Redaktør: Ole Stig Andersen

The language of The Julekalender


The Julekalender is toback. From the right: Nisserne Fritz, Gynther and Hansi

This winter, Danish television repeats the daily Christmas program The Julekalender, originally produced in 1991.

In Scandinavia, there is a long tradition of television series in 24 episodes of a story that relates to Christmas, all through the month of December. This is called a Julekalender, a Christmas Kalender. The Julekalender is said to be the one that has been most often repeated. Last time in 2008.

A special type of little people, locally called Nisse, plural Nisser, usually play a prominent role in these series. They interact in different ways with the human world, and they are mostly invisible to humans. They play a role in Danish folk beliefs – especially for children. The Julekalender has a mixed Danish-English title: the noun is Danish, the definite article the is from English.

Here is an example: The Støvledance (The Boot Dance), courtesy Bellevue Entertainment

And here are the lyrics (not quite corrrectly spelled, though :-)

Whenever The Julekalender is shown on Danish television, the languages used in the Julekalender leads to discussion among the viewers. School children imitate the Jutlandish accent of the Potato trader, and his set phrase “De’ bår dæjli’!” “”that’s just fine”) is used regularly for comical effects in diverse social circles in Denmark. The Copenhagener also attracts attention: bob, bob, bob. Most remarkable, however, is the language – or is it a language? – used by the Nisser in the series. They speak a mixture of English and Danish.

Strangely enough, people who comment on the language describe the type of mixture in completely different ways. Members of mixed English-Danish families said it was very funny for them, because “we speak exactly like that at home”. Some viewers say that the language has an English grammatical structure and Danish words – or the other way around. Others say the verbs are from one language, and the nouns from another – here again, Danish verbs with English nouns, or the other way around. There are in fact examples of real languages with exactly this type of structure.

However, the impressions that people had of the language were completely different from reality – as is often the case with regards to linguistic matters. For instance, most people believe that young people swear more than old people. This has been shown not to be true (Rathje & Andersen 2005). Likewise, the impression that adolescent second generation immigrants swear more than their Danish peers was so widespread that the Danish government even announced that they wanted to put a halt to this by setting money aside. (You start wondering, by the way, how you can use money to get people not to swear). But, according to the data collected by Quist (2005), Danes of other ethnic origin swear much less than the Danish teenagers. And there is a widespread belief that scientists use less and less Danish and replace it with English. This also appears to be an unsubstantiated exaggeration when the facts are investigated (Madsen 2008).

If one wants to find out how the Nisse-language really is structured in its combination of English and Danish, one has to study this in detail. As I have myself engaged in the study of mixed languages (e.g. Matras & Bakker 2003), I was more than happy when one of our students, the fluently bilingual Margaret J. Blake, offered to analyze the language of the Nisser. Her detailed study is the result of her painstaking research on the corpus of Nissesprog. It is an academic work of high standing.

People will tend to ask: Why would one study the obviously fictitious language of a species of creatures that few humans have ever have communicated with? In fact, people may object, there is no scientific proof that Nisser exist.

There are several reasons why it is worth studying this artificial language. First of all, the Nisse-language is a beautiful example of all the creative things that humans are able to do with their language, in this case the combination of two languages. This language is a conscious creation of a small group of people, De Nattergale. Is the result similar to what happens unconsciously in the real world, or is reality of the spontaneous mixture of languages, as done by many humans, beyond the limits of artists’ imagination? We give some examples below from American Danish speakers below, so readers can compare.

Many bilinguals codeswitch, i.e. they combine two languages in one sentence. The study of this phenomenon sheds light on how the human mind is organized, and on the mental organization of sentence production.

One can also mention a few dozen new mixed languages that have emerged and stabilized in the course of the history of mankind (Bakker & Mous 1994, Bakker 1997). These tend to show structures that are often quite different from what one observes in codeswitching. Do these real languages show similarities in the nature of their mixture with the language combination in the artificially created Nisse-language?

