions. What I learnt was that, although complete texts in Estonian aren’t preserved until relatively late, it seems that Estonian coexisted alongside the German of the incomers (some might say ‘colonizers’) for much of the Middle Ages. Not only Middle Low German but also Estonian was used in what we might call ‘prestigious’ contexts, such as teaching and preaching, and it seems that speakers were, to a degree at least, familiar with one another’s languages and willing to take account of their needs. It was the right time to read about this in so many ways. Such facts are not only inconvenient for nationalistic and xenophobic agendas: they also put the lie to approaches to the study of literature and culture that reduce what is relevant to what is contemporary and dismiss what is not contemporary as irrelevant.
Reference: Tiina Kala, ‘Languages in a Medieval North European City: An Example from Medieval Tallinn’, reprinted in Alan V. Murray, ed., The North-Eastern Frontiers of Medieval Europe: The Expansion of Latin Christendom in the Baltic Lands, The Expansion of Latin Europe, 1000–1500, 4 (Farnham, 2014) 287–305.
Photograph from the rail bridge across the Great Belt by @whatisaletter.