Days 2-4: THE RETURN TO THE BLACK DIAMOND

I’m afraid the most blogtastic thing about my Copenhagen trip is probably the title… Just to spoil all the fun for those of you who thought I might have been on a voyage to recover my buried priate treasure, or an expedition, capitalising on my possession of an intrepid-looking Indiana Jones hat, to unearth a legendary and cursèd jewel, the Black Diamond is actually the building which houses what is effectively Denmark’s national library.

Still, I did not approach it without trepidation: committed readers may remember the frosty reception I won back in 2009. And even though it’s not a cursèd pirate jewel, it is impressive. A spacy seafront edifice, it’s kind of a bit like Harpa, the new Icelandic concert hall (see here, §4, for a review), but the Black Diamond looks clean rather than over-engineered; classy rather than crass. On the inside, where the British Library does bricks and angles and white paint, the Black Diamond does curves and concrete. It’s proper impressive, but kind of forbidding. Or, you know, just go to Google Images for ‘copenhagen black diamond’. See what I mean?

The first and last time I went there, it was to look at some manuscripts of Sigurgarðs saga frækna (ah, that estimable classic of Icelandic fiction… actually, I’m about to post a working paper of the translation that me and my friends Steven and Haukur have done, so if you do want to read it look out for a later blogpost…). This time my expedition was to examine manuscripts of the no less estimable Jarlmanns saga og Hermanns (no, no-one else has heard of it either, but I’m translating that one too!). Fortunately, I was met on my arrival in special collections not by the terrifying woman (who lurked ominously a short distance away) but by the nice man. I ask, in bad Moomin-Swedish, if it suits him to speak English.

It’s a sort of complicated situation:

1. All Continental Scandinavian languages are supposed to be mutually intelligible.
2. However, part of the settlement of the Kalmar Union of 1397, whereby the Danish crown basically took over the whole of Scandinavia, was that Danish had to give up all its vowels to Norwegian and all its consonants to Swedish. In the event, the Swedes and the Norwegians figured they had enough of these already, so they gave them all to Finnish; but Danish was still left with nothing but inarticulate slurring, and a few bits and pieces it was able to borrow from German. In fact, many of my conversations in Denmark have been uncannily similar to this well-known Norwegian sketch:

Though to be fair, so have many of my conversations elsewhere too…
3. I have a slightly psychotic aversion to speaking to foreigners in my own language.
4. However, it doesn’t entirely help if your core Skandinavisk competence extends largely to one-on-one conversations with sympathetic speakers of (a) Finnish Swedish, which is kind of to Swedish as Geordie is to English, and (b) Icelandic, which is kind of to Swedish as Old Frisian is to English.

‘But you speak Swedish!’ says the nice man.
‘Well, yes, but only bad Moomin Swedish.’
‘Well, of course we could speak English, but you can always speak Swedish to me.’
I contemplate pointing out that my Swedish may be the least of our communication problems, but instead accept the offer, and sure enough the nice man launches into the kind of Danish that he normally reserves for idiots, naughty children and politicians; and like figures looming through a fading mist, the consonants start coming into view, and with the helpful visual aid of a library card application form and a manuscript request slip, he becomes magically lucid. ‘Would you prefer a six-month card or a five-year card? We could give you a six-month one, but, you know, if you think you might be coming back, we should probably give you a five-year one.’ And they don’t even require me to present (as at the British Library) a gas bill!

Unfortunately, their card-making machine is broken; the nice man explains this in an apologetic tone of regret and surprise, but since it was broken when I visted in 2009, I suspect that their card machine has in fact never worked and these application forms are merely an elaborate charade. Still, they let me look at my manuscripts, and I slaved away transcribing stuff; I scooted over to the Arnamagnæan Collection at the university too for more of the same (they’re more easy-going: ‘Are your hands clean? Okay then’); and otherwise sat in the stylish nineteenth-century bit of the Royal Library, tucked behind the Black Diamond, and worried away at my paper for the International Saga Conference, starting on Day 6.

Hopefully I’ll post some more general musings about Copenhagen soon. And about Aarhus, where the saga conference is! The campsite here is great, and so is the weather! But right now, I’d better go and congregate with conferenceers.

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4 Responses to Days 2-4: THE RETURN TO THE BLACK DIAMOND

  1. Verity says:

    The Arnamagnæan people were really nice when I was there, though that was a long time ago. I’ve not been to the Black Diamond. Enjoy the conference!

  2. The Dave says:

    That’s a library?!?! Seriously?!?! It looks more like the headquarters of a rather evil cyberpunk megacorporation. There should have beenguards in black armour and face masks, carrying high-tech automatic weapons, and arrogant executives plotting world domination and the design of hybrid human-robot death machines called DED 209. And banners. There’s always big, red banners with weirdly symbolic logos hanging from every conceivable ledge. I guess you should be thankful for the lack of plucky, heavily-armed, anti-establishment heros shooting up the place, though. Would have been difficult to read sagas in the middle an epic gun battle/sword fight/hyper-kinetic martial-arts punch-up.

  3. The Dave says:

    I meant LACK of trench-coated rebels, obviously!😉

  4. greedycroc says:

    Danish is lovely, one of the languages I think I’d like to master most. So far my favourite word is ‘gulerødderne’ carrots – to an English eye two nice crunchy consonants and two half consonants, to the English ear a completely inarticulate groan. Beautiful!

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