How does this relate to the neural capacities of humans? How is it possible that bilingual listeners can understand conversations in which two languages are intricately mixed? Apparently our brain is flexible enough to process two languages at the same time. Neurolinguistic research and the study of bilingualism complement one another.

In short, many extremely challenging questions are raised through this language mixture of the Nisser.

Margaret Blake’s study, however, does not provide an answer to all of these questions. It does show that there is a certain system to the mixture, but in fact unlike any of the impressions that listeners had. And unlike any of the documented cases of language mixture.

In many bilingual communities, people tend to mix languages. This is very natural, and not a sign of language decline. It appears that those individuals who mix the languages most, are often also those who are the best speakers of the two languages separately. This phenomenon is called codeswitching or codemixing (see e.g. Muysken & Milroy, Muysken 2000, or in the Danish context publications of the Køge project by J.N. Jørgensen, Andersen, Esdahl, Havgaard, Holmen, Karrebæk).

Danish in North America

English-Danish codeswitching has been documented from several parts of the world. There are a number of publications on the use of Danish and the impact of English on the language use of Danish emigrants to North America. Petersen (1988) studied a child who mixed Danish and English. Stølen (1992, 1996) has described the humorous combination of the two languages in prose and song texts. Some people just use some English words in their Danish, but it can be quite extreme. Here are some stunning examples from people who emigrated to the United States and who were interviewed by two Danish linguists several decades after their arrival in a predominantly English-speaking environment (from Kjær & Baumann Larsen 1973, 1974):

“Well, that is the way det er. You see, al ting har changed, de last forty or fifty år al ting har changed, det er en hel difference, en helt different way. Just [jusd] like farming, you know, en farmer kan farme selv to til tre hundrede acres, selv.”

”I’ll tell you in Denmark det koster så terrible much when de er finished with eight grade school, then de går ind til highere school, der er very expensive, and I had nothing but what I could sow. I sowed for my living, not exactly dressmaking, but I levede in Svendborg og var married and levede in Svendborg.”

“Ja, vi ejede the farm, you know, ja. And min kone hun var kind syg, og jeg selv har sådan en kind hearttrouble. Ja, det er hjertet, det bankede så snart, at jeg skulle do hårdt arbejde. Så jeg kunne ikke stand at arbejde. Så vi had to quit and move og kom over here. Det er jo sådan, at der er jo en time [taim] for os alle, vi kan do så meget og not mere.”

Even though this is superficially similar to what is found in the Nisser’s language, there are important differences.


Andersen, S. 1994. Pragmatiske aspekter af kodeskift hos tospro­ge­de børn. Køben­havnerstudier i tosproget­hed, Køge­serien bind K2. Køben­havn: Danmarks Lærer­højsko­le.

Bakker, Peter 1997. “A Language of our Own”. The Genesis of Michif – the Mixed Cree-French language of the Canadian Métis. New York: Oxford University Press.

Bakker, Peter & Maarten Mous (eds.)1994. Mixed Languages. 15 Case Studies in Language Intertwining. Amsterdam: IFOTT.

Esdahl, T. 2001. Variation og udvikling: Kodevalg og fokus i pigers og drenges samtaler. In J. N. Jørgensen (red), 43-74.

Esdahl, T. 2003. Language Choice as a Power Ressource in Bilingual Adolescents’ Conversations in the Danish Folkeskole. In J. N. Jørgensen (ed), 76-89.

Grosjean, F. 1997, 2000. Processing mixed language: Issues, findings and models. In de Groot, A. and Kroll, J. (Eds.). Tutorials in Bilingualism: Psycholinguistic Perspectives. Mahwah, NJ: LEA, 1997. Also in Li Wei (Ed.). The Bilingual Reader (1st edition). London: Routledge, 2000.

Havgaard, M. 2002. Pragmatiske funktioner med kodeskift hos tosprogede unge. I n: J. N. Jørgensen (red), 172-202.

Holmen, A. 1993. Conversations Between Bi­lingual Schoolstarters. In: Bernhard Kette­mann & Wielfried Wieden (eds): Current Issues in European Second Language Ac­quisition Research. Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag: 337-347.

Jørgensen, J. N. 1993. Children’s Code Switching in Group Conversa­tions. In: European Science Foundation Network on Code-Swit­ching and Language Contact Code-Switching Summer School, Pavia 9-12 September 1992. Paris: European Science Founda­tion: 165-181.

Jørgensen, J. N. 1998. Children’s Acquisition of Code-Swit­ching for Power Wielding. In Peter Auer (ed): Code-Swit­ching in Conversation: Linguistic Per­spec­tives on Bi­lingua­lism. London: Routledge, 237-258.

Jørgensen, J. N. 2001. Multi-Variety Code-Switching in Conversation 903 of the Køge Project. In Jørgensen (ed), 117-137.

Jørgensen, J. N. (red) 2002a. De unges sprog. Artikler om sproglig adfærd, sproglige holdninger og flersprogethed hos unge i Danmark Københavnerstudier i tosprogethed, Køgeserien bind K9. København: Akademisk Forlag.

Jørgensen, J. N. 2002b. Studier af flersprogethed hos unge. In J. N. Jørgensen (red), 9-35.

Jørgensen, J. N. (ed). 2003. Codeswitching in the Køge Project. Special issue of the International Journal of Bilingualism, vol. 7:4.

Karrebæk, M. S. 2003. Iconicity and structure in codeswitching. In J. N. Jørgensen (ed). International Journal of Bilingualism, Volume 7, Number 4, pp. 407-441.

Kjær, Iver & Mogens Baumann Larsen. 1973. Tings gik like that. En dansk-amerikansk tekst og et bilingvistisk analyseperspektiv’ . Danske Studier: 108-118.

Kjær, Iver & Mogens Baumann Larsen. 1974. ‘De messy ting. Om kodeskift i dansk-amerikansk’ in Festskrift til Kristian Hald. Navneforskning, Dialektologi, Sproghistorie. På halvfjerdsårsdagen 9.9.1974. København: Akademisk Forlag: 421-430.

Kohl, A.-S. 2002. Ritual, musik og performance i kodeskift til fremmedsprog. In J. N. Jørgensen (red), 128-145.

Madsen, Mia. 2008. “Der vil altid være brug for dansk” – en undersøgelse af 11 naturvidenskabelige forskeres grunde til at vælge henholdsvis dansk og engelsk i deres arbejde. København: Københavnerstudier i tosprogethed, Bind 48

Matras Yaron & Peter Bakker (eds.). 2003. The Mixed language Debate. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Milroy, Lesley  & Pieter Muysken. 1995. One Speaker, Two Languages. Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives on Code-Switching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Petersen, J. 1988. Word-internal codeswitching constraints in a bilingual child’s grammar. Linguistics 26: 479-494.

Quist, Pia. 2005. Stilistiske Praksisser i Storbyens Heterogene Skole. En etnografisk og sociolingvistisk undersøgelse af sproglig variation. Nordisk Forskningsinstitut, afd. for dialektforskning. Københavns Universitet.

Rathje, Marianne og Margrethe Heidemann Andersen “Fuck, sgu og søreme. Bandeord og andre kraftudtryk i tre generationer” [F…, sgu and søreme. Swearwords and other coarse language in three generations. Nyt fra Sprognævnet nr. 2, 2005, side 4-10.

Reiff, K. 2002. Tosprogede unges brug af engelsk. In J. N. Jørgensen (red), 203-232.

Steensig, J. 2000. Notes on Some Uses of Code-switches and Other Interactional Devices in Conversation 801. In Holmen & Jørgensen (eds), 9-30.

Stølen, Marianne. 1992. ‘Codeswitching for humour and ethnic identity: Written Danish-American occasional songs’ . Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development 13 (1 & 2): 215-228. dansk i USA

Stølen, Marianne. 1996. The Folkehøjskolesang as site for contact between Danish and American languages and cultures. In: The Origins and Development of Emigrant Languages. Proceedings from the Second Rasmus Rask Colloquium, Odense University, November 1994, edited by Hans F. Nielsen & Lene Schøsler. Odense: Odense University Press. 157-167.

Brug af The Støvle Dance video er sket med accept fra Bellevue Entertainment.

Peter Bakker, lektor
Afdelingen for Lingvistisk, Aarhus Universitet

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6 kommentarer

  1. Hej Peter,
    Glimrende artikel. Udførlig litterator / note liste. Undre mig lidt at du har benyttet en copyright beskyttet video og sang, uden at kreditere den?

    Vi er rettighedejer på alt materiale på “The Julekalneder”, og vil sætte pris på om du vil tilføje os til dine noter. Nu har du jo ikke spurgt om lov til at bruge videoen, men hvis du er villig til at at kreditere os; “Brug af The Støvel Dance” video er sket med accept fra Bellevue Entertainment, så vil jeg godt lade som om du havde spurgt først;-)

    God jul.

    Dennis Kronborg
    Bellevue Entertainment

  2. Tak for komplimentet. Der står nu faktisk en tekst om accept, som redaktionen har tilføjet. Filmen kommer i øvrigt fra Youtube; det er vel ikke et problem at indlejre det i et bidrag. Jeg har selv videoen og DVD.
    Mvh, Peter Bakker

  3. Kære Peter,
    Tusind tak for en spændnede artikel. Jeg finder den ret underholdende. Tænker, at det kunne også være sjovt at sammenligne nissesprog med (og effekten af) de adskillgie kunstsprog /’artificial languages’, som bruges f.eks. i The Lord of the Rings og Avatar. bh, Daria

  4. Viggo Barfod skev under pseudonymet Ærbødigst på bagsiden af Berlingste Tidende den 6. maj 1945 nedenstående digt på nissetysk. Hvis der er andre, der kender tekster på nissetysk, vil jeg opfordre dem til at meddele det her. Der vil sikkert kunne skabes grundlag for oprettelse af en Afdeling for Sammenlignende Nissesprogvidenskab.

                                    Søndag 6. maj 1945:
    De vordende studenter skal i morgen skrive – tysk genfortælling. På mirakuløs måde er vi kommet i besiddelse af en besvarelse

    Es war einmal ein Bösewicht
    mit ein sympatisches Gesicht,
    mit Knurrhaar unter seine Nase,
    som hat gezittert in Ekstase.
    Før han blev til das grosse Tier
    war er ein kleiner Tapetzier,
    der tapezierte Speisezimmer
    (das hätte er nur sollen immer)
    Men noget stort er wolte sein,
    - der kleine Tapetziererlein -
    Det blev han, for han var jo fleissig,
    in Neunzehnhundreddreiunddreissig.
    Er brüllte so im Sportspalast,
    at alle trommehinder brast.
    Denn wenn er sprach zu seinen Nazi,
    dann war er morderlig kurasig.
    Bald war er Führer ikke blot,
    men grösser als der liebe Gott.
    Und alle seine Volksgenossen
    han sendte mutig ud zu slaassen.
    Und ging es gut, dann war er kæk.
    Men ging es schlecht, saa blev han frech
    und mehr hysterisch als der Kaiser,
    - denn Wilhelm war kein Teppichbeisser -
    Er wollte nehmen Stalingrad!
    Det blev ein traurig Resultat.
    Er wollte England ausradieren.
    (Er hätte sollen tapetzieren)
    Zuletzt kam Adolf nach Berlin,
    wo Sjukow wollte grüssen ihn,
    und dann hat er den Kopf verloren
    - og saa gik Adolf under jorden.
    Herr Göbbels fik ein lang Gesicht:
    -Ach warum spricht der Führer nicht?
    Zwölf  Uhr slog da omsider klokken.
    Er sprach – er sprok – er ist gesprokken!


